By Casey Liss
Casey on Cars: 2018 Volkswagen GTI Autobahn
Volkswagen GTI in the dark

Often times, the best — but also worst — problem in the world is a difficult choice.

As I write this, 40mm versus 44mm is one of those choices.

Sometimes it’s shaken or stirred.[1].

If you’re very lucky, it’s something else entirely: GTI or R.

Volkswagen offers several different flavors of its all-things-to-all-people Golf line. Many of them I find uninteresting. Two of them are not only interesting, but compelling: the GTI and the R.

How do you choose between them? At first glance, it’s a very difficult choice to make.

Two very powerful, very fast, very comfortable, very good hatchbacks, both of which seem like they should cost more money than they do. It’s a tough choice.

Video

This would not be a Casey on Cars review without a video. You can find my video review of the GTI on my YouTube channel. I’d love if you take a few minutes to watch it:

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the Golf line, there are several different models:

  • Golf – The standard economy hatchback
  • e-Golf – The super economy hatchback
  • GTI – The hot hatchback
  • R – The performance hatchback

The space between the models varies depending on which pairing you’re comparing. With the GTI and the Golf R, the differences are slight. Almost imperceptible at a glance.

In my review of the R, I wrote the following:

The Golf R is, on the surface, little more than a GTI cranked to 11. However, upon closer inspection, it’s quite a lot more than that… while also being less than that.

Having spent a week with the GTI, I stand by the above.

Again quoting myself:

At a glance, there are a few major changes from the GTI. The Golf R:

  • Has a Haldex all wheel drive system
  • Has more power:
    • Horsepower is bumped from 220 → 292, a ∆ of 72 HP
    • Torque is bumped from 258 → 280, a ∆ of 22 lbft
  • Is made in Germany (the GTI is actually assembled in Mexico)
  • Has Volkswagen’s new “Digital Cockpit” instead of traditional analog gauges.
  • Has an electronic parking brake

As it turns out, there’s a lot more space between the two cars than I originally thought.

GTI from the side

Starting Lineup

The particular GTI I was able to spend time with was a Autobahn, which is the highest trim level available on the GTI.

The GTI S is the base model; if you opt for the SE, you get:

  • A 8" larger touchscreen (instead of the S’s 6.5")
  • Sunroof
  • A limited slip differential
  • Larger brakes
  • Nicer wheels
  • LED headlights
  • Blind spot monitoring

Opting instead for the Autobahn also gives you:

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Dynamic chassis control
  • Fender audio
  • More configurable driver’s seat
  • Leather seats
  • Dual-zone climate control

The Autobahn is considered fully loaded; the only options you really get at the Autobahn trim level are exterior color and transmission.

GTI's hindquarters at night

Shifting Gears

The particular GTI Autobahn I was given was equipped with Volkswagen’s direct shift gearbox, which is their dual-clutch automated manual transmission. It’s also a $1100 option. To oversimplify, the DSG is sorta kinda two separate manual transmissions that are interleaved. There are two clutches — one per transmission — which allows for expected shifts to be lightning-fast.

I’ve said for years, that I much prefer DCT/DSG transmissions over traditional automatics. Though I’ll always prefer to row my own, it’s clear that won’t be an option for long. A DCT/DSG is as close as one gets while still having only two pedals.

Or is it?

As discussed in my Giulia review, the ZF 8-speed is truly phenomenal. So good, in fact, that I think I prefer it to the DSG in the GTI. Which is a deeply uncomfortable conclusion I never expected to come to.

The problem with the DSG in the GTI is that it never lets you forget that you are driving a hack. It’s a phenomenally impressive hack, but ultimately, still a hack. It’s taking a manual transmission and trying to bend it to be something it really isn’t. It’s right there in the name: manual transmission! It shouldn’t be automated!

This is most easily exemplified by trying to take off, from a stop, with a moderate quickness. In the ZF, it would behave exactly as I expected: a quick-ish launch, then lots of acceleration. In the GTI, it was different. I got a standard, more leisurely launch, and then once the computer felt like the clutch was done slipping, it would lay on the throttle.

This never felt really natural, and always frustrated me, at least a little bit.

Otherwise, the DSG was great. The only other foible I really noticed was that it allowed you to request a downshift into first gear at speeds where you probably shouldn’t. It was never smooth, to the point that I wish the transmission just ignored my requests. I eventually trained myself not to ask for a downshift to first, but it took me a while.

Closeup of the GTI headlight assembly

Traction Liss

Though the DSG left me wanting for the magical ZF 8-speed[2], all in all I liked it a lot. Regardless of the transmission the GTI is equipped with, it was stunningly quick.

I quite expected to dearly miss the speed of the R. I expected the GTI to be noticeably — if not considerably — slower.

It turns out I was right, but not for the reason I expected.

The GTI makes way, way too much power for the front wheels.

Any time I really got on the gas, I got wheelspin. Wet weather? Wheelspin. Dry weather? Wheelspin. Turning? Wheelspin. Straight shot? Wheelspin.

Naturally, this could come down to the Bridgestone tires that the car was equipped with. A friend also has a 2018 GTI Autobahn, but with aftermarket tires, and he swears it’s a totally different car. But he concedes it doesn’t make the traction problems go away; they’re simply decreased.

When the GTI digs in, and connects, it’s nearly as fast as the R. Fast enough that my butt dyno couldn’t really tell much of a difference. However, with almost any steering input, or any amount of moisture on the road, all bets are off.

So, the R is quite a bit faster, but not because of the motor; it’s because of the all wheel drive system.

On the plus side, however, the limited slip differential in the GTI must be powered by unicorn tears, because it was magical. I never felt any torque steer, which I remain surprised by. The last time I drove a truly powerful front wheel drive car — my dad’s SRT-4 — it torque steered like its life depended on it. I got none of that in the GTI.

GTI rear lights at night

Value for Money

The GTI has its problems, but one thing I consider to be inarguable: a Volkswagen GTI — in any trim — is incredible value for money. The interior fit and finish feels like a car north of $40,000. The GTI is well equipped, particularly in Autobahn trim. All of this car can be had for $37,065.

However, a base GTI S starts at $26k. That’s already a ridiculous deal, but from what I’ve been told, dealers are willing to make deals on GTIs. It’s not unheard of to get a GTI for around $20k. Brand new.

I can’t imagine a better deal for a car that can do almost everything, and do so with such gusto.

GTI vs. R

When I reviewed the R, I had said that I was looking to unload my BMW, and replace it with either a GTI or an R. Having had a week with the R, then a week with the GTI, I have reached a conclusion.

The GTI is legendary. People have been raving about GTIs since before I was born, and for good reason. I’ve heard from everyone — those in the know and those who are not — that it’s the ultimate all-things-for-all-people car. And everyone is right; the GTI really is. Bang for the buck, value for money, it’s the best I’ve ever driven. By a mile.

However, I hated the GTI.

I hated the GTI because it exposed a second uncomfortable truth: I’m not a particularly good driver. I’m not good at being gentle with steering and throttle input. I’m not good at being… discreet. I like to be able to just plant the gas, turn the wheel, and go.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago, this happened:

We bought ourselves a 2018 Golf R. 6MT, of course.

The GTI is an incredible deal, and a phenomenal car. I would happily drive one. But to spend my money, I wanted to get the car that best suited my driving style. So we got a Golf R.

I couldn’t be happier.

At the end of the day, I put my money where my mouth is, and I did my part to save the manuals. Will you do yours?


  1. It’s always vodka though.

  2. Thinking this, much less saying this publicly, still feels gross. But it is how I feel.


 

This week’s episode of Kathy Campbell’s feel-good podcast about podcasts, Friends in Your Ears, I join my friend nemesis fremesis Matt Alexander to discuss how we got into podcasts, why we started making them, and our favorite podcasts.

Additionally, Matt and I end up dissatisfied with each other’s answers to the bonus question, and decide to take matters into our own hands.

This was tremendous fun to record; I bet you’ll enjoy it.


 

This week I joined Jason Snell, Stephen Hackett, and fellow guest Carolina Milanesi on Relay’s weekly wrap-up show, Download. Download is designed to give you an overview of the interesting tech stories, all in one easy-to-consume episode. Think of it as a summary version of Subnet.

On this week’s episode, we discussed iPhone and Watch rumors, leaving Facebook, Facebook and Twitter on Capitol Hill, and Evernote circling the drain.


 

I’m not really sure why I started listening to Free Agents, but I did so from the very first episode.

I suppose it was because it starred two friends of mine, David Sparks and Jason Snell. The content wasn’t relevant to me though, as I would never be bold enough to leave my job.

Well, life finds a way.

Fast forward two years, and a swap from Jason to Mike Schmitz, and I’ve found myself on the most recent Free Agents as a guest.

This was a tremendous honor, and a ton of fun to record. We discussed what it was like to decide to go indie, and how I didn’t learn any of the lessons the prior 53 episodes of Free Agents tried to teach me.

Whether or not you’re interested in going indie, it was a fun conversation; I encourage you to check it out.

