2013 Volkswagen Golf GTI versus 2013 Volkswagen Golf R
I’m going to sound like Autocar for a moment here but bear with me. In the 1970s, your dad could’ve chosen from a myriad of proud and British sporting marques. There were TVRs, Triumphs, Lotuses, Jensens, Morgans, and, of course, the E-Type Jag. Then, right in the midst of the boom (1975), a German peoples’ car manufacturer unveiled a performance variant of its practical Golf hatchback. The GTI and subsequent hot-hatch craze was launched. Almost instantaneously, all of Great Britain’s illustrious car industry was plunged into absolute bankruptcy. Here was a reliable car with a voluptuous design by Giugiaro, space for four, a large boot, and clever mechanics. Its 0-60 time would embarrass most self-proclaimed sports cars, and your dad only needed write a half-size check.
What’s more, it has remained the king of the hatchbacks for nearly 40 years. Now, I admit, a few of the versions in the middle lost some of that enthusiasm. The Mk4, for instance, was famously slower to 60 than a diesel Skoda Octavia. But now, with the Mk7 upon us, things are looking up again. The weight is down. The power is up. The leather is scented. The engine whistles. The differential is electronic. The gearbox is extra clickity. Surely then, this is still the car to buy.
Well not so fast. New this year, there’s an uprated R version flexing its biceps and clever four-wheel drive system just up the street. The crib sheet certainly makes for some juicy reading. They’ve manages to extract 256 HP from 2 litres. The suspension is granite. It has Climatronic Bi-Xenon Touchscreen LED MDIs. It’s one hot hatch. Worryingly hot. So hot that it is getting dangerously close to the Evolution and STI market. Can this peoples’ car really play ball with the big guns or is the standard GTI still all things to all men?
I love the GTI. I always have done. You can use it daily to buy milk and stamps. You can put children, or amputees, in the back seats. Then, when the right road comes along, it really can be as much fun as the hypercar elite. Or more.
This generation, though, looks somewhat tradition. But then again, why would VW change a proven recipe? They’ve stuck some red lip gloss in between the head lamps, there are new dotted running lamps, the wheels are jaggedy, and the brake calipers a red. But here’s the thing: if I showed a non-petrol head the Mk6 and the Mk7 side by side, I’m not sure they’d be able to tell which was the newer model. Half a decade separate these two. I’m not sure that’s good enough, VW. There’s more. Dear enthusiasts, I know that there was plaid cloth on the original GTIs seats. I also know that it has been a hallmark throughout the years. But things which worked well in the 1970s do not necessarily work today. Roger Moore’s khaki safari suit, for instance.
But my small niggles aside; there is nothing wrong with the way this car looks. And if the plaid is a tad 70s for you as well, the rest of the interior should compensate. You get red stitching on the gear lever, a rounded-corner steering wheel, and a boot large enough for four horses’ heads. But surely, the whole point of a GTI is the driving experience. So I’d better do that as well.
I cracked open the door, put butt to plaid, clutch in, and ignition. How refreshing it is to be in a car where you don’t have to crab sideways over every exit ramp. I miss a high nose. And so the drive begins. It’s good. The engine is small but the surge of power isn’t. You see, the rules of rallying dictate that an engine can be no larger than 2.0 litres. All teams, including VW, strap on a turbo the size of Siberia to compensate. But because this is in fact a road car and not a VW team car, the turbo is in fact quite small. But don’t despair. It’s more fun. There is so little turbo lag that only Felipe Massa could stall it (Singapore). The quick spooling means that the car goes from 3,000 to 6,000 RPM very quickly. This is really all you ever do in normal driving; the Germans have made every one of their 200 HP work for a living. Additionally you get the satisfaction of wrestling slight torque steer. It’s a clever little trick, but VW have made the car quick where it counts.
Of even greater importance, however, is the handling. A GTI should make its way round bends like your grandmother’s terrier on a wooden floor; pawing for grip at every opportunity. This one does. So well, in fact, that it makes my job pretty easy. I have just two things to tell you about the dynamics. First off, there was this fantastic and, crucially, deserted 150-degree turn near the dealership. The grip available here just boggles the mind. With all the grace of the Royal Ballet, it will happily kick the inside rear tire in the air before the front washes wide. That’s good. With that heavy engine pressing down on the front wheels, the VW laughs in the face of understeer. The clever suspension may equate to a hard ride around town, but it works magic when the going gets twisty—in conjunction with that trick differential.
