VW Golf R32: Anachronistic joy

September 02 2020
VW Golf R32: Anachronistic joy

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

IMAGINE you fell asleep in 1980 and only woke up, Rip Van Winkle style, not 20 but 40 years later.

What’s changed? Everything if you’d been an epidemiologist Dutch settler (admittedly quite niche), and pretty much nothing if you’d been a keen VW fan.

That’s because in 1980 the VW to have was the Golf GTi – and in 2020 it is still the Golf GTi. Yes, horsepower has nearly trebled, and the engine is 20% bigger. Otherwise, the Golf remains the best family hatchback that, in GTi and ‘R’ form, sits at the top of VW’s performance range. And that feels right for a company calling itself ‘People’s Car’ – an honest runabout that can also be had with incredible pace, if you stump up the extra cash.

It feels right, but looking back to the recent past it is completely wrong. In the years old Rip was asleep, VW tried (and ultimately failed) to take the ‘People’s Car’ brand to some really crazy and exciting places. When this month’s test car was new in 2008, VW offered a 3.2 V6 (as seen here, shortly after superseded by a 3.6 V6), a 4.0 W8 (half of what would become a Bugatti W16), a 4.2 V8, a 5.0 V10 diesel and a 6.0 W12. The latter can still be found in new Bentleys today, and VW even toyed with putting it in the Golf. I’m not joking – they mounted their 640hp 12 cylinder engine just behind the front seats, like in that wonderful Clio V6 that made it into production. The W12 Golf didn’t though, so it turns out that there were some engineering and commercial limits in Wolfsburg.

The largest petrol engine you can buy from VW UK today is a 2 litre four cylinder. Think about that for a while. The Passat has to make do with a tiddly little 1.5. So, what happened? The unholy trinity of the VW diesel-gate scandal, emissions regulations that were then tightened further and the turbocharger facilitating the move to smaller, cleaner engines. This is all a precursor to the inevitable electric car sweeping everything combustion-powered away anyhow. I do like a turbo, but back in 2008 the Golf R32 didn’t need one. Instead, what you got was a large naturally aspirated 6 cylinder engine with 250hp, lots of low-down torque coupled to a four wheel drive system and a 6 speed manual gearbox.

Lovely. This particular example is in the perfect spec – blue, subtle and supple leather, 3 doors and low miles.

Behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel, it feels like new. The dash is modern enough, the cabin doesn’t squeak or rattle and the controls are light but responsive. You don’t notice the four-wheel drive setup at all, and the extra weight just feels like solidity rather than girth. The car has a wide, low stance that I liked, and placing it on the road is easy. This is a Golf, after all. The swanky Recaro seats are really comfortable, and I much preferred them to the cloth alternatives that lesser Golfs came with.

The gearbox, slick and easy to use, is great but quite low-geared. Think 26mph/1,000rpm, which means that at 70mph the engine is turning at 2,700rpm. I suspect this is to ensure that the V6 is always ‘on cam’ when you put your foot down (peak torque is at 2,500), but it means about 25mpg if driven nicely. Which would be a waste. You won’t just be spending on petrol either – the R32 is £580 to tax. Ouch. Reassuringly, enthusiasts don’t seem to care, as values of good R32s are creeping up, or at least they were before lockdown. The engine remains the shining star of the show – unlike a turbo-charged motor there is no sudden shove in the back. Instead the V6 pulls strongly from idle and piles on the power quite linearly as the revs rise. All accompanied by a throaty woofle from the close-set twin exhausts.

What goes wrong? Front arches rust, which is completely unforgivable in such a modern car. The 4WD transmission needs new oil every 40k miles, which isn’t cheap. Avoid the ‘DSG’ automatic, which, despite improvements, is still troublesome. Otherwise, this is a reliable purchase, but buttress your wallet for ongoing maintenance associated with any hot hatchback of this age.

I am always sad to see cars like this disappear from sale. Modern replacements, despite all their turbo power, will never replicate the lightweight responses of an early 80s GTi. They also miss the brawn of a V6 from VW’s wonderfully unhinged years. Get your hands on a fabulous dinosaur before they become extinct.

VW Golf R32 (Mk5), 2006-2009. What to pay: £9k to £13k with less than 80k miles.