With a long and illustrious history, the Golf GTI is as popular today as ever before, but can a modified VW Golf GTI Mk8 offer a real alternative to a tuned Mk8 R? Performance VW finds out…

Feature from Performance VW magazine. Words: Davy Lewis. Photos: Sintered Media.

It’s hard to believe that we’re on the eighth incarnation of the iconic VW Golf GTI (check out our Clubsport review). Over 46 years have passed since the first car rolled off the production line at Wolfsburg and now, in 2022, it’s as relevant today as ever before. The blend of good looks, solid build and an engaging driving experience has helped it to remain one of the world’s most popular models. It’s also one of the most tuned, which we don’t really need to tell you, do we?

Key to the Golf’s longevity has been its blend of practicality, with an ability to put a smile on your face on the open road. Some models may, arguably, have missed the mark slightly, but it’s fair to say that VW got it bang on with the Mk5 GTI, which paved the way for the current breed of fast, forced induction GTIs, and, of course the range-topping R (check out our 8R mods guide).

As we hurtle towards a complete reinvention of the car as we know it, the Mk8 is likely to be the last hurrah for 100% internally-combusted performance Golfs. So we thought it’d be interesting to compare the two current sporting models: the GTI and R. And, more specifically, to try and answer the question: can a mildly tuned GTI offer a realistic alternative to an R? To help us decide, we joined the guys at Ramair and Tarox, who just happen to have access to a GTI and R respectively.

front 3/4 of modified vw golf gti mk8

Ramair modified VW Golf GTI Mk8

Kicking off with the modified VW Golf GTI Mk8, the first thing to note is its aggressive stance. The stock alloy wheels have been replaced with some Apex motorsport style multi-spokes, which sit, hunkered, under the arches. The Apex SM-10s were the very first set in the UK and as well as looking the part, they also save a few kilos – a welcome reduction in rotational mass. A set of Eibach Pro-Kit suspension springs complete the package, giving a much improved stance as well as sharpening the handling.

Side profile on modified VW Golf GTI Mk8

Look behind the spokes of the Apex rims and you’ll spot some performance brake discs. The Mk8 GTI uses the same setup as the Mk7 R, so it’s a system that Tarox is well acquainted with. A huge amount of testing has taken place over the last couple of years and it’s safe to say this upgrade delivers the goods. The 340mm, F2000 items were actually the first set to be installed on a UK Mk8 and Ramair have been thoroughly testing them for the past year or so. The team say they offer a better pedal feel for easier modulation with more feedback. Matched with the Corsa brake pads, friction is improved, with much better thermal performance – something that’s been soundly tested with outings to Castle Combe Circuit and the legendary Nurburgring.

In fact, it was the trip to Germany’s Green Hell that sealed the deal regarding the Golf’s true strengths. Ramair ring pilot, Chris Roberts, was able to drive there in comfort, then hammer it for several full-on laps of the demanding 14-mile track, before chucking all of his gear and passengers back in the GTI for the drive home. No fuss, no drama – and thanks to the chassis upgrades – plenty of brakes and rubber to get him home safely.

Exhaust on modified vw golf gti mk8

This Jack of all trades is key to the modified VW Golf GTI Mk8 and it does an admirable job out of the box. But with a few key upgrades, including the all important chassis mods, it really can become a very capable performance car.

The Ramair crew may still shout at the touchscreen controls (especially on a bumpy b-road) and the lack of a three-door option still upsets some, but overall they’re pretty chuffed with their choice of a modified VW Golf GTI Mk8 over an R.

tuned VW Golf R Mk8

AET tuned Mk8 Golf R

Of course, many would beg to differ, citing the R’s headline grabbing figures and four-wheel drive as reasons why it is not only faster point to point, but also grippier, more engaging and ultimately more tunable (well, when some bright spark finally cracks the new ECU).

This particular Mk8 Golf R belongs to Tarox dealers, AET Motorsport who, like Ramair, wanted something that could be used as a practical daily, but also offer some thrills when the mood takes them (which if you know the guys at AET is quite often!).

Side profile shot on tuned VW Golf R

From an aesthetic point of view, this Mk8 Golf R actually looks quite subtle next to the moody grey GTI with its full complement of gloss-black Maxton goodies. It too is lowered on Eibach Pro-Kit springs, but whereas the GTI sits on motorsport-inspired rims, the R boasts a set of 19in Rotiform items, wrapped in sticky Nankang NS2 rubber.

The 8R (along with the Mk8 GTI Clubsport) came with a completely new brake system, so Tarox were quick to develop a performance set up. The package includes a new caliper and 356mm composite disc, which has been recreated as a two-piece bespoke option, the first on the market.

Exhaust on tuned vw golf r mk8

An uprated master cylinder and braided lines complete the package, which has been designed for ultimate stopping power – ideal for hard road and track use. Like the setup on the GTI, the system produces greater friction, while resisting fade, thanks to the excellent thermal performance. It really does offer the ultimate braking for the R, something that would be especially useful for cars driven on track and those running big power in the future. The fact that they also look fantastic, is something that is sure to appeal to image-conscious Golf R owners.

Whereas the GTI boasts a cool new intake kit with Proram filter, the R runs a stock air box, so there’s no intake sound as with the Ramair car. But it does have a Cobra OPF exhaust system, which adds a little extra burble, along with some tasty looking tailpipes. The GTI uses a Milltek system, which again, offers a subtle improvement in sound.

rear of modified vw golf gti mk8 and tuned golf r


So, which of these carefully tuned Mk8s would you choose – the feisty front-drive GTI, or the rapid point to point AWD R? We know, it’s a tricky one…

Having spent some time with both cars, Tarox’ Nick Counsell offers this: “The mods on the Ramair Golf seem to have had a direct effect on its ‘peppiness’ or ‘liveliness’. The throttle response is definitely better [than the R] and it has a willingness to pick up and go. It’s sprightly and agile and I think this is definitely down to these mods, especially the smaller wheels.”

rotiform wheels on modified vw golf gti mk8

There’s no getting away from the fact that the R can’t be beaten for outright grip and pace; it’s a very effective package and made all the better thanks to the Tarox two-piece floating discs. But when it comes to that certain something, that – can’t quite put your finger on it – something, then the GTI might just nick it.

If you grew up with fast front-drivers, the GTI is the modern interpretation of the formula. Yes, hot hatches have got bigger, heavier and more refined, but a car like this modified VW Golf GTI Mk8 still has more of that old-school DNA than the all-wheel drive R. And, in this guise, I’d say it beats the R on looks, too. Mind you, once that pesky ECU has been cracked, and we start seeing big-power cars, then the choice might become a little easier…

Tech Spec: Ramair modified VW Golf GTI Mk8

Engine: PRORAM intake kit, Milltek OPF exhaust system

Chassis:  8.5×18” Apex SM-10 wheels, Eibach Pro-Kit springs, Tarox 340mm F2000 discs, Corsa pads and braided lines

Exterior: Full gloss-black Maxton Design kit including front splitter, sideskirts, rear diffuser and spoiler, Ramair logos

Shout: Tarox, Ramair, Milltek, Maxton Design, Apex, Eibach


Tech Spec: AET Tuned Mk8 Golf R

Engine: Scorpion OPF exhaust system

Chassis: 19” Rotiform wheels, Nankang NS2 tyres, Eibach Pro-Kit springs, Tarox Mk8 R brake package including calipers, 356mm 2-piece discs, Corsa pads, braided lines, uprated master cylinder

Exterior: Stock R with sponsors logos

Shout: Tarox, Ramair, Cobra Sport, Eibach, Rotiform, Nankang