Two Decades of Two Performance Flavors

Two Decades of Two Performance Flavors

It was easy to see the first Golf R as a threat to the GTI. The past twenty years show that they have actually built a beautiful case of synergy

Two Decades of Two Performance Flavors

The Golf is a success in the car market, and we all know it. It debuted in 1974 with the Herculean mission of replacing the Beetle and bringing Volkswagen up to date. Efficient Giugiaro design, front-wheel drive, and water-cooled powertrain certainly helped. However, there is a key difference that not only made the Golf sell well, but also turned it into an important part of car history: its performance versions.

First released in 1976, the GTI soon became successful enough to establish hot hatches as a market niche. While it had variations over time, like the diesel-powered GTD, no one understood what VW had in mind in 2002, when the R32 appeared. Fortunately, the automaker never meant to replace the GTI with it. What happened in reality is that the Golf R became yet another dimension in the model’s rich history.

Everyone only shows pictures of the first Golf GTI. Here is the second generation for a change (source: WheelsAge)
Everyone only shows pictures of the first Golf GTI. Here is the second generation for a change (source: WheelsAge)

The Volkswagen Golf GTI

Things were not easy for the sporty Golf at first. In 1973, VW catered to enthusiasts and released a Beetle GSR with performance upgrades. Coming in the year of the oil crisis did not help, but there was another problem. The car’s flashy paint was considered an invitation to hoonery, which led to a denounce against VW in Germany. It is easy to conclude that it had little motivation to invest in sports cars after that.

If you really wanted to see the first Golf, here is its GTI Cabriolet version (source: WheelsAge)
If you really wanted to see the first Golf, here is its cabriolet version (source: WheelsAge)

The GTI was born as a skunkworks project led by VW press head Anton Konrad. At first, six people worked together to obtain upgraded parts, test the car to identify possible problems, and establish its new image. The main goal was to offer more power than the regular Golf’s 85 hp. But the team knew that the project had a big potential, so they ended up developing a whole new version out of it: the first GTI.

VW never really wanted such a car at that time, so it authorized a limited batch of 5,000 units. They would serve to homologate the car for the Group One Production Touring Car class. As it turns out, the outcome was much better: the maker sold 30,000 units in the first year. By the end of the first generation’s lifecycle, the Golf GTI had managed to make performance hatchbacks a whole new niche in the global market.

VW's first effort towards refined sportiness came as the Golf VR6 in the third generation (source: WheelsAge)
VW’s first effort towards refined sportiness came as the Golf VR6 in the third generation (source: WheelsAge)

Inching towards refinement

Companies want to make cars better in everything with each new generation, but that comes at a cost. In general, they also give them more refined parts to add value and make them attractive despite the higher price. When it comes to the Golf GTI, the second generation received a 16-valve engine option for better performance. In the third, Volkswagen decided it was time to give the model its famous VR6 engine.

The Golf GTI had an anniversary edition in 2001, one year before the R32 appeared (source: WheelsAge)
The Golf GTI had an anniversary edition in 2001, one year before the R32 appeared (source: WheelsAge)

That addition came with an interesting marketing strategy. Making it another GTI would create one model with low performance and the other with an excessive price. VW made the VR6 an independent variation focused on elegance. It would come with four doors and a conservative design while the GTI preserved its old-school sportiness with two doors, flashy external colors, and plaid upholstery on the seats.

The bigger brother Passat had not offered a hatchback body since 1988, so the Golf was the largest VW in that body. GTI and VR6 became two upscale versions with different purposes. The market trick turned out to be useful for the company because it wanted the fourth Golf to move upwards. It arrived in 1997 with features that placed it closer to the Audi A3 than to the SEAT and Škoda counterparts in the group.

Volkswagen made skilled use of its parts bin to turn the Golf R32 into a success (source: WheelsAge)
Volkswagen made skilled use of its parts bin to turn the Golf R32 into a success (source: WheelsAge)

The Volkswagen Golf R32

The blue color says much about this model. While the GTI’s flashy personality is a great match for the red color in which it usually comes, the R32 aims at refined sportiness. There are large wheels, exclusive grilles on the bumper, an aerodynamic body kit, and many standard items. But the model could easily pass as a regular upscale Golf. The significant differences are not visible; the car excites you through other senses.

Volkswagen had no doubt about repeating the R32 in the Golf's fifth generation (source: WheelsAge)
Volkswagen had no doubt about repeating the R32 in the Golf’s fifth generation (source: WheelsAge)

The Golf R32 borrowed the 3.2L VR6 engine and the Haldex four-wheel drive system from Audi. They pair with either a six-speed manual transmission or the first dual-clutch transmission in a production car, only available in Germany. VW eventually exported the car to other regions, including a series of 5,000 units to the US which sold out in a little over half the expected time. The R32 was a complete success.

The bigger engine and the 4WD gave the R32 a composed behavior; it was closer to a grand tourer’s than to a classic hot hatch. The exclusive design responded to that and established it as a true upscale version. It was not a typical luxury version like the third generation VR6 because VW no longer needed it – by that time, the group already had the Audi A3 to fill that gap. The R32 found a market niche of its own.

Volkswagen introduced the Golf R in the sixth generation because it uses a different engine (source: WheelsAge)
Volkswagen introduced the Golf R in the sixth generation because it uses a different engine (source: WheelsAge)

The Golf R finds its crowd

Once downsizing became a trend, VW had to adapt. The sixth-generation Golf R replaced the VR6 engine with a turbocharged 2.0L just like the GTI’s, only with specific tuning. In fact, that is why it no longer uses numbers on the version name. Things took an interesting turn in the seventh iteration because VW chose to have it all: besides the GTI and the R, there were the GTD (diesel) and the new GTE (plug-in hybrid).

The seventh Golf GTI had a Clubsport variation focused on track records (source: WheelsAge)

While the latter two did not have as much success, they all helped keep the Golf competitive. After all, the car market was already flooded with SUVs in the 2010s, so all other models were at risk. VW’s lineup alone has the T-Roc and the Taos fighting for the same people that used to buy the Golf. The hatchback survives because neither of those matches its handling and speed when it comes to performance versions.

The 20th Anniversary edition that has just gone on sale celebrates more than the Golf R. We should see it as proof that sportiness still has many fans and not only in the hypercar segment. More importantly, they are sensitive enough to observe nuances such as what motivates the existence of both the GTI and the R. As long as those fans exist, the automotive industry will have a reason to create exciting products.