When we first drove the Mk5 VW R32 (et 10/07), we gave it a slightly lukewarm reception: as did most others. However, our brief spell in the car didn't allow a final verdict. Yet we did suggest that the $10k difference between the GTI and R32 might be better spent on modifying the GTI to outperform its big brother.And now it's time to put our wallets where the pies enter and actually test this theory. So we gathered a stock GTI, modified GTI and stock R32 for the ultimate Golf shootout. Was the R32 as underwhelming as we remembered? Would a modified GTI kick its butt?
And for extra color, we decided to throw our long-term BMW 135i into the mix. It's recently entered the premium compact market at a base price of $35k - about the same as an R32 with optional nav. So how do the two contenders stack up?
To get the tuner's perspective, we also invited David Sarabi from Eurocode Tuning www.ecodetuning.com to participate in our jaunt that would take us from the city streets of LA to the Pacific Coast Highway and up into the demanding Malibu canyons. This was to be a real-world test. No stopwatches, just seat of the pants and how whether you could catch the car in front.
First up was the stock Mk5 GTI 2.0T. We'd obtained an example with the six-speed DSG transmission to match the only gearbox available in the US version of the R32. I confess to preferring a regular manual transmission because the DSG won't change down at high rpm when you want extra engine braking, leaving you to rely more on the brakes. And DSG makes you lazy when you drive it like an auto.
That aside, it was great to be back in a GTI again. The Mk5 feels so responsive and well built. It's rewarding to drive in the city and the open road, exhibiting a throaty exhaust note when revved. Up in the canyons, the GTI really came alive. Its incredible throttle response, free-revving engine and nimble chassis meant it was never embarrassed in this company. If anything, it gave credence to the question about why you'd buy anything else. It does everything well and rewards with plenty of feedback. It also has a totally predictable chassis that gets you out of trouble. It inevitably has a tendency to understeer, but it kept pace until the stock tires and brakes overheated under the extreme pace.
Time to jump into the modified GTI - the car we expected to demolish the R32. You may remember it from the cover of et 6/07. We helped its owner modify it with APR software and exhaust, H&R coilovers, Brembo GT big-brakes and 19" Porsche wheels with large 235/35 front and 265/30 rear tires.
In town and on the open road, the modifications were well disguised, detracting little from the GTI. In fact, the H&R suspension was less choppy than stock, making it less tiring. Perhaps the only deficit was the tendency for the exhaust to drone at certain rpm.
That aside, the modified GTI felt spot-on. Its owner had addressed every aspect of the car's performance and created an incredible package. It accelerated harder, braked stronger and handled better. It's the car VW should built.We'd taken this car into the canyons before and knew its ability but were surprised to see how strong it felt alongside the stock GTI. The software and exhaust had the turbo spinning quicker and harder, improving the quality of the DSG shifts and making the car more responsive. The massive tires and brakes meant you could approach corners at higher speeds, scrub what wasn't needed and exit on full power.
However, the canyons highlighted a potential problem with the tire choice. The very wide rears kept the back end planted, preventing the car from rotating about its axis in the corners. This meant you had to exert more muscle more than in the stock car, making it feel less fluid than the stock GTI. David Sarabi suggested that fitting narrower rear tires would undoubtedly help by reducing some of the understeer. However, we also needed to alter our approach and drive this car to its strengths - big brakes in, plenty of power out.
Unfortunately, a problem with the belt tensioner cut short our time with this car, but not before we'd got a measure of its ability.
This would be the real test. Could the R32 retain its crown at the top of the Golf food chain?
In the city and the open road, there was little to choose between the GTI and R32. The incredible exhaust note is the R32's only advantage under these circumstances because the 3.2 VR6 24v sounds like nothing else - although you're paying extra at the pumps to be entertained by its sonorous tones.
But that's not what the R32 is about. Its 250hp motor, 4Motion all-wheel drive, 345mm front brakes and 18" wheels were designed to get you from a-to-B as fast and as safely as possible. At least, that's what it's supposed to do. However, the R32 is a contradiction. It has more power than a GTI, but also more weight and more transmission losses. It also carries a great deal of its weight up front, so while the big brakes can stop it very efficiently, that weight causes the front end to push. With all-season tires on our test car, they overheated rapidly and that exaggerated the problem.
