VW Golf R32 vs Alfa Romeo 147 GTA

The VW Golf R32 and Alfa Romeo 147 GTA packed supersaloon power into a hatchback package. Which one makes the most compelling modern classic?

H

atches, like BMX bikes, began their boom time in the early 1980s. The Volkswagen Golf GTI MkI and Peugeot 205 GTI were the PK Ripper and Haro Freestyler everyone wanted. Now they've rightly become nailed-on classics – the bicycles as well as the cars. By the end of the decade both booms were fading as fashions changed, and car insurance premiums soared. But these market niches never went away.

During the 1990s, many hot hatch offerings were toned down to reduce their appeal to joyriders and make insurance affordable. The hair-on-fire performance kudos moved to pricier rally-bred 4x4s: Imprezas, Lancer Evos, even Escort RS Cosworths. But by the millennium, power had crept back and we were starting to see some very grown-up horsepower figures in three-door hatches.

Volkswagen had been knocking on this door since 1992 when the Golf MkIII VR6 embarrassed the firm’s own GTI. However, in both feel and image it was more of a grand tourer, needing a major reboot to get the juices flowing. In the MkIV R32 of 2002, that’s what it got.

Alfa Romeo first used its Busso V6 in transverse form in 1988 for the 164, with various installations in smaller models. But never in a hatchback until, to widespread eyebrow-raising, it squeezed the potent 3.2-litre lump from the 156 GTA into the 147 in 2002. The hot hatch wars were peaking again. Shortly before BMX became an Olympic sport…

Even in that company, those 3.2-litre V6 engines set the 147 GTA and the Golf R32 apart. Now, some 14 years on, they’ve seen out their depreciation curves and look ready to rise. Do they live up to the hype? Can the differences between such apparently similar offerings be as great as contemporary reports suggested? It's time to find out.

These cars have the kind of performance that puts them into a different league from any of the first-gen hot hatches. Back in 1984, you’d need a Porsche 911 SC or a Ferrari Mondial to record the 0-60 times and top speed that these V6 weapons can achieve.

Both the VW and Alfa claim 153mph flat out, with the Italian machine given a half-second advantage in the sprint: 6.1 vs 6.6 seconds. We need somewhere with plenty of room. Scotland should do.

We’ve chosen the Dalveen Pass in Dumfries and Galloway. You might think of hot hatches as an urban phenomenon, but their great success was to render traditional small sports cars – meant for twisty country roads – obsolete. Up here, with the few other road users we meet having four legs and wool, we can assess each one objectively but also enjoy them as their creators intended.

r32-gta-61.png

To the R32 first. It’s possible that car-blind civilians could mistake one for a normal Golf, but to any petrolhead it announces itself loud and clear. Those large wheels and arches, that stance, the potent-looking twin exhausts and the giveaway badge on the grille leave little room for doubt. In the cabin, menace is replaced by a sober Germanic functionality, with only the perforated pedals and ‘R’ logos giving much away. The key, for instance, could come from a 1.6 diesel. But it doesn’t.

It wakes a bass-rich monster of an engine that seems obedient at first, but delivers such a wedge of torque that it’s better to let the clutch in with no throttle if you want to make a polite getaway. The six-speed change is wonderfully precise, though once you plant your right foot you wonder who thought six gears were necessary.

The VR6 (for a V-format that’s also a Reihenmotor or inline engine) has only 15 degrees between the two banks and covers them with a single cylinder head. It was always famous for its torque as well as its smoothness and power, becoming one ring to rule them all: it debuted in the Corrado and Passat in 1991 before appearing in the Golf Mk III a year later, eventually evolving into the 24-valve, 3.2-litre unit that remains in production today alongside a 3.6-litre version. It’s powered the Phaeton, the Toureg, the Audi TT, the T4 and T5 Transporter, the New Beetle, many other VWs, Audis, Skodas and Seats and even the Porsche Cayenne. But it’s never been more impressive than it is in the R32. There is so much urge at every point in the rev range. You can wind it out to the redline at 6750rpm if you wish, or short-shift way below that, and the lunge it provides on the next upshift is still immense. It’s the antithesis of the peaky turbo character of say, a Focus RS MkI, in which you spool up slowly at first and then seem to be yanked towards the horizon on a bungee cord. In the R32, you’re shoved there by a hydraulic ram. To find anything else with such linear power delivery you’d probably need another narrow-angle VAG product; a W8 or a W12. The only downside is that you never quite forget the weight it has to overcome: 1512kg, empty.

