My dear mother, bless her, had managed to implant a nail into the sidewall of the rear left tyre of this loaner R32 down at the local shops, a feat I’m still unsure is physically possible. At the tyre shop later that day I was surprised not by the price of a replacement ContiSport 5 (very high if you were wondering), but more by the fact that in little under an hour three different people had offered to buy the car from me. Why such interest in a seven year old 5th-generation Golf?
The answer, of course, is because the R32 is no ordinary Golf.
Only a keen eye will pick the R32 from a crowd. Aside from dual pipes and signature alloys you’d be hard pressed to tell the R32 apart from a run-of-the-mill Trendline. The interior is a similar story with only small visual tweaks like aluminium pedals and a sports steering wheel giving the game away. The R32 is certainly a world apart from the look-at-me visuals that have come to define any modern performance Renault or AMG-Benz, but no matter which way you cut it the R32 fails the Fast and the Furious test. Whether this is favourable or disappointing largely comes down to individual preference, although I lean toward the former.
The lacklustre visuals are instantly forgotten when you key the ignition. Best performed in an underground car park or tunnel of your choosing, the R32’s 3.2L 6-cylinder produces nothing less than a symphony of raw noise. A cross between the almost hollow shriek of a Porsche Cayman and the burble of a C63 AMG Benz, the R32’s naturally aspirated engine note is truly something to behold. On the soundstage this car can hold a candle to vehicles two to three times its price.
The R32 has always played second fiddle to the BMW 135i in terms of raw driver appeal, but don’t mistake it for the safe option: the R32 is first and foremost a performance car. The Golf is planted and precise on the open road. A simple blip of the throttle, a downshift to third and mashing your right foot to the carpet can dispatch even the most daunting corners with ease. When you need them, the brakes pull the car up with an exceptional, almost exhilarating force.
It only takes a small amount of driving near the limit to realise that the all wheel drive R32 sticks to the road better than chewing gum to a shoe. In fact, this car grips with such ferocity that tyres squeal even in the wet, although good luck hearing that screech over the barnstorming howl of the engine at 5000rpm. The R32 is an accomplished and capable performer, inspiring confidence at all times and in all situations.
The manual transmission is balanced and evenly weighted on the open road, which makes it hard to beat for driver involvement. At lower speeds the clutch will punish even the slightest mistake, which can make commuting a chore. The DSG dual-clutch auto will solve this, but be warned that DSG boxes fitted to the mark-5 Golf were notoriously unreliable, enjoying the more-than-occasional catastrophic meltdown. Watch out for loud clunks when shifting if you’re looking to pick up an R32 today, as this is often indicates a DSG box on the way out.
If you’ll indulge a metaphor, the R32 is the ocelot of the car world. One of the less commonly known species of big cat the ocelot is small, unassuming and could pass for a house cat. Prod it enough times though and it will rip you to shreds before you can even blink. The R32 is and always has been the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the ultimate surprise packet, which is precisely why random people offer to buy it in tyre shops.
Despite its age the mark-3 R32 still retains the coveted status as one of Volkswagen’s best. The R32 is a car that will pass unnoticed in everyday life, indistinguishable from any other Golf, indeed from any other car. But very occasionally whether at a gas station, a car wash or indeed even at the tyre shop you will catch the eye of somebody who knows what this car really is. The R32 does not scream and shout its performance credentials. But it only takes the occasional knowing smile or passing complement to understand that, right before you slip back into a faceless sea of traffic, to the right person the R32 truly commands respect.