And that is not bad in the awful sense. It is bad in the lingo of the streets – a 238bhp storming, ferocious version of a perennial fleet favourite. And to this programme could be added the new Ford Focus RS. It might 'only' have 212bhp but it is lighter than the Golf and their performance figures are closely matched. Later this year, the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA will join the fray with 250bhp from its sonorous 3.2-litre V6. How long until the first 300bhp hot hatch?
On-the-road prices start at £22,340 for the three-door R32, of which Volkswagen expects to sell 1,200 by the end of 2003, and £22,960 for the eminently sensible five-door which should shift 500 units in the same period.
Emissions, as expected, are off the scale for company car tax (the R32 emits 276g/km of CO2, setting it firmly in the 35% benefit-in-kind camp). CAP predicts it will retain 39% of its cost new after three-years/60,000-miles, which trounces the Focus (32%). But performance, not wholelife cost, is the reason for this Golf's existence. The R32 will accelerate from 0-62 mph in 6.6 seconds, and top speed is 153mph.
With a 3.2-litre V6 engine churning out all its power through 4MOTION intelligent four-wheel drive, it feels every bit as fast as the figures suggest.
Add to this a barking exhaust note from twin chrome tailpipes, a six-speed gearbox, deeper bumpers with gaping air intakes at the front, 18-inch alloy wheels and some discreet badging, and the R32 sits apart from the rest of the Golf range. There is enough about it to suggest something out of the ordinary, but it is not garish like the Focus RS, which is as any self-respecting Golf owner would wish.
Get on the road and things do become a little more brash. Throttle response is almost instant and the steering, although lacking in any feel – when was the last time any Golf had any? – has a sharp turn-in and accurate response.
To get an idea of what is happening at the chassis end, refer to your bottom. With the stiff suspension lowered 10mm, extremely low profile tyres and some rather shapely sports seats, the seat of the pants is where the communication happens. And my pants were telling me that there is plenty of grip, and when pushing it you could feel the four-wheel drive system working to achieve a nice, neutral balance through bends. In fact, the R32 felt very adjustable, nearly matching the hallowed Subaru Impreza WRX on that front.
It is here that it leaves the Focus RS behind. While the RS feels faster, it does so in a violent manner. Drivers have to wring the RS's neck to get the best from it, while they can flow with the R32.
And although the suspension is very stiff, the ride is bearable. Because the Golf is such a solid car, the R32 hits bumps as one big lump, so there is very little rattling or shaking going on, even from the thrashed press cars we drove.
The most disappointing aspect of the R32 is the clutch and gearchange. In the cheaper 180bhp GTi Anniversary model, the change is light and well matched. In the R32, the throw between gears is short but slow acting. It feels well engineered but needs a good shove, and the clutch seems to stick slightly when being used hard and fast, resulting in a weird delay. Get that sorted and this is one fantastic car.
Actually, it is a fantastic car anyway, because it provides exactly what most Golf owners want: fast, safe, predictable progress. While the Focus RS maniacally fidgets, this feels much more of a real world, usable everyday car.
Model: Volkswagen Golf R32
Price (OTR): £22,340 (5dr £22,960)
Engine (cc): 3,189
Max power (bhp/rpm): 238/6,250
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 236/2,800
Max speed (mph): 153
0-62mph (secs): 6.6
Fuel consumption (mpg): 24.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 276
CAP residual value (3yrs/60,000 miles): £8,775/39%