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You can now get the full-fat 228 kW Volkswagen Golf R. Is there merit in choosing it over the superb GTI?

When you think Volkswagen Golf, the first thing which generally comes to mind is “GTI” and not the flagship R. Despite the latter being the ultimate Golf, it’s never quite been able to match the reputation the GTI has set over its 45-year lifespan, likely because it’s never been as accessible as the latter and not as outrageous as its predecessor, the R32.

However, the R now boasts the fully fledged 228 kW and 400 N.m of torque as seen in its doppelgänger, the Audi S3 Sportback, which should give it some more credibility on the streets considering it’s a full 59 kW more powerful than the GTI.

This was a necessary change to elevate the R’s standing but the fact it’s being made available to us only now is a bit strange considering the Audi S3 gained this state of tune when the A3 range was facelifted in 2017. It’s almost as if Volkswagen didn’t want to upstage Audi by giving its derivative the same performance figures, despite claiming our fuel quality wasn’t up to scratch to accommodate the 228 kW output locally. We were even more confused when the Golf range got its facelift and the R not only came with the 213 kW state of tune, but also cost more than the S3. The only way to justify the price difference was that the Golf R arrived with more standard kit; just like the model we’re testing here. As before, features such as VW’s Active Info Display are standard on the R, but that of course hikes the asking price. As it stands, it’s a whopping R110 700 pricier than the GTI and R5 500 more than the S3.

Getting back to pricing in a bit, let’s first look at what’s new on the R. The most obvious place to start is the optional Akrapovic titanium exhaust system upgrade, if you can stomach the R39 900 price. The fat pipes look great but, while louder, a drone at cruising speeds slightly dents the Golf’s otherwise superb refinement. We did, however, enjoy the pops and crackles in race mode when shifting gears in the higher reaches of the rev range. Likewise, features such as adaptive chassis control (R13 200) and R Performance brakes (R9 900) are nice to have but hardly essential, the MQB chassis’ stability is fantastic and the standard brakes more than powerful enough.

You would expect, with a 15 kW and 20 N.m increase over the outgoing R, the new model would be notably quicker on our test strip. At just 0,05 seconds brisker to 100 km/h, the difference is marginal, although an acceleration time of 4,93 seconds is still ferociously quick. In-gear acceleration is stronger but the improvement over the old car is small. The 100-0 km/h average braking time was almost the same with an average time of 2,84 seconds; 0,03 seconds slower than before. It’s worth noting this test unit sat on Continental ContiSport Contact 6s while our previous test unit boasted a set of Pirelli P-Zeros.

The claimed fuel economy has also taken a bit of a knock with this increase in power: CAR’s fuel index (based on the manufacturer’s official figure) places it 0,36 L/100 km heavier than before. It was, therefore, a surprise when the new model used a whole 0,8 L/100 km less on our standardised fuel route.

So, without a significant increase in performance, do our reservations about choosing the R over the GTI and S3 remain? Yes. While the flagship Golf R offers a satisfying drive with sharp dynamics, a responsive engine-transmission combination and well-damped ride – even without the adaptive chassis – it doesn’t feel quite special enough to justify the additional cost over its VW stablemate. We might even argue the GTI is the better to drive thanks to its lighter mass. Of course, the R makes sense in colder climates where rain and snow see the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system come into its own to maintain limpet-like grip.

TEST SUMMARY

Based on our performance data, the extra 15 kW doesn’t add enough to the Golf R package to change its standing. While this apex hot hatch remains a great vehicle to drive, there are better options in the market. Thankfully for the VW Group, those alternatives sit within its own stable. Save yourself R110 000 and get the GTI, or walk across the road to an Audi dealership and test drive the S3 Sportback.

ROAD TEST SCORE
Golf Volkswagen Golf R
77 / 100
  • Price: R684,400
  • 0-100 km/h: 4.6
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 228 KW @ 5500-6500
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 400 N.m @ 2000-5400
  • Top speed: 250
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 7.2 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 165 g/KM

Now that the VW Golf GTD has arrived in our market, we find out how closely it matches its GTI sibling...

It has taken a while, but Volkswagen has decided the time is now to launch a Golf GTD in our market. On offer in Europe for the last eight years, this GTI-looking-but-diesel-powered derivative is part of the recent facelift to the local Golf range that included tweaks to one model we South Africans know particularly well: the GTI.

Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to compare the GTD with its GTI sibling; a match-up that gave rise to some discussion among the CAR team (watch a video comparison here). Was it a fair and realistic comparison, and were we not setting up the GTD to lose? Yes, it would have the GTI’s ride and handling characteristics, but surely fuel consumption aside, the GTI would outperform it? And do they even appeal to the same target market?

To be honest, having never experienced a Golf GTD derivative until earlier this year at the international launch, we weren’t entirely sure of any of those answers, either. The best way to find out was to spend a few weeks with both cars, conduct performance testing and report back on our finding. As with all in the facelifted Golf 7 range – dubbed Golf 7.5 – VW has clearly not rung any major changes to the GTI and, ergo, the GTD. And it’s hardly a surprise; when you have a winning formula, incremental updates are the way to go.

External changes

The Golf 7 exterior revisions have been subtle and the stylists haven’t messed too much with the already pleasing aesthetics. Highlights include standard-fitment LED headlamps, a new front-bumper design and fresh LED taillamps with a “swiping” function as the indicators operate. If you look really closely, you’ll also note revised  front fenders.

Were the two featured models not pictured side by side, it would be tough to tell them apart. The GTI was kitted with optional 19-inch alloys (18-inch items are standard, and they’re similar in size but not in design to the wheels fitted to the GTD) and both cars feature aggressive body kits and lowered ride heights.