 

I’m a bit behind on my blog posts; I’ve been furiously filming footage for my next episode of Casey on Cars. Speaking of Casey on Cars, I discussed the stars of two forthcoming episodes with Sam and Dan on the most recent episode of their very enjoyable car-themed podcast, Wheel Bearings.

On this episode we discussed what I’ve been driving, but also the land yacht that Dan has fallen in love with, as well as a couple of eco-friendly cars Sam has found himself in. Finally, we end up having an accidental tech podcast at the end. Figures.

If you even slightly enjoyed Neutral, I can’t recommend Wheel Bearings enough.


 

Today I joined Guilherme Rambo and John Sundell on episode 12 of their great podcast, Stacktrace. Think ATP, but if the three of us really let our developer flags fly.

On this episode, Gui, John, and myself discussed Gui’s spelunking in the most recent iOS 12 beta, CarPlay, Casey on Cars, and going indie. I had a blast talking with the boys, and I think you’ll really enjoy the episode.

In general, Stacktrace is great for not only the investigative reports from Gui, but also the experience and insight from John. I’ve been subscribed since episode one; you should check it out.


Good Instagram Follows

Instagram almost always makes me happy. Which is pretty much the opposite of Twitter.

Yesterday on Instagram, I asked this question:

What Instagram account – that isn't yours – should I be following?

I got a lot of good responses. I’d love some more diverse accounts though, so please reply to my Instagram story with good ones! Here’s some accounts that I’ve checked out and have started following:

And finally, since I have your attention:

  • Casey Liss
    Family, cars, football, and occasionally booze.

Volkwagen Golf R in the dark

I have a problem.

My car is constantly in the shop. Since purchasing my 2011 BMW 335i xDrive in 2012, we’ve put around $10,000 worth of repairs into it. That is not a typo. Additionally, BMW has foot the bill for another ~$5,000. A total of roughly $15,000 spent in repairs in my six years of ownership; my time with the car started less than two years into the car’s life.

I love my car… when it works. But with each passing mile, my confidence in it wanes. Mechanics can fix the car; no mechanic is good enough to repair my confidence. It’s time for something new.

On paper, what I want is another BMW: a 340i or M3. But I look at the price tag, and I realize it’s more than I can afford. Even if I could afford it, I can’t bring myself to try another BMW. I need a break, and my confidence needs to rebuild.

So what do I do?

I want something that’s three pedals, four doors, reasonably nice, reasonably fast.

Options:

  • Audi A4
    Possibly a bit too slow; definitely a bit too expensive.
  • Civic Type R
    I’m not sixteen.
  • Ford Focus ST
    I’m not twenty one.
  • Ford Focus RS
    I’m not eighteen.
  • Honda Accord
    I’m not forty.
  • Volkwagen GTI
    A smidge too slow.

However, Volkswagen has an ace in the hole.

Enter the Volkwagen Golf R.

Video

As with all Casey on Cars reviews, I have filmed and produced a video about the Golf R. I’d really appreciate it if you could watch it, throw it a 👍, and even subscribe to my YouTube channel. I still have plenty of ways to grow as a YouTuber and car reviewer, and I already have plans I’m really excited about for the next edition of Casey on Cars.

More and Liss Less

The Golf R is, on the surface, little more than a GTI cranked to 11. However, upon closer inspection, it’s quite a lot more than that… while also being less than that.

The Golf R is the latest in a line of cars that began with the R32 in the early aughts[1]. The most hot-roddy of all the hot-rod editions of the Golf, it is Volkswagen’s offering as the pinnacle of performance in a utilitarian body. The hottest of Volkswagen’s hot hatches. (Though interestingly, Volkswagen’s web site presents the GTI as a hot hatch and the R as a performance hatch.)

Golf R

At a glance, there are a few major changes from the GTI. The Golf R:

  • Has a Haldex all wheel drive system
  • Has more power:
    • Horsepower is bumped from 220 → 292, a ∆ of 72 HP
    • Torque is bumped from 258 → 280, a ∆ of 22 lbft
  • Is made in Germany (the GTI is actually assembled in Mexico)
  • Has Volkswagen’s new “Digital Cockpit” instead of traditional analog gauges.
  • Has an electronic parking brake

However, not everything is a victory. The Golf R:

  • Lacks a sunroof
  • Cannot park itself
  • Is a shade under $5,000 more than a loaded GTI

So, which is the one to buy?

I got to spend a full week with the Golf R, just a couple weeks after I spent about 20 minutes with a former colleague’s GTI. Though I’d love a lot more time with the GTI for a proper comparison, I spent enough time with the GTI to get the gist.

