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R32 3-dr hatch
Ride and handling, steering, packaging, price, all-wheel drive traction
Room for improvement
Peaky V6, paddle shifters could be longer, drinks 98 RON premium
25 Jul 2006
By TIM BRITTEN
THE Golf R32 reigns as perhaps the most delicious of all VWs, but it has some pretty good company on the road.
BMW’s refined 130i, Alfa Romeo’s hard-charging 147 GTA and even the Golf’s kissing cousin, the Audi A3 Sportback 3.2 quattro, all share similar hyper-hatch status.
But the Golf has a little something up its sleeve compared with the rest: it’s available with the choice of three or five doors, and it comes in a good $5000 below even the cheapest of the aforementioned bunch. At $54,990, the three-door R32 is almost $10,000 less than the (five-door) A3 3.2 quattro.
Still, the R32 creeps within touch of $60,000 (before on-road costs and before options) in five-door form when equipped with DSG sequential-manual transmission.
And, while lifestyle factors will dictate the choice of body styles, the DSG option makes good sense as it is not only quicker than the manual but is also more economical.
Any car that will reach 100km/h in barely more than six seconds and return an average fuel consumption figure of 9.8L/100km is pretty admirable.
It is much better than the GTA, which has an average consumption of 12.1L/100km (the 130i is better though, reaching 100km/h slighter quicker yet drinking at an average rate of 9.1L/100km).
And this with a four-wheel drive system that aids traction, yet adds weight – to the tune of nearly 200kg over regular (four-cylinder) Golfs.
The R32 Golf is not difficult to pick.
With its special 18-inch Zolder alloy wheels, glittering grille, dropped ride height and suggestive big-bore, dual exhaust outlets in the rear bumper, the R32 combines force with function. Cohesive, rather than blatant, it leaves no question that this is the Golf pro.
Inside, it gets a pair of sculpted seats developed in conjunction with Recaro (full-blown Recaros are an option) and a splashing of aluminium on the floor pedals, gearshift and trim on the doors and dash.
The dials are unique among Golfs, too, with the dismissal of the usual fluoro blue lighting and the introduction of white-on-black. The flat-bottom steering wheel looks suspiciously similar to the chunky device featured in Audi’s astonishing $160,000-plus RS4.
Despite the significant undercutting of the A3 V6, the Golf R32 does not scrimp on equipment.
As well as the usual items that contribute to the Golf’s traditionally high safety ranking – dual front and side airbags, full-length curtain bags and electronic aids including stability control – there is a punchy 10-speaker sound system with in-dash stacker, dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning, tyre pressure monitor, bi-Xenon headlights, heated (but unpowered) leather seats up front, an alarm and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
All this is underpinned by efficient Golf packaging that provides generous passenger and luggage space, making even the three-door a practical conveyance.
But the important stuff is what delivers the power and transfers it to the road.
The driveline is identical to that of the Audi A3 V6, from the 184kW narrow-angle V6 to the 4Motion (quattro in Audi parlance) all-wheel drive that distributes power to the back wheels when required via a Haldex clutch.
The good thing about this on-demand system is that the juggling of power from front to rear is largely invisible to the driver. Combined with the more tied-down suspension, there is rarely a suggestion that it is anything other than full-time 4WD.
The six-speed DSG gearbox is amazingly efficient. Other than a slightly hesitant action in reverse – because it engages via a clutch system – the transmission is the smoothest and quickest of shifters, swapping cogs faster than any driver could ever manage, without the slurring of a conventional torque converter.
Drive a DSG R32 and you will quickly understand why it is faster than a regular manual – and why it is more fuel-efficient. There is also the choice of shifting via the lever, or by paddles on the steering wheel – left side for downshifts, right side for upshifts.
But don’t worry if you have selected manual mode, you are in sixth gear and you want a sudden burst of power – the SMG kicks down like a regular auto, but faster.
A problem here lies in the fact that the V6 sounds so gloriously melodic that the driver is tempted to run it up to the red line to experience not just the steady, surging push in the back, but the sweet, eager crackle that comes in at the upper reaches.
The DSG is responsible for making the R32 a little quicker off the line than the 3.2-litre Alfa 147 GTA, which is lighter than the VW by a good 150kg but no faster, unless compared with the manual version.
The R32 also steers with the precision required of a car dishing out this sort of power.
The steering ratio might seem a little slow with nearly three turns from lock to lock (the Alfa requires a little more than two) but the R32 is the sort of car that feels its way through corners rather than indulging in a wrestling contest with the driver.
With big 225/40R18 tyres – the front and rear tracks are slightly narrower than other Golfs to fit the wheels under the body - there are small signs of bump-steer on gnarly roads, but the grip is always tenacious and the steering response quick and accurate.
And there is no problem with torque steer, or traction, when blasting away on a surface with varying levels of grip.
The ride is firm, but pretty much as you would expect given the performance, and rarely jolts driver or passengers unless speeds are really high and the roads really rough. The low-profile tyres send a distant hum into the cabin that is reassuring more than anything else.
Like a true high-performance car, the R32 quickly gathers momentum and feels balanced and secure when cruising at high speed. The four ventilated discs grab the Golf and bring it to a halt with great strength and no signs of wavering.
Wrapped in the deeply sculpted seat, the driver is treated to an experience that is equally enjoyable whether having a crack at a set of sinuous bends or just motoring along quietly with the lovely V6 purring in the background, with just 2500rpm registering at 100km/h in sixth.
If the long-stroke 3.2-litre engine seems to have a fairly narrow torque band, the maximum 320Nm is impressive for the capacity (much more so than the Alfa, which manages 300Nm from the same engine size) and does come in fairly early – at 2500rpm – even if it departs quickly at 3000rpm and leaves the revs to do the rest.
Left in auto mode, the DSG transmission holds intermediate gears until precisely 6500rpm, where it slips into the next gear so quickly and seamlessly it is hard to believe.
The only problem is that VW asks you to refuel with 98 RON premium unleaded petrol, which can make topping up the 60-litre tank (five litres more than other Golfs) a pricey business. BMW makes its 130i suitable for running on anything from 91 RON upwards, although there are obvious performance discrepancies when opting for cheaper fuels.
But there is very little not to like about the Golf R32.
Unlike some of its turbocharged contemporaries – such as the amazingly fast Mazda3 MPS – it is a multi-dimensional car that has more to offer than the jollies of merely blindingly fast acceleration.
After a week spent driving the “burbs”, cruising the freeways and seeking out the odd, deserted country road, the Golf still leaves great depths to be explored. It is tractable at low speeds, manoeuvrable around town and a handy shopping trolley as well as being a howling, hyper-fast sports car when the opportunity presents itself.
For the money, there is very little that can challenge it.
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