Updated: November 6, 2015
I distinctly remember the date. May 1990. It was my first encounter with BMW 850i, which looked like a spaceship blessed with wheels. Powered by a 5.0-liter V12, it developed a most mighty 300 PS, had a six-speed manual gearbox, and could accelerate 0-100 km/h in about five seconds and limited top speed of 250 km/h. That was a glorious moment.
Fast forward to 2015, and today, you have hot hatches with 2.0-liter fourpot engines, coupled to some serious turbo and superchargers, and they develop a similar rating, with similar acceleration and performance figures to the BMW of yore. Two of these lovely specimen are Audi S3 and VW Golf R, both with Haldex 4MOTION four-wheel drive system and 6-speed DSG gearbox, which I had the pleasure of driving around for a brief while. Better yet, brace yourselves gents and ladies, ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Yup, I get to play with these awesome machines in the UK, and this is where have a full head-on test, side by side. The two cars share their DNA, they are practically identical, but really, are they? Let's see.
Let's begin with the Audi, and not because it's alphabetically superior. The test car was a three-door version, and it comes with some neat defaults, the most significant of these the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), which electronically controls the steering, throttle response, engine noise, and the firmness of the suspension. However, if you seek complete control over the ride, you need to purchase magnetic dampers. You also get Start/Stop, Xenon headlights, MMI with a 7-inch popup display screen and eight speakers, DAB radio, Bluetooth, electromechanic parking brake, chrome and steel trimming, spoilers, branding, and fancy seats.
On the other hand, Volkswagen Golf R offers a more restrained default set. It comes with two-tone cloth seats, and if you want a single-tone leather, you need to pay an extra GBP1,720 for the Vienna set. Likewise, the basic multimedia system offers only a 3.5-inch TFT screen, and a proper media with navigation costs between GBP750 and GBP1,765, depending if you want the smaller 6.5-inch or the larger 8-inch display, plus all the extras. Then, DCC is also not included, and it costs a rather handsome GBP830. At the very least, Xenon headlights are there by default.
Amazingly, you would think that Audi is the costlier option, but it turns out that Golf leads by a margin of almost GBP2,000, at roughly GBP38,500 compared to Audi's more reasonable GBP36,000, mostly because of all the extras that you may or may not want, but which you get in S3 for no extra cost. This is quite surprising.
Both cars are quite pretty. S3 has a more aggressive look, while Golf hides its character in a sheep's skin, especially if you go for simple colors. Bright look-at-me red is a no-cost option for the Audi, whereas such color is not available for its rival. A lovely metallic blue is yet another extra. Both cars have quad exhausts at the back, which add spice, although both are fed with a synthetically processed grunt that does not become small engines. More about the acoustics a while later.
Golf R comes with a slightly busy, family-man cockpit, which is practical and useful but maybe a bit cluttered. The dashboard comes with blue-tinted dials, which are more dramatic than the somewhat more neutral white and red used in S3. The central console is practical, but again, busy. Audi S3 offers a more minimalistic workspace, with that futuristic popup screen and awesome round air vents. The MMI control wheel is also rad.
I struggled with the electric parking brake in both cars, as it is simply not intuitive. It engages with a click, and disengages by pressing the throttle, which sort of makes sense, but it feel detached. In Volkswagen Golf, there's another problem. The gear lever is unchanged from the continental European version, so the button that engages the DCC is positioned on the left side. This makes sense in Germany, where the steering wheel is on the left side, and the button is located close to the driver's right knee. In Britain, with the RHD cars, the button sits on the opposite side, and access is effectively blocked by the gear lever.
The fun part. Both cars are quite awesome. They are fast, precise, sharp, brutal when they need to be, and the dual-clutch gearbox is smart enough to distribute power to all the different tires in a smooth manner that does not make you want to hate it. In fact, the higher the engine values, the more sense the DSG makes. I am normally opposed to automated systems, but the 300HP limit seems logical.
The torque value is also decent, at 380Nm. It's not too high, but the engine will do the necessary calculations for you, and in my brief testing, I did not feel like the system was not doing its job. You can also fine-tune the engine noise to match your mood, with a bit of electronically orchestrated aurals, i.e. cheating. In fact, if you set the DCC to the racing mode, the exhausts will positively start to growl. In Audi, this feels quite forced really, and the engine sounds the best in its neutral setting. Golf R has a more natural, more guttural sound, and it's more fun to rev. In fact, I decided to compile a bit of noise for you. It's really a quick dash, as it takes roughly only about 5 seconds to get to 100 km/h, so it may sound effortless and unspectacular.
Cruising in the city was fine, except for the fact most drivers are Top Gear wannabes, they drive way too fast for urban traffic and brake too late, which indicates poor planning. S3 handled road bumps and potholes with more grace, although the rear bench space is limited in the three-door version. Golf R is more spacious and also a tad wider, so it does feel heavier, less focused. It's also quite comfortable, unless you drive around with the firmest setting, in which case your kidneys will suffer, especially if you're positioned over the rear axis. Not as bad as my Corsa OPC experience, but still quite jarring.
Motorway driving is fine, but with such rapid acceleration (narrate this Bruno style please), overtaking other cars and merging into traffic really takes no effort, and consequently, you don't get any satisfaction. You will really need to work the cars hard to get a sense of accomplishment, and that's best left for the track.
One thing that really annoyed me, and again, this is entirely a RHD problem, is that Golf has a footrest on the right side of the driver's footwell. Yes, on the right bloody side! To the right of the throttle. You can actually rest your foot there, and let the adaptive cruise control handle the traffic for you. Which sort of defeats the purpose of a hot hatch, plus it's dangerous as you might misplace your foot if you need to break suddenly, and your attention may waver as you're not focusing on doing what you should be doing in the first place, and that's driving the bloody car.
My testing was too short to take notice of any lasting problems or gauge the fuel consumption correctly, but given all the aids added and designed to make you drive your car to the max, it won't be very low. The comfort is pretty good, the seats are huggy and loving, and the steering is precise, despite its digital upbringing. Audi S3 is that much sharper, probably because it's a tiny bit smaller. Indeed, Golf R is 2 cm longer and wider as well as 40 kg heavier. However, both deliver 4.9-sec time 0-100 km/h. Overall, very very similar, but not quite the same.
This was a relatively short review, because 'twas a short driving experience, but it is amazing how much stuff one can learn just by sitting down in a car and rolling about for a few km, or should I say miles. Hi hi. Then, it's all the more amazing when you consider the fact that Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R have the same chassis, the same engine, the same gearbox, and most of the rest. But the looks are different, and the driving dynamics are different, and the two cars aim for different market segments.
With 300PS, 250 km/h limited top speed, sub-5.0 second acceleration, four-wheel transmission, and lots of cool perks, including flat-bottom steering wheels and flappy paddles, these 2015 hot hatches deliver an experience that is probably very similar to my childhood hero, BMW 850i. And yet, it couldn't be any more alien and different in every sense, as these modern machines squeeze their juice and magic using the power of electronics. But now, the big question is, which one is the favorite? If you ask me, then the winner of this little rivalry joust is the Audi. It's more handsome, it's cheaper, it's better equipped, it's a wee sharper when it comes to driving and feeling the road, and it doesn't have a footrest in the wrong place. All combined, the VW Group has made sure its flagship offering keeps flying their colors proudly. So Audi it is. Grades wise, Golf R, 9.0/10, S3, 9.5/10. Done.