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This review was first published in Issue 147 of Top Gear magazine (2005)

Here comes that sound again. A low, chesty V6 thrum, building to a frantic yowl at high revs that threatens to knock the birds from the trees and scare the wild boar clean out of the forest. It’s part race car, part supercar, part Tyrannosaurus rex in origin, and most definitely not the sort of racket you’d expect from a Volkswagen.

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But then this is a new-era Volkswagen that we’re dealing with here, the vivid blue flagship for a louder, flashier, more belligerent corporate approach. This second-generation Golf R32 joins the freshly launched BMW 130i (and, by way of strict definition, the Porsche Cayman S and Aston Martin V8 Vantage) as a contender for the title of the hottest hatch-backed car on sale today.

Words: Peter Grunert

Images: Lee Brimble

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Just as the R32 produces a strident aural statement of what its intentions are, there’s little visual subtlety at play here either. Prepare to be dazzled, at least by the quantities of chrome and highly polished metal abounding both inside and out.

Up front, the latest Golf GTI’s deep, honeycomb mesh snout has been supplanted by a chromed beak filled with horizontal strakes, like hanging a Venetian blind over a mirror. Two large, chromed exhaust outlets sit either side of centre in the rear valance and the fussy, standard-fit, 20-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels would surely have been chromed too, had the dipping tank back at Volkswagen HQ in Wolfsburg not sprung a leak. Possibly.

The theme returns with the bright strips of engine-turned aluminium cut across the dashboard and much of the centre console. The pedals are trimmed with glitzy slices of polished aluminium, as is a section of the small, chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Again, not very Volkswagen. And the same can be said of the standard light-grey plastics used for the dash and door trims. Light grey never seems anything but cheap; just look at the average geography teacher’s shoes.

Still, the standard seats are great, and the optional £945 Recaro buckets are even better. They’re wildly winged, offer near-rigid lateral support and even have slots to fit a couple of race harnesses through. And no, there’s no polished brightwork to be found anywhere on them; the seat backs are a thin, dark metallic-grey painted shell of plastic instead.

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Back to the noise. This is the combined creation of those twin enlarged exit trumpets and a sizeable 3.2-litre V6 mounted up front, as also can be found in the Touareg, Phaeton, various Audis and, indeed, the first generation Golf R32. Here it produces a full-flavoured 247bhp (or 10bhp more than in the last iteration and 50bhp more than the current GTI) at 6,300rpm, matched to a 236lb ft thump of torque at 2,500rpm. The engine loves to rev as it builds to its full vocal performance. It’s a thing of joy.

There’s a choice of transmissions, in the form of either a six-speed manual gearbox with a long-ish throw and a slightly sluggish shift action or Volkswagen’s twin-robotic-clutch Direct Shift Gearbox (or DSG). This can stumble through its gear choices in fully automatic mode, but is an ideal match for the big V6 when switched over to manual, paddle-shift control. Here it perfectly times its auto-blips of the throttle on downshifts and flicks so quickly between ratios on the way back up that it slices 0.3 of a second from the claimed 0-62mph time. With a figure of 6.2 seconds, it also gets there 0.7 of a second faster than a GTI.

Unfortunately DSG is a £1,330 extra, taking the R32’s asking price to a considerable £25,075.

Something else is altered from the front-driven GTI experience. That’s the absence of torque steer and wheelspin, admittedly only minor bad habits of the other quick Golf, but banished in the R32 by Volkswagen’s electronically-controlled 4Motion four-wheel-drive system. Traction is unshakeable, even on filthy wet roads and grip levels are as secure as Strangeways; actually, probably more so. The suspension has been dropped by 20mm in relation to a regular Golf (and so 5mm further than a GTI), body lurch is all but absent and the ride quality never unleashes a severe battering on your vertebrae, even when they’re pressed into those skimpy seats.

Golf R32 top gear

The brakes provide an equally effective counterpoint to the engine’s abilities to shrink straight-line distances, with fat 345mm front and 310mm rear discs clamped by a set of bright-blue-painted calipers. The blueness continues with the speedo and rev counter needles, illuminating like miniature light sabres when the (again, standard) bi-xenon headlamps are switched on.

It’s a seemingly crushing combination of talents. In a car that’s not in the least bit unwieldy in its external proportions you’ve got practicality, speed, all-weather traction, and grip levels that can make your cheeks go wobbly. Alongside that stirring V6 soundtrack, of course.

There’s only one area where the R32 trips over and threatens to fall flat on its bodykitted backside. It’s a bit of a bloater. At 1,510kg, the complex four-wheel-drive system and large capacity V6 tip it 60kg beyond a BMW 130i and 155kg beyond a Golf GTI on the scales.

Rather than what’s been added in the way of raw stats, of more consequence is what’s missing. Over a tight, gnarly road that encourages you to push harder in a nimble, quick-reacting car like the latest GTI, there’s less of the precision and eagerness to turn in. Steering feedback is reduced in detail and the line through corners is less readily adjustable with a lift of the throttle.

In a car that promises much – and shouts plenty about what, superficially, it has to offer – the first instinct of this dearest and most powerful Golf is simply to bludgeon its way through.

If the R32 hits like a baseball bat studded with rusty nails, then the GTI is a precision-forged samurai sword by way of comparison. And, with DSG, it’s £3,755 cheaper.

Verdict: Awesome sound effects, plentiful speed, unshakeable traction. So why is the GTI more fun?

3.2-litre V6
247bhp, AWD
0-62mph in 6.2secs, max speed 154mph
1,510kg
£25,075

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