Exterior

The Golf R is very quiet about the fact that it’s the fastest of all the Golfs. There is only one R badge for each side of the car. In fact, the most ostentatious part of the car is probably the quad exhausts in the rear. Despite being both visually and aurally loud, I quite like them.

Rear of the Golf R

Things are not all perfect, however.

Those wheels. What is going on with those wheels?

Speilberg wheels

Known as “Spielberg” or “Englishtown” wheels, I really dislike them. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, I loved the 2017 Golf R’s "Pretoria" wheels:

Pretoria wheels

I know wheels are an easy thing to change, but Volkswagen, your wheels. Woof.

Interior

The interior of the Golf R is a fine place to be. It does not feel like a Volkwagen to me, but rather, more like an Audi. In fact, I spent a very very short amount of time in a brand-new A4 this past weekend, and in many ways I think the Volkwagen was laid out more logically, while feeling no cheaper than the Audi.

Volkswagen interior

The seats are comfortable and the side bolstering in the front is more than sufficient. Quite oddly, however, the driver’s seat was 100% electric, but the passenger seat was almost entirely manual. Only the seatback’s tilt was electric. It was a very peculiar choice; I almost feel like for consistency’s sake, the tilt should have been manual too. Nevertheless, the rear has ample legroom; I was surprisingly comfortable in the back, and didn’t long for more space.

All the way in back, things were hit and miss. The Golf is a hatchback, and as such, the opening to the trunk is massive. However, there is almost no depth to the trunk; it is far shallower than my BMW. Quite obviously, it is considerably taller than my BMW’s trunk, but given the choice, I prefer my volume by way of increased “surface area” rather than height.

With the rear seats folded down, the Golf is cavernous. However, it’s unsurprisingly impossible to fold the seats down when you have two small children, each of whom comes with one large car seat. Thus, for me, today, the trunk is far smaller than I’d prefer, unless I’m willing to stack things on top of each other.

Back in the driver’s seat, I could make an argument that the Digital Cockpit is a mistake, as it will look dated in a few years. Be that as it may, the flexibility of the dash makes me think it’s the right answer. Being able to see a map of where the navigation is directing you right in between your speedometer and tachometer is pretty great. Furthermore, the configurability of the Digital Cockpit is enough to keep me busy for quite some time. I count it as a win.

Curiously, the R also exposes its heritage as an affordable car. Most European cars equipped with an automatic transmission have a “kickdown” switch. When you floor the car, and then press the pedal just a bit further, the car takes that as “GIVE ME ALL SHE’S GOT”. It will downshift as much as possible, in addition to the car already being floored. The Golf R I drove had a kickdown switch. The manual Golf R I drove… had a kickdown switch. Which does absolutely nothing. Apparently the Volkswagen parts bin had it on special!

Spinning power indicator

The GTI and R alike also suffer from a fatal flaw: the volume and on/off button for the infotainment. The button has a standard power icon on it, which makes perfect sense. However, that power icon twists when you adjust the volume. As someone who is, shall we say, a touch anal-retentive, this is infuriating. The problem is fixed by only adjusting the volume via the steering wheel controls, but, hoo boy, it’s annoying.

The Golf does have lane keeping aids and automated cruise control, but it doesn’t have full-on automated piloting, which is too bad. The controls for all of these automated driving aids are pretty straightforward. The lane keeping, left to its own devices, will basically ping-pong between the edges of the lane, but it’s not comparable to true automated driving systems like the one on Erin’s XC90.

The Golf does best the Volvo on the way it displays your desired versus actual speed when using cruise control. When in Erin’s car, I often find myself camping in the slow lane for a while, going well under the speed limit, because it’s not entirely obvious that the car has slowed under my desired speed due to traffic. In the Golf R, it helpfully has a thick red bar to indicate the car has slowed below its cruise setting; it shows a thick green bar if you manually accelerate over the cruise setting.

The infotainment is good, but largely unremarkable. The same goes for the navigation. One could argue “unremarkable” is the mark of a successful implementation — a system that doesn’t get in the way is in many ways a great system. Additionally, the infotainment supports both CarPlay and Android Auto, which I consider to be requisite on any car I will buy in the future.

Driving

The Golf R shines on the road. The interior may be confused as to whether the Golf R is a luxury car or not. The driving experience removes all doubt about how it behaves on the road: this is a performance car.

It took me almost no time to fall in love with how the Golf R feels.

Golf R Start button

My love of the R began the first time I took off from a stop. I’ve driven a stick since I got my license 20 years ago. Every time I drive a new-to-me car that has a standard transmission, it takes me a couple hours/days/weeks to really get the feel for that car’s clutch. With the R, I felt like I had already driven the car for weeks.

