What’s the point in an R32, when a GTI can be just as quick? If you have to ask the question, you need to drive both cars. While the Mk4 Golf GTI was a real letdown as a performance machine (un-tuned, of course) and barely worthy of its badge, the muscular R32 managed to maintain Volkswagen’s reputation for building hot hatchbacks.
Launched in late 2002, the range topping R32 packed a 237bhp six-cylinder powerplant into the ageing Mk4 body. Its narrow-angle, chain-driven engine was a direct descendant of the much loved old 12-valve VR6 and took it into an entirely different league.
The R32 had Volkswagen’s intelligent four-wheel drive setup with Haldex electronic multi-plate clutch sending power to the back when grip was lost. It also boasted low suspension, sharp steering and big front brakes with bright blue calipers. Best of all, the R32’s healthy torque, six-speed gearbox and instant throttle response made for a rapid hot hatch, as happy tackling cross-country blasts as it was cruising motorways. And with a terrific exhaust note from twin-exit exhausts every trip could become an addictive thrill.
Available as three- or five-door variants, the R32 had bodystyling a GTI could only dream about, with big-mouthed front spoiler, deep side skirts and chunky back bumper. The 18in Aristo alloys filled the arches perfectly, wearing grippy 225/40×18 tyres. Colour choice was limited to Deep Blue, Moonlight Blue, Diamond Black, Grey Anthracite, Reflex Silver or Tornado Red.
Sporty, yes, but the R32 had an impressive specification and luxurious interior featuring sexy half-leather Konig seats and leather steering wheel, brushed aluminium trim, Gamma stereo with six-disc in-dash changer and climate control. Xenon headlamps were standard, while the options list included electric sunroof, cruise control, sat nav and full leather or even halfsuede seats.
Sadly, the VW reputation for reliability is only a reputation, and R32s do have their share of problems. But with prices starting to sound reasonable, choosing an R32 has to be the best way of getting into a Mk4 Golf, as the R32, most of all, is a fun car, and one you’d do well to try out before you go elsewhere.
VW Golf R32 Mk4 2002-2004 Stats
Engine: 3.2ltr V6
Top speed: 154mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
This biggest worry is a snapped timing chain – tensioners are known to break, causing terminal engine failure and big bills. It can happen at any time but make sure any high-mileage car has had its chain replaced. Most other R32 faults are minor, including clonking from suspension (strut top mounts or broken springs), knackered differentials (especially on lowered cars), worn-out seats, radiator fan failure (£500 to fix) and poor running with hesitation and lack of power. This could be a faulty airflow meter or ECU – VW’s 6463 update was a recall to eliminate a flat spot between 2,000 and 3,000rpm.
TUNING A GOLF R32
As you’d expect for a sporting Golf, there’s an immense amount of tuning potential available from endless suppliers. A decent starting point would be a Haldex Performance Controller, which reduces understeer. Meanwhile, Bilstein dampers and beefier anti-roll bars sharpen the handling. For power, start with an induction kit and upgraded exhaust (for the meaty noise, if nothing else), followed by an ECU remap; with decat this could mean 280bhp. Performance cams and high-flow downpipes add up to 15bhp but we’d prefer forced induction – superchargers, turbo and twin-turbo setups are all possible, providing 320 to well over 500bhp. Not cheap, but very cool.