Otherwise, the R32 was hugely entertaining in the canyons. A slow entry to reduce understeer put the emphasis on the 4Motion to pull you out the other side. With the traction control off, we'd get all four wheels sliding on the way in and then spinning as the fought for grip on the way out.
Once again, the stock suspension was very forgiving, coping well with the rapid extension and compression caused by the undulating road surface, but understeer was your constant companion.
In a recent test, Eurocode Tuning provided a modified GTI (similar to ours) to run against a stock R32 on a racetrack. The FWD 2.0T reportedly returned faster lap times. But in the uniquely demanding canyons, the R32 seemed to have the upper hand.
With more straights, where the tuned 2.0T could stretch its legs, the modified GTI may have had the advantage, but in the twisting canyons, the R32 felt marginally faster.
It would be interesting to return with summer tires on the R32 and narrower rear tires on the modified GTI. With each car's weakness canceled, the battle would be even more intense.
So which of our three Golfs represents the ultimate version? All three are winners.
A stock GTI represents incredible value for money because it does everything so well. It was never embarrassed but can definitely be improved upon: as the modified example proved. With some well-chosen parts, you really don't lose anything. In fact, we gained in acceleration, braking, handling and comfort. These parts brought the GTI almost level with the R32. In fact, the lighter four cylinder was a distinct advantage, resulting in less understeer compared to the R32. However, the R32 is able to compensate for its weight with great traction and a spirited engine that has more power and torque than our initial impressions revealed.
The R32 is certainly flawed - heavy, thirsty, expensive, cosmetically dull, no manual option - yet it's incredibly rewarding to drive under the right circumstances.
If you simply drive city streets and freeways, we'd recommend you save buy the stock GTI, with the option to modify it at a later date. If you want to occasionally track your car or enjoy a blast through the countryside, we'd advise you to modify the GTI and unleash more of its potential. But if you regularly drive on demanding roads, where all-weather traction is essential and where the exhaust note can bounce between rock walls, we'd happily recommend the R32. It's a spectacular, if imperfect, machine.
VW vs BMW
So how does BMW's new 300hp, 300 lb/ft RWD twin-turbo 135i Coupe compare to the R32? On paper, it doesn't. And on our regular commute, the BMW is more comfortable, quieter and more flexible. It's also better equipped - but at a price!However, the canyons are a great equalizer and you need a cohesive package in order to succeed on these incredible roads.
Initially, we struggled to take the RWD platform to its limits after driving the VWs all day, but eventually the BMW came into its own. It's huge six-piston front brakes provided astonishing power, and while the cars appear to be similar weight, the BMW is better balanced front to rear. It also has a longer wheelbase and wider track, making it more stable. With wider tires and more power, the BMW should have had it all its own way.
But you can make an R32 dance on the limit of adhesion. And get on the power sooner thanks to its AWD. So we were staggered to see just how close these two cars were as we came to the end of our chosen canyon. Given more straights, the 135i would've demolished the VW, but throw in some hairpins and the R32 is right there again. In fact, the R32 is probably easier to drive at 10/10ths, whereas the BMW requires a little more commitment to take it to the limit on these roads.
Out of interest, we zeroed all the trip computers in the cars prior to the canyon runs. We then took a leisurely drive home along Highway 1 before hitting city streets for a few miles. The following mpg figures were recorded by each car but with a variety of drivers. They reflect some pretty hard driving, but are disappointing nonetheless.
Stock GTI: 12.1mpg
Modified GTI: 12.5mpg
This was closer than I expected. The last time I drove the R32 it was at 6000ft in the Alps and the VR6 was wheezing for oxygen. Back down at sea level in the hills around Malibu, CA it was a different animal altogether - crisper, more agile, more responsive.
Our day in the hills was full of surprises. The first surprise was getting reacquainted with the stock GTI. I couldn't believe how good it was. The car was fast and nimble; fun to drive, just as it had been the first time I drove it.
In the city, the stock GTI is ample for any occasion. It did the job well and costs thousands less than the other cars here. But in the hills, the tires started to slide and the brakes overheated as it fought valiantly to keep up.