Golf R gearshift

The gearshift was also interesting. The feel in the hand was okay but not great; the knob felt a bit like a golf ball, which I can’t say I loved. Unlike almost all other cars with a front-mounted transmission I’ve driven, the shift linkage felt really good. It was way crisper and more notchy than I expected. There was one small curiosity about it, though: the lateral distance between gears — 1st and 3rd / 3rd and 5th / 2nd and 4th / 4th and 6th — was very small. It was by no means a problem, but it was something I noticed every time I drove the car.

All that said, even if the shift linkage was garbage, and even if the clutch was difficult, I’m still thankful that Volkwagen even offers a stick. I know that my time is running out with three-pedal cars, and I’m glad I don’t have to give up on my dream yet.

When treated with a gentle foot, the Golf R is true to its humble economy car roots. It’s docile, reasonably quiet, and not too twitchy. The suspension is rougher than I appreciate; however, that’s par for the course when it comes to a performance car. The suspension is adjustable — and I did adjust it — but I never found it to be quite as compliant as I’d like.

Once you give the Golf R some throttle, or switch the drive mode from Eco or Normal to Race, or perhaps Custom[2], everything changes.

The Golf R is one of the best point-and-shoot cars I’ve ever driven. Perhaps the best. Even with my preferred but very-driver-involved transmission, the R goes where you ask it to. No matter how much throttle you give it. No matter what steering angle. No matter what speed. The Golf R figures it out.

In essence, the R looks at the laws of physics, thinks for a moment, and then comes to a conclusion: “No, thank you.”

I took turns that were entirely too sharp, with entirely too much speed, giving the car entirely too much throttle, and there was no drama. Every single time. The R just ate it all up.

It was intoxicating.

In a straight line, the R is very fast; it will hit 60 MPH in just barely over 5 seconds with a skilled driver. The dual-clutch R, with its launch control, can do it in just under 5 seconds. All this in a car that can haul five people… and a dresser.

The only complaint I have is that the car definitely has turbo lag. If you stand on the throttle in the wrong gear, you’ll be waiting for a while until the turbo spools; at which point, you get walloped in the back. A smaller turbo (which would cost peak power), or more displacement (which would cost economy, among other things) would surely help alleviate lag. On the bright side, keeping the car in the meat of its power band encourages you to shift, which is the whole point of buying a stick in the first place.

I could go on and on about how it felt to drive, but there’s little more to say. Every on- or off-ramp was a rollercoaster ride. The power of the R is, in some ways, its Achilles heel: you want to drive it at 11/10ths, and to do so will guarantee you are well outside of what is acceptable on public roads.

The wheels are ugly, but I liked this picture. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Looking to the Future

So, coming back around to the beginning, what do I do about my BMW?

When I drove the GTI, I was stupefied by how much car you got for the price. The one I drove was a bit over $30,000; it felt like it could have commanded a $40,000+ price tag.

The Golf R, by comparison, felt like it was every bit of its $40,680 MSRP. And in some ways, it felt like it should have been less. The lack of a sunroof is infuriating to me — at least give me the option, Volkswagen! While the R felt quite a bit more powerful than the GTI, it also felt like it was missing things for no discernible reason.

However.

Were I to buy a Golf R, I would miss the sunroof a lot. I’d miss it for easily six months of the year, if not more.

Should I buy a GTI, I’d miss the Golf R’s power… every time I drove my car. And, for the handful of snow storms Virginia gets each year, I’d miss the all wheel drive too.

Given the life changes my family has been through lately, we’re currently exploring the possibility of being a one-car family. Should we decide to get something new, I’m almost certainly going to get myself a Golf R.


  1. One could make an argument the R is actually from a line that started with the original Audi TT, but now I’m splitting hairs.

  2. Unlike most cars I’ve driven, the Golf R actually remembers the drive mode you were in when you last drove the car.


 

This week I joined Christa Mrgan, Dan Moren, and Mikah Sargent on Clockwise. On this episode, we discussed iMessage apps, Memoji, colorful iPhones, and AirPods.

Clockwise is the opposite of most tech podcasts I listen to: it moves very quickly. The clock is always ticking, after all. If you’ve never given it a try, you definitely should.


 

I had the pleasure of filling in on episode 200 of the wonderful (and spiritual sister podcast of ATP) Connected. Having just been married, Myke was a bit preoccupied, and Federico was following Justin Timberlake across Europe.

On this episode, John Voorhees, Stephen, and myself discussed the App Store’s tenth anniversary, the legacy of MobileMe, and the future of Apple hardware.

It was a pleasure filling in on one of my favorite tech podcasts; I’d love for you to have a listen.