Subaru WRX STI, VW Golf, Front view 33 Photos Zoom

Subaru WRX STI and VW Golf R comparison test: Can the Rally relic still impress?

Both are bright blue, both have 300 bhp, and both feature all-wheel drive.  The differences: the Subaru WRX STI originally stems from the world of rally sport, whereas the VW Golf R harks from more middle-class circles. In fact...

What a let-down back in the day: in our test from 2008, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI lined up against its arch rival the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution – however, instead of a heated battle of the bends, all we got was a half-hearted spat. Over the years, both rally simulators faded into a shadow of their former selves, long overtaken by the wild dogs of the compact class: even a VW Golf GTI kept the pair at bay with regard to drive dynamics. Is that still the case? Ultimately, Subaru has thoroughly revised its former sporty flagship vehicle – especially when it comes to the chassis. We are thus now pitting the WRX STI against one of the hottest compacts currently available: the VW Golf R. In 2014, it came out on top ahead of the Seat Leon Cupra and Opel Astra OPC.

The VW Golf R went the other route to the Subaru: It began life with a reserved character and only revealed its wild side little by little. There are now 300 bhp under the bonnet and their eagerness to perform can be heard in the roar emitted through the four chunky exhausts. Conventionality? Boredom? Oh give over you Golf detractors… there's a blue miracle in front of your eyes. For since the Golf Limited of 1989, the small series with 2100 bhp and all-wheel drive, never since has there been so many crazy features fitted as standard. The R follows on in its tradition. It is the only VW to grant the driver full control – ESP can be completely deactivated. And the R can perform even more, downright monstrous feats: initiating load change to cause itself to drift. Trampling over bumps in the road. The snort of the turbo and the rumble of the naturally aspirated engine. And it is so loud that even the Subaru WRX STI looks sheepish.

Subaru WRX STI with 300 bhp box engine

It actually has nothing to be embarrassed about. For anyone posing on the street, dressed to kill with air scoop and rear spoiler, has no interest in being reserved. And yet when it comes to sound the Subaru WRX STI provides no cause for onomatopoeia – it grumbles with the slightly imbalanced performance of its four-cylinder box engine. Nothing more. The attititude of the Rally lookalike: take me as I am or leave me alone. The sales department also operate according to this motto. The Subaru is only available in two versions; the test car comes very well fitted out (Sport). If you want to customise you will have to visit a tuning shop.

Regardless, everything important should come as standard: such as the 300 bhp box engine. Mindful of earlier WRX days we put our foot on the gas, leapfrog the clutch grabbing on start-up and work through the turbo lag. Shortly prior to 3,000 rpm, min we tense our neck muscles as a precautionary measure, so as not to smack our heads against the headrest when full turbo-charging pressure is engaged. 3,500 rpm, 4,000, 4,500 … disappointingly little happens. The power is applied in an extremely civil manner, the transition from the aspirated to the turbo range has lost all sense of spectacle. This is certainly a win in the sense of drivability – but emotionally it is a disappointment. Oh WRX, what have you done with your wild side? Advantage of the development: the Subaru WRX STI sprints from 0 to 100 a measly one tenth faster than its predecessor. At least it pulls measurably better.

However the heaviest blow to the WRX fan club is yet to come: the VW Golf R wipes the floor with the WRX STI. Whether with regard to acceleration or torque – overall the Golf is tenths or even seconds in front. Firstly on the empty and unrestricted motorway, the STI moved out of its competitor's slipstream and rolled past the limited R with a surplus of five km/h.

Advantage to the Golf R with its dual clutch transmission

In the interest of being fair, it must be mentioned that the VW Golf R used here features the optional dual clutch transmission, which gives it a slight advantage in the sprint – but not in the torque measurement. However, first and foremost it provides entertainment: when shifting gear it pops and splutters from the noise dampers in such a way that it will warm the hearts of motor sports fans. The WRX counter only with an over-casual approach: its six-speed manual transmission is crisp and precise, and requires a little ooomph in your upper arm. The high steering forces are in keeping with this. The self-aligning torque requires a great deal of force in fast corners. And so you return from a hot lap of the track feeling physically stirred up – in the content knowledge that you have achieved something. The Subaru WRX STI - an unruly machine, which with man must grapple. A unique character that is increasingly falling by the wayside.

The VW Golf R makes things easier for its driver – there is no sense of struggle. It is a piece of equipment that the amateur can easily get to grips with, but still is by no means boring for professionals. The two-litre steps forward confidently, the turbo deploys powerfully, delivering pressure right up until just before the limiter kicks in. Everything seems to just happen so effortlessly. The same applies for the all-wheel drive – it seems to distribute the power perfectly every time. Without lacklustre understeer when cornering or frenzied drive influences when accelerating out of the bend. If you want to, you can change the load and take corners with the rear of the vehicle clearly pushing outwards, and you will barely be able to wipe the grin off your face.

Subaru WRX STI with adjustable central differential

Load change? The rear of the vehicle pushing outwards? Isn't that the job of the Subaru WRX STI? Its central differential offers various adjustment options, however, these practically only come into effect on loose or slippery surfaces. On the grippy asphalt of the handling section of the test ground in Boxberg on the other hand, the STI will only oversteer to a limited extent. Things go better when drifting in the WRX – a manoeuvre that remains reserved for Rally drivers. Not particularly in keeping with the Road Traffic Act. Things only get worse in the drive dynamic tests: the VW Golf R give the WRX STI a good and proper beating, bobbing and weaving nimbly through the traffic cones. In contrast, the poor response in the Subaru as the driver breaking into a sweat he has to work so hard – but without being rewarded with good times. Here you would have assumed that the relentlessly taught suspension would at least produce some advantage with regard to lateral dynamics.

Instead all you get is a slight sense of frustration and the knowledge that the Subaru is stuck back in the good old days. The development made by the competition has matched it and surpassed it. Not even low costs speak in favour of the Rally relic, in fact it's just the opposite: when it comes to insurance premiums, the Subaru WRX STI has a worse classification than a Porsche 911 Carrera. And the average consumption of 13.1 l/100 km is two-and-a-half litres above that of the VW. There is no more clear victory for the VW Golf R than this.



Rossen Gargolov


11 February 2015
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