2015 VW Golf R versus 2015 Subaru WRX STI: Battle of turbo’d AWD ‘practical’ sports cars

Last week I asked why anyone would ever buy anything other than a new VW Golf R. Well, Subaru might have just answered that question with the new WRX STI that was just released at the Detroit Auto Show.

Both of these are fearsome, turbocharged, all-wheel drive cars that are shockingly practical despite being able to blow the tires off of cars that cost nearly twice the price. That’s what I love about cars like the Golf R and the Subaru WRX STI; they check all the boxes. These are the perfect cars for the practical gearhead. Each one offers space for kids, a week’s worth of shopping, and you can smash absolutely all of it by sliding the car sideways at unreasonable speeds in the snow.

Let’s begin.

The performance

For these cars to work as practical performance cars, they need to be fast enough that you aren’t going to look at someone in their Porsche Boxster and feel envy. You need to feel confident that you can show them up at the drop of the hat.

While some key performance numbers aren’t out yet, what we know so far is encouraging. The Golf R’s 2.0-liter TFSI four cylinder might be small, but the turbo bolted to it isn’t, and neither are the numbers it puts out. At 290 horsepower and 280 pound feet of torque, this feisty four-banger can manage 0 to 60 in just 4.9 seconds with the six-speed DSG automatic.

The 0-to-60 time hints at the clever underpinnings. The Golf R has four-wheel drive controlled by a sinister Teutonic robot brain. The car uses the brakes as a limited-slip differential by interceding when it detects wheel slip. What’s more, it has a clutch between the front and rear axles that controls the amount of power sent to the rear axle. In fact, the car can be either completely front- or rear-wheel drive as needed. All of this cleverness means that the car sticks to the road like all of Jupiter’s gravity was holding it there.

But if you want grip, then the good designer folks at Subaru would like to have a word with you. Their all-wheel drive system is, to put it simply, insane. The STI wades into battle with four differentials and six freakin’ traction-control settings. The car actually has two central differentials, one electronic and one mechanical. Unlike the Golf R, the STI defaults to rear-wheel-drive bias. That may not make much of a difference, but it does make the gearhead in me very happy.

The STI comes with a 305 hp 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer four cylinder, the same engine as the last STI. It may be a bit older than the Golf’s motor, but don’t let you put that off. The Subaru boxer motor has got to be ranked as one of the all-time performance engines. Oh, and purists everywhere rejoice; you can only get this car with a manual gearbox.

The checkered flag goes to the Subaru STI.


The other thing that these cars have to do is allow you to justify your purchase. Both are likely to start at right around $35,000. That makes them much cheaper than the competition, but way to0 expensive to be a second car. This means they have to do, well, everything.

If you take away the scoops, chin spoiler, and massive rear wing, the Subaru WRX STI is basically just a mid-sized sedan with a decent-sized trunk and enough space in the back for either mid-sized adults or terrified children. Add to that the fact that Subaru has massively improved its interiors, and the fact that you have enough traction to drive on an upside down glacier, and you can almost say this is a practical family car.

The downside for the Subaru is the mileage. The last generation managed just 21 mpg. And while it’s not unreasonable to expect some improvement, this car has the same engine as the last gen. Also, Subaru has yet to announce the mileage, which suggests it isn’t exactly proud of it.

The Golf, meanwhile, should manage around 26 to 27 mpg – impressive considering the power. That’s not all, either. The Golf has a very German interior; it may not be flashy but it’s incredibly well made and very grown up.

But what really sets the two cars apart here is that you can still get the Golf R as a five door. Not only does it have enough room in the backseat for actual humans, you can fold the seats flat and fit furniture. Subaru has tragically stopped selling the hatch version of both the WRX and STI. This means that if you want to take a chest of drawers for the ride of its life you are going to have to get the Golf R.

The practical prize goes to the Golf.


This is always a difficult subject, particularly for cheaper cars that aspire to be more. Looking at these cars, you have to ask yourself: Will people think you’ve bought exactly the car of your dreams, or rather made a budgetary compromise?

I am happy to say, that – at least in my humble opinion – both of these cars look like the real deal, though in very different ways.

The problem for nice VWs is that they are overshadowed by Audi. You don’t want to show up in your $35,000 Golf R, only for people to think that you wanted an Audi but couldn’t afford it. The thing about the Golf R is that it avoids this by being subtle. To people who don’t know about cars, it looks like a nice – if somewhat aggressively styled – European hatchback. It’s a nice car without too many pretensions. Car people, on the other hand, know the insanity that lies beneath, and should respect it as one of the ultimate sleepers.

Couple that with the fact that this has to be one of the best-looking Golfs since the original GTI, and you have to respect this car as a chameleon. It’s capable of fitting in anywhere.

The Subaru WRX STI, on the otherhand, is anything but a sleeper. Not only has the STI name earned a place for itself in the annals of motoring, its looks announce what this car is from a mile off. An STI doesn’t say that you wanted a different car, but unfortunately it might say something else.

The only real problem with the STI image is that it is very boy-racer. Subaru is quick to point out that the average buyer is actually a respectable professional in their mid thirties. But with an areo package like that, not to mention a rear wing larger than some single-family homes, that isn’t what you will look like.

The STI looks great, and will earn you massive cred from anyone who knows cars, but it lacks the chameleon aspects of the Golf R.

For that reason, the prize here goes to the Golf R.


These are both great cars, either of which I would be thrilled to see in my garage … if I had a garage. However, for the roll of a do-anything, go-anywhere performance car, I would have to choose the Golf R.

It may not be quite as scintillating to drive, but, with five doors and more refined styling, it really can be a car that does anything. The Subaru may be a bit more fun to drive, but the valet at a restaurant is either going to look a bit askance at you … or take your car for a joyride.

That being said, while I might not want a STI over a Golf R, I might actually want a WRX. It delivers 90 percent of the fun of the STI or the Golf R for almost $10,000 less. And on top of that, it lacks some of the outrageous touches. If only Subaru still sold it as a hatchback.

It’s a tough choice, but fortunately it seems to be one without a wrong answer. And how lucky are we to have such amazing performance choices that don’t cost a king’s ransom?

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