Sibling rivalry: Will the real GTI please stand up?

Ever since Volkswagen introduced the R in the sixth-generation Golf line up, the debate has centered on which is the more deserving hot hatch. Mind you, the R wasn’t the first Golf to outmuscle the GTI; both the Mk4 and Mk5 generations offered the R32 powered by the naturally aspirated VR6 3.2-litre V6 engine coupled with all-wheel drive. The R32 was faster in a straight line and sounded glorious, but it was also overweight and clumsy, which meant that the GTI’s top dog status was never really challenged…until the Golf R showed up.

The GTI was the ultimate Golf, until the R showed up.
Deconstructing the rivalry

Make no mistake about it, the Mk6 Golf R was a successful proof of concept for Volkswagen’s R division, now responsible for churning out hard-charging variants across the model range. The rise of the Golf R also meant the GTI taking a back seat in the Golf hierarchy; the choice between the two is akin to picking between the ‘pro’ or ‘non-pro’ variants of the latest flagship smartphone – a price gap large enough to make you ponder (it’s nearly RM60,000!), but a performance separation to keep you awake at night.

Red accents, bumper slats and chunky ‘Milton Keynes’ 5-spoke alloys give the GTI a touch of flamboyance.

In the case of the Mk7.5 Golf, Volkswagen plays GTI’s 230hp and 350Nm against the Golf R’s 290hp and 380Nm. The output is generated from the same 2.0-litre TSI four-cylinder block, but uprated in the R to deliver more. The extra money also buys a Haldex-type 4Motion all-wheel drive system and a 7-speed (instead of 6 on the GTI) dual-clutch transmission with revised ratios in the Golf R, along with a set of 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ alloys, among others.

Remove the subtle ‘R’ emblem and this could be the ultimate sleeper.

There’s not much in it as far as interior appointments go, the R comes with a slightly larger infotainment display and its own trim, while the exterior differences are really a subjective thing. We prefer the R’s more subtle details as it goes rather well with the Golf’s Q-car image, though it does have quad exhaust outlets at the back. You can argue that the GTI’s red accents and honeycomb grilles are more eye-catching than the egg crate mesh on the R, and that’s legit too.

Red usually denotes the fiercest variant, but is no longer the case with the GTI.
Has the GTI become a ‘trim’?

Some 15 years ago, the Mk5 Golf GTI made every enthusiast drool over with its punchy turbocharged engine and rapid-shifting DSG. Armed with 200hp and 280Nm, it would scrabble its way from idle to 100km/h in around 6.8 seconds, trailing exhaust flatulence and other hot hatches of the day. Driving the Mk5 GTI was an endlessly entertaining endeavour in the early days of direct-injection turbocharging.

Benign-looking R engine cover doesn’t hint of potent output of 290hp and 380Nm.

While the Mk7.5 GTI with 230hp and 350Nm is quicker to reach 100km/h (6.4 seconds), in today’s context of big power under small bonnets, it no longer ‘feels’ fast. Yes, the GTI remains nimble and has a front-end that grips and grips, but it has also become very civil, almost too well behaved. Ride comfort is unusually pliant for something that wears 18-inch alloys, it’s hushed and refined too on the move, making you wish that its dual exhaust outlets actually make more uncouth noises. Alas, the playful character we are so fond of in past GTIs has taken a leave of absence. The GTI now straddles the territory between warm and hot hatches, and that’s probably intended. Sob!

Middle child: GTI now straddles the territory between warm and hot hatches.
Find that RM60,000!

To relive the spirit of the GTI, you are going to have to summoned up the cash for the Golf R. It is not a question of whether you should but rather where to find RM60,000 to top up the difference (less, if you buy used). On-paper, 0-100km/h takes 5.1 seconds but in practice the Golf R pulls harder and shifts faster than the numbers would make you believe. The presence of all-wheel drive really does facilitate an aggressive throttle response, be it from standstill or when laying down 380Nm at the apex of a corner. In fact, the Golf R rarely ever threatens to break traction, in case you’re wondering if 4Motion matters, it does and fully justifies the weight penalty.

All-wheel drive is integral to how the Golf R performs.

And just when you think that the Golf R’s tight body control and thinner 235/35 R19 tyres would make it less of a daily driver compared to the GTI, it surprises with an innate ability to cope with a wide range of surfaces found on diabolical KL roads, something the MQB platform models have demonstrated ably. Besides, the damping also is user selectable, on both the GTI and R.

Wolf in sheep clothing: Golf R is subtle on the outside and ordinary-looking on the inside, but packs a punch.
Sibling rivalry settled

Considering that the law of diminishing returns is particularly galling when applied to performance aspects of a car, the GTI is thus a great choice for anyone seeking a sporty, versatile fast hatch that’s to be driven daily. As always, gains at the sharp end particularly the last few percentages are hard to come by and manufacturers do charge a handsome premium for that. The Golf R has assumed the GTI mantle and possesses the elusive factor that makes it a top hot hatch, if not the best of its kind. It’s abundantly clear where your money should go to.

Volkswagen, please make the GTI mighty again!

Volkswagen Golf GTI
: RM246,490  Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, FWD  Output: 230hp / 350Nm  Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch auto  Performance: 0-100km/h in 6.4s; top speed 248km/h  Wheels/tyres: 225/40 R18  Safety: 7 airbags, Electronic Stability Control  Warranty: 5-year/unlimited (w/ 3-yrs maintenance)

Volkswagen Golf R
: RM304,390  Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, AWD  Output: 290hp / 380Nm  Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto  Performance: 0-100km/h in 5.1s; top speed 250km/h  Wheels/tyres: 235/35 R19  Safety: 7 airbags, Electronic Stability Control  Warranty: 5-year/unlimited (w/ 3-yrs maintenance)