First Drive: 2006 Golf V R32

“A nice car. But it looks a bit too aftermarket, don’t you think?” The car in question is Volkswagen’s R32, the flagship V6-powered, all-wheel-drive Golf launched in Europe in 2001. And the person asking the questions? One Rudiger Folten, the German-born designer responsible for the look of every hot Golf since the original Mk1 GTI of 1976.

The original R32, explains Rudiger, caught everyone by surprise. Spurred on by the realization that its beloved GTI had become a joke in enthusiast circles, the more focussed R32 was rushed through to production, barely pausing to have some 18-inch OZ alloys, painted brake calipers and twin exhaust pipes added. The result, as the VW design veteran admits, could have leapt straight off the pages of a modified car magazine – albeit the reader’s rides section rather than the center spread.

For many of us, though, that was the whole point. Disillusioned boy racers lapped up its motorsport-derived wheels, dinner-plate (334mm) brake discs and impossibly figure-hugging Konig bucket seats. And due to unprecedented demand, VW reversed its decision not to sell the car in the US, launching it in North America last year. So far, they’ve sold three times the number initially projected: over 14,000 worldwide. Like Michael Caine’s criminal associate in the Italian Job, the R32 was ‘only supposed to blow the bloody doors off’. Instead it took the whole safe with it.

The new flagship Golf, insists Rudiger, is a more grown-up, sophisticated machine. An integrated chrome grille designed to give a more classy appearance replaces the aggressive black honeycomb grille of the GTI. Even the standard 18-inch wheels, apparently styled to imitate the previous car’s OZ multispokes, don’t have the same visual impact as the GTI’s. The rear-end styling is more successful. The twin central-exit exhaust pipes, smoked rear lenses and color coding on all but the (fake) diffuser project an air of potency from the rear. As do the deeper side skirts and 20mm drop in ride height.

But the R32’s styling still sends a slightly mixed message. Is it a luxury car, as the chrome suggests, or a hardcore hatchback? I’m not sure. Which throws up an even bigger question: where does that leave us keen drivers? In a state of mild euphoria, if my day behind the wheel is anything to go by.

The Mk5 Golf is a vastly superior platform from which to launch a performance version, as proved by the brilliant turbocharged GTI model. In technical terms the latest Golf is in a different universe to the saggy Mk4. Instead of a torsion beam at the rear the car features a fully independent four-link set-up specifically designed for both front- and four-wheel-drive. I’m also a big fan of that car’s blown 2.0-liter FSI engine; its lag-free delivery, heady 200bhp output and zest for revs mark it out as one of the great compact car engines. But to be frank, it feels like a bit of a nail compared to the R32’s narrow-angle V6.

This is the same 3.2-liter unit fitted to the previous version, but with an extra 10bhp courtesy of a reworked inlet manifold. Maximum power is now 247bhp at 6,300rpm; torque is unchanged at 236lb ft but comes in 300rpm lower down the rev range.

It’s a rapid thing, the R32. Direct Shift Gearbox-equipped (DSG) models will dispatch the benchmark 0-62mph sprint in 6.2 seconds, six-speed manual versions three tenths slower (6.5sec). That’s over half a second quicker than the GTI. However, this gap becomes a chasm once the speedo approaches triple figures.

On a derestricted stretch of autobahn near the launch site in Hanover, Germany, the R32 powered from 80mph to 130mph with a vigor that makes the front-drive version feel asthmatic. Only above 145mph did the limitations of that hatchback body begin to take effect, causing the car to labor up to its 154mph limit. If anyone feels the need to travel faster than this in a compact family car, I suggest they seek professional help.

Professional help certainly isn’t required to extract the full potential from this fastest ever incarnation of the Golf – the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system sees to that. The Haldex-designed, multi-plate clutch can apportion up to 100 per cent of the available torque to either the front or rear wheels, depending on conditions. ESP on or off, dry roads or wet, wheelspin is rarely an issue. And torque steer is non-existent.

The previous-generation R32’s brakes weren’t exactly short of stopping power, but they’re overshadowed by the 345mm ventilated front discs and 310mm items at the rear of this car. The setup has an extra 140 pounds of curb weight to deal with than before, but you’d never know it. Even from very high speeds, the pedal offers excellent biting power and remains resistant to fade even after repeated use.

