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Comparison: 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI vs 2019 Golf R … on the Ice!

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada
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Vincent Aubé
We go and do something stupid, heading for an icy track to answer the eternal question: GTI or R?

Are you more Golf GTI, or more Golf R? Usually, when we set out to do a car-v-car comparison, we want to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of two competing models – not close siblings under the same banner! Except in this case, where we’re dealing with two central players in the compact sport segment and the subject of a seemingly endless debate, akin to Nikon-vs-Canon, or Lennon-vs McCartney. Did we mention this was going to take place on the ice?

So. In one corner we have the Golf GTI, which literally invented the category in 1976 in Europe (and did the same in 1983 in North America, under the name Rabbit GTI). The deal was that the VW engineers simply took the Rabbit of the day and injected it with adrenaline, without making the price blow up too much or taking away from the hatchback model’s practical side.

In the other corner, the Golf R. Compared to the original hot hatch, the Golf R is younger, for one thing. It first appeared here in 2011 under the R badge in a limited quantity to go along with the sixth generation of the Golf. The raging success of that future collector’s item convinced the brass at VW to produce a Golf R in a larger production run. Despite a price tag that was off the charts for a Golf, Canadian consumers fell hard for the wee German bomb.

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

Connoisseurs will tell you, however, that the performance Golf with standard all-wheel drive of today has its roots in the Golf R32, which appeared on the U.S. market in 2004 as part of the Golf’s fourth generation. The next, fifth generation of the model also included a Golf R32 variant, which also never made it across the Canadian border.

To find a Rallye-badged version of the Golf, you have to trek back in time to the second-generation of the model. Like the R and the R32, that Rallye edition had AWD and beefed-up mechanics. But in its case, it didn’t make it to North America at all.

So there’s a Cole’s Notes history of the Golf that gives the backdrop to the big battle between the GTI and the R.

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

Two- or four-wheel drive?
The answer to this question is already clear, especially in this case: on a frozen lake, like the one in Quebec we trekked out onto at the invitation of Volkswagen Canada to test out 2019 editions of several VW models, the Golf R provides much better grip, it goes without saying. Especially since for this day of driving, Volkswagen shod the cars with stud-less winter tires. With studs in place, the GTI would have been better equipped to defend itself. But no matter. VW wanted to configure the cars the way most owners would drive them, and not fit them with tires that aren’t even allowed in some regions of Canada.

In this challening context, even the Golf R had some trouble negotiating corners on a surface that was mirror-smooth. There too, a set of studs would have changed things immensely, but it didn’t stop us from testing out the two German compacts on a closed circuit.

The advantages procured by an all-wheel-drive system are undeniable when stacked up against a Golf GTI dependent on its front axle for grip and power. When the road surface gets slippery – winter or summer – AWD is a big-time safety enhancer, whether you’re driving conservatively or not.

That’s not to say you have to leave your two-wheel-drive car in the garage until spring. While it’s true that an increasing percentage of new vehicles are equipped with AWD, many Canadian drivers continue to get by just fine the old way.

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

The GTI actually acquitted itself well; it’s just that in extreme conditions like we encountered on the frozen lake not far from the famed Sacacomie Hotel in Quebec, the excellent sport compact just couldn’t keep up with the R, nor with a Golf Alltrack equipped with a dual-clutch transmission. The latter may be mainly a comfortable wagon and the heaviest Golf in the lineup, it made short work of the GTI in this context.

The results would have been quite different on a dry asphalt surface, I can assure you. I’ve had many occasions to drive both the GTI and the R in the past, and I’ll admit to you right here and now that I actually prefer the Golf GTI over the Golf R. At least, when there aren’t 10 cm of snow on the ground. The Golf R is that kind of car that masks the imperfections of the road thanks to its AWD system. The GTI, meanwhile, is more incisive, more responsive in its accelerations even if it has fewer horses to play with under the hood.

On this day, the four-wheel drive of the Golf R gave it an unsurmountable advantage. But in 95% of cases in everyday life, the GTI has everything it needs and then some to keep the engaged driver smiling.

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

The 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI Rabbit Edition
The GTI  given us to play with on the day is a mid-level trim in the GTI hierarchy. Less-generously equipped than an Autobahn version, it takes direct aim at those who are fans of driving, for example with its Rabbit-exclusive set of shocks and the DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) system, that allows for changing the driving behaviour of the car with a single touch of a button. Note that this option is only available on the version with the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission – which was the case for our tester. Further character-adding elements on this special edition include 18-inch Pretoria alloy wheels, as well as the Cornflower Blue colour, which the pictures confirm makes for a pretty striking in this ocean of white.

To help it grip the road, the Golf GTI also comes with a limited-slip differential, pretty essential for exiting corners quickly. Without this feature, in fact, the GTI would a totally outclassed.

| Photo: Volkswagen

The 2019 Volkswagen Golf R
For its part, the Golf R is dressed in more high-class garb without getting anywhere near excessive about it. In back, the four exhaust tubes signal the car’s intent; the fender is unique to this variant; and the wheel arches are nicely filled out by the 19-inch alloy wheels. But what really sets the R apart from the GTI, aside from its more-muscular powertrain, is the reactive 4Motion system. In normal situations the systems relies on front-wheel drive, but as soon as the sensors detect the slightest amount of skidding, the rear axle is activated to help the driver maintain control. As I said, on this day of driving on ice the Golf R wasn’t able to maximize its potential, but in normal winter driving, the highest-performance Golf available on the market is an exceptional machine for taking on just about any combination of snow, sleet, ice and whatnot.

| Photo: Volkwagen Canada

Advantages of the Golf GTI
Pricing is certainly a key factor here in deciding who becomes a GTI fan or an R freak. The GTI Rabbit starts at $33,995 before delivery/prep, while the pound of flesh exacted of buyers by the Golf R is worth at least $42,495 before delivery/prep.

Other than that, the GTI is actually slightly more demanding to drive on a daily basis. But remember this: even though the Golf is about to get a thorough overhaul, the GTI remains the reference in its segment, still a cut above the rest.

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

Advantages of the Golf R
With more power under the hood and a drivetrain ideally suited to Canadian winters, the Golf R is ready for all seasons, all the time. But he question is, is it worth the substantial difference in price? I also can’t fail to mention the horror stories that periodically float around undermining the Golf R’s reliability record. That’s a detail not to be dismissed out of hand!

| Photo: Volkswagen Canada

Our verdict
If the idea of driving a sporty car with two-wheel drive doesn’t scare you off, the Golf GTI represents a truly exceptional compromise between sportiness and comfort. But if budget permits, the extra pizzazz offered by the Golf R could be what was missing in your life…

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.... Golf GTIGolf R
 Transmission7-speed automatic7-speed automatic
 Consumption (city)9.6L/100 km11.4L/100 km
 Consumption (highway)7.5L/100 km8.2L/100 km
 Fuel tank50 litres55 litres
 Puissance228 hp288 hp
 Couple258 lb-ft280 lb-ft
 Cylinders4 cylinders4 cylinders
 Displacement2.0 litres2.0 litres
 Trunk493 litres, 1,521 litres645 litres, 1,492 litres
 Length4,268 mm4,276 mm
 Width1,799 mm1,799 mm
 Height1,467 mm1,436 mm
 Wheelbase2,631 mm2,630 mm
 Warranty2 yrs/80,000 km2 yrs/80,000 km


| Photo: Volkswagen Canada
| Photo: Volkswagen Canada
| Photo: Volkswagen Canada
| Photo: Volkswagen Canada
Vincent Aubé
Vincent Aubé
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 60 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 200 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists