As turbocharging has become increasingly common, certain car-and-engine combinations have disappeared. We’ll probably never see another five-cylinder Volvo again. A dwindling number of mid-size sedans still offer an optional V6 and even fewer compact SUVs do. Volkswagen’s six-cylinder Golf variants are also dead and buried. That includes the R32, the last six-cylinder Golf.
While it’s tantalizing to have a big six-cylinder engine in a small car, the R32’s successor – the Golf R – produced slightly more power and torque from a smaller, more economical turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Well, that’s progress.
The R32 was hardly wanting for power, however, thanks to the 3.2 VR6 engine stuffed under the hood. Producing 250 hp and 236 ft-lbs, the R32 put its power down on the road via Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system which shifted power to the rear wheels when extra traction was required.
Although it was quite obviously a Golf, Volkswagen made some notable styling enhancements to distinguish the R32 from the GTi and lesser Golfs. Where the GTi’s frontend used blacked-out trim and red accenting, the R32 used brushed aluminum – a motif shared with the Passat R36 – and the R32 ditched the rotary phone wheels for more conventional, multi-spoke ones (10-spoke in North America, 20-spoke elsewhere). The R32 also sat 5mm lower than the GTi, which was already 15mm lower than the regular Mark V Golf/Rabbit.
The R32 was rather rapid, reaching 60 mph in 6.5 seconds with the standard six-speed manual or 6.2 seconds with the optional six-speed, dual-clutch DSG automatic. The automatic was standard in North America but fortunately came with paddle shifters.
Reviews typically found the R32 to be more of a cruiser than a bruiser. That certainly makes sense: the six-cylinder engine was smooth and flexible, the ride quality quite refined, and even the styling was subtle. But that reputation was also the result of the R32’s hefty curb weight—at just over 3500 pounds, the R32 was 400 pounds heavier than a GTi. And although the all-wheel-drive system helped quell torque steer, the R32 had a propensity towards understeer at the limit. This was no WRX or Evo, but then those pocket rockets were nowhere near as pleasant on a long-distance trip as the R32.
North American buyers could only buy a new R32 in 2008, with Volkswagen importing only 5000 examples. It was a repeat of Volkswagen’s sales strategy for the first-generation R32 (based on the previous, fourth-generation Golf), wherein Volkswagen imported 5000 examples for a single model year, 2004. The 2008 R32 cost $32,990, a whopping $10k more than a base GTi. It was a similar story in other markets, too, such as Australia. At least the R32’s features list included niceties such as leather Recaro seats, rain-sensing wipers and dual-zone climate control.
See, the R32’s worst enemy was the cheaper GTi. It was barely slower – 0-60 in 6.7 seconds, thereabouts – and it was considerably lighter and therefore felt livelier and more manoeuvrable. Sure, there were 50 fewer ponies and 31 fewer pound-feet of torque and you didn’t have the additional traction of all-wheel-drive. But the Golf GTi was the gold standard of hot hatches, offering a level of all-round competence that surpassed that of its rivals.
It was hard to top the GTi, but the R32 at least took a different tack. It was more exclusive, produced a sonorous rasp from its six-cylinder engine, and offered a different, more luxurious take on the hot hatch formula. Its successor may have been more powerful and efficient but the R32 was the last six-cylinder Golf. That has to count for something.