Over time, the hot hatch has evolved into a high-performance family car with a welcomed balance of sophistication and practicality that makes them a great - and cheaper - alternative to a fancy sports car.
Here we’re going to look at two high performance hot hatches: the Audi S3 and VW Golf R. As these two models share many of the same basic mechanical components, it was a no-brainer to pin these two top performers head to head.
The Audi S3 might be slightly posher and more expensive, but you’ll understand where your money’s going as soon as you slide into the luscious cabin. On the flipside, the Volkswagen Golf R drives with effortless elegance and handles like a dream.
With plenty of similarities, what makes these spiced-up hot hatches stand out from each other. Which has the bigger boot? Does the Audi S3 have a better infotainment system? Is the VW Golf R cheaper to insure? Read on to find out who edges this epic battle!
If you’d like to compare the standard versions of these models, our Audi A3 vs Volkswagen Golf comparison post breaks everything down. If you’re set on an Audi, our Audi A3 vs S3 comparison helps you pick the two models apart. Our Audi A3 alternatives and Audi S3 alternatives posts also feature a list of the German brand’s closest competitors if you’re keeping your options open.
Audi S3 vs Golf R
Before we get the gloves out, let’s take a quick look at some of the specs, pros and cons of the Golf R vs Audi S3.
- Doors: 5
- Engine: 2.0
- Fuel: P
- Body: Hatchback
- Drive: M, A
- CO2: 150 - 199g/km
- Doors: 3 - 5
- Engine: 2.0
- Fuel: P
- Body: Hatchback
- Drive: M, A
- CO2: 159 - 199g/km
Sleek interior cabin
Virtual Cockpit not standard
Straight off the bat, the Audi S3 has the advantage of being available in both Saloon and Sportback (hatchback) form. The Saloon’s sloping roofline eats away at rear headroom in comparison to the Sportback, but both styles come with the same visual updates as the standard A3 model: 18-inch alloy wheels, an aggressive front grille, large air inlets, a rear bumper, and matrix LED headlights.
From the outside, the VW Golf R might come across as a pocket-rocket, but it’s got the practicality and passenger space to match the Audi S3. If you’re looking to fly under the radar, the Golf R’s subtle styling could be right up your street.
Both these hot hatches are available as a youthful three-door or more practical five-door. You’ll also notice that both the S3 and Golf R don quad exhaust pipes - possibly excessive for a 2.0-litre engine but badass nonetheless! Offered in a range of snazzy colours, they both boast their respective sleek “S3” and “R” badges on their front grilles.
With its bolder exterior styling and optional body styles, the Audi S3 edges round 1!
Housing the same 310bhp 2.0-litre turbo-charged four cylinder engine means there’s little to differentiate the Audi S3 and VW Golf R in terms of performance. Both cars reach a potent top speed of 155 mph and are capable of achieving 0-62mph in under 5 seconds.
One way in which these two speed demons differ is their standard gearboxes. The Audi S3’s automatic, seven-speed, DSG dual-clutch gearbox (S Tronic) shifts smoothly, working in unison with the quattro all-wheel drive system.
The Golf R comes standard with a six speed DSG manual gearbox but you can upgrade to an automatic version for an extra £1800 if you’d like. The upgrade is ideal if you stick to city driving, but the manual handles twisty roads with aplomb.
Steering in the Audi S3 doesn’t have quite as much feel to it as the VW Golf R so it’s not as fun on twisty roads. The Golf R has tremendous grip thanks to the four-wheel drive system which allows you to dart through bends at a fair rate of knots.
The VW Golf is a much more involved and enjoyable drive on your weekend adventures, but the Audi S3 is a much better cruiser on straight roads and in traffic. This one’s too close to call so we’ll leave the final decision up to your personal preference.
The superior interiors of the Audi S3 and VW Golf R knock popular hot hatches like the Honda Civic back into the last century.
