Do you go for the Golf’s classless lines and vast range of models and options, or spend a little extra to get those four rings on the bonnet and one of the classiest interiors this side of… well, a larger Audi?
Choosing isn’t easy, but carwow is here to help. We’ve trawled the expert reviews, stared at the stats and poured over the spec sheets to bring you all the details in our head-to-head guide. We can’t change personal preference, but if you’re looking at either car the information below could help you decide.
Put every generation of Volkswagen Golf side-by-side – we’re now on the seventh iteration – and you’ll spot a clear lineage running through each car. From the Giugiaro-designed original to the sharp-suited seventh-generation car, each Golf shares distinct family DNA – and that distinct “Golfness” is really appealing to some buyers.
On the flip side, others may consider the Golf a little dull. There’s little doubt the latest car is an improvement on its predecessor, but isn’t a car you’ll be buying to stand out from the crowd.
Nor is the Audi, in fairness – you’ll not have failed to notice just how many A3s roam the roads these days. Like the Golf though it’s a handsome car, and while the A3 doesn’t quite have the heritage of the Golf, there are clear links between it and its mid-1990s ancestor.
The A3′s shape is a little more rounded than that of the Golf and whichever body style you choose – be it the 3-door car, the five-door Audi A3 Sportback, the Saloon or the incredibly handsome new convertible, it still exudes a classy image.
Interior and practicality
Just as the Golf’s exterior styling has evolved over time, so too has the interior. Quality has always remained high, the materials have always been soft-touch and the ergonomics always ruthlessly logical. There’s little in here to offend, but little to really excite either.
What’s certainly apparent is that the Golf is now a large enough vehicle to swallow four full-sized adults in comfort (as well as bits and pieces they might have brought along) while the 380-litre boot is more than respectable for a car in this class.
Unsurprisingly (as it sits on the same platform), the A3 also has a 380-litre boot (for the record, so does the similar SEAT Leon). It’s also, in Sportback form at least, more than up to the task of transporting four adults, though pick the three-door model and they’ll have to clamber into the back in an undignified fashion.
But what an interior – where the Golf lacks a little style, the A3 introduces ringed instruments and a minimalist design more like Audi’s TT coupe than a family hatchback. Everything operates with precision and of course, sharing its basic layout with the Golf, the ergonomics are equally good. Refinement in both cars is excellent, too.
Read reviews of either the Golf or the A3, and predictably each fares similarly. That is to say, each delivers a very competent drive, but neither quite has the handling prowess of Ford’s much-lauded Focus. Competency and stability is high, fun and feedback is a little lower.
Neither car holds any significant advantage over the other here. Reviewers describe the Golf as having a more compliant ride quality than its predecessor, a complement also leveled at the Audi. The Audi, though, is particularly susceptible to the trim level you choose – the popular S Line models feature stiffer suspension and larger wheels that don’t really improve the handling but do harm its behaviour over rough surfaces.
On the Golf, lower-end models can also introduce a little more jiggle, since they use a cheaper and less sophisticated suspension setup. On the Audi, testers reckon Sportback models – that’s the five-door – ride a little better than the three-door cars.
Road, wind and tyre noise is surpressed in each car in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in the class above. And all the controls operate with a well-oiled smoothness that make them easy to drive whether you’re cruising down a motorway or zipping around town.
As with most cars in the VW Group, engine choice is nearly identical between the two cars. Both are available with the same 1.6 and 2.0 diesel engines, as well as the 1.2 and 1.4 petrol range. Certain 1.4s also include cylinder deactivation technology to save fuel.
The Audi A3 does have exclusive rights (for the time being, at least) on the 1.8 TFSI petrol engine, though we’re not sure that’s such a good thing – it seems to be criticised in reviews for its engine noise and lack of smoothness with the group’s dual-clutch transmissions. These are also shared, both the Golf and the A3 offered with the same six-speed manual and seven-speed DSG/S-Tronic automatic transmission, depending on which powerplant you go for.
The Golf wins if you’re looking at outright economy – VW’s 88.3 mpg Golf Bluemotion comfortably tops the mid-70s mpg that Audi’s 1.6 diesel models top out at. On performance, there’s less to choose between the two – the VW Golf R and Audi S3 quattro both offer 300 horses and all-wheel drive, with a sub-5-second 0-60 mph sprint. VW does offer the iconic GTI, too – to which there’s no real equivalent A3.
Looking to the future, both VW and Audi will soon offer a plug-in hybrid variant of each car – Volkswagen is fielding the Golf GTE (we’ve already driven a prototype) and Audi the A3 Sportback e-tron. Each has an identical 204-horse output and official MPG in the 188 mpg range. Take it even further, and VW also offers an all-electric e-Golf.
Value for money and running costs
Take a guess, and you may assume the Audi, with its more upmarket image, costs significantly more than the Golf. It’s true that the Golf is cheaper, but the gulf isn’t as wide as you may expect. In some cases, it’s even reversed.
Take bread-and-butter 1.6 TDI versions of each, for example. A five-door Golf in SE trim will set you back 22,585 and cost 20 a year to tax (although it may be cheaper through our VW Golf offers page). A Sportback SE actually costs 21,150 right now and won’t cost you a penny to tax. Granted, SE is a second-tier trim level on the Golf and an entry-level A3 model, but it shows the decision isn’t clear-cut on pricing.
By the time you get to Golf Rs and Audi S3s, the difference is reversed – though there’s still less than a grand between each, model-for-model.
Where the Golf hits back is in offering a cheaper entry-level price – 16,895 to 18,210 – and in offering a wider range of models, such as the aforementioned Bluemotion and GTI, and the upcoming electric version. Golfs aren’t cheap these days, but there’s still one to suit nearly every budget and requirement.
If you turn to our aggregated carwow scores alone, the Golf is the winner here. Since going on sale, it’s accrued an average wowscore of 9.0 out of 10 – the A3 Sportback manages 8.5 and the three-door car a lower 7.6. That’s not to say the Audi is a worse car, but the Golf has made quite a stride over its predecessor whereas the A3 has only mildly evolved.
What’s clear is that buying either car will probably come down to subjective criteria in the end, as there’s very little to separate either car on running costs, performance or even price. Audi still has the better badge, VW the wider range of models, Audi the neater interior and VW the iconic GTI badge.
Our choice? We’d be swayed by fringe VW models like the Golf GTI, GTE, Bluemotion or e-Golf – but if you’re opting for a regular TDI or TSI engine and a mid-level trim, we’d suggest you take a look at the Audi – you might be able to pick up an A3 for just a few quid a month extra.