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Volkswagen Golf R vs. Golf GTI TCR

The Mk7 GTI has been playing second fiddle to the mighty Golf R for years. Can the TCR finally reset the scales?

By Nic Cackett / Wednesday, January 01, 2020

In three and a bit months of driving our Golf GTI TCR around, I think I'm yet to see another one on the road. Examples of the Golf R, on the other hand, are everywhere. In the nation's south-east, it has achieved the sort of omnipresence normally reserved for the current BMW 3 Series or something family-sized made by Land Rover. Very competitive finance deals must account for some of that volume, but all the affordability in the world wouldn't matter if the inherent rightness of the car's basic formula weren't nailed down. The Golf R is, of course, the reason why the latest BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A35 look and sound the way they do - 300hp, all-wheel drive and a smartly groomed appearance are now virtually obligatory.

Where its rivals are built to tread on its toes, then, the TCR has been deliberately kept a respectful distance from the R's established ingredients. This is chiefly the reason for it sporting 290hp - only the limited-edition Clubsport S has been permitted beyond 300hp with a single axle to shoulder the burden. The top-spec GTI is lighter though, by around 85kg, and, as sportauto recently proved, it's definitively no slouch when it comes to the business of being unceremoniously flung between bridge and gantry. It is also very nearly the same price - or in the case of our longtermer, pricier - which does beg the inevitable question.

Establishing which is best will not take long for some. The R has prospered on its underemphasised appearance; it is the Oxford shirt of the hot hatch segment. The TCR has all the same well-finished Mk7 bone structure, but its jutting chin and exaggerated rear diffuser (nominally explained away as motorsport influence) is the automotive equivalent of skinny jeans and hi-top trainers. Throw in the optional 19-inch gloss black 'Pretoria' alloys and TCR decals and you've got yourself a hatchback actively plugging its own hotness.

I quite like it. But I'd understand if you didn't. The R is handsome in a very easily gettable way - and it still has exclusive use of the quad exhausts, which are precisely twice as good as the GTI's twin pipes. VW's press car doubles down on that fact with the optional Akrapovic sports exhaust - a £3,000 titanium tick which simultaneously subtracts 7kg from the Golf's mass and threatens to scupper any objectivity in the test from minute one. You can have it on the TCR, too - but it's not on ours, and that's a problem because it supplies just the sort of off-beat warble that you're likely to want in a fast Golf.

Second on the unfair advantage list is the steering. It hadn't occurred to me that it would be significantly different, but it is. Right from the off the R's rack has a noticeably meatier level of resistance. At manoeuvring speeds, you'll be summoning up perhaps 10 per cent more effort to execute a three-point turn, which translates into it being about 10 per cent better when you're at speed. Not because it actually is better - it just feels it. The sensation of something consequential happening away from centre, the fractionally higher loading on the wrists; it adds up to 10 per cent more confidence when you really need it.

Granted, it's not a crucial difference at everyday pace because the Golf (almost any Mk7 Golf, really) is so adept at carrying speed. Unsurprisingly, both R and TCR are exceptionally good at it. The former benefits in this respect from further press office ticking, it having gained the £2,400 R Performance Pack, which adds those very fetching 19-inch 'Spielberg' wheels, as well as the familiar three-stage adaptive dampers that comprise the £875 Dynamic Chassis Control. That makes it essentially identical to the TCR in its running gear, and aside from perhaps slightly superior refinement (admittedly subjective) it rides in the same poised and impressively pliant fashion - assuming you have the good sense to keep the suspension in its 'Comfort' setting most of the time.

Thanks to the banishment of a six-speed manual option on either model (a sore point in the office) the seven-speed DSG juggles what is effectively the same amount of power in the same way, and - in-gear, on a dry-ish day - it's the weight difference which is more telling than the R's ability to divert some of its torque to the back axle. You'll need to press on with serious intent (or else find an empty roundabout) to locate the tangible advantages of the all-wheel drive system - and when it does hook up the rear axle, the R does it judiciously and as a way of enhancing neutrality, not playfulness.

