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Golf R vs. Subaru WRX STI

The Volkswagen GTI was the original Hot Hatch, and still stands as a benchmark today. It comes up on our Podcast almost every single episode, and any time we drive one we’re stuck by how well sorted it is and capable of being one car for every kind of need and driver.

But if you prefer a more hair-on-fire experience, then the GTI begins to lose ground to other cars more dedicated to fun and performance. Over the years Volkswagen has offered various other GTI variations, but beginning with the Golf R they ventured into Turbo AWD and targeted enthusiast icons the STI and EVO.

We drove the first generation Golf R, the Mark VI, a few years ago and put it with the WRX and the EVO. This was a purposely mismatched pairing to discuss Volkswagens claim that the Golf R fought with the big boys, while actually packing performance more like the middle grade versions.

Years later and only the STI is the same. The EVO is shuffling off to die (and we will mourn its passing), while the Golf R is back for the Mark VII generation and packing a new AWD system and stats sneezing distance from the STI. We started working toward a matchup, and finally locked both cars in for this shoot.

After retrieving both cars we began a long evening commute across Los Angeles toward Santa Barbara. I wound up in the Golf R and was besieged by surprising first impressions. First and foremost, the gas pedal. Simple traffic-creeping maneuvers required a punch of the gas normally reserved for quick passing. And as traffic thinned and speeds increased I found myself going deep into the pedal any time I needed more than pure cruising.

Fast? Yes. The Golf R has real power lurking in its 2.0L turbo. But this was the least frantic performance variant I can remember. Switching things to more aggressive settings only served to feel like some athletic butler had loosened his tie. Meanwhile, I could faintly hear the burble of the Subaru's flat 4 and spy the wing of the STI slinking through traffic like the shark fin through surfers.

These divergent personalities continued in the days to come. The Golf R was always capable and the STI always excitable and a bit absurd. Once we reached HWY 33 in Ojai, one of the best and most varied roads in California, the STI settled in quickly, rewarding hard driving and asking for more. In contrast, the Golf R needed some warming up, or maybe we did, as we pushed harder and coaxed more out of it with each passing corner.

Each time I switched cars on this road, I learned something new about the R. At first I thought it rolled more in the corners, but then I hopped back in the STI and realized they are nearly identical. Then it seemed the STI was better able to climb out of a tight bend, but carpet friendly use of the gas pedal got the R to explode onto straights while either sticking to the Subie or threatening to pull away.

There were no secrets or layers hiding in the STI. Turn the key, find a gear, and listen to the burble of an engine that’s been around so long it could have a license. This is a car without nuance, and its only setting is fast and fun. On a road like this it feels invincible, pulling with all four corners and offering turbo punch with a glance at the gas pedal.

The Golf R requires some searching, button pressing, and rough handling to reveal all of the performance VW has packed under its skin. It never seems entirely willing to leave the buttoned down roots of the base Golf, but that does make it an amazing car for the commuting and the errands of life. Considering how much time is spent on mundane drives, some would argue VW set up this car for the way it will most often be used. However, I expect a top of the line performance variant to deliver its capabilities with a firehose and not a teaspoon. The Audi’s RS line comes to mind as what happens, or should happen, when Volkswagen sets out to build a performance flagship. Instead, in the Golf R I find myself driving an alter ego and hoping something will awaken the superhero underneath.

The other problem is the GTI itself. The quintessential hot hatch continues to be one of the best all-around cars and dual personality vehicles on the road. The Golf R feels like the best GTI you can buy, which is impressive, but it doesn’t feel like much of a departure from the car that’s ten to fifteen thousand dollars less expensive. The AWD system in the R is actually a FWD-biased to the point that we never actually felt it engage on dry pavement. The result is a car that feels like a very well set-up FWD hatch instead of an AWD alternative. Maybe a choice was made to keep this car’s capabilities away from the Audi lineup, but both Audi and Subaru’s constant AWD systems give an all-four-corners feel that leaves the R feeling even more similar to the GTI.

In the end I find myself torn between these cars. The STI delivers on its promise to be the craziest thing in the Subaru lineup. It’s fast, fun, and an excitable companion on your favorite winding road or racetrack. And yet, a mundane commute or roadtrip in the STI turns its sharp and shout-y nature into a strain. Meanwhile the Golf R feels like the world’s smallest grand tourer, with a comfortable cabin and good power on tap when you dig deep. It’s versatile, spacious, and faster than it appears.

There’s no question I enjoyed driving the STI more on our favorite road, but sadly most of life isn’t spent in a winding canyon. When the shoot was over and we began a two hour retreat to the airport, I put an audio book through the stereo and settled into a rhythm with the burble of the engine keeping me slinking through traffic. By the time we got to the monster of LAX, I really liked the R and was glad I didn’t commute in the STI. But I missed the STI.



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