We've driven both, so is the Golf R actually worth the extra cash?
When we spent a week in Los Angeles with the Volkswagen Golf R, we fell in love with the 300-horsepower hot hatch. Still, we couldn't help but think in the back of our minds that the more affordable Golf GTI would be the better purchase for the majority of people. Luckily, we had a chance to test a 2017 Golf GTI SE back-to-back with the Golf R. Rather than go back into detail about how it feels to drive a fast Golf, we wanted to compare and contrast these two excellent hot hatchbacks from Volkswagen and see which one is the best option.
If you want a greater breakdown on the Volkswagen Golf R, you can read our previous review of that car. In this piece, we want to compare it to our GTI to see which one is the best option for potential buyers. Our GTI tester arrived in Reflex Silver, which is a stunning color that really sparkles in the sun. Our GTI was an SE trim, which adds niceties like leather seats, keyless entry with push button start and Fender premium audio. The only option on our test car was the Driver Assistance Package, which rolled in Adaptive Cruise Control, Autonomous Emergency Braking and Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Traffic Alert for the bargain price of $595. We highly recommend this package.
The as-tested price of our car came in at $33,405, compared to the Golf R, which was $41,295. The GTI did lack a few options that the Golf R had, namely the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) and built-in navigation. We didn't miss the DCC very much because the GTI's suspension was extremely comfortable and capable on our trips to the LA canyons. The built-in navigation was equally forgettable because the GTI comes with Apple Car Play and Android Auto integration. The higher trim Autobahn model rolls in DCC, navigation, and 12-way power driver seat, but at a premium over the SE ($30,980 compared to $34,095).
We think that the SE offers plenty of luxury touches to keep the majority of people happy, so we'd definitely save the $3,000 over the Autobahn trim. We appreciated the leather trim, sunroof and performance package that was included on the SE. The performance package was our favorite option because it upped the power from 210 to 220 hp and included a VAQ limited-slip differential, drive mode selector and ventilated disc brakes. If you can live without the leather seats and Fender Audio, VW also offers a Sport trim GTI, which starts at $27,995. We love the plaid cloth seats on the Sport, but the Fender audio system on the SE sounded fantastic and we would really miss having it in our car.
Compared to the Golf R, we actually preferred the way the GTI felt around town. The steering was a bit lighter and the front-wheel drive was easier to get loose when we wanted to have a little fun. The GTI only has three drive modes (Normal, Sport and Custom) compared to the Golf R's four modes (Comfort, Normal, Race and Custom), but we felt little difference between the GTI's Sport mode and the R's Race mode that would set them apart. The GTI's sport mode made the car equally loud, and the six-speed DSG transmission shifted even quicker than normal mode. Like the Golf R, the GTI does display a bit of turbo lag at low RPM, but Sport mode gets rid of most of this lag with more aggressive shift points.
Around town, there is little to separate these two cars. The only place where the Golf R felt a bit more planted was when we pushed it around some canyon roads in LA. If the goal is to drive as fast as possible, the Golf R is definitely the car of choice. However, if you don't live in an area where you can really push the Golf R to its limit, it really isn't worth spending the extra money unless you are attached to the idea of having the fastest Golf variant. We preferred the more simplistic interior that can be had on the GTI. We would happily drive around the base GTI S, which starts at $25,595 and invest the roughly $14,000 that we saved over the Golf R in stocks or other investments.
The Golf R is definitely more of a luxurious car than the GTI, and it can be seen in a few areas like the climate control. The GTI had old fashioned manual controls, whereas the Golf R had dual-zone automatic control. Likewise, the GTI is blessed with an old fashioned hand brake, which is one of the most satisfying to pull that we have ever used. Go sit in a new GTI and pull the handbrake lever and you'll know what we're on about. The Golf R uses an electronic parking brake, which saves room in the center stack, but eliminates the possibility of a handbrake turn. Volkswagen has created an interesting dilemma with the Golf R and Golf GTI in the US with its options lists.
In the US, the Golf R is only available in one, fully-loaded trim with almost every conceivable option that is possible to put in a Golf. The GTI can be ordered as a plane-Jane S model, or as an Autobahn that reaches near the Audi realm of luxury. We took some flack for saying that the manual transmission didn't seem like the appropriate option for the Golf R, and we stand by that. The GTI is a different story. The car is so flexible, that we could easily love it as a basic model with a manual, or a fully-optioned semi-luxury car with the DSG. We wish that the Golf R had a bit more flexibility to be what the customer wanted it to be, but the GTI is clearly the more well-rounded car.
We said in our Golf R review that the GTI would be perfect for 90 percent of hatchback buyers, and we stand by that. The GTI's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder produces 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (with the performance pack), which is good for 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The Golf R's engine is the same size, but produces 292 hp and 280 lb-ft going out to AWD instead of FWD. With the DSG, the Golf R can hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. The manual Golf R takes 5.2 seconds, which is very close to the GTI's time (with the DSG). We love that the Golf R comes with an optional manual, but the DSG is the better performance option. However, the Golf R's performance gains are really hard to feel in real world driving.
If you have a place, like the LA canyons, that allows you to push your car to its limit, then the Golf R makes sense. If this is just going to be a car for commuting and the occasional fun drive, we can't recommend the GTI enough. Unlike the Golf R, the GTI can accept regular fuel and we managed to hit over 35 mpg on a drive to San Diego, besting the EPA's 32 mpg estimate. We've driven other hatchbacks in the segment, such as the Ford Focus ST, that offer similar performance, but none offer the perfect balance of comfort and fun that the GTI rolls into one amazing package. After all these years, Volkswagen's Golf GTI still sits on the top of our list as the best hot hatchback on sale.