Tuesday 30th October 2012


V6 Golfs: great on paper but do they really work on the road? Harris thinks not...

This doesn't really begin with the R32, it begins in November 1991, lurking at the back of a GCSE German lesson, with a copy of Car magazine nicely sheltered behind my grammar text book. 'BMW beaten' screamed the front cover. VW had bolted a narrow-angle V6 sideways into a Golf and suddenly the 3 Series' days looked numbered. This was a tumultuous event - so traumatic that it took restraint not to interrupt my industrious colleagues. "Sod the subjunctive lads, you can get a Golf with 174hp!"

A 240hp V6 Golf - what could be wrong?
A 240hp V6 Golf - what could be wrong?
Back then the problem with being a young car enthusiast without a driving licence - especially one whose friends and family had little interest in the subject of motor cars - was that you really only had the motoring press from which to form your fledgling opinions. There were no forums, you couldn't just go and spectate at a track day because there weren't many running and the motoring media was the newsstand and Top Gear.

Covert fanaticism
Car was the benchmark back then, it nurtured me through hours of classroom tedium, my only real complaint being its size - one of those handbag A5 editions would have been perfect for covert reading. Even now I am probably unaware to the extent that I am indoctrinated by the message of Car - and there were many repeated themes. Setright and his obsession for Honda and Avon tyres, Audis having 'inadequate ventilation' and dozens of others. I didn't question any of them because these people were my vicarious life - I channelled Green, Cropley, Bremner, Fraser et al to bring me a life of cars.

To be fair, it doesn't just look good on paper
To be fair, it doesn't just look good on paper
So when Car said a Golf VR6 was indeed a better machine than an E36 325i I didn't for a second question the decision, nor could I decide for myself. That moment would happen a few years later, when I finally drove a VR6.

This was an almost new car, with a few optional extras and after a half-hour drive I needed time alone. My world was shattered. You see I'd also been lucky enough to have a go in a 325i a few weeks earlier, not easy when you were a nipper in the early 90s, and even with the rudimentary skills of a young Mini owner it was quite clear that the BMW had the Golf licked in pretty much every area bar the lifting tailgate test and snowy conditions.

Hero worship
Did this lead to an implosion of trust? Partly. We all have our heroes denuded at some point, but it was the first step towards a truism we all celebrate on PH - by all means listen to what people say, but making your own mind up is far more important. I did go and drive a Prelude soon afterwards and didn't quite understand what all the fuss was about.

Good for noise if not handling balance
Good for noise if not handling balance
Exposure to a lovely big-bumper 16V Mk2 Golf GTI confirmed the suspicion that the VR6 was stuck in that age-old rut of needing to be more of a GT car, and with that great lump of engine slung out over the front wheels the damping was inadequate. The contemporary Mk3 GTI wasn't an especially impressive car, but with the four cylinder motor fitted it was a much more capable through turns.

That's a situation I think is still true 20 years later. Fitting a big, heavy motor in a Golf takes more away from the package than it adds in torque and sexy noise - VW seemed to finally realise this in 2010 and fitted a turbocharged four-banger for the Golf R. But even then, taking cost into consideration, the Mk6 GTI was a better all-round package than the much more expensive R.

All good on paper...
Prime suspect on the list of rank disappointments for me was always the Mk4 R32. In 2002 the prospect of an all-wheel drive Golf with a 240hp V6 and, hopefully, some sensible spring rates was very appealing. The reality wasn't quite as bad as the previous effort, the Golf 4Motion, which one colleague of mine called 'dangerous' but it was still a rank disappointment. Rarely has the on-paper specification of a car so over-sold a driving experience.

But would you have been better off with a GTI?
But would you have been better off with a GTI?
The engine was rated at 240hp, but one has to assume this figure was recorded on Wolfsburg's kindest set of rollers and that a decent vial of V2 rocket fuel was slipped into the fuel tank before the test run. It made plenty of noise, and if you absolutely ragged the poor thing you might just feel like you were driving something that matched the claimed two-forty.

In mitigation, the standard Mk4 GTI was a proper dumpling, so it's not as if the R32 had some super-talented youngster nipping away at its heels, but there was in-house pressure from the Audi S3, which was originally only rated at 210hp, but I always found it far, far more appealing than the Golf.

Reality bites
Generation five gave us another R32, this time with 250hp, but still saddled with wheezing lungs and a chassis that screamed 'I was never intended to have a sodding great big V6 out front'. More pertinently, the equivalent GTI was an absolute corker this time and even though VW claimed the R32 was quicker, on a mixture of decent roads, I still think there's virtually nothing in it - and the punter in the GTI will be having a much better time.

And those are my observations of the Volkswagen Golf when fitted with a six cylinder engine.

I do not profess to be right; suppose it's time for you to tell me why I'm wrong...

VW GOLF R32 (Mk4)
3,189cc V6
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 4-wheel drive
Power (hp): 241@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 236@2,800rpm
0-62mph: 6.6 sec
Top speed: 153mph
Weight: 1,477kg
MPG: 24.4mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 278g/km
Price: £22,608/£23,228 (3-door/5-door, price when new)

Author: Chris Harris