GTI or S3? Nah, It's Easy To Make The Case For The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain

$26,415.

$36,470.

$43,395.

The jumps in price from the four-door Volkswagen Golf GTI to the Volkswagen Golf R to the Audi S3, three closely related cars, are not insignificant. Yet in spite of the dollar differences, or perhaps because of the dollar differences, the trio inevitably undergoes the value proposition comparison, as if “value” is the reason 460 buyers per month spend around $40,000 on a Volkswagen hatchback.

I’ve now been privileged to spend a week with each car. Sadly, a Lapiz Blue 2016 Volkswagen Golf R just left my driveway to make room for, as fate would have it, a 2016 Toyota Prius.

And I have no trouble making the case for the Golf R as the fast VeeDub to own.

That the Golf R costs substantially more than a similarly equipped four-door GTI should come as no surprise. On Volkswagen USA products that offer optional all-wheel-drive, namely the Tiguan, it’s a $1,975 option. (All-wheel-drive is a $2,100 option on the Audi Q3 and A4, the only Audis which the addition of Quattro isn’t linked to an engine or transmission upgrade.)

In other words, an all-wheel-drive GTI, if such a thing existed, would cost $28,390, cutting the difference between the GTI and R down to $8,080.

But that basic four-door Golf GTI isn’t just missing all-wheel-drive. The equipment list is missing automatic climate control, keyless access, and a power driver’s seat. Not until you upgrade to a Golf GTI SE with the Performance Package — a car which has some features the basic Golf R doesn’t but lacks some of the Golf R’s components — do the spec sheets begin to appear more similar. In that case, factoring in the $1,975 cost of the GTI’s faux-AWD, the price difference falls to only $3,555.

$3,555 for an additional 72 horsepower? I’ll take it, particularly since the EPA’s official fuel economy ratings show little difference between the pair, especially since our real world tests resulted in greater consumption with the GTI.

72 horsepower is just a number, but it’s a number that can be experienced both in everyday driving and backroad barnstorming. To be clear, the GTI is by all accounts an impressive device. In fact, it’s a car I nominated for TTAC’s 10 Best Automobiles Today list earlier this month. But that was before I drove the latest Golf R, before it became clear that the GTI’s turbo lag is, by way of comparison, more than a little noticeable. That was before I fell for the Golf R’s raucous (or subdued) engine note. Before I enjoyed switching between the Golf R’s thoroughly differentiated comfort and sport damping modes depending on the road and the age of my passengers. Before I basked in the sober glow of the Golf R’s sleeper looks — the GTI’s red exterior bits caused passersby to notice that car more than the Golf R. I nominated the GTI before I tossed this 19-inch-shod Golf R into a corner and rediscovered the GTI’s quick steering — 2.1 turns lock to lock — only with greater bite.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R isn’t perfect. The six-speed manual transmission integrates you into the process and helps you maximize power and opportunity in the real world, but it’s far from the most precise shifter. Like the Golf on which it’s obviously based, the R doesn’t offer the kind of rear seat legroom that’ll be available in a Honda Civic Type R hatchback. And given the price point, a power passenger seat would be nice.

The Golf R is nevertheless an exceptionally well-rounded package for the money. The performance above and beyond the GTI is tangible right from the get-go. It looks the business. It’s more winter-friendly. It’s multiple cars in one, depending on the way you configure and individualize the DCC setup.

The Golf R’s DCC/Driving Mode selector allows its driver to skip past Comfort, Normal, and Race to install a personalized mish-mash of damping, steering, engine, adaptive cruise control, front lighting, and interior engine sound. Familiar? The Audi S3 can do that, too, only you manipulate those adjustments though S3’s superior Audi MMI system.

Just how superior is the S3 overall? The Audi S3 is a stunning piece of kit, one of my favourite cars from my $2.2 million fleet in 2015, but the S3’s cabin doesn’t feel a cut above the Golf R’s. Under the gun, the S3’s standard two-pedal direct-shift gearbox makes it the quicker car, I’m sure. However, there’s palpable shift lag in lower gears at low revs in daily driving at six-tenths in the S3 that isn’t felt in a manual-shift Golf R, which comes standard with a manual transmission Audi doesn’t even offer.

The S3’s four-ring badge also garners attention in a way the Golf R can’t. Sure, the Volkswagen cognoscenti will know all about the R, but I didn’t get a single question about the Golf from my neighbors, none of whom seemed to recognize that underneath its clothes, this was the same car that caused them to go weak in the knees when it wore an Audi badge a year ago. There’s a car buyer who wants his neighbors to notice his new car’s logo, to guess at the price he paid, to ask how he was promoted at such a young age. For that buyer, the S3 may well be the answer. But I drive a Honda Odyssey, so, you know, I’m not that guy.

In the end, the Golf R’s victory over the GTI comes down to performance. As for the Golf R’s victory over its Audi S3 twin, well, that’s a hatchback issue. The Golf R offers 85-percent more cargo capacity than the Audi S3. With the rear seats folded, the Golf R’s 52.7-cubic-foot cargo area is very nearly as large as the Tiguan’s.

With greater affordability and availability, Volkswagen USA reported 7,085 GTI sales in the first four months of 2016, nearly four times greater than the Golf R’s 1,851-unit performance. Audi doesn’t release a breakdown of A3/S3 sales, but the percentages provided more than a year ago suggest approximately 15 percent of the A3s sold in America are S3 sedans, or about 1,550 sales so far this year. To be honest, I wish my driveway held one of the 7,085, one of the 1,851, and one of the 1,550.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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  • Robbie Robbie on May 25, 2016

    The GTI and R are VW's only compelling products now. My recipe for VW USA would be: discount all GTIs by $5000 of MSRP; Golf Rs by $8000; suffer the financial pain, yet see VW's image and credibility restored a bit.

  • Rreichar Rreichar on Jan 06, 2017

    I'd have to go with the Golf R. More fun and less pretentious. I like the S3 and if money or utility weren't important I'd go drive a S3. I prefer thr looks of the Golf and the abject practicality of the thing. There are 15 local to me in Austin at the two dealers. Good choice of colors and transmissions. Wish me luck.

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.
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