Price: £23,745 (3dr), £24,695 (5dr)
Engine: 3,189cc, V6 cylinders, 24 valves, 250bhp at 6,300rpm, 236lb ft at 2,500-3,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0 to 60mph in 6.3sec, 26.4mpg official average
Last week's road test featured the BMW 130i M Sport, a compact German hatchback with a big engine and an even bigger price-tag. This week it's the turn of another interpretation of a similar theme, the Volkswagen Golf R32.
That it costs £23,745 is good news if you had been looking at the £26,000-plus BMW, but it's still an eye-watering amount of money for a Golf. Besides, do you really need 3.2 litres, 250bhp and four-wheel drive for a good Golf time?
The last Golf R32, the one in the Golf Mark IV body, is remembered for being very rapid, very sonorous, very grippy and the one Golf of an otherwise lacklustre generation that was good fun to drive. The new R32, powered by almost the same narrow-angle V6 engine, doesn't have such an easy ride, because the Mark Five Golf GTI is probably the best fast hatchback you can buy. And its just-under-£20,000 price-tag, hitherto expensive next to its Focus ST and Astra VXR rivals, suddenly looks a snip next to the R32's.
Those for whom power is everything will say that the R32 will deliver a better driving experience. But more enlightened souls will point to that pesky GTI and remind you that its 200 turbocharged bhp really is enough for most needs.
If looks are a guide, the R32 experience will certainly be a more aggressive one, whether it's better or not. The nose gets yet bigger, with under-bumper air intakes and a matt aluminium surround for the grille, which itself swaps the GTI's mesh for a pair of horizontal strakes. At the back there's a pair of ample exhaust pipes mounted bang in the middle, like a Peco big bore on an old Mini.
Inside, the look is broadly that of the leatherette-trimmed GTI option if your R32 has the leather, but otherwise you get spotty cloth instead of the retro plaid of the GTI. The aluminium pedals have the wavy logo that denotes a Volkswagen "R" car instead of simple rubber inserts, and the various trim strips are in the "engine-turned" aluminium that used to form the dashboards of vintage racing cars. Oh yes, and the white instrument needles glow blue at night - much more discreet than the GTI's red pointers.
Inevitably, the R32 has enormous 18in wheels with rubber-band tyres, but there's none of the black detailing of the body's lower edge that somehow gives the GTI its no-nonsense, functional air.
But, blow me, it sounds good. Turn the key and you're greeted by a deep, low burble quite unlike the four-cylinder, turbocharged GTI's, thanks to those six normally aspirated cylinders and the overlapping of their power strokes. Moving off, you discover that there's clearly a school of big-engined, fast-hatchback thought in Germany that teaches the necessity of a sudden clutch and an open-the-floodgates accelerator. Try to trickle gently away in the R32 and you'll jerk and hiccup like a novice. Be firm and ready to go "vroooom", though, and it all comes together. BMW 130i M Sport, Golf R32 - they both do exactly the same thing.
So there's no absorption of forces here, no forgiveness. This automotive mindset is next apparent when I drive over some sharp-edged bumps, of which my town's disgraceful roads have plenty. Ker-thud, bang, ouch. It's cruelty to a car like this, and to my spine, to travel on such roads. Trouble is, we can't avoid them.
Already the R32's appeal has narrowed to a small subset of the GTI's, but a narrow appeal can also be a deep one. Once out on a proper road, I can accelerate with the vigour in which the R32 revels and hold on tight. This is a mighty, rapid car, not quite as ballistic as the BMW, but very close. The power is as ready across the speed range, the car just as squirtable when it is exploiting an instant opportunity. If you think of an accelerator pedal as releasing a head of steam, the R32 has a higher-pressure tank than its Golf GTI sister. That's its chief advantage, the price for which is a greater thirst for fuel.
What about the four-wheel drive, then? It's a system that sends power to the front wheels most of the time but diverts the effort rearwards if the front wheels become overwhelmed by the task. This means that, most of the time, the R32 feels like a nose-heavier, slightly less agile GTI with a lumpier ride. Power keenly out of a tight bend, though, and instead of wheelspin and the flashing of a traction-control light, you simply feel the rear wheels digging in and helping out. There isn't quite the "driftability" you get in a Subaru Impreza WRX, but the R32 does feel wonderfully planted on the road.
So, snugly supported in your sporty seat, guarded by seemingly unbreachable grip, steering with reasonably unanaesthetised precision, you should be feeling good about the world, even if it's hard to reconcile the V6 sound with your Golf-shaped surroundings. But are you actually happier than you would be in a Golf GTI? Might that low-speed clunkiness not eat into the talent on display elsewhere?
Unfortunately, fine thing as the R32 is, it does. The fact is that the GTI does a better job of being a fast, driver-pleasing, practical hatchback, a better job of matching itself to your mood without imposing its personality. If I were to anthropomorphise, I'd say the GTI is a good listener, whereas the R32 is more self-opinionated.
There is a way to make the R32 a little sweeter and handier for trundling around town, which is to customise it with the DSG clutchless, sequential transmission whose automatic mode is very effective, but out on the open road you'd get bored with it after a while and crave the intimacy and involvement that a proper manual brings.
Don't get me wrong. I like the Golf R32 for its sound, its grip and its pace, and it does have the accolade of being one of just three V6-powered compact hatchbacks (the others being the dated Alfa 147 GTA and the Audi A3 3.2 Quattro, a mechanical clone of the Golf). But biggest, fastest and most expensive isn't always best, and the R32 feels overweight and over-engined. Buy a Golf GTI instead. You know it makes sense - and, even better, it satisfies sensibility.
ALFA 147 GTA, £23,205
One of the last cars to use Alfa's delicious old 3.2-litre V6, here with an R32-matching 250bhp sent through the front wheels. Feels nose-heavy, sounds fabulous, looks good, but getting dated now.
BMW 130I M SPORT, £26,515
Unique as a rear-wheel drive compact hatchback, has a 265bhp, straight-six engine, is both quicker and less thirsty than the Golf. However, it is rather cramped, turbulent over bumps, and expensive.
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX SL, £22,400
The Impreza Turbo cult may be fading, but this latest 2.5-litre, 230bhp WRX is fun, with its four-wheel drive (more "interactive" than the R32's) and flat-four engine.Reuse content