What is it?
This is the original R-rated Volkswagen. After four generations of GTIs, VW decided that something more was needed to compete with the more serious performance cars of the world. Interestingly, the R32 was the first production car to feature a dual-clutch gearbox, although the US only received R32s equipped with manual transmissions. In total just 5000 mk4 Golf R32s were imported to US shores, making them one of the rarest cars in their range.
How’s the R32’s driving experience?
In short: fantastic, and a lot better that I had thought it would be. I’ve driven both of this car’s successors, the Mk5 R32 and the Mk6 Golf R, and I have to say that the Mk4 R32 has a certain something that its replacements do not.
Most immediately notable is the steering, which communicates beautifully. Yes, this is one of those cases where an older car with hydraulic power steering feels more alive and connected than newer versions with electric power steering. I’m generally not one of the electric power steering haters out there, but the difference is as tangible as can be.
While the R32 may have a very similar physical package to a Subaru WRX, many of its driving dynamics are more those of a traditional sports car. Its 3.2L VR6 engine absolutely loves to rev, and it offers a level of responsiveness similar to that of a Porsche 911. The VR6 makes pretty consistent meaty torque throughout its rev range, giving it solid performance from the mid range on up to redline. When accelerating hard, the R32 has a feeling of smooth, sustained momentum during shifts, again, not dissimilar to a Porsche 911.
The Golf R32 is definitely what I would consider “fast” in street car terms, building speed at an exciting rate, however the power doesn’t have nearly the same level of ferocity as you will find in the turbocharged Subaru STi or Mitsubishi Evo. Volkswagen claims 240hp from the Mk4 R32, but this one may have been “chipped” because it felt a little stronger than that to my butt dyno (I was told it had some light modifications). Either way, the R32 definitely has a good amount of power, but not so much that it becomes the dominant trait of its driving experience.
Adding equally to the power is the sound that the VR6 makes when you open the taps. Obviously I’ve seen many videos on Youtube of R32s running straight pipes, so I had my hopes up for this one. Sadly, though, the exhaust on this car was stock, so it was a lot more quiet than I would’ve liked. It did still have a decent rumble to it when I got on the throttle, but the exhaust would surely be my first order of business if I were to buy this car.
Now, I admit that I was not pushing this R32 to 10/10ths on public roads, of course not. However, neither will most owners when driving on the street. Through turns I kept it at about 7 or 8/10ths, and the car felt unbelievably solid. I have heard that R32s like to understeer pretty hard at the limit, but in the context of a fun drive in the real world, the thing felt nimble, balanced, and unflinchingly composed through all types of corners.
The more I drove the R32 on some winding country roads, the more I realized that it offers a very well balanced experience, and that no one piece of it could define the car as a whole. It is like a fine gourmet dish where each ingredient, no matter how small, plays a vitally important part in the finished whole.
The driving position is fantastic, with well-bolstered seats that are snug but comfortable. The steering, as mentioned above, is alive, and the car reacts exactly as you want it to. The engine is eager, and ready to send you screaming down the road the instant you touch the throttle. The brakes scrub off that speed nicely. Through corners, the chassis hunkers down, and the seat holds you firmly, as you push harder and harder, giving a feeling of solidarity and composure. The suspension takes bumps and dips in the road in stride, never feeling skittish or harsh. As you get back on the gas, to fling yourself out of a corner, you can feel the Haldex AWD system sending power to the outside rear wheel, creating a sensation which tells you that the R32 rides on rails rather than tires.
Every piece of the car feels purposefully intertwined with every other piece, and this all adds up to an experience that will put an ear-to-ear grin on your face in many different situations. The R32 will hold a wicked pace on winding roads, and it never seems to get enough. It just keeps egging you on, and it is every aspect of the car that does this. You want to feel the control of the steering and the composure of the chassis at every bend in the road. You crave that smooth, screaming acceleration at every straightaway, and I always found myself getting on the gas early, just to feel the AWD system do its thing.
In many car’s I’ve driven, one aspect of the driving experience stands out while the rest is all sort of pushed to the background. In the R32 I found every piece of the experience to be addictive in its own right. It is that trait that I think comes up short for both the Mk5 Golf R32 and the Mk6 Golf R, and it is that same trait which I think defines the driving experience of the Mk4 R32.
Will the R32 respond well to modifications?
In short, not really compared to its turbocharged rivals, from the standpoint of my practical-minded opinion. The R32’s VR6 will not see big power gains from basic modifications. Performance software seems to be able to bring the engine up to 260hp or so, from the stock 240hp, but anything more than that will require more serious work to be done.
The R32 is not really a car for people who just want a ton of horsepower. There are far better options out there if that is your thing. Sure, there are many people who have spent lots of money on turbo and supercharger kits for their R32s, and of course they can make big power then. However, you could also make a 600whp Prius if you had the money and the desire.
There is a seriously sweet R32 in my area that is supercharged with 400awhp. It is an extremely clean build with every modification done right, but the guy spent over $40,000 to build it on top of the price of the car, whereas you can get an Evo to 400awhp for under $5 grand. And furthermore, if I’m going to be spending over $50k on a car, I’d be looking at a Porsche 996 Turbo or a V10 BMW M6, not a Mk4 VW R32.
If it were me modding an R32, I’d just aim to make it better at what it already does well. I’d be sure to run a straight exhaust so I could enjoy the howl of that wonderful VR6, and maybe I’d run a light cam to get the motor up to around 300hp. Other than that, I’d do suspension and brake modifications as needed, as well as some wider wheels to get more rubber on the road. As an experience the R32 is already a 9 or a 10, and my modifications would just aim to turn it up to 11.
