If you were a VW owner in the mid-'70s, taking your first look at Volkswagen's all-new Rabbit was the automotive equivalent of man's first moonwalk. Having marketed the evolved - but essentially unchanged - Beetle for some 25 years, VW debuted the water-cooled, front-wheel drive Rabbit. It was the anti-Beetle, London's Mick Jagger to Liverpool's Paul McCartney. Only those reading the buff books imagined the Golf (as it was labeled in most markets) and Rabbit replacing VW's air-cooled icon. But Volkswagen did.

The new platform, of course, was perfect for your kid in college, small family or older adults with an empty nest. And with Mini's Cooper having laid the groundwork, hooligans – including those in Wolfsburg – quickly recognized the potential for a hot hatch. That initiative gave us Volkswagen's GTI; rarely have hooligans been matched with something so practical.

Forty years later, the GTI is built on the seventh-generation Golf and is all the better for it. Despite the growing footprint that goes with the maturation of virtually everything, today's Golf-based GTI still has the compact, tossable nature we loved from the beginning. On sight, the GTI and Golf R can easily be confused. Get behind the wheel, however, and the confusion stops.

GTI: While Chevy's Suburban dominates Dallas and the Subaru Outback rules Seattle, Volkswagen's GTI seems dominant among import hatches around D.C. and its Virginia 'burbs. And why not? Its dimensions make it easy to park, and its 210 turbocharged horses make it fun to drive. And the District is surrounded by great weekend getaways.

The biggest news for the 2017 GTI was the introduction of the GTI Sport, which adds a Performance Package. And "performance" is more than a sticker. It gets brakes from the Golf R; an electronically controlled, torque-sensing limited-slip VAQ differential; and a 10-horsepower increase. The pack also includes 18-inch 'Nogaro' alloys and Bi-Xenon headlamps.

Happily, VW continues to offer a choice in transmissions. A six-speed manual is standard, while Volkswagen's excellent six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic is an $1,100 option. In Des Moines we'd go with the manual, while in DC we're inclined to spend the $1,100. It represents a small hit on economy – just one mile per gallon lost in the EPA Combined estimate – but would preserve our sanity in DC's commuter crawl. And know that the turbocharged 2.0 liter's torque – 258 pound-feet right above idle – can motor you well past the trouble caused by inattentive drivers.

That balance of power and poise is what has always separated the GTI from its many imitators. There are cars with more power – including the Golf R – and cars with more visual chutzpah, but no carmaker offers the combination of virtues contained within the GTI's 168 inches (overall length) and 3,000 pounds.

With a base price of just $26,000, a GTI can be comfortably equipped for under $30K. We'd keep the plaid cloth, opt for the silver metallic paint, and plan to keep it a decade.

Golf R: In Middle America, where $40K can buy you a Lexus ES 350, there's little (or no) thought given to spending that amount on a Golf; many families wouldn't spend that much money on two Golfs.

Visually, there's little to distinguish the R from the GTI. The wheels are more aggressively styled, and the front fascia provides a meaner demeanor. But the overall look is more taxi than Tesla. And we're on board, believing that, if piloting a fast car, you're best served by one that looks slow.

VW boosts the Golf R to 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and prudently distributes that power to all four wheels. The result is consistently smooth, capable performance on all road surfaces and in any weather.

Inside, VW foregoes the plaid for leather, and too-serious all-black surfaces, unlike the brightened, welcoming interiors of other performance cars from BMW, Benz, and Porsche. Of course, while managing almost 300 horsepower in a lightweight, compact body, the Golf R driver may be too busy to notice.

If you'd enjoy a by-the-numbers comparison of these two Golfs, Autoblog offers it here.

There's roughly $10,000 separating a well-equipped GTI with a Golf R. If you live in the Sunbelt, where all-wheel drive represents a lifestyle option rather than driving necessity, the GTI constitutes a great buy and clear decision. If, however, you are in the Snowbelt and your car still wears a Bernie sticker, you can make a reasonable social statement with the Golf R...while still being a hooligan.

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