VW upped its Golf game in the early 2000s by unleashing the R32, the genesis of the R era. We revisit the original 20 years on.
It’s been two decades since Volkswagen ramped up its sporting ambitions by launching its first car adorned with the R badge. That was the R32, a Golf packed with a 3.2-litre V6 and armed with all-wheel drive. At the time, it out-gunned the Audi S3, and triggered the start of the hyper-hatch phase, although weapons like the RS 3 and A 45 were still a good decade away.
It was something of a revelation when it landed here early in 2003; it cost more than the aforementioned S3, and a Golf with a $76,990 price tag was unheard of. But so was one punching out 177kW. VW’s 15-degree V6 was taken from 2.8 to 3.2 litres with both a bore and stroke job and the fitment of special pistons. These, along with a fancy new electronic throttle, allowed for an enthusiastic engine response. Additional power was gained by adding a variable length intake manifold and VVT bulked up the torque, with 320Nm made at 2800rpm.
The 18-inch wheels were gigantic in their day, the stance complemented by the 20mm lower ride height, while a few suspension tweaks helped in the bends. The addition of the Haldex-type AWD, or 4motion in VW speak, aided traction and its fitment also meant the inclusion of fully independent rear suspension.
At the time, we rated the R32, its sonorous six drawing comparisons with the M3 of the day. We liked its robust bottom end grunt and ‘hill flattening midrange performance’. The R32 we called the most understeer-resistant Golf ever, and ‘its tendency to push under power was much reduced compared with the lesser 2.8-litre AWD Golf of the day’. We liked its grip and corner poise, but thought it could do with some additional suspension compliance over less than smooth surfaces. Compared with what VW had served up in the previous decade, however, the R32 was a standout.
This first R Golf was a relative rarity here, with just 32 officially offered new (not sure how they came up with that number), all in three-door body format (a five-door was offered in other markets) with a six-speed manual only. The R32 was the first Volkswagen to be offered with the firm’s Direct Shift Gearbox but it wasn’t available here. However, in ensuing years, more have arrived as used imports, generally in five-door auto guise.
We managed to track down one of the original 32s, this black example belonging to Mitch Baker from New Plymouth. He bought this in 2019 after wanting one for some time. “I owned a Mk5 R32 previously, so I got the R bug from that.” He spent the best part of nine months searching for the right one, which had to be a manual, three-door model. Mitch is a member of the ‘Wookies in the Wild’, a group of R enthusiasts, and there are a dozen or so other owners of the originals in the group. From that initial batch of 32 cars, the Wookies estimate that 27 are still on the road. And Mitch says they are aware that a handful of those NZ-new cars are still with their first owners.
He paid $17k for his one and it has covered 114,000km now, making it a relatively low mileage example, given it’s almost twenty years old. Like most desirable, rarer machines, values have increased recently. “I have someone pestering me to sell it for $26,000, but I’m not sure even thirty would tempt me. I don’t feel like I’m done with it yet, and I’m not in dire need of the money, though the wife would probably disagree.”
This one isn’t entirely as it rolled from the factory. The engine has had a mild tune to sharpen the throttle response, adding a few horses along the way, while there’s also a modified intake and new high-flow cats. It’s on Bilstein shocks with lowered springs, the slotted rotors the previous owner added and the BBS CH-R wheels suit it well.
Mitch calls his car ‘a sunny weekender’. “It’s not super quick, compared with the newer R models, but it sounds awesome and I like that really linear power delivery. And with AWD, the traction is sorted.”
“It might not handle as well as the Mk5, but it’s still responsive and a bit rawer around the edges, and it’s better for it. It’s not as nimble as the turbo-engined cars, or as polished but I like that, becasue it means you have to drive it.”
Mitch has driven the Mk6 and Mk7 Golf Rs, and says they are so different, the technology has moved on so much.
We quizzed him about the Wookies in the Wild group. “It’s based on the overseas group Wookies in the Woods. They have hundreds of members, and it’s exclusively for owners of the R32, but here we are open to all generations of R Golfs”. The club has been around for five years and they have an annual meet to catch up and talk cars. Typically about 35 cars turn out, around 20 of those being the R32, so there’s still a good following for the car.
“I hope to keep this one for a long time yet. I’m still enjoying it, I haven’t found anything I’d replace it with,” said Mitch before offering up a drive.
I remember giving the original press car a fanging back in the early 2000s, so took the opportunity to give this one a whirl too. Memory served that the clutch was light, the manual action slick but long of throw. And one that didn’t like being rushed, though it finds its way easily around the gate. With a few mods, the engine response is quick, the torque available right throughout the range and the six is still willing to rev freely. The sound is truly unique, something missing from contemporary Golf Rs. We noted the suspension compliance back in ’03 was a little lacking, and this being lower still manages to find most of the bumps on the road. But despite its age, it’s holding up well, the cabin rattle free, the interior in great condition, showing that if you look after them, they hold up well. The AWD keeps it grounded, and there’s enough punch to impress 20 years on.
We are looking forward to driving the latest Mk8 Golf R this year, with its torque splitting rear differential. And the R brand is set to expand further with a new take on the Touareg R, the latest being a plug-in hybrid. T-Roc and Tiguan R versions should be a laugh too. The 20th year of the R should be a good one.