Before the Golf R, there was the R32...
The never ending need to better the numbers brought us to today, but do we really miss where we came from?
To those that attend the Sunday worship of turning the key at the crack of dawn and finding a blissfully empty road to drive ever faster may bring you to the same pause as we did here at TheMilesDriven, is fun or speed being enhanced as the years go by.
We all know that it isn't Specsavers that sell the best glasses in the world, that honour goes to the Rose Tinted company existing in each of our own heads. Recalling the past has a way of tinging your vision so that the 60's was a great era of love, despite the Cold War, the 70's as a time of opportunity despite the strikes, the 80's as a time of prosperity, despite the recession, and so on.
Humans will always do this, our brains lock away the memory of the good times, it is likely an evolutionary quirk to our species, and let's face it, who wants to talk to the grump in the corner that thinks everything that has gone before was bad and everything incoming is worse.
Cars are no exception to this, go to any classic car show, and hoards of people will tell you how they don't build them like this anymore, and how everything was simple to work on. Both are correct, they certainly don't build cars (maybe with the exception of Morgan) like they used to, and cars have become more complex, however, they have also become more reliable, better built, and safer, whilst becoming faster. This isn't to say anything against the classic car scene, we salivate when the opportunity to drive something five decades old comes up. The cars have a charm and a character today that is slowly being lost as the more serious business of efficiency creeps ever closer to the driver's hands and soon looking to remove them from controlling the vehicle entirely. However, fifty years ago, on a cold morning, struggling to get a car to start, and freezing once you do as the heater breathes with the enthusiasm of an exhausted chicken I'm sure people were crying out for something that would just work and could be looked after by the local dealer once a year. Cars may have been simpler, but it didn't mean everyone wanted to be underneath doing a six-month service curb side in the depths of winter.
Today, older cars are used for sunny summer days, they cover a thousand or so miles a year and can be enjoyed and tinkered with by enthusiastic owners that drive a Skoda day to day.
So where does this leave our Sunday morning drive?
Recently we got behind the wheel of an owner car generously lent to us for a few hours, it was a late MK7.5 Golf R. The man with his name on the logbook had heard murmurings about the MK8 and decided to put his money behind the outgoing model rather than wait. We usually try and drive manual cars wherever possible just for fun, but this was a DSG and an honest assessment would be that it suited the car better than a manual. The gearbox alone feels worth a bump in horsepower figures, everything is quicker from launch to snappy gearshift soon after corner exit. The R was quick, capable, and comfortable. A short cruise to our desired bit of lacy tarmac almost tricked you into believing you were in a different car. It soaked up bumps well, something that the chassis beneath fails at in other forms, Seat Leon's of this generation a stand out of crashy ride. It even tickled an mpg figure of 40 for our cruise behind traffic, having driven a Mitsubishi Evo with similar power output a decade ago it took a moment of deep contemplation to reconcile a car can be both stunning to drive, and able to just get you home whilst sipping fuel and listening to a podcast. The booming, ruffled, eager presence this car can display was gagged and bound until we pulled over and prodded all the right buttons a mile from our test route. Not to overdo the dual personality, but the closest analogy for comparison is watching a space shuttle launch, for the countdown the shuttle sits there, a mild haze beneath its boosters. It is disturbing the scenery, but not enough to stop someone oil painting nearby. Then the countdown ends and what was a placid moment suddenly switches to that of a hurricane, flames, raw power, and noise. The oil painting has been blown from its easel into the sea and tonnes of spacecraft ascends away from the ground it once stood.
The immediacy of the change takes you back, push and you'll suddenly feel your heart skip on seeing the speedometer. Let off and the taught beast beneath prods at you, 'cmon what are you waiting for!'.
Some of the tightest corners appear and disappear, grip is ordered in magnitudes rather than incremental increases in slip and grip. After just half the course you start to wonder what it would take to unstick the car from the road, remembering the yaw control of the Evo and how the limit felt somewhere soon, but not quite where you were. In the Golf it feels at such great distance you begin being deliberately obtuse with the controls to see if it might upset it, nope. Being as this was an owner's car, and one that he loved deeply the car wasn't abused, pushed when it was necessary, but not callously bounced around. We asked when returning it if he had found the outer edges to its limits, a firm nope, he retold a story he was nearly tired of repeating. A trip to Wales, a heavy downpour, and a completely empty road, it did finally start to give up the outer limits, but he wasn't brave enough to ever venture towards them again. It was here that a pause came. Several months ago we had got our hands on a manual R32, again a gracious owner had lent it out, not strictly necessary for this comparison as memory has committed the R32 to a lifelong silo, having driven several MK4 and MK5 variants, with both gearboxes.
