To R or not to R? That is the question Volkswagen has posed the legions of Dubheads who faithfully flock to showrooms each and every year intent on renewing their faith at the church of Golf, tempting enthusiasts with a pair of leading lights in the form of both the familiar GTI and the more recent Golf R.
For 2018, Volkswagen has muddied the waters somewhat by making subtle, but meaningful upgrades to both models as part of a mid-cycle refresh, and the end result is a difficult decision to make for those with pockets deep enough to choose either/or.
“Wait a minute,” I know some of you are saying to yourselves, “Isn’t the R priced way higher than the GTI? Because of, like, AWD and stuff? Oh, and that huge horsepower bump! Is anyone really cross-shopping these two models?”
I’m tempted to say “yes.” Hear me out: On paper, the Golf R definitely stacks up most effectively against rivals like the Subaru WRX STI and the Ford Focus RS, turbocharged all-wheel drive-rockets priced much closer to the VW’s near-$40k sticker. For 2018, however, the GTI has gained access to almost all of the R’s most compelling equipment with the sole exception of AWD. That means there’s a lot of room to grow its capabilities, even before you even hit up the aftermarket for tuner parts that can easily see the GTI erasing the R’s power advantage.
Still, more power means more money, and if you want Golf R performance out of a GTI (especially if you stick with mostly factory goods) you’ll quickly find yourself adding to the hatch’s $25,000 starting price ($29,495 in Canada) to the point where you’re uncomfortably close to the R’s ask. But what if the GTI was already compelling enough when driven in anger, obviating the need to match the output of its in-house rival? I set out to scale the mountain passes of Austria and burn as many tanks of fuel on Germany’s Autobahn as I had to in a bid to find out which one of these two hot hatch heavyweights was the better buy.
Setting The Scene
Like all things in life, this particular back-to-back test was imperfect, especially considering that I had to cross an ocean and invade the Teutonic homeland to make it happen. In one corner sat a three-door version of the Golf GTI, a body style offered in Europe and Canada, but not the U.S. In the other? The Golf R Variant, a.k.a. the “forbidden fruit,” the wagon version of the R so sweet that had it hung from a tree in the garden of Eden there would have been no need for a persuasive serpent to cast all of humanity out of paradise. Still, we’re talking a matter of degrees here — the 3-door GTI is somewhat lighter than its four-door sibling, while the Variant tips the scales a couple hundred pounds heavier. Other than that, driving dynamics remain largely unaffected, something my extensive seat time in the domestic versions of each car easily confirmed.
If the wagon were available on our side of the Atlantic, then the headline to this comparison would be “BUY THE WAGON” in all-caps, with no other text save for a caption under a photo of the gorgeous long-roof that read “DO IT NOW!” Since Volkswagen has decided North Americans can’t have nice things, however, I’ll have to provide a more nuanced analysis.
Cosmetic Surgery For Near-Twins
Back in the real world, it’s not easy to tell an R hatch from a GTI hatch from 50 feet away unless you really know what you’re looking for, and that continues to be the case for the 2018 model year after the addition of LED tail lights to all Golf models (as well as LED running lights, which were previously available), and a gentle nip and tuck to the front and rear bumpers. The R’s unique quad exhaust and special wheels set it apart from the dual pipe GTI, but inside both cars are offered with Volkswagen’s gorgeous Digital Cockpit LCD gauge cluster (standard on the R, optional on higher trim GTIs), as well as a spiffier 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system (again, standard vs. optional for the R / GTI).
Also new for the base 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI is the 10 extra horsepower from its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that you used to have to step up to the SE (U.S.-only) or Autobahn trim to snag. This puts total power production at 220 hp and 258 lb-ft across the board, matched with the choice of either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox. VW has transplanted the larger vented disc brakes found on the Golf R to the GTI, too, adding some “whoa” to balance its go in the SE trim and higher, which also benefits from an electronic limited-slip front differential. Spend all the money in your pocket on the Autobahn (called the Performance trim in Canada) and you’re looking at the inclusion of the Golf R’s DCC adaptive suspension system (as well as navigation) on the features list.
Big R, Little R?
Properly spec’d, is the Golf GTI a baby R? A full day behind the wheel from Munich, Germany, to Worthersee, Austria, provided the ample opportunity to answer that question as I moved from 155-mph (250 km/h) Autobahn blasts to winding “two-or-is-that-one lane” mountain passes that fully tested the mettle of both cars. I started the day behind the wheel of the Golf R Variant, where I took great pleasure in exercising the 292 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo four under its hood whenever I reached an unrestricted section of road. The car’s willingness to send its 280 lb-ft of twist to all four wheels was unquestioned as it routinely walked the GTI following behind me in a straight-line, despite its only new-for-2018 accouterment being a seven-speed DSG box to replace last year’s six-speed (a manual is still standard with the vehicle).
Swapping over to the GTI from the R was far from the letdown I was half-expecting it to be, particularly once we left the highway behind and engaged with the more convoluted paths carved into Austria’s gorgeous countryside. Handling for the GTI was impressively buttoned-down, and although the car lacked the torque required to launch itself out of a corner with the same authority as the R, there’s also the wow factor of the wagon’s Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires to consider (serious overkill for a grocery getter). On the same rubber, I would have had even more confidence in the GTI, whose front wheels were occasionally overwhelmed by the conflicting needs of acceleration and cornering (an area where the Golf R’s all-wheel drive system lends a further helping hand). The six-speed DSG gearbox (both testers were dual-clutch equipped) was competent even when left to its own devices, although S mode would occasionally hold gears longer than in the Golf R, particularly during uphill climbs, forcing me to tap for the mercy of an upshift given the GTI’s abundance of fake engine noise in the cabin.
The Verdict: 2018 Volkswagen GTI vs Golf R
Did I really have $15,000 more fun in the Golf R as compared to the GTI? No, I did not — but then again, I was driving a top-tier version of the front-wheel drive hatch. The extra $10,000 out of pocket that paid for adaptive suspension, the beautiful gauge cluster, the big brakes, and limited-slip diff slices the delta between the two cars (assuming 2018 pricing remains nearly flat) by two-thirds. Is it worth $5,000 (less than $1,000 in Canada to go from GTI Performance base Golf R, or a $3,000 difference if you go Golf R Technology Package) to upgrade to what would buy you a fully loaded Golf R with all of the creature comforts (adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane keeping) and of course all-wheel drive traction that come with it?
Yes. If you’re going to drop major coin on a Golf, you might as well drive home in Volkswagen’s high-performance halo car and call it a day. On the other hand, if you’re willing to forgo niceties like leatherette and snag a base model GTI, your money is likely better spent on a visit to any one of the hundreds of aftermarket performance companies that will make you forget all about the missing DCC and bigger brakes at a discount from what VW charges for the equivalent go-fast gear. As with almost any car, the value of the GTI diminishes the higher you climb up the trim ladder, and with the Sport trim now M.I.A. (never offered in Canada) the sweet spot lies either in building your own fun from the bottom up in the S (3-door Canada), or enjoying the well-rounded package of the SE (not available in Canada). Take a step further into Autobahn land, and you’re likely to regret not signing “R” on the dotted line the next time the real deal blows by you on its namesake stretch of road.
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