2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI vs. 2019 Volkswagen Golf R: Comparing The German Hot Hatch Twins Head-To-Head
The Volkswagen Golf has long been an enthusiast favorite thanks to the German automaker's GTI model, a long-time performance trim that also brings all-around hatchback practicality to the daily drive. In recent years, Volkswagen has additionally imported the Golf R, an even mightier edition of the Golf that counts all-wheel drive and a significant horsepower boost as part of its package.
Naturally, there's a more-than-casual price gap between these two models, and on paper at least, the same can be said for the difference in their performance. Should you save your pennies and dimes in anticipation of a Golf R down payment, or would you be nearly as happy snagging a GTI and enjoying the savings instead? I drove each of these mighty 'Dubs back to back to bring you the answer.
Objectively? There's very little to distinguish the Golf R from the Golf GTI on first glance. The front bumpers feature different orientations for their various air inlets, the back of the R offers quad tailpipes instead of duals, and of course there are the modest R badges to be found on the car. Still, the differences are quite subtle, and hard to spot unless you know exactly what you're looking for.
This is a mixed blessing, because while GTI owners won't immediately feel emasculated should they pull up at a stop light beside a Golf R, on the flipside there's not really much recognition for the latter's owners among casual car fans to indicate that they opened their wallet substantially wider. For some drivers, this stealth approach will be a blessing—finally, a hot hatch that doesn't flash. For others, they'll feel a little left out of the see-and-be-seen game that is part of the compact performance car world.
Advantage: It's a dead heat when it comes to styling.
Comfort and Features
Despite offering equipment packages that are almost neck-and-neck (if you're willing to pony up extra cash in GTI-land), there's no denying that the Golf R has an edge when it comes to daily comfort.
Even with stiffer springs than the GTI, the 'Comfort' drive mode setting adds reasonable softness to its standard adaptive dampers. This combines with the extra weight of its all-wheel drive system (and more balanced power delivery) to impart a calmer feeling than the jumpier GTI during both urban and long-distance driving. It's also respectably quiet inside, and offers supportive, but not exhausting bolstering from its available Recaro sport seats.
The GTI, too, offers adaptive shocks, but it's an option, and the car's drive modes aren't quite as versatile as those found in the R. Expect more chatter from the front wheels as well, in terms of both communication and grip, which takes some of the sheen off of the overall experience.
Advantage: Golf R.
In a straight line, the 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque from the VW Golf R's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine are enough to drop its 0-60 mph time to an astonishing 4.5 seconds, which is nearly 1.5 seconds faster than the less-endowed GTI. It's also a number that would have blown anyone's mind outside of the supercar segment a mere 15 years ago, available from a compact hatchback based on economy minded roots. My, how far we've come.
It's worth noting that to achieve that kind of rocket ship propulsion you'll need to tick the box for the self-shifting DSG seven-speed automatic transmission (which offers dual clutches and paddle shifters on the steering wheel), rather than stick with the R's 6-speed traditional manual. The GTI is also available with both gearboxes, although it lacks its siblings all-wheel drive to smooth out the rougher edges of its 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque (also from a turbo four).
Advantage: The Golf R's extra power, and winter-friendly all-wheel drive, carry the day here.
Behind The Wheel
You may be thinking it's not fair to ding the GTI for not matching the R in terms of output. After all, it's intended to follow its stable mate from a respectful distance in terms of performance to ensure that there's enough separation between the two models to make buyers feel good about paying a premium.
The trouble is, the GTI has also fallen behind its similarly-stickered rivals in recent years. Whereas cars like the Hyundai Veloster N deliver rambunctious fun, and the Subaru Impreza WRX adds all-wheel drive even on the base model, the GTI has become increasingly detached from the broader market. It's no longer as quick as it once was, in comparison to other sport compacts, and nor does it overwhelm its competition with features or refinement in the same manner as its predecessors.
Instead, it's a car that feels much more ordinary, and far less engaging, than it needs to be to attract attention in an increasingly amped-up segment of the market. This is particularly true of the DSG-equipped model, which further separates the driver from any appreciable mechanical character. The GTI is still quite capable of parsing your favorite stretch of twisty two-lane—it just never really sweet talks you into wanting to do it.
The Golf R is similarly disinterested in providing visceral thrills. Where it makes up for it is the sheer and utter confidence it displays in almost every driving situation, with its extra power and traction helping to ease the pain of its less-than-playful character. Its customizable drive settings (and the replacement of the Sport mode with a Race mode) also gives it an edge for those who want to play around with various aspects of the vehicle's software-heavy persona.
The Golf R feels far more like a luxury car with a pedestrian badge than a true hot hatch, but that's not faint praise—in fact, it's an impressive accomplishment that sets it apart from Honda's own Civic Type R, which presents a similar asking price.
Advantage: Golf R.
The least-expensive version of the Volkswagen Golf GTI costs $27,595, while the entry-level Golf R starts at $40,395.
That's a whopping difference, and for anyone seeking a budget daily driver that offers turbocharged tuning potential, the GTI looks like a screaming deal in comparison. This is especially true when you consider that the aftermarket is only too happy to close the horsepower gap between the two cars (even if you'll never find an add-on all-wheel drive system).
Add all of the optional goodies to the GTI, however, and it quickly closes ground on the Golf R, with a $36,000 tag for the top-tier Autobahn trim level that largely matches the R in terms of features and equipment. There are no real extra-cost options for the more expensive model, aside from a hefty surcharge for its multi-hued Spektrum custom paint colors.
Advantage: At $36k, the GTI is less convincing than the R. At $27k, however, it offers much more value than its premium-priced showroom companion.
Want to learn more about the 2019 Volkswagen Golf R? Click here for an in-depth review.