Performance is nice, but what about the everyday stuff?
Let’s not kid ourselves here, despite being a VW Golf, the R32 is in no way an economy car. VR6s are notoriously thirsty engines, and please believe that this 3.2L version demands premium gas. The R32’s Haldex AWD system does help getting around in adverse weather conditions, but it also adds weight and load on the engine. Mid 20 mpg range is possible if you are a total saint on the highway, but generally expect to see high-mid teens. Incidentally, though, the R32’s fuel economy is about the same as that of an STi or Evo, so it doesn’t really become a factor when deciding between them.
As far as practicality goes, the R32 is very much a VW Golf. Four people will fit decently in this car, and its square design profile allows for a generous amount of headroom throughout the cabin. The trunk is also plenty big, even with the rear seats up, so an R32 can be used like any other hatchback might.
One surprisingly nice feature about the R32 is its ride quality. It is actually a very smooth-riding car, even over fairly hard bumps in the road. Take it from me, a Subaru STi owner, for a car that handles so well, the fact that it won’t beat you up is a big deal.
How has the build of the car held up over the years?
The car I drove had 130,000 miles on it, and while it did have a sort of “patina” to it, everything seemed to be holding together just fine. Fit and finish has definitely been a Volkswagen strong suit over the years.
As for the feel of the car, this R32 felt pretty typical for the sort of mileage that it had. The clutch was definitely worn, the shifter could’ve been a little tighter, and the brakes needed to be done soon. However, those are all wear-and-tear-items, and once replaced would make all the difference in the world. In all other respects, this R32 felt tip-top, and clearly had been well maintained throughout its life.
Will reliability be a concern?
Somewhat. While the R32 doesn’t have a consistent major problem like the VW 1.8Ts had with their K03 turbos, it is a European car from the early-mid 2000s, so electrical gremlins are to be expected.
The clutch slave cylinder has also been known to fail, causing the clutch pedal not to return fully to its rest position. The replacement is very labor intensive, and I’m told requires the entire front of the car to be taken apart.
Other than that, also be sure you stay on top of servicing that Haldex AWD system.
Will the Golf R32 get noticed?
Yes, but only by people who really know cars. The Mk4 R32 has a wonderful body kit that is just aggressive enough to separate it from your average GTI, but not so aggressive that you will give little old ladies heart attacks on their way home from church.
If I buy a Volkswagen, do I have to slam it?
No. Slamming works on many VWs, but not on an R32 because you are ruining a great handling car. To do so is high automotive sacrilege.
But won’t the Stance people make fun of me?
Yes, but they’re never pleased with anything, and while they’re making fun of you for owning a “monster truck”, the rest of the world is making fun of them.
Dollars and sense
This R32 was up for sale at around $16K with some room for negotiation. Overall, Mk4 R32s are holding their value very well due to their rarity and superior driving experience. Extremely low mileage examples can still sell for around $30K, but most R32s out there sit in the $10-20K range.
Having said all that, well maintained R32s could see their values rise in the coming years, so it is a great option for people looking to buy a fun car that won’t depreciate like crazy.
How does the R32 compare to similar cars I could buy?
In the used car market, the R32 remains as it has always been: a nicer alternative to an STi or an Evo with a bit less outright performance. That said, on most twisty roads I don’t think an R32 would lose sight of a stock STi or Evo in terms of point-to-point pace.
Other comparisons that will surely be made with an R32 will be a standard Subaru WRX and a Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart…. the “baby” versions of the cars mentioned above. Straight-line performance will be close between these contenders, however the R32’s chassis feels much better sorted in corners. Remember, the R32 was the pinnacle of the VW Golf range, so it wasn’t held back to avoid stepping on the toes of any higher model, whereas a WRX and a Ralliart were restrained some.
Lastly, you should consider rarity when comparing the Mk4 R32 to other options. As I said above, Volkswagen only brought over a scant 5000 Mk4 R32s to the USA, so it is a far more unique car than the others you may consider.
Lastly, the final contender worth mentioning is the 2008 Mk5 Golf R32, yes, the one that only came with a paddle shift transmission, more weight, and a vastly more removed driving experience. VW went overboard on refinement of the Mk5 R32, and they took most of the edge away that makes the Mk4 R32 feel so special. So yeah, don’t ever buy a Mk5 R32 over a Mk4 R32.
Why would I want a VW R32?
- Fantastic driving experience
- More character then the newer versions
- Practical package
Why wouldn’t I want a VW R32?
- Thirsty fuel economy
- Known to have lots of little reliability issues
- More power can be made a lot easier with other cars
- Exhaust mods, so you can really be engulfed in that wonderful VR6 fury!
In terms of raw, unadulterated fun, I like the Mk4 R32 better than both the Mk5 R32 and the current-generation Golf R. Its driving experience is made up of a sum of individual factors that will each leave you craving for more.
Many people, myself included, have not given the original Golf R32 the credit it deserves as a driver’s car. But once you get behind the wheel of one, it is hard not to fall in love with it. The R32 is definitely a unique automotive experience, offering a WRX-like package with the dynamics of a more traditional sports car. Volkswagen has changed their ways since this car was built, and in many ways it should still be considered the peak of the R models to date. In truth, nobody makes a car like this R32 anymore, so it will surely continue to be sought after for quite some time.
WoM Score: 2004 VW Mk4 Golf R32 (Used)
Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2) MPG(1): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9.5/10
-Article by Nick Walker
PS: A special thanks to Ken Doebler at Volkswagen of Langhorne.