But there is a but. That quick steering has a flaw. The wheel’s weight, the clutch pedal, the brake pedal, the gearbox, and even the handbrake lever are all ridiculously lightweight to move. I know they’ve done this on purpose because the average owner spends more time in traffic than on Mulholland and so on. But please VW, have the courage to put a little feel into your performance variant. It tarnishes the splendor. When you add together the weightlessness of the wheel and the unnecessary amount of self-centering, the experience simply feels synthetic. I don’t like that. I’d like to thing that when a car goes quickly, it was me being all manly. I know this is childish, but it’s a quick and worthwhile fix. I’m talking to you, Volkswagen.
All personal preferences aside, this is a great car. The splendor has returned. But is it possible to sweeten the recipe?
Certainly, the R couldn’t be worth the $10,000 difference on aesthetics alone. If anything, it looks closer to the standard Golf on the outside. The lip-gloss has disappeared. So too, the wild wheel options. Around the back, things are changed little. The exhaust pipes are in the center and there’s a subtle diffuser surrounding them. That’s it. Climb inside and the vibrant red stitching has disappeared. It’s a world of leather and navigation and luggsury.
More Keith Olbermann than Keith Moon.
Happily, this restrained exterior belies the juvenile mechanics beneath. VW have concentrated on what makes a hot-hatch better than a hatch. So your money goes on things like the engine, the drivetrain, the suspension, the gearbox, and that 4Motion (think Quattro for VW) drive system. So can it really be better than the GTI?
Sort of. There is no doubt that it’s quicker. It feels highly-strung. The powerband is wider due to exhaust and ECU fiddling. And with that power heading to all four corners, there’s no torque steer worth mentioning. In addition, the grip reaches further, the steering is a little harder, and the turn in is surprisingly sharp for a budget four-wheel drive chassis. Zero to 60 is just under the 6.0-second mark (a crucial figure to beat). However, do be aware that much of this speed is due to a closer-ratio gearbox, not the 56 extra stallions. Stepping out of the Golf and into the R is not a night and day difference, but the new attitude is enough to let you imagine, once in awhile, that you’re on a rally special stage.
But before issuing a clean bill I must address the elephant in the room. Petrolheads, myself included, tend to stereotype FWD as the devil’s work. RWD is the preference and A/4WD is not far behind. To a large degree, this stereotype holds true. But the GTI’s greatest asset is its lightness and agility. The main worry I had going into this road test held steadfast.
That 4Motion drive system is heavy—136 Kg to be precise. Now that may not sound like much, but that’s the sort of weight a normal coupé might gain when being converted to a cabriolet. And when you only have 200-some HP to start with, the effect is amplified; it just feels more lethargic. The car lumbers instead of darts and the body roll is more apparent. In day-to-day driving, you won’t notice it. But when you feel like pushing, it isn’t as rewarding.
The GTI can and will give a safe flick of oversteer if you prod it with a stick. The R refuses, point blank, to wag its tail. This chassis could easily hand twice the power. As it sits, it’s a prime candidate for someone to come along and tune it up. If you live in the muddy parts of Whales, in Nevada’s Salt Flats, or in Iceland, this car is perfect for you. You’ll have a jolly time being Colin McRae. But for the rest of us who drive on solid surfaces, it’s about as much fun as staring at your own firing squad.
On the face of it, these two appear quite similar. But they couldn’t be further apart. The GTI is the same heart-warming, small-but-aspirational hatch it always has been. Nothing’s new, but that’s a good thing. It’s basic, well-priced, and a laugh. The R has made a great effort to enter the mud-flinging sports car segment. But I’m afraid that slow-to-respond drivetrain sits in the mix like a banjo in the London Philharmonic.
So here’s the skinny: If you’ve set aside a decent budget for a hot-hatch, buy the GTI or a 500 Abarth. You’ll be happy for years to come. If you’re the sort of person who likes to tinker around the garage late at night with a bag of crisps and a monkey wrench, only then can I recommend the R. If you could screw another 100 horses out of that engine, I have no doubt it would be a very entertaining car indeed.
If however, you’re like the rest of us and have friends or a happy marriage, don’t despair. You have multiple options. You could, for the same price, buy a base Evolution X GSR. This offers the same sort of practicality, build quality, and even greater thrills. But, if you’re a German-blooded VW enthusiast (and you’re likely to be if you’ve read this far), here’s what I’d do:
Wait a year or two. Use the money you’ve saved on depreciation to import a Scirocco R. You’ll get the best of both worlds with true exclusivity.
29 October 2012
GTI Base Price: $23,995
R Base Price: $33,990