The rest of the chassis is equally impressive. Quick cornering in the GTI, like most front-drive cars, is all about carrying speed into the bend, counteracting understeer with a lift of the throttle and then balancing engine revs as the front wheels scrabble for grip. Fun, at times, but a bit frantic for everyday driving.

The R32 is different. There’s more weight to the electromechanical steering system, for one, and the turn-in feels more deliberate with just 2.9 turns lock-to-lock. Squeezing the throttle doesn’t cause the nose to push on, as you might expect from a car with a hefty V6 over its front axle. Instead the 225/40-profile tires – set 20mm lower on stiffened springs – dig even deeper into the bend, drifting into a gentle four-wheel slide if really provoked. The last car I drove with a cornering attitude like this is the Porsche 911 C4S. If only the VW had a fraction of the Porker’s steering feel…

The car’s ability to power so smoothly out of bends has a lot to do with the character of the engine. Where the GTI’s acceleration arrives in a sustained rush from 1,800rpm, the R32’s builds in steady increments like a game of Jenga. And when the last brick is added (nominally 7,000rpm, but actually 6,600rpm on the DSG), the sequential manual gearbox instantly slots in the next ratio without so much as a polite cough and the game begins again.

If you’re going to buy an automatic gearbox, make sure it’s this one. The sequential manual is at its very best when mated to a unit as inherently fluid as the R32’s. For some, the satisfaction of slotting a manual lever into gear and feeling that perfect union of clutch, revs and road speed can never be replaced. But the nifty paddle-shift system goes a very long way towards doing so.

Quite often, you find yourself squeezing the paddles just for the heck of it. The sheer speed and smoothness of the system beggars belief, and dropping down a gear allows you to appreciate the engine’s aural talents. Starting the car ignites a throaty, bassy thrum that disappears as the revs climb, only to be replaced by a delicious growl further up the rev range. To appreciate its full, multi-layered glory, however, you need to wind the windows down. Or better still, get someone else to drive and follow close behind. The metallic rasp from the twin pipes will give you goosebumps.

Volkswagen put a lot of effort into filtering out unwanted intrusions from road, wind and engine noise with the Mk5 Golf. And it pays off in spades on the highway. Combined with an expertly spaced set of gear ratios – longer than the GTI’s, especially sixth – and a pair of seriously supportive front seats, it endows the R32 with effortless cruising ability. The suspension also plays its part here, providing a taut, rigid ride that retains enough damping ability to suppress most surface imperfections. Even at three-figure speeds the car feels solid, surefooted, thoroughly connected to the road.

European buyers with £945 (around $1,655) to spare can specify a set of racy-looking bucket seats. But the standard ‘R32’-embossed chairs are plenty good enough. The logo also makes an appearance on the thick-rimmed, perforated leather steering wheel, behind which a set of blue-lit transparent needles sweeps across the instrument stack.

It’s the milled aluminum strip that runs along the dash, door panels and surrounds the gear lever that grabs your attention first, however. VW is keen to point out that both the aluminum effect and the DSG gearbox can also be found in its other recently launched four-wheel-drive performance car, the Bugatti Veyron. Which should put paid to any worries over the longevity of DSG for anyone planning to increase the power of their R32, that’s for sure.

At a starting price of £23,745 ($41,840) in three-door guise (the five-door costs extra), the UK-spec R32 costs around a tenth of a Veyron. A bargain, then? Not quite. It’s £4,000 ($7,050) more than a GTI, and doesn’t enjoy the same cult status. But it does come with all the toys; bi-xenon headlamps, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, a 10-speaker hi-fi, six airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system and rain-sensing wipers are just the highlights of the car’s standard specification. And more to the point, the R32 is the better driver’s car in every respect.

That’s something US buyers are going to have to wait a while to find out, though. In fact, the R32 isn’t scheduled to be sold in the North America at all. In its place will be the Mk5 R36, powered by a 300bhp version of the B6 Passat’s 3.6-litre VR6 FSI. Not only that, but by the time it arrives on your side of the pond in 2007, the price will have dropped to a far more reasonable $30,000 or thereabouts for the manual, non-DSG model.

Which just goes to prove the old maxim: some things in life are worth waiting for.

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