Several manufacturers offer affordable compact sports cars. Volkswagen – in the broader sense of VW Group – sells three: the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the Volkswagen Golf R and the closely related Audi S3. All three are new for 2022. All three run on VW’s MQB Evo platform. All three use slightly modified variants of VW’s EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. And while not identically priced, the three sports cars are close enough to allow a buyer to cross-shopping between them; a Golf R buyer could save some and get a GTI Autobahn – or opt to upgrade a little with an S3.
So which is the best affordable VW sports car to buy? I had to take one for the Equipment Patrol Motoring team and find out by making week-long loans around my southeastern Michigan home in all three. Well, technically four. My first Golf GTI had the sub-optimal dual-clutch automatic transmission. And I wanted to test such an illustrious and legendary vehicle in its preferred six-speed manual transmission – for science, of course.
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The Audi S3 is the most beautiful car of the group
The new Audi A3 is one of the most beautiful cars in the Audi range with a (rare for a compact car) combination of clean lines and natural-looking proportions. The S3 is a sharper, more aggressive version of that (but not too sharp or aggressive, as it tucks under the even hotter RS 3). It is a handsome car to look at from many angles.
Neither the Golf R nor the GTI are bad looking cars. But they are based on a utilitarian compact hatchback. And while they get a little flashier, don’t stray too far from that course. Whatever sex appeal they radiate, it’s because you know how they ride.
The Volkswagen Golf R is the most fun to drive
Involvement in driving is probably the essential feature of a sports car. And I would give the Golf R an edge there. There’s a lot to like about the Audi S3, which is well tuned, accurate and lightning fast. But it’s a car that wants you to stay a little buttoned up while driving. The Golf R has more pop and gives you more freedom to set the limit with features such as a Drift mode and a specially tuned Nürburgring mode.
The Mk7 Golf GTI was one of the most advanced driving machines in the world. And the Mk8 GTI has somehow found a way to refine it even further. The Golf R retains what I love about the GTI – precise turning, balance, smooth-shifting manual transmission – but adds more power and a raw, rally car-like feel that’s more memorable and just as accessible.
The Volkswagen GTI is the most affordable
The VW GTI still starts under $30,000 nominally. And if you stick with the manual transmission, it comes out to about $40,000 with the Autobahn trim. That’s much less than either competitor, making the GTI more accessible to a wider range of buyers.
The VW Golf R and Audi S3 start around $45,000 with standard AWD. The Golf R is not much more expensive. Your only options are transmission and color. But with the Audi S3, the price could rise dramatically. My Premium Plus trim tester came in at $55,890, and Premium Plus is only the middle trim.
Gas is also expensive these days. And manual-on-manual, the GTI gets 28 mpg combined with the Golf R’s 23 mpg combined.
The Audi S3 has the most beautiful interior
Audi is a more premium badge than VW. So the S3 should have the nicest interior. And it does, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. You can spice up an S3 with a pair of diamond-stitched Nappa leather seats. However, the main differentiator is buttons. The S3 has them; the GTI and Golf R went all-digital cockpit, essentially doing away with the traditional ones.
The S3 also has physical climate controls. It has a simple physical volume knob on the wheel. The VWs use touchscreen menus and a series of haptic buttons (including the heated steering wheel, one about a millimeter from where your right palm rests on the steering wheel. In short, the S3 is much easier to use and convenience is an important part of luxury. .
The Volkswagen Golf R is the most practical of the three
Sedans have gone out of style – to the point that I had to explain to my four-year-old son what one was when we had the S3. A primary reason is that they don’t hold that much stuff. The GTI and Golf R are still reasonably practical hatchbacks that can compete with small crossovers for cargo space, especially if you fold the seats down. The hatchbacks also seemed to have a bit more space in the rear seats. I had to sit further forward to accommodate my daughter’s rear-facing car seat in the Audi S3. I was able to drive from my natural position in the Gulf.
Practicality — particularly in Michigan — also means you can handle the winter weather. The GTI does fine as a FWD hatchback. But the Golf R was the best car I’ve driven in the snow all winter – and I drove both a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota 4Runner. It drives flawlessly and delivers impressive grip with the excellent torque vectoring AWD system.
The Golf R is not a track car that you can drive in the snow. It’s a track car you should driving in the snow. In a GTI you are a little hesitant when the flakes start to fall. With a Golf R you race out to beat the teams and do donuts.
I would recommend the Volkswagen Golf R . to buy
There is not a bad option between these three cars. But if I had $50,000 to spare and had to pick one, it would be the Volkswagen Golf R. The Audi S3 presents itself well, and it has the premium badge. But there is no manual and the relative lack of space can be a deal breaker.
The Volkswagen GTI is one of my absolute favorites – even with the asinine infotainment and climate control configuration – but the Golf R is more capable, more fun and more versatile. And compared to the Autobahn trim, you get a lot more performance for not that much more money.
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