For much of the time, the TCR does not want for assistance. There is grip and agility in spades and any difference in cornering speed (beyond hairpins) is based on the R's aforementioned superiority in steering feel, not traction. The real benefit, and it is as plain as the near second-long advantage quoted in 0-62mph times, is the R's ability to get away from a set of traffic lights or T junction without squandering its progress as juddering wheel spin. The problem is not unique to the TCR, of course - Clubsport S aside, it's a prevailing issue for the GTI - but additional output has clearly not helped the situation.

Not for the first time, you do wonder why the second most powerful front-drive Golf wasn't afforded the same suspension geometry as the most powerful (which seemed to do the trick), but that's academic. The TCR doesn't have it, and you'll be reminded of that fact every time you try to get spiritedly away from the line in less than optimum conditions. It is precisely this circumstance (among others) which had VW settling on all-wheel drive as necessary for its quickest Golf variants in the first place. And while the six-pot which necessitated it has been replaced, the decision holds up.

For the purposes of this test, it counts as the third virtue on the R's added-value list. But unless you're partial to seeing the amber light of a put-upon traction control system every time you lunge for a space in the traffic, it is the model's defining advantage over the GTI - especially in a country where you can count on the roads being wet for six months of each year.

Add in the burlier steering and sound, and the R retains its title it by a nose. Or should that be tail? It edges it, anyway. Ultimately Volkswagen engineered the top spec model to be more sophisticated - and more often than not, it feels it. That fact doesn't prevent the TCR being the best Mk7 GTI this side of the Clubsport S - but as its generation finally exits stage left in 2020, it must console itself with being only the third most desirable iteration.

Be that as it may, I for one am going to miss it. With the Mk8 GTI just round the corner, there's not much time left on our TCR's clock, and I've honestly never tired of driving it. Not just in a hair-on-fire, empty-B-road way, but in all the others, too - and that's always been the fast Golf calling card. I'd still recommend the R, mind, though not the one pictured. That honour goes to the manual version produced with 310hp, just before WLTP kicked the combination into touch. Assuming you want back seats, that's the Mk7 Golf to have. Thank goodness there are plenty to choose from.

1,984cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 290@5,400-6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,950-5,300rpm
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited, optionally 162mph)
Weight: 1,410kg
CO2: 153g/km (WLTP)
MPG: 36.2 (WLTP)
Price: £35,305 (price as standard; as tested £41,289 comprised of GTI TCR Performance Pack - 8J x 19" Pretoria Black alloys with 235/35 R19 semi-slick tyres and anti-theft wheel bolts, derestricted top speed to 164 mph, lowered sports suspension by approx. 20mm and Dynamic chassis Control (DCC)(£2,900) Panoramic sunroof - electric, glass sliding/tilting including integrated blind (£1,000) rear tinted glass - from B-pillar backwards, approx. 90% tinted (£100) side decals - honeycomb design (£555) rear side airbags - includes rear seat belt tensioners (for 2 outer rear seats) and optical warning if rear seat. Pure Grey (£595) with TCR upholstery belts unfastened (£300) Retailer fitted optional equipment: Vodaphone S5-VTS - vehicle tracker including one year subscription (£534.19 incl. fitting)

1,984cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,500-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,525kg
CO2: 164g/km (WLTP)
MPG: 32.8 (WLTP)
Price: from £36,345 (price as standard; as tested £44,357 comprised of R Performance Pack - 8J x 19" Spielberg wheels with 235/35 R19 tyres, performance brakes, silver coloured brake callipers, derestricted top speed, rear spoiler (£2,400) Akrapovic titanium sport exhaust system and valve control system (£3,000) Carbon fibre door mirror housings (£475) Dynamic Chassic Control (£875) Rear tinted glass (£125) Retailer fitted optional equipment: Vodaphone S5-VTS - vehicle tracker including one year subscription (£462 incl. fitting) Lapiz Blue metallic signature (£675)

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