Realisation of fun almost became emotional, that R32 couldn't pull off the dual act of civility and eagerness to suit the driver. Behind the wheel, you could burble along to the VR6 soundtrack in a motorway crawl, but the attitude of a dog pulling at the leash didn't ever leave. Just stepping a big toe onto the throttle while cruising started off a chain of events akin to the lighting of the beacons for all out war. There was also no chance, much like the Mitsubishi Evo, of seeing high MPG figures just because you don't need the performance right now. You bought it, you will pay for it, and then comes the rose tinted BUT.
The magic of the R32 was from the cold start burble to the crawl away from home to the foot to the floor country lane. It always wanted to deliver fun, sure it was flawed, just like your favourite human is flawed. Speaking specifically about the MK5 R32, the car felt heavy, and the nose didn't have the sharpness you would always hope it had grown as you entered a corner, the traction was good, but the system wasn't perfect, it felt mechanical but it really wasn't, and it left you waiting when you needed it the most, it may have only been a split second, but when you need rescuing from your own talent limits, that is the difference between getting home and getting humbled. The manual was also a slight let down, the DSG was just better suited to the weight, making the car feel mini-GT, instead of red hot hatchback. There was more to be enjoyed in swapping cogs yourself, but it remained a task that couldn't be relished, and one you knew was impossible to outdo a sloppy flip of a paddle. Then there was the problem that a MK5 Golf Edition 30 would hold onto the rear of an R32 in all condition bar snow, ice, or a monsoon. Despite all of this, the engine, and the imperfect connection with the road made it fun all the time. Driving at sixty along a motorway wasn't time for a podcast because the burble would remind you, 'hey. why not have a quick blast of the throttle for a second'.
Then there is the fun in trying to make an imperfect machine perfect, those times you felt like the car had left you high and dry when a poor road surface appeared and you needed it to get around the corner. When you made it, your heart was racing and the relief brought on a smile that is reminiscent of a child on Christmas Day getting the exact present they had asked for on Santa's lap. The relief when doing similar in the Golf R was closer to the feeling of a child that has got away with skipping school, the phone rings, but it isn't the headmaster, you wipe your brow, and carry on.
Which one is faster? It isn't even close, around a track a Gold R would romp off into the distance shortly after the corners appeared. Then you remember, how fast is fast?
The fun proposition, shed away the speed and pretend both could get along your favourite bit of tarmac in the same time, the Gold R made us happy in the same way as seeing a car factory precisely build a car with laser precision. The R32 was like Disneyland, it can't make any sensible argument for itself over and above, we sell fun.
Which would you want to own everyday? The Golf R is the all rounder, only a dedicated petrolhead would have the R32 as a daily drive by choice over and R today. As a car to enjoy because you don't commute, or because this is something for weekend fun, there is little contest unless you derive your enjoyment from going so quick on a public road your license is at serious risk of being cut up in front of you every second of the way. The R32 is not a slow car, it is more than fast enough for the road, once more it can be driven fairly hard without taking liberties, you can bump up towards the edge of its ability, unlike the R. You may feel most alive when you are closest to ending it all, but no one really wants to take that chance, the illusion though, that is a powerful drug. A gargling, burbling exhaust from an R32 with the occasional pop of back pressure will deliver smiles, and raw speed, you'll still be quicker than the majority of the road, especially as you chase the redline.
Here comes the problem though, as those classic car owners will say. their cars don't need to make sense, they just need to be enjoyable. Cars from the last decade can still do that, tucking away a MK2 Focus RS, Golf R32, Megane 225 et al for fun in the future as cars continue their march to light speed wifi sofa's, but will the current crop? Maybe, only time will tell, but if history is anything to go by, I expect to read a rosy shaded article in a couple of decades on the Golf R, I just hope I do, and we haven't already stepped a little too far from to chase a number.