Once upon a time, if you wanted a practical family hatchback with some class but also desired kick-in-the-back performance, you were rather limited for choice.
Nowadays, most mainstream manufacturers try to provide a “hot” version of its bread-and-butter cars; spiced-up variants that promise high performance, an exciting drive, but importantly the same day-to-day usability as the more hum-drum models.
If you’re seeking speed and practicality, and you have around £30,000 to spend, you will almost certainly end up staring at the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3 in turn and wondering which is best.
We at carwow have done the same staring, although we’ve looked at the stats, facts and figures, and at what the experts say about both of these cars, and this side-by-side comparison should help you make up your mind.
Volkswagen and Audi are equally adept at creating understated but timeless family-car designs that won’t make you stop and gawp in the high street, but appreciate their class nonetheless. The same goes for these hot versions.
Neither the Golf R or Audi S3 looks like it’s capable of the performance it can unleash when asked to. This is either a bad thing or a good thing depending on your personal opinion – we’ve heard of lots of buyers of these cars who would rather blend in with traffic than stand out from the crowd.
Both cars are presented in bolder colours, and they have very small badges adorning their grilles – “R” for the Volkswagen and “S3” for the Audi – and an ever-so-slightly more aggressive look is given to both by wider wheel arches.
Which one looks the best? Well, the Audi S3 with the saloon body really does carry off the small changes nicely, and makes the R look a little dull in comparison, and the Volkswagen probably needs just a few more flourishes to really make someone feel like they’re getting something more than just a normal Golf with a wound-up engine.
Purists do rankle at the fact that both the Golf and Audi get four exhaust pipes – possibly excessive for 2.0-litre-engined cars.
Interior and practicality
Both the Golf and the A3 already had first-class interiors – even considering the £30k asking price critics find it hard to think of a nicer place to sit – so you need to consider the added sportiness.
The Golf R introduces a flat-bottomed steering wheel and new more supportive seats and some new trims, but apart from that, there’s nothing really to tell it apart from a GTI.
The good news is that the R retains all the spaciousness and practicality the normal Golf has, and there’s a lot of equipment on offer too. It’s worth noting that the nicer touches, such as the eight-inch touch-screen sat-nav system and leather seats, are pricey extras.
The S3 has also introduced new front seats – heavily-bolstered and upholstered in quilted leather and understandably described as ‘stunning’ by one expert – and a similarly chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel.
The S3 gets more goodies as standard than a normal A3, and like the Golf, is just as practical and comfortable for four adults to travel in comfort.
The Audi does have one trump card to play, though – you can choose it in five-door Sportback shape, with two extra doors and a slightly larger boot. It may not look particularly sporty – the saloon is best for this – but if you want to take family and luggage somewhere really very quickly, it’s hard to think of a better option.
This is really what you’re paying your money for – you need the car to be usable on an everyday basis but there will be occasions when you want to really open it up and have some fun.
You’ll be pleased to know, therefore, that the Golf R delivers properly on this front, and for those who really know how to drive a car hard and get the most from it, the critics are confident it’ll reward you in kind.
The all-wheel drive system is at the centre of this capability – it not only provides astonishing levels of grip, but it can send power to the back wheels if it detects the front losing grip, and it’s been said that it’s hard to find a car that can cover ground as quick as an R can for less than £50,000. Who knew the Golf could be so mighty?
The S3 may be a little more disappointing for the die-hard driver involvement fan. It certainly offers the same kind of speed and grip that the R does, but the vague steering provides little feedback and provides a bit of a detached driving experience. One reviewer reckons that Audi has made the S3 quick and secure, putting less emphasis on driver involvement.
With all that said and done, testers were finding it hard to justify the Golf R’s price-tag over the GTI’s, which they say is all the car that your average driver in the UK will ever need – the most regular comment from critics is that the R requires too much of a hardcore devotion to involvement to get the best out of it.
On that basis, the S3 may not disappoint you quite as much as critics say it will, so it would be best to drive both cars extensively before determining whether driver involvement is the most important factor for you.
Both cars have 2.0-litre turbocharged engines producing 296hp, and they give an impressive blend of performance and economy. The latter isn’t likely to be at the forefront of your mind when buying a car that can out-accelerate a 1990s Ferrari, but you’ll certainly appreciate it when they’re averaging closer to 40mpg than 30mpg!
Volkswagen has given the R the same engine as the GTI and simply cranked it up to eleven, and it’s capable of going from standstill to 60mph in under five seconds. Any kids you have should enjoy it!
The S3 offers similar performance and marginally better economy, and the experts say it’s maybe one of the best-sounding four-cylinder engines around – though it relies on pumping fake sound into the cabin, much like the Golf R.
Value for money and running costs
Both cars will set you back around £30,000 – the R is slightly cheaper than the S3 – and you might feel this is a little steep.
But consider what you get for your money, and the price begins to feel much more reasonable. Not many cars provide the level of comfort, safety and every-day reliability that a normal hatchback can, and can also out-accelerate and out-run a lot of dedicated sports cars that cost twice as much.
There are cheaper alternatives for those who are willing to sacrifice a bit of the quality and refinement for pure driver involvement – the Renaultsport Megane Trophy is £25,000 and you only lose out a little on power and practicality, though it is markedly less refined than the Audi and VW.
Both the R and the S3 are plagued by two things: The expensive options (which, if attacked with gusto, can easily bump the price of either one up by a third) and the fact that the Golf GTI exists.
The GTI costs less than £27,000, and most reviewers are happy to say it’s all the car anyone could ever need in day-to-day driving. Whether you think the S3 or Golf R are worth the extra outlay is down to your personal needs and tastes.
When concluding reviews of the S3, experts are keen to recommend both the BMW M135i and the Renaultsport Megane Trophy as alternatives that provide better driver involvement for the same or less money, and yet the main recommended alternative to a Golf R is a Golf GTI.
This is reflected by the wowscores – the R earns a very impressive 9.0, and the S3 slips behind with just 7.4.
Critics seem to be a little disappointed with the S3’s mediocre performance on the open road, because it really matches the Golf R blow for blow in all other categories, and even provides a more practical alternative in some areas.
The S3 just doesn’t feel that special, and the Golf R finds it hard to look the part too, but just about beats the S3 thanks to its fantastic driving capabilities and blistering performance.
We would lean towards the Golf R if you must have a supercar that can also take the family and shopping home in sensible every-day comfort.
But if you don’t need the extra performance and are perhaps not able to properly exploit the car’s handling potential regularly, the cheaper Golf GTI is actually all the car you’ll ever need.