The R32 feels planted from the first steering input, though the wheel is weighty and it doesn’t offer much feedback to the driver. What it does say is ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this. You’re safe.’ And you surely are, because the limits are beyond what any sane person would discover on a public road. There’s none of the push-on power understeer you’d expect from an earlier fast 4WD machine like an UR-quattro, none of the lift-off oversteer you can provoke from various FWD hot hatches.

It has to be down to the Haldex coupling between propshaft and rear differential. Unlike a central Torsen diff that merely detects wheel slip and cuts torque, the Haldex has an electronic controller taking feeds from ABS sensors, the throttle pot and the ECU. It doesn’t just stop you going slower, it helps you go faster. It can also cost £1000 to fix if servicing is skimped, though. The R32 isn't as simple to own as a GTI.

r32-gta-810.png

‘There are some quite basic parts, like coil springs, which are 'motorsport only' and have to come from Germany,’ says Brian Ruddock. He looks after the car in our pictures and a couple of others like it. ‘But at least you can get everything for them. They’re pretty reliable things but the weight and stress from the 4WD system can speed up wear and tear to the suspension.’

You would undoubtedly speed up that wear and tear if you used all the available performance. What’s down on paper fails to get across how fast the R32 can be in the real world… if you had the patience to record mid-range acceleration in various gears, then measure lateral G-forces through different corners and finish off with some braking distances, you’d have a bank of data that would challenge genuine performance icons. A 911 SC or Mondial, both on-paper matches, would be left for dead.

We’ve been thinking of this Golf as the culmination of around 25 years of hot VW hatches before it, but the most potent aspect of its classic status comes from what it began. The latest Golf R, the MkVII, is a 300bhp all-wheel-drive missile that can crack five seconds for the 0-60mph sprint. But like the MkVI Golf R, it’s a four-pot turbo. The MkV was still an R32, with slightly more power from the narrow-angle V6, but it was even heavier than the MkIV, available in five-door form and often specced with the DSG transmission. Viewed in that light, our R32 is first and purest of the breed, and you know how the classic market views cars in that category.

r32-gta-581.png

The Alfa 147 GTA’s classic appeal might spring from the opposite argument. It’s from the final generation of cars equipped with the magnificent V6 designed back in the 1970s by Giuseppe Busso. Production of this engine, by then turned around to transverse operation and bristling with 24 valves, ceased in 2005 just three days before Busso himself ascended to the great engine workshop in the sky. By then, motoring journos and Alfisti across the globe had long recognised it as one of the best-sounding, most characterful powerplants ever made.

In an era when Alfa often struggled to convince us that the cars it was offering were sufficiently Alfa-like, that Busso engine counted for a lot. It was replaced in the 159 and Brera by a General Motors V6 block with Alfa heads, and in the same way that 145 fans prefer the throaty gurgle of the Alfa flat-four to the Fiat-based in-line four that replaced it, the soul's under the bonnet.

What about the rest of the car? It’s prettier than the Golf both outside and in, which you’d expect. That engine is barking away at a staccato tickover and as you strap in you’re picking up signals that turn on warning lights in your brain if you’ve ever been an Alfa owner. The gearchange is vague and sloppy after the Golf, the plastics in the cabin seem flimsier, the steering has far less heft and feels over-assisted. What the hell’s going to happen when we unleash 247bhp through the front wheels?

As new, 147 GTAs were supplied with an open front differential that allowed violent torque-reaction lunges and unstoppable understeer. Drive at seven-tenths and it was still a nice car, but who buys an Alfa to tool around gently? Worst of all, that open diff was weak and prone to catastrophic failure. The answer came when Ned Kirkham of Bournemouth-based specialist Autolusso pioneered the fitting of Alfa’s torque-sensing Q2 diff, introduced in the 2007 3.2 GT coupé. It transformed the car’s handling and traction, and it lasted too. Autolusso moved over to Quaife’s Automatic Torque Biasing version when Alfa hiked the price up but fitting either one or the other (£700-£800) is regarded as a vital upgrade to any 147 GTA. This car has the Q2 installed.

