Future Classics: Volkswagen Golf R32 Review
What is it?
The Golf’s last rasp with VW’s characterful, narrow-angle V6, the Mk5 R32 has all the makings of a stone-cold future classic. While the GTI is rightly celebrated as creating the template for the modern hot hatch, the R range has also, in its own way, been hugely influential. The Mk3 VR6 established proof of concept for six-cylinder Golfs, but it was the arrival of the Mk4-based R32 in 2002 that really got the R lineage going. All-wheel drive made sense of the beefier 3.2-litre engine and gave it a clear USP over the GTI.
A year after launch, the R32 also introduced the twin-clutch DSG gearbox to the VW range, the R32 setting the template for modern ‘super hatches’ much the way the GTI did for hot hatches. For the Mk5, it was evolution not revolution, the 3.2-litre engine carried over with power increased to 250PS (184kW) and torque now 320Nm (236lb ft). The Mk5’s stiffer body was another bonus, the new R32 available in three- and five-door versions and with a six-speed manual or DSG transmissions.
If not as bombastically fast as later turbocharged Golf Rs, the R32 retains a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts for its ‘small car, big engine’ combination and, most of all, the gorgeous warble of that six-cylinder engine.
How does it drive?
Many purists still prefer the front-wheel drive GTI for its more athletic kerbweight, punchier turbocharged power delivery and livelier handling. The R32, meanwhile, offers a more mature driving style appropriate to the understated looks. The extra weight gives it a sense of substance in everything from control weights to the way it sits on the road, while the all-wheel-drive system delivers predictable traction in all conditions. It’s not the inert lump you may expect, though, and the combination of that razor-sharp throttle response, linear power delivery and appetite for revs mean it’s arguably a more charismatic car than the GTI, or the turbocharged Golf Rs that followed.
If not a car for dancing on the limits of adhesion, it’s got better responses than many would credit as well, the smooth-shifting DSG gearbox perfectly complementing the overall vibe. Saying that, the manual is also pretty sweet, and many prefer the sense of connection with that wonderful engine. In numerical performance terms it’s a little off the pace of more recent machinery. But it more than delivers on character.
While the latest Golf has seemingly dropped the ball in terms of its perceived quality, the Mk5 R32 hails from the era when Volkswagen was screwing its cars together properly, and feels suitably premium. It’s perhaps a little conservative inside and out, but the satisfaction comes in the squishiness of the plastics and little flourishes that elevate it above lesser Golfs, including flashes of aluminium and trim details in the R’s signature blue.
In an era when modern performance cars are rapidly outpacing speed limits and a sense of social responsibility, the relatively modest sounding 250PS is perhaps more appropriate to what you can actually enjoy at road speeds. The argument for the R32 is that it’s the quality of the performance that perhaps matters more than the quantity. While not immune from issues it’s a generally well-built machine, as well.
A lot of R32s will have been driven pretty hard, and many now have big mileages as well. Like any performance car, they thrive on correct maintenance and regular fluid changes for the engine, gearbox and all-wheel drive system. Inevitably, not all owners will have been as scrupulous here as you might hope and that can throw up some expensive issues. There are reports of plastic wheelarch liners rubbing the inside of the front wings and causing rust spots, while hard-driven cars may have issues with steering racks and suspension mounts. Bi-xenon lights were super cool in the day, but if the self-levelling fails that could be an expensive MOT failure.
Daily running costs are also going to be pretty chunky, on the basis enjoying that V6 will see it get through quite a bit of fuel, and the R32’s vintage and CO2 output earns a tax clobbering when it comes to VED.
Which model to chose?
Three-door manuals will probably score the purists’ prize for desirability, while five-door DSG versions are perhaps a little more understated and mature in looks and driving style. Where you sit on that spectrum will be down to personal tastes but, thankfully, there are no bad choices, just different ones. Given the R32 was pretty well-equipped from the get-go there aren’t too many options to be looking out for, though the Recaro seats – a hefty £945 option when new – will add desirability and are a nice-to-have for making your R32 feel that bit more special.
While they all look pretty understated, we’d probably err towards the signature Deep Blue Pearl metallic paint, if possible, on the basis it’s instantly recognisable as an R model. Saying that, in a more inconspicuous silver or suchlike, the R32 makes for a nicely stealthy Q-car capable of putting a smile on your face without attracting the wrong sort of attention.
Why should I buy one?
If you like your hot hatches mature and understated, but appreciate a charismatic engine and the ability to enjoy it come rain or shine, the R32 is a great choice. More recent Golf Rs deliver a much bigger hit of performance and the DSG parps that are now a soundtrack of every high street in the land, but the R32 is a much classier proposition, thanks mainly to that fantastic engine. You pay a premium in fuel and other running costs, but many will argue it’s well worth the investment for that combination of smoothness when you’re cruising and ability to set neck hairs on end when you want to press on. Like the Japanese rally reps that predated it, the R32 has the power and traction to enjoy a British B-road come rain or shine, but with a sense of Germanic maturity that won’t upset the neighbours or see accusations of trying too hard.
DSG suits the engine, purists may prefer manuals, optional Recaro seats desirable, signature blue paint looks good
Things to look out for
Evidence of regular servicing, rust on front wings, worn seat bolsters, inoperative bi-xenon headlight adjusters
|Engine||3.2-litre V6 petrol|
|Power||250PS (184kW) @ 6,300rpm|
|Torque||320Nm (236lb ft) @ 2,800rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual/six-speed dual-clutch auto, all-wheel drive|
|Production dates||2005 - 2008|
Reviewed by Dan Trent