What’s the best fun and affordable car?
Several manufacturers offer affordable compact sports cars. Volkswagen – in the broad sense of the 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 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. And while they’re not priced identically, the three sports cars are close enough that a buyer could cross-shop between them; a Golf R buyer could save a bit and get a GTI Autobahn – or choose to upgrade a bit with an S3.
So what’s the best affordable VW sports car to buy? I had to take one for Equipment Patrol Automotive team and find out doing week-long loans around my Southeast Michigan home in the three. Well, technically four. My first Golf GTI had the suboptimal dual-clutch automatic. And I wanted to sample such an illustrious and legendary vehicle in its favorite six-speed manual form – 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 Audi’s lineup with a (rare for a compact car) combination of clean lines and natural proportions. The S3 is a sharper and more aggressive version of this (but not too sharp or aggressive, as it sits below the even hotter RS 3). It’s a beautiful car to look at from many angles.
Neither the Golf R nor the GTI are bad cars. But they are based on a compact utility sedan. And while they get a little flashier, don’t stray too far from this course. Whatever sex appeal they exude is because you know how they drive.
The Volkswagen Golf R is the most fun to drive
Driving engagement is probably the defining characteristic of a sports car. And I’d give the edge to the Golf R. There’s a lot to like about the Audi S3, which is well-tuned, precise and lightning-fast. But this is a car that wants you to stay a bit buttoned up while driving it. The Golf R has more pop and gives you more leeway to define where the limit is with features like a Drift mode and a specially tuned Nürburgring mode.
The Mk7 Golf GTI was one of the finest driving machines on the planet. And the Mk8 GTI has somehow found a way to refine it even more. The Golf R retains what I love about the GTI – precision turning, poise, smooth-shifting manual transmission – but adds more power and a throaty rally-car feel that’s more memorable and just as approachable.
The Volkswagen GTI is the most affordable
The VW GTI always starts below $30,000 nominally. And if you stick with the manual transmission, it tops around $40,000 with the Autobahn version. That’s significantly less than either competitor, making the GTI more accessible to a wider range of buyers.
The VW Golf R and Audi S3 start at around $45,000 with standard all-wheel drive. The Golf R doesn’t cost much more. Your only options are transmission and color. But with the Audi S3, the price can increase significantly. My Premium Plus trim tester came out at $55,890, and Premium Plus is just the trim in between.
Gas is also expensive these days. And manual over manual, the GTI gets 28 mpg combined to 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 is, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. You can luxury an S3 with diamond-stitched Nappa leather seats. However, the main differentiator is the buttons. The S3 has them; the GTI and Golf R have gone all-digital cockpit and have essentially done away with the traditional ones.
The S3 also has physical climate controls. It has an easy physical volume rocker on the wheel. VWs use touchscreen menus and a range of haptic buttons (including the heated steering wheel, one about a millimeter from where your right palm rests on the wheel. Conclusion: the S3 is easier to use overall, and ease is a major element of luxury.
The Volkswagen Golf R is the most practical of the three
Sedans have gone out of style – so much so that I had to explain to my four-year-old son what it was like when we had the S3. One main reason is that they don’t contain as much stuff. The GTI and Golf R are still reasonably practical sedans 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 rear seat space. 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 Golf.
Practicality – especially in Michigan – also means being able to handle winter conditions. The GTI performs well as an FWD sedan. But the Golf R was the best car I’ve driven in the snow all winter – and I’ve driven both a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota 4Runner. It handles perfectly and offers 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 should ride in the snow. In GTI, we hesitate a little when the flakes start to fall. With a Golf R, you rush to beat the plows and make donuts.
I would buy the Volkswagen Golf R
There is no bad option among these three cars. But if I had $50,000 to burn and had to pick one, it would be the Volkswagen Golf R. The Audi S3 looks good, and it has the premium badge. But there’s no manual, and the relative lack of space can be a deciding factor.
The Volkswagen GTI is one of my absolute favorites – even with the stupid infotainment and air conditioning setup – but the Golf R is more capable, fun and versatile. And compared to the Autobahn version, you get a lot more performance for not a whole lot more money.
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