What’s the Best Fun, Affordable Car?

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Several manufacturers offer affordable compact sports cars. Volkswagen — in the broader VW Group sense — sells three of them: 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 mildly tweaked variants of VW’s EA888 turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. And while not identically priced, the three sports cars are close enough that a buyer could be cross-shopping between them; a Golf R buyer could save a bit and get a GTI Autobahn — or opt to level up a bit with an S3.

So which is the best VW affordable sports car to buy? I had to take one for the Gear Patrol Motoring team and find out by doing weeklong loans around my southeastern Michigan home in all three of them. Well, technically four. My first Golf GTI had the sub-optimal dual-clutch automatic. And I wanted to sample such an illustrious and legendary vehicle in its preferred six-speed manual form — for science, of course

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The Audi S3 is the best-looking car of the group

The new Audi A3 is one of the best-looking cars in the Audi lineup with a (rare for a compact car) combination of clean lines and natural-looking proportions. The S3 is a sharper, more aggressive version of that (but not too sharp or aggressive, because it slots below the even hotter RS 3). It’s a handsome car to look at from many angles.

Neither the Golf R nor the GTI are bad-looking cars. But they are based on a utilitarian compact hatchback. And though they get a bit flashier, don’t stray too far off that course. Whatever sex appeal they exude stems from you knowing how they drive.

The Volkswagen Golf R is the most fun to drive

Driving engagement is probably the essential characteristic of a sports car. And I would give the edge there to the Golf R. There’s a lot to like about the Audi S3, which is well-tuned, precise and lightning-quick. But it’s a car that wants you to stay a bit buttoned-up while driving it. The Golf R has more pop and gives you more latitude 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 most sophisticated driving machines on the planet. And the Mk8 GTI somehow found a way to refine it still further. The Golf R keeps what I love about the GTI — precision turning, balance, smooth-shifting manual transmission — but adds more power and a raucous, rally car-esque feel that’s more memorable and just as accessible.

The Volkswagen GTI is the most affordable

The VW GTI still starts below $30,000 nominally. And if you’re sticking with the manual transmission, it tops out around $40,000 with the Autobahn trim. That’s much less than either competitor, making the GTI more accessible to a broader range of buyers.

The VW Golf R and Audi S3 start around $45,000 with standard AWD. The Golf R doesn’t get much more expensive. Your only options are transmission and color. But with the Audi S3, the price can level up dramatically. My Premium Plus trim tester came out to $55,890, and Premium Plus is only the middle trim.

Gas is also expensive these days. And manual-on-manual, the GTI gets 28 mpg combined to the Golf R’s 23 mpg combined.

The Audi S3 has the nicest interior

Audi is a more premium badge than VW. So the S3 should have the nicest interior. And it does, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. You can lux up an S3 with some diamond-stitched Nappa leather seats. However, the primary differentiator is buttons. The S3 has them; the GTI and Golf R went full digital cockpit and essentially did away with traditional ones.

The S3 also has physical climate controls. It has an easy physical volume toggle on the wheel. The VWs use touchscreen menus and an array of haptic buttons (including the heated steering wheel, one about a millimeter from where your right palm rests on the steering wheel. Bottom line: the S3 is comprehensively easier to use, and ease is a major component of luxury.

The Volkswagen Golf R is the most practical of the three

Sedans have gone out of fashion — to the point I had to explain to my four-year-old son what one was when we had the S3. A primary reason is they don’t hold as much stuff. The GTI and Golf R are still reasonably practical hatchbacks that can compete with small crossovers for cargo space, especially if you fold down the seats. The hatchbacks also seemed to have a bit more rear-seat room. 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 — particularly in Michigan — also means being able to handle winter weather. The GTI does fine as a FWD hatchback. But the Golf R was the best car I drove in the snow all winter — and I drove both a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota 4Runner. It handles flawlessly and delivers impressive grip with the excellent torque-vectoring AWD system.

The Golf R isn’t a track car you can drive in the snow. It’s a track car you should drive in the snow. In a GTI, you’re a little hesitant when the flakes start falling. With a Golf R, you’re racing out to beat the plows and do some donuts.

I would buy the Volkswagen Golf R

There’s no bad option among these three cars. But if I had $50,000 to burn and were forced to choose one of them, it would be the Volkswagen Golf R. The Audi S3 presents well, and it has the premium badge. But there’s no manual, and the relative lack of space can be a deal-breaker.

The Volkswagen GTI is one of my absolute favorites — even with the asinine infotainment and climate control setup — but the Golf R is more capable, fun and versatile. And compared to the Autobahn trim, you get a lot more performance for not that much more money.

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