Leather sports seats come as standard on the S3, while the flat-bottomed steering wheel and gear stick are stamped with shiny “S” badges. For the price you’re paying, you may feel like the infotainment system lets you down a touch. Audi Virtual Cockpit costs extra and the teeny 5.8-inch screen that controls most of the car’s systems can be a little underwhelming.
Although the Golf R’s interior doesn’t feel as premium as the S3’s, you’ll still spot carbon-fibre effect trim pieces on the dashboard as well as soft and squidgy plastics dotted around the cabin. The Golf R comes with sports seats as standard but they’re not leather. If you want to upgrade to leather you’ll have to fork out an extra £1800 which feels a tad excessive.
Despite there not being a whole lot to tell the Golf R apart from the GTI, you do get a top of the range 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system as standard which is visually pleasing and easy to use. You also get Volkswagen’s Active Info Display (similar to Audi Virtual Cockpit) which replaces the conventional analogue instruments with a 12.3-inch digital dial with sat-nav capabilities.
The Audi S3’s all-round ambience scoops up the prizes here, but the Golf R is hot on its heels.
For all of their upgraded features, these hot hatches have made sure that they don’t sacrifice any space and practicality. Actually that’s a little fib - both the S3 and Golf R have lost 40 litres worth of boot space to house the four wheel drive rear differential system that is housed underneath the boot floor.
Nevertheless, the Audi S3’s heavily bolstered front seats provide unadulterated comfort on long journeys and offer a decent amount of head and leg room for four passengers if you avoid the sloping S3 Saloon body style. The five-door Audi S3 Sportback packs 340 litres in the boot with the seats up and 1,180 litres with all the seats down.
The VW Golf’s front sports seats are very adjustable, but critics have noted that they can be a touch restrictive if you’re big boned. Jump in the back and the R’s rear seats are big enough for three tall-ish adults to sit in relative comfort. The deceptively big hatchback also comes with loads of safety tech as standard which has earned it a five-star Euro NCAP rating.
There’s hardly anything to choose between the Audi S3 and VW Golf R in terms of practicality. With healthy identical boot sizes and roomy cabins, this dynamic duo have clearly stated that they are no one-trick ponies.
In terms of outright cost, you’re going to have to fork out an extra couple of thousand pounds to land the Audi S3. Priced at just under £36,000, the Audi S3 Sportback may feel a little steep compared to the VW Golf R’s £33,000 price tag.
However, if you’ve got the extra couple of thousand and you’re looking for that premium brand name, by all means treat yourself to the comfort and luxury of the Audi. If £30k+ is stretching your budget, the VW Golf GTI is an absolute steal for £27,000 if you can fight your boy racer urges.
For performance cars, both the Audi S3 and VW Golf R produce relatively decent running costs. You can expect fuel economy anywhere between 30-40mpg irrespective of the gearbox you choose.
The Golf R is slightly cheaper to insure - falling into group 29 as opposed to the Audi S3 up in group 36.
On the basis of outright cost and insurance costs, the VW Golf R has the S3 on toast. Strip away the aesthetics and the Golf R’s performance rivals sports cars that cost triple the price!
The Audi S3 pips it!
From the outside in, the Audi S3 has a certain je ne sais quoi that the Golf R ultimately can’t compete with.
That being said, if luxury features don’t tickle you as much as a pure exhilarating driving experience, the Golf R should definitely be considered. Its involving drive and boundless grip make it the perfect fix for adrenaline junkies, while its roomy cabin and subtle styling makes it great for families.
Both these cars are everyday family cars that can mix it with performance cars when they need to, but we just feel that the Audi S3 is more of a Superman and the VW Golf R is Clark Kent.
A tad out of your price range? You can also compare the standard versions of these models in our Audi A3 vs Volkswagen Golf comparison post. Our Audi A3 vs S3 comparison post is another great read if your eyes are fixed on the luxuries offered by Audi. Still not made up your mind? Our Audi A3 alternatives and Audi S3 alternatives posts feature a list of the similarly priced and similarly performing cars.