Volkswagen Golf (Mk4) R32 - review, history and used buying guide

The big-engine, small-hatchback formula is as appealing today as it was back in 2002

To understand the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32’s impact, it’s important to understand the Golf Mk4’s overall lack of appeal for driving enthusiasts. Here was a car that topped its class for perceived quality but, like the Mk3 Golf before it, severely under-delivered when it came to the model everyone wanted: the GTI.

Over time VW steadily improved the Mk4 GTI (though we had to wait for the Mk5 Golf before the GTI fully returned to form) but like its predecessor, the most appealing Golf came with six, rather than four cylinders. Launched in 2002, the Golf R32’s visual transformation was a subtle one, but its drivetrain was much more significant. Here’s why.

Volkswagen Golf R32 in detail

The Mk4 Golf’s understated styling has undoubtedly aged well, and nowhere better than on the R32. It’s among the subtler overhauls in hot hatchback lore, but an effective one: the front and rear bumpers were deeper (the front cut out for larger air intakes, the rear for a pair of exhaust tips), a set of side skirts was applied, and the look was finished off with some arch-filling 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/40 R18 tyres.

Save for the application of a subtle R32 badge front and rear, that was it, but it remains a handsome shape today. Inside, it was more or less standard Golf Mk4 - though some aluminium dashboard trim, winged Recaro seats and a high equipment list differentiated it from the GTIs that sat below. Three- and five-door versions were available.

> 2017 Volkswagen Golf R review

The biggest changes were reserved for its drivetrain though, with a new version of VW’s VR6 engine (a 15-degree V6 in which both banks of cylinders share the same head). Here it displaced 3189cc and used a 24-valve head, and sent its 237bhp and 236lb ft through a Haldex all-wheel drive system. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, but the R32 was also the first car to offer VW’s Direct-Shift Gearbox, or DSG dual-clutch transmission - shortly before Audi offered the same ‘box on its TT 3.2. Early DSGs are considered a little problematic, but a good one still feels modern (and works effectively) today.

The bare acceleration figures still look impressive today, despite a fairly chunky kerb weight (a Mk7 Golf R is 76kg lighter). We timed an R32 at 6.4 seconds to 60mph, and while the VR6 doesn't deliver the same thump in the back as a turbocharged equivalent you'll struggle to find an engine with so much character in any new hot hatchback today, and certainly none with so mellifluous an exhaust note.

Things were more conventional underneath, and much like later Golfs in fact: MacPherson strut front suspension, and multi-link astern, with anti-roll bars at both ends. Braking was handled by 334mm ventilated discs up front, and 256mm vented discs at the rear.

Golf (Mk4) R32
Engine3189cc VR6
Max power237bhp @ 6250rpm
Max torque236lb ft @ 2800rpm
0-60mph6.4sec (timed)
Top speed154mph (claimed)

What we said

Volkswagen Golf R32 driven, evo 048 (Oct 02), John Simister

'Those two stainless tailpipes, fully 3.5in across, emit a crisp-edged, open-mouthed, creamed-together blare as the power flows, a fluff'n'crackle as the throttle feathers. The engine revs with an insistent shoe well into the high six-thousands, yet - and this is the extraordinary bit - it pulls with conviction and not a hint of stumble right from its 600rpm idle.

'A Mk3 Golf was flaccid, a Mk4 is usually rubbery and approximate, but this R32 steers with direct, mechanical precision through its speeded-up rack. It's also very throttle-tunable in its trajectory, tucking in if you lift off, untucking with power back on, except that second part never expands into understeer. You sometimes feel the beginning of it if you use too much power too soon, but then the torque diverts rearwards, the nose claws back on course and it's back to being a slot racer.'

Golf R32 'Superhatch' group test, evo 053 (Mar 03), David Vivian

'The key is the exploitability of its performance. While the Haldex all-wheel-drive system balances the weight distribution and provides low-loss transfer for the power and torque, the springs and dampers unite in a convincing display of iron-fisted control, masking the Golf's bulk with resolute grip and surprising agility.

'Jethro is slightly shocked by what it can do. He says: "Stepping from the WRX to the R32 is very odd. You expect the Subaru to show the Golf to have nose-heavy, lumpen handling. You expect it to deliver the killer blow with more performance and more cross-country pace. But it doesn't quite work like that. The Golf feels instantly more responsive."'

What to pay

Volkswagen Golf (Mk4) R32

Excellent: £10,000Good: £7500Average: £5000Project: N/A

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