The modified GTI, on the other hand, suffered none of these deficiencies. It was pretty much how I'd build a GTI, only the owner had opted for super-wide rear tires that were compromising the car's agility. Some drivers found it understeered excessively, but if you drive it differently the extra grip rewarded you with phenomenal cornering power.
Given the extra horsepower and incredible braking, this is probably the VW I'd drive home. After all the performance parts, it's probably no cheaper than an R32, but it looks sharper and won't sting you at the fuel pumps like the 3.2 VR6.The R32 itself was shockingly good. My recollections of a dull tool were shattered by the sharp acceleration and incredible cornering. Allied to that wonderful exhaust note, the R32 takes a worthy second place. Only its tendency to understeer robbed it of outright victory, and perhaps with better tires and stiffer suspension, it could have taken first place.
Its brakes were easily as good as the GTI's aftermarket Brembos, but not as powerful as the BMW's six-piston brakes, that really stood out as something special. However, the BMW's impressive spec didn't humiliate the R32 by any means. Admittedly, the twisting canyon roads didn't allow the 135i to get into its stride, constantly diving on the brakes and struggling for grip on the gravel-strewn exits, but that may also be a lack of familiarity with this RWD chassis on our part.
Given that the BMW offers more comfort, power and huge tuning potential, it's going to be the car to beat in this sector. In the showrooms, we suspect the 135i will beat the R32 comprehensively. But those informed individuals who choose to purchase the VW and know how to extract all its performance, will not be disappointed by their decision.
The stock GTI was pretty good, well equipped, but suffered from a lack of brakes. It needs better pads, at the very least. It naturally understeers a lot and the relatively dull throttle response produces slow DSG gear shifts.
The modified GTI had excellent performance. It revs quickly and shifts harder as a result. The suspension was equally as comfortable as the stock car but offered improved handling on the limit. The exhaust droned at low speeds, but was fine over 4000rpm. The handling was more neutral than stock but it still understeered.The R32 was more stable than both GTIs but its tires overheated quickly, which caused it to understeer even more. It has a nicer powerband than the 2.0T cars because there's no turbo lag. On the whole, the R32's handling was comparable to the GTIs because their nimbleness counteracted the weight of the 4Motion system. But all the VWs could use camber plates to add some negative camber to aid corner entry.
The BMW was very comfortable but there was a delay in the throttle ahead of the turbo lag, meaning you have to wait a long time for things to happen. And once on boost there was a slight hesitation on full throttle, although that could have been poor fuel.
The handling was unbelievable. It was neck and neck with the R32, but while you need to know how to get the best out of the AWD R32, the RWD 135i felt right immediately.
The R32 made a great sound with the stock exhaust but the 135i was quieter and had no creaks or rattles at all. Where the VWs generate quite a bit of road noise, the BMW was more refined.
I'm a VW/Audi guy and don't like to admit a BMW might be better but the 135i is phenomenal. It's completely won me over. This is the car I'd take home, without doubt.
If you can genuinely buy a 135i for $35k, then I'll buy one. But even if the BMW is more money, it still represents better value because its tuning potential is huge and its level of performance is so high that you'd have to spend thousands on an R32 to get it to the level of the 135i. The R32 is a great car but the 135i is undeniably better.
R32 vs modified GTI vs stock GTI
Before this challenge, I was biased towards the modified GTI. It has street style with an aggressive attitude. The bolt-on performance parts give it extra boost, a more robust voice and fewer limitations. It's also reminiscent of my own Project Silverstone - a nimble Mk4 1.8T with similar power add-ons. But, after driving all three Mk5s, the modified GTI was the car I was least impressed by in the canyons. Don't get me wrong, the GTI scores high in looks, but it doesn't quite have the performance I expected from a modified car.
I like to drive my cars hard and fast. In saying that, I like a car that's loud, stiff, powerful and forgiving. This modified GTI was slightly conservative for me. The suspension could have been stiffer and it's definitely begging for more power. Acceleration-wise, I felt it wasn't substantially better than the stock GTI on the tight canyon roads we sampled.