Setting off, the decision to drive the Golf before the Alfa causes a problem. You think ‘big torquey engine, small car’ and expect it to wrench itself away from a standstill on the same lump of low-down grunt that the R32 offers. But it’s missing in action… drive this Alfa in the bottom half of the rev-range and it could be any old 147. Well, almost.

Had we glanced at the numbers before climbing in, the reason would be obvious. The Golf R32 peaks with 236lb ft of torque way down at 2800rpm, with between 150 and 200lb ft available when you’re barely off idle. The Alfa makes less, at 221lb ft, and you have to wind it out to 4800rpm before that figure is achieved. So… we know what to do.

Wring its neck and the GTA comes dramatically to life. The big V6 whangs round to the 7000rpm limit as if detached from its flywheel and you’re grabbing for the next gear before you know it, catapaulting from one bend to the next. That clever diff gets the power down alright, but a big stab at the loud pedal without a firm hand on the wheel can still provoke a twitch into the opposite lane.

The steering remains light, but reveals far more precision than you dared hope for. Grip is high; you feel that with provocation the little hops and shifts over mid-corner bumps could send you well out of shape. The uprated brakes on this car, Brembos with cross-drilled 330mm discs, stop you like a strip of Armco as you heel-and-toe down two ratios to charge away once more.

The Alfa’s pedals are arranged in such a way as to make this rather easier than it is in the Golf. It’s another old Alfa trait. Anyone who started with an Alfasud or a 33 probably learned to heel-and-toe almost by accident. Throttle-blipping downchanges in a 147 GTA come with a fabulous noise. This car has a ruder-than-standard exhaust producing a voice you associate with expensive historic motorsport, especially when heard from outside the car.

The exhaust is a worthwhile mod, as are those bigger discs, says Ned Kirkham. ‘The 305mm standard discs have usually been replaced – it’s something to check for,’ he says. ‘But there’s heaps you can do. We offer a 3.2 to 3.8-litre upgrade and even a Quaife sequential gearbox.’

Reliability? They're fine – it’s the way they’re maintained, says Ned. ‘147 GTA owners were younger and less affluent than the 156 GTA's, so maintenance got skimped and they changed hands a lot. They can be tricky to work on and DIY is to be avoided.’

The sense you’re left with is of a more old-fashioned hot hatch than the VW. What you’re buying is still a three-door with a posh interior and a weaponised engine. Thanks to the marque’s cult following, the sensible approach when looking for a GTA is to jump into the club scene and forums. Get to know the well-liked specialists and talk to them about cars you’re considering - quite often, you’ll find they're known on an individual basis and should you ask for an inspection, the man with the clipboard may know exactly what it’s been through.

r32-gta-303.jpg

The Modern Classics view

The R32 is a massive achievement. In fact, it’s so utterly capable that you soon accept it’s far better than you are and sit back, content to know such thrust is instantly available. You tend not to stir the gearbox or aim to kiss every apex, and you actually relax. Epic for longer journeys, but for continuous thrills? Maybe we need an Italian.

You climb out of the GTA a bit sweaty and shaky, grinning a sheepish grin and with none of the composure of an R32 driver. You may well have acquired some extra points on your licence. The Alfa 147 GTA is a proper hot hatch, dripping with character but faster and more exciting than hot hatches ever were in the 1980s.

The R32 is not short on character either, it’s just that its character is that of Robocop. It’s a 4WD performance saloon trapped in the body of a hatchback. It’s better in almost every way yet despite this it’s no more expensive than the Alfa. It’s not without money-pit potential but the build quality inspires a confidence the Alfa can't, even if there’s nothing wrong with the GTA that expert upkeep won’t fix.

Let’s mention a few things that unite them. Both are comfortable and ergonomically good with plenty of room for heads and legs. Both cars are genuine Modern Classics and offer safe places to park your money, as long as you acknowledge that the Alfa will need more of an ongoing commitment than the VW to keep it on song.

So, the winner. We’re not picking a new car for ability and value, we’re treating ourselves to a glorious toy. One that reminds us why hot hatches were great and the other shows what they could do if they grew up. But who wants to grow up? For its sound, energy and adrenaline-pumping fun, we’ll take the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA.