It's an age-old dilemma. I am sure tens-of-thousands of years ago ancient man agonized over whether to buy that brand-new mid-level wheel off the showcave floor, or get the more premium but older pre-owned wheel for the same price. Things really haven't changed that much today, except our wheels are now bought in sets of four and are powered by turbocharged engines instead of us. The decision we're obsessing over, a brand new 2015 MK7 GTI vs a 2012 MK6 Golf R, would cause any enthusiast a month of sleepless nights of mental ping-pong volleying back and forth between the newer architecture, engine and tech compared to the all-wheel drive, higher power and exclusivity of the best Golf Wolfsburg had to offer just a few years ago.
For 2015 the MK7 GTI has reset enthusiasts' expectations of a hot-hatch. It's the most powerful, most refined and best handling example to date of the car that invented the segment 40 years ago. A 2-door, manual, S-model starts at just $25,605 with destination. A 4-door, manual with lighting package like you see here is $27,200. Based on the new modular transverse MQB platform, the latest car is not only the stiffest Golf to date, but also lighter than its predecessor.
Tracking down a Certified Pre-owned MK6 Golf R is relatively easy. Thanks to the release of the 2015 MK7 Golf R in early summer and the timing of lease returns. A quick Internet search turned up 31 examples for sale with a lowest price of $24,750 and an average price of $28,962. Mileage started as low as 7700 miles, with an average hovering under 40,000 miles, pretty good for a car nearly 4 years old. Pricing seems to be more related to the car's location rather than mileage or options, so if you live in a state where VW's are popular, taking some long drives to look at a few examples might be worth a few grand off the price.
You probably noticed that neither car here is stock. We've talked about both of these cars at length and it was determined that thoughtfully modified cars would probably be more representative of what our readers drive or aspire to drive. The Golf R is owned by Roland Poestkoke, he special ordered his car in order to get the 4-door in base trim. We applaud the extra effort to get rid of the sunroof and wish VW still offered an order program. This is just one car in Roland's stable, so this R is used primarily for fun and taking out to local time attacks. Even with occasional use, he still has two sets of tires and wheels for the car and the 18-inch wheels you see here are what he runs on the street.
The MK7 GTI is a development car for a company that is the original American VW tuner, Neuspeed from Camarillo California. Although this is a shop car, it is primarily used as a daily driver. By the time the shoot rolled around, this car's development cycle was just about over and everything on the car was a production part, no prototype or one-off parts here. This is exactly what a reader could build with a MK7 GTI, Neuspeed's website and a sympathetic credit card company.
As with any good fight, we'll start with the stats. Both cars are powered by a 2-liter turbocharged inline-four. The GTI has the newest generation 3 version of the EA888. It might be the latest tech, but it still has a smaller turbocharger than the Golf R. Stock, the GTI is rated at 220hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, while the Golf R is rated at 246hp and 253 lb-ft of torque, both measured at the crank. If you've been watching all the dyno-testing data online, you know these cars are actually making very similar peak numbers at the wheels. The GTI does makes those numbers at much lower RPM yet it runs out of breath around 5000 RPM, where as the Golf R starts out slower but will keep producing power all the way to redline.
Both cars here are similarly modified with basic bolt-ons. They are both still using the factory turbos, stock internals and everything is off the shelf.
When it comes to size, the MK7 definitely has the advantage, although some would say disadvantage. The newer car is roughly 2 inches longer, a half an inch wider but three-quarters of an inch shorter in height. While bigger, the MK7 GTI is notably lighter; manual transmission, 4-door cars weigh in between 3000 and 3100 lb. The MK6 Golf R however carrying all the extra hardware to send power to the rear axle is right at 3400 lb. If you're wondering, we usually attribute about 200 of those pounds to the AWD equipment.
Inside, the MK7 feels roomier and more airy. The newer interior is also a nicer place to spend time as the both material quality and ergonomics have taken a step forward with every Golf since the MK2. One undeniable superiority of the GTI is the base cloth. In fact, Roland liked the GTI's plaid cloth so much; he swapped out for his R's original leather seats. I couldn't agree more, and I'm now half-heartedly looking for some for our long-term leather-clad GTI.
Settling into either car is easy enough. I dropped into Roland's GTI and immediately felt at home. Although this might be the super Golf, at the end of the day it's still a Golf. That's a very good thing. The Golf R starts with a bark and rumbles angrily at idle. It doesn't lazily rumble and lope, like a big cammed V8, but growls and shakes like an angry Doberman. The APR 3-inch turbo back exhaust is far more vocal than the factory's. Along with the noise, a Neuspeed Torque-arm Insert, a stiffener for an engine mount designed to keep the engine from rocking around, transmits more vibration into the cabin. The MK7 has one as well, but it isn't so obvious at idle.
Both cars pull off the line as if they were stock. Roland's car has a single-mass flywheel, sport clutch and pressure plate. The pedal-effort is heavier than stock, but not at all out of character for a car like this. The GTI's is all stock. Right off idle, the GTI feels livelier, even with the heavier flywheel. The smaller turbo spins up almost immediately, coupled with the lower weight it gives the GTI a big advantage in normal low speed driving. Once those turbos start blowing is when the story really changes. In first and second gear the Rs talent shines. The GTI builds torque fast and struggles to put power down at lower speeds; even in a straight line. The front wheel drive car scratches and claws at the asphalt while the R simply squats down and rockets off. If you're interested in drag racing, it's a hands down win for the R. Luckily, straight line racing in front drive cars is for teenagers and is pretty much the last thing I'm interested in.
I made Roland and Jerry from Neuspeed drive these cars all the way up to my favorite canyons for a reason. These cars are for driving, not creating fanboy forum posts. The suspension modifications on the Golf R are a little more serious than the GTI. Both cars use Neuspeed anti-roll bars, the GTI uses Neuspeed Race Springs with stock dampers and represents an affordable no compromises upgrade. The Golf R uses Bilstein PPS10 adjustable damping coilovers, Ground Control Camber Plates and Super Pro Aluminum front control arms. Roland had the damping set to freeway comfort soft, way too Lazy-Boy for my taste. I tried not to judge him.
As an immediate advantage, the MK7 is gifted with VW's new variable ratio steering rack, which makes the car feel even more nimble. The steering on the MK6 R is heavy by today's standards and feels slow with the traditional constant-ratio rack. Two years ago, the R's steering was great, but it's all about the now. The GTI edges into turns quickly, it initiates entirely with the frontend darting to the apex. The Golf R, isn't as enthusiastic about initiating the change in direction. It requires a bit more patience and doesn't feel as committed at corner entry. Some of that is a higher polar moment of inertia; the Wavetrac limited-slip differential probably isn't helping with the turn-in either, but just after the apex it starts to make sense. Roll into the power a little early to get the turbo spooled and by the time the power is delivered, the upgraded Haldex unit is sending power to the rear-axle and the car pays off with a little bit of on throttle rotation. Has that ever been said before about a Golf?
With the GTI, you commit to the turn trying to avoid understeer on turn-in - try to get most of the turning accomplished before really getting deep in the throttle. The best you can hope for with the GTI is neutral behavior after mid-corner. It does put down power surprisingly well with measured throttle input, we did most of the canyon running in third and fourth, which is where the GTI really excels. In some of the tighter second gear turns exiting is a fight with either tire spin or traction control. It's worth noting that even trying to rein in the power, the GTI still has no torque steer.
It's worth noting that in all out grip, the MK7 had the advantage right off the bat in tires. The GTI showed up with Toyo Proxes T1R in 235/35-19, which is the company's ultra high-performance summer tire. The MK6 was equipped for daily duties using a 225/40-18 Dunlop SP Sport 01 A/S, which is also rated as an ultra high-performance tire, but all-season. Just another fact to weigh while we are talking about the Golf R having a grip advantage, even while being on all-seasons. The GTI is fitted with Neuspeed RSe10 wheels in 19x9-inch with a +45mm offset. The Golf R is on VW Motorsports Wheels in 18x7.5-inch with a +51mm offset. Although the Neuspeed wheel is substantially bigger, both wheels weigh-in at roughly 23 lb. Having driven multiple fitments on the both the MK6 and MK7 platform, my own gut feeling is that an 18-inch wheel is still the optimum diameter for both performance and ride comfort. For racing, I'd do the same thing Roland has done and go with a 17-inch wheel.
In braking, I would give the nod to the Golf R when driven hard. Again, it walked in with a slight advantage. Not only does it have bigger hardware, but also showed up wearing Hawk HPS brake pads on both axles. Both cars have braided stainless brakelines, so actuation is improved. At normal levels of braking, the Golf R pedal was a little too stiff, to the point of the pedal feeling a bit wooden and not communicating that well. If this were a daily driver, I think I would want that feel back around town. However, when using the brakes in anger, the pedal starts talking to you and by the time those pads are up to temperature, they serenade the ball of your foot with feedback. The GTIs brakes are, well, adequate. This isn't a Performance Package GTI, so it gives up an inch in rotor diameter front and rear. Also, at the time we did this there were almost no options for replacement pads for the MK7; by the time you read this, pads should be hitting shelves. I hope at least.
So we know the Golf R delivers power to the road better than the GTI but what about the engine itself? Roland's R is equipped with GIAC X2 software, an Autotech hi-flow high-pressure-fuel-pump and a variety of Neuspeed plumbing products connecting the turbo to the Neuspeed front mount intercooler and then to the throttle body. I would estimate this car is doing between 280-290 hp to the wheels and similar torque numbers. The GTI is equipped with Neuspeed's Power Module, P-Flo intake and turbo-back exhaust. While the MK7 is making roughly 250whp, it is making over 300 lb-ft of torque at the wheels from as low as 3000 RPM until just after 4500 RPM. Let's not get too focused on the numbers however. The flexibility in power delivery of the MK7 is the real trick. The GTI feels more like it can deliver the amount of power you're asking for, where the R feels like it has just a few options for you, off-boost, lower-boost and all-the-boost-now. Neither delivers naturally aspirated silkiness, but the part-throttle response in the GTI just feels better and more controllable. When you're doing your best pedal-work to be smooth into the power, or maintain throttle mid-corner, the GTI's engine management is head and shoulders above the Golf R.
At the beginning of the day, I thought this would be an easy decision. A Golf R is fantastic and all-wheel drive is almost a necessity now with how easy it is to make power with a 2.0t. But, the amount of work VW has poured into the MK7 is immediately apparent when you drive these cars back-to-back. It would be easy for an enthusiast to ignore things like a nicer interior, a quieter cabin and better electronics, but the steering, the power delivery and body rigidity are all things that really matter to us car geeks. If the Golf didn't noticeably improve with every generation, why would VW invest piles of money to do it?
As with most difficult decisions, you will need to sit down and do some real soul searching first. How much power do you really want? We all dream of big turbos and acceleration that will rival a 911, but is that realistic. Are you more concerned with the feel of the car, or more with the numbers? How important is exclusivity? If this car is going to be a daily driver, are you willing to trade off a bit of performance for comfort?
In the end, if it were my daily driver, I would take the MK7 GTI. A 2016 Performance Package with Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise control and all the other modern toys. Yes I would still complain that I bought something other than the base model S, so they forced me into leather interior. It would never be as fast around a track as a similarly modified Certified Pre-Owned MK6 Golf R and doesn't have the potential for near supercar performance either, so that comes down to your personal goals. In a perfect world, I'd walk into the dealership and work a deal on a 2016 Golf Sportwagen TDI - AND - the 2012 Golf R. That would be the best of both worlds.