Tell Me I'm Wrong: VW Golf R32 (Mk4)

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)


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Comments (609) Join the discussion on the forum

  • enroz 30 Oct 2012

    Agree in theory as i've never driven one, but i'm sure many owner would heartily disagree with you.

  • sootyrumble 30 Oct 2012

    Chris i like your writing and as a golf fan this peice especially interested me, as i have owned both the VR6 Colour Concept Mk3 and the R32. While i agree the MK3 was awful when going around a corner i believe that you do the R32 a diservice.

    The R32 has tremendous in gear flexibility and a cabin interior that was pure premium cosseting, I opted for the Konig half leather as the full leather tends to sag and those i believe are still the most comfortable long distance driving seats i have ever sat in. The R32 isn't a hot hatch as its too heavy, i believe you have missed the idea behind the VAG groups marketing, the Seat Leon Cupra R was the hooligan that would take your pants down and show most things a clean pair of heals the R32 was and allways will be a lazy mans car with hugely deceptive point to point pace which got you to your destination cool and relaxed.

    The noise and look of the Mk4 R32 are fantastic, and across an entire year with changing conditions i truly believe was a better car than my friends BMW 330ci of the equilavent year, to which he also agreed after snow and ice and caused his traction control all sorts of issues and i had to drive him to the train station with no issues and beautifully toasted buttocks :-D

  • Lowtimer 30 Oct 2012

    Objectively you're right, and subjectively I suppose I can see the argument for the S3 over the V6 Golf. I accept it was a lardy thing but sounded nice and I think most of the problems were the setup rather than the basic idea. The 4WD, with what we know now from today's monster hatches, seems a bit of an error. The Corrado VR6 was a lovely thing with just FWD, after all, and could probably have handled the more powerful engine of the R32.

  • big_boz 30 Oct 2012

    In My Experience you are wrong.....

    In '98 (when i was 18, had no mortgage and insurance wasn't quite as silly as it is now) I replaced my mechanically good, but cosmetically ratty C reg 325i sport 3dr with a 96 mk3 VR6...I say replaced, what actually happened was a wrapped the BM round a lamp post, but that is besides the point....

    I only drove the Golf in standard form for about 2 weeks, It was a one owner 3dr in a dark blue with leather and a few other toys. I found it to be roughly as quick as the BM, but I agree the damping was poor and it wasn't nearly as good around the back roads of south Northants where i grew up.

    Very shortly after aquistition i took it to GTI engineering and had adjustable coil overs all round, a re-map to 200bhp (i think?) and a slightly fruitier exhaust along with some 18" BBS split rim's. At this point, it wiped the floor with the BM for speed and the springs and wider boots made it far grippier, the re-map yielded much more mid range punch and also made it a fair bit more revable, and the noise was arguably as good as the BM if not quite as creamy.

    I loved that car and would rate it as one of the best that i have owned over the past 15 years of driving and 20+ cars.

    If i had the space i would certainly have one in the garage, especially as they are so cheap these days!

  • Liam79 30 Oct 2012

    I wanted one for ages...until I drove one. Nice place to be inside but just felt heavy and not fast, although made a nice noise.

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