The stock GTI handled similar in corners, except for its more pronounced body roll. Whereas the modified GTI did brake exceptionally well compared to stock, and its tires made me forget about grip issues.
That said; the R32 impressed me against both GTIs. To begin, the sportier seats felt more comfortable and secure. The engine performance was peppy and sharp. When I wanted to accelerate out of a corner or late-brake into one, it was easily achievable thanks to instantaneous torque and reliable brakes. At times, the car would correct my driving when mistakes were made.
The total R32 package equals a well-balanced car. Its raspy exhaust note is also to die for. After the day of driving, the R32 was the most fun and easy to drive.Despite my remarks about the modified GTI, I believe it would be a different story if it had upgrades such as a big turbo, stiffer suspension and manual transmission. Perhaps with these mods, a 2.0T might be a better fit for me.
BMW 135i vs VW R32
Although I enjoyed many aspects of the R32, it's not a BMW. The 135i is a beast that lives up to being The Ultimate Driving Machine. Its power easily surpasses the R32 - a twin-turbocharged inline-six against a naturally-aspirated VR6 is almost no comparison, and the 50hp gap proves it.
The 135i accelerates strong and linear. I was surprised the power didn't let off at higher RPM, especially in our tight canyon runs where the car was continually in second or third gear.
The braking is on-point as well. It's not touchy like an aftermarket brake kit and was easier to control than the R32. It stops whenever you want it to, even if you're very late on the middle pedal.
As far as handling, the 135i is victorious. It turns where you want it to go and grips when you think it's going to break loose. The 135i felt planted on the pavement and gave you the confidence to hit faster speeds in and out of turns. VW still has a lot of work to do if they want to offer a high-performance production car comparable to a BMW.
The R32's motor is sufficient but always leaves you wanting for more. Torque is great out of corners, but never really sets you back in the seat. The exhaust note is amazing, though. The transmission is good, offering clean shifts and no complaints, other than not being able to downshift above 4500rpm.
You can feel the car's heft and the "resistance" of the AWD. It's both the car's blessing and curse as the AWD creates great handling but also makes it understeer at the limit. However, the car rotates well when prompted by the brakes, but there's simply too much weight.
The car inspires confidence. Sloppy drivers like myself can get away with murder in the R32. The combo of AWD, weight and VR6 required more effort when hustling in the tight stuff, but because of the AWD it never seemed to come unraveled. The brakes are amazing too!
Overall, the car is a great package and the chassis is good enough for another 100hp (something this car needs).
While the brakes are great, there's sometimes too much initial bite on the street, tending to jerk you forward.
Against all the odds, this car surprised me. It danced around on its suspension, didn't have the most grip, but managed to hustle through the twisties faster than I expected. It rotated well and had decent power once on boost.
My gripes would be the lack of low-end torque, no character from the stock 2.0FSI and the brakes. Coming out of the R32, the brakes weren't up to the task (although this was a well-flogged example).
Something else you notice is how light the car feels after the R32. Turn-in is way faster, and the car wants to change direction more easily. You can really appreciate the lack of weight, especially up front.
Although the GTI leans, pitches and rolls more than the other cars, once you're used to it, it's almost transparent.
This car was great. The added power gave the 2.0T more character, while the exhaust gave it the voice it needed; I found myself downshifting just to hear the sound.
While the car had a staggered tire setup that promoted understeer, the grip of the bigger/stickier tires was impressive, and provided you were smooth, it didn't plow.
The suspension was also great, making you realize how good aftermarket coilovers can be - solid under braking yet compliant on mid-corner bumps. The brakes were fantastic, too - fade free, with lots of bite.
It's hard to admit this, because I am the diehard VR6 guy in the office, but I enjoyed this car the most! It's the velvet hammer that only needs a turbo swap to become lethal.
The 135i was superb. It stops, pulls and handles great. For the money, it's hard to beat and has insane tuning potential if you have the money. I'm not ashamed to say I was intimidated by the expensive RWD car, but despite its potential to bite me around every corner, the car never gave any indication it would get out of hand. However, you had to be gentle on the throttle when exiting corners in second and third gears because you felt it could get out of hand in a hurry. That said, the grip was amazing but I didn't like the fat steering wheel.