CAPE TOWN – Which would you prefer? A Volkswagen Golf GTI or a Golf R? I suspect most people would instantly reply “R”. Well, I had the opportunity to drive both during the recent launch of the updated Golf R, which on the day sported some optional extras in the form of a R39 900 Akrapovič exhaust and R9 900 worth of front brakes. More importantly, the R now comes with the full-fat 228 kW state of tune (SA-spec models were previously detuned to 213 kW, ostensibly owing to our hot climate).

The test route comprised city, freeway and mountain passes, allowing the breadth of ability of each vehicle to shine through. Although both are extremely competent and highly rated, the methodological thought process of choosing one is more complex than you might think…

Aesthetics

The classic Golf shape chiselled into the current version (the local Golf 8 introduction date is still unconfirmed but we expect to see it here in 2020) is still attractive, blending style with athleticism in these two sister cars. The major differentiators are the badging, wheels, exhaust outlets (quad vs. double) and the front grille (with the distinctive red line prominent in the GTI version). There is no clear winner in the syling department but the quad-pipe modification to Golf GTIs is the most common upgrade at a local exhaust shop, which tells a story in itself. In summary, choose the Golf R to bolster the boy-racer image or the GTI for sophistication.

Ride and handling performance

Most people who buy a Golf use it as an everyday vehicle. This is where the GTI shines brighter than the R. The comfort levels are higher (more absorbent comfort mode on the adaptive suspension) and the cabin is devoid of the sort of exhaust drone at constant speed present in the R (even with the standard exhaust fitted).

Saying that, these cars are performance models and the R definitely has the edge over the GTI when it comes to finding grip at low speed (thanks to that 4Motion all-wheel-drive system). In short, it feels more competent when cornering at speed (the GTI is ultimately set up to understeer earlier at the limit). Interestingly, our convoy of Rs and GTIs attacked the mountain passes together and there was not as much of a performance difference at speed as one might expect.

We hope to track-test the updated R soon but comparing lap times of an earlier Audi S3 (based on the same platform and using the same engine) and GTI shows only a two-second difference around Killarney, which goes some way to prove the point.

Straight-line performance

There is no denying the Golf R is extremely fast from a standing start, with Volkswagen claiming a 4,6-second 0-100 km/h time. This was validated on our test strip with a time of 4,93 seconds with a full tank of fuel and two people on board. Clearly it will leave the GTI in its exhaust fumes during the traffic light drag-race, as the CAR test figure for the latter is 6,35 seconds. The launch-control systems and dual-clutch transmissions (DSG) in both deserve praise and are some of the best examples in the business.

Where the performance difference shrinks is in-gear acceleration, where grip plays less of a role. The reason is that the extra 100+ kg the Golf R carries over the GTI, along with the added powertrain losses of AWD, eats into the 59 kW power advantage. Looking at the table below for each speed increment; the difference is less than expected.

Golf GTI Overtaking acceleration Golf R
1,29 s 40-60 km/h 1,10 s
1,34 s 60-80 km/h 1,11 s
1,95 s 80-100 km/h 1,52 s
2,08 s 100-120 km/h 1,68 s
2,68 s 120-140 km/h 2,21 s

Conclusion

The R is the more exclusive option if you want to stand out in a sea of GTIs (although R numbers are steadily increasing) and is indeed racier. But you pay a R100 000 premium over the GTI for the privilege. In my opinion, the Golf GTI is the more complete and balanced package for the family person with sporty automotive aspirations.

FAST FACTS

Model: Volkswagen Golf R
Price: R676 000
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 228 kW 
Torque:  400 N.m
0-100 km/h:  4,6 seconds
Top Speed:  250 km/h
Fuel Consumption:  8,6 L/100 km
CO2: 165 g/km 
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch
Service Plan: Five-year/90 000 km

Model: Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG
Price: R558 000 
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 169 kW 
Torque:  350 N.m
0-100 km/h:  6,35 seconds
Top Speed:  248 km/h
Fuel Consumption:  7,7 L/100 km
CO2: 149 g/km 
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch
Service Plan: Five-year/90 000 km