Badges aside, there are other subtle differences. First is the line that runs across the main air intake and through the headlamp units. In the case of the GTD, the line is silver in colour; the GTI has a racy red. Viewed in profile and from the rear, they are almost indistinguishable, apart from the tailpipe arrangement; the GTI boasts an exhaust exit at each corner of the rear bumper, whereas the GTD has a pair sited on the left-hand side.

Tweaks inside

The cabin offers the same, high level of perceived quality that we’ve become accustomed to in the Golf 7 and, again, the differences between the two cars are slight. The steering wheels are near identical, save for the badges on the bottom spoke, and they both offer height-adjustable, deep-set front seats with leather the material of choice.

Golf 7.5’s main interior upgrade centres on the new infotainment interface and, whereas the standard unit is an eight-inch touchscreen Composition Media system, both our test cars came fitted with the optional (R20 200) Discover Pro system that includes a 9,2-inch screen, satellite navigation, gesture control and virtual buttons. The latter can be frustrating, as modulating the audio system with touch-sensitive inputs isn’t ideal and we would prefer at least a supplemental rotary dial. Thankfully, you do have remote control of the system via the satellite buttons on the steering wheel.

Another big change is the optional addition of Active Info Display, essentially VW’s version of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit. This digital instrument cluster displays a variety of information via a 12,3-inch full-colour screen. The driver can choose from one of five different views; one of which – perhaps somewhat optimistically – is a lap timer in both models. Included in the functionality is the option to view navigation maps in either 2D or 3D, and VW has employed a subtle use of colours within the cluster to differentiate the models: red for the GTI and blue for the GTD.

On the move

Both test units feature optional (R4 850) keyless entry and push-button starting. When fired up, it is the GTD that provides the pleasant surprise. Gone is the agricultural clatter we associated with oil-burners of old and the 130 kW 2,0-litre turbodiesel idles smoothly as low as 750 r/min, with a hint of throatiness to the underlying tone. VW’s 2,0-litre turbopetrol is, of course, familiar to us and owners of other VW Group products.

For the Golf 7.5 GTI, it has been lightly massaged to deliver 169 kW, up 7 kW. It is a refined unit that features a typical airbox induction noise that harks back to GTI Mk2 models. Among the many things that Golf 7 does better than its competitors is its use of a well-judged steering weight, with an ideal balance struck between heft and lightness. And from behind the wheel, the GTD and GTI feel remarkably similar. On smooth blacktop without looking at their respective rev counters, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. Both – but especially so the GTD – are quietly smooth at motorway speeds, although when confronted with less than ideal surfaces, their larger alloys and lower profile rubber make their presence known to those in the cabin.

It is only once you turn up the pace that real differences start to manifest. With its expected larger wedge of torque, the GTD requires you to alter your driving style just a touch. Use the torque instead of high revs to make progress and the GTD feels as good as most hot hatches, although your usable engine speed range is somewhat limited. At the high end of the car’s dynamic repertoire, the GTD’s extra mass over the front axle finally comes into play and nudges the nose wide regardless of the electronics trying to curb wheel spin under power out of tight corners.

The GTI has long been the consummate professional in this regard, feeling peppy enough to keep the driver entertained without being too unruly. Its ability to spin the engine to the high reaches of the speed range is always fun, but somewhat unnecessary as peak power is developed from 4 600 r/min and the engine runs out of puff upwards of 5 500. Its nose is tangibly less affected by weight and therefore sticks to the chosen line better than the GTD before washing into mild understeer.

Numbers don’t lie

Subjectively, we were divided in terms of how the two cars delivered their respective driving thrills, but there was no arguing with the figures produced during our performance testing. As expected, the standing-start sprint times favoured the GTI, but not as much as we expected. And, where we anticipated the GTD to claw back some advantage during the in-gear acceleration (watch the GTD take on the V6-powered Amarok on the drag-strip here), where the lightning-quick DSG transmissions flitted through the gears, both cars posted closely matched results.

Of course, the real benefit of the oil-burning motor should be at the pumps. VW claims 6,4 L/100 km for the GTI, while our standardised fuel route resulted in a surprising 6,7 L/100 km, which is superb for a performance model. In contrast, the turbodiesel counters with an official figure of 4,9 L/100 km, with a run through our fuel route recording 5,6 – impressive for a car with this sprinting potential, but perhaps not quite as noteworthy in the context of the GTI’s figure.

TEST SUMMARY

According to VWSA, every second Golf sold in SA is a GTI. No other manufacturer can match that feat in terms of sales of their performance models versus the cooking ones; not even BMW, or Mercedes-Benz or, more importantly, any of the VW's main rivals. It says a lot about the mind-set of buyers that they choose the performance Golf derivative over other options offered by VWSA. And what it says is this: while these Golf owners might not all be buying their GTIs because they enjoy robot-to-robot sprints and a spirited drive up a flowing mountain pass, they do all like the image the badge represents.

This is where the GTD comes into play. For less than the GTI, you can have a car that offers a large percentage of the performance. On top of that, it consumes fuel at a slower rate. At current prices, the difference equates to over 65 tanks of diesel. Evaluated objectively, the GTD makes a great case for itself.

Is the GTD, then, a worthy rival to the GTI? After spending a couple of weeks with both cars, it's clear that the answer is not a definitive one. No, it's not quite as quick as its turbopetrol sibling, but the GTD does match it in other areas, plus it's cheaper and will cost you less to run.

Think of it as a different nuance on the Golf's GTI badge, and it's certainly worthy of the association. Both are excellent cars and it's up to you to choose your flavour. Us? We'd still have the GTI...

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