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.