Turn the key and you’re greeted by a deliciously raspy exhaust note. The familiar four-valve-per-cylinder 3.2-litre V6 has a smooth and vibration-free character highly reminiscent of BMW’s in-line sixes. In its latest guise, the transversely mounted engine delivers 247bhp at 6300rpm, up 10bhp over the old R32 owing to a reworked inlet manifold. Torque remains the same at 236lb ft, but it’s now developed 300rpm lower down the range at 2500rpm. By comparison, the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder GTi musters 197bhp and 206lb ft.
Throttle response is rich, the tacho needle racing around the dial the moment you brush the throttle. Nail it hard and the R32 hauls with real enthusiasm to the 6500rpm red line before an electronic cut out halts proceedings at 7000rpm.
It’s not all fire and brimstone, though. The engine is also hugely flexible, with sufficient torque to allow you to skip gears as you change up, and it will pull cleanly and strongly from just 1000rpm in top. The six-speed manual gearbox is plumbed in to Volkswagen’s familiar Haldex four-wheel-drive system, as used on the Golf 4Motion. It uses a multi-plate clutch mounted ahead of the rear axle to apportion power to all four wheels. In extreme conditions it can deliver it all to either the front or rear. The R32’s traction puts it on an altogether different performance plane to the front-wheel drive GTi, allowing it to get its power down without any wheelspinning.
At 1541kg, the new Golf is no lightweight, coming in 64kg above is predecessor due to its larger dimensions and more luxurious cabin. However, it still posts a claimed 0-62mph time of 6.5sec – half a second quicker than the GTi – on the way to a limited 155mph top speed (we couldn’t get the GTi past 136mph).
So the R32 is fast, but it is also a very accomplished high-speed cruiser. Many cars of this ilk provide rapid acceleration through a combination of short gearing and an engine that’s constantly made to work at high revs, which makes them a real chore over longer distances. Not so the R32, which never feels unduly stressed at motorway speeds thanks to a long sixth gear.
The R32’s handling matches its pace. There’s masses of grip and taut body control. Arrive at a corner too fast and it understeers, but with the standard ESP switched off you can adjust the line by keeping the throttle down and relying on the four-wheel-drive system to reapportion the power towards the rear. The ride is firm, but not to the point where it becomes harsh and unpleasant over broken bitumen.
The power assisted steering, an electric set-up with 2.9 turns lock to lock, is reluctant to communicate the finer details of what the front wheels are doing, but its inherent directness gives a good degree of confidence through quick corners.
The brakes are excellent, the 345mm and 310mm ventilated discs providing strong and determined deceleration without the overservoed feel that afflicts other Volkswagens, and the anti-lock has been well-programmed, only kicking in when it is really needed.
Backing all this up is a beautifully finished cabin with neat touches such as a three-spoke flat-bottomed steering wheel, aluminium pedals, aluminium-look trim and loads of equipment, including climate control, CD changer and six airbags. Hard-shell Recaro sport seats, as fitted to our test car, are a worthwhile option, their strong lateral support adding to the driving experience. Another extra worth consideration is the swift-shifting DSG dual-clutch gearbox.
The new R32 is a more complete car than its predecessor. It’s faster – if only fractionally – more comfortable, better-looking and better-equipped. It also delivers a level of driveline sophistication that the GTi can’t match. In short: great.