Review by Jacob Black, photos by Jeff Wilson

Sometimes, when I’m bored, or lonely, or upset, I wade into the internet. Specifically, I wade into the areas of the internet where opinions are protected with other opinions, which are wielded with a sort of poetic brutality. The sorts of places where profanity is punctuation and the iambic pentameter of a scathing counter argument is as well-measured and nuanced as any of the works of the Bard himself.

If I’m unsatisfied with the spectacle before me, sometimes I’ll lob in a question to stir up the lions and get the gladiators on their heels – an innocent enough question on face value but one that inevitably sets off a multi-page Thunderdome of mashed keys and bruised egos.

Of all those potential stirs, few are more potent than this: “Hey guys, what’s better? A Subaru WRX STI or a Volkswagen Golf R?”

So I suppose it’s karma that I am now about to kick off this argument with my own opinions laid bare, ready to be eviscerated by the crowds I used to incite. At least it would be karma, if the previous three paragraphs weren’t just made up for dramatic effect.

True or not, we all know that this is one of the truly divisive questions, one we intend to settle out on the roads.

Curb Appeal

First, the ever-important aesthetic debate. One of these cars looks like a Manga-inspired menace to society, the other looks like an accountant’s dream. Jeff Wilson isn’t particularly taken with either. “Neither of these cars are what I’d describe as sexy. The Golf R looks like exactly what it is: a very expensive economy car, whereas the more aggressive STI at least announces to the world that it’s a performance car, largely due to the garish and childish wing.”

Never a fan of subtlety I find it hard to get behind the styling of the Golf R. Apart from the monster 19-inch wheels the R looks like all the other Golfs. The Subaru is a dog’s breakfast of bonkers-looking lights, engine scoops and intakes, and spoilers and skirts and splitters. It looks like someone vomited the aero catalogue over an unsuspecting compact car. I love it.

In our recent road test of the 2016 Subaru WRX STI (this exact one, in fact) I called it an “attainable poster car”. Between the two, the Subaru has the most mainstream appeal, the more renown.

The R is reserved for those in the know, who acknowledge its pedigree with a quiet nod befitting its understated but purposeful presence. I’m a show pony, so I prefer the swagger of the Subaru.

Previously on Autos.ca: 2015 Subaru WRX CVT vs 2015 Volkswagen GTI DSG

Engine and Drivetrain

Volkswagen supplied us with their DSG-equipped R for this test. The six-speed dual-clutch auto is as technologically advanced, slick and well executed as a transmission can get – but it’s no manual. A manual wasn’t available – they feel the DSG is that good. VW are rightly proud of this DSG. It’s a marvel of how good gearboxes can be. It is better than a manual in every possible way, but it’s not as fun.

“Even though I’d prefer the Golf R with a proper stick shift to make it a more engaging experience, the DSG is a remarkable achievement,” says Jeff. “I’ve recently driven a high-powered performance car costing at least twice as much as this Volkswagen and its transmission was nowhere near as slick in its operation.” At least I think that’s what he said. I couldn’t hear him over the sound of how awesome the three pedals are in the STI.

The 292-hp/280 lb-ft turbocharged 2.0L four in the Golf R is down slightly on output to the 305-hp/290 lb-ft 2.5L boxer turbo in the STI but crucially gets all its juice earlier. Peak horsepower comes on at 5,500 rpm in the Golf, and torque at 1,800 rpm. That is noticeable up against the boxer which reaches peak power at 6,000 rpm and peak torque at 4,000 rpm – twice as late as the VW.

That’s one reason the Golf R feels like the more civilized of the duo. “The Golf R’s 2.0L unit, especially connected to the dual-clutch transmission, is far more refined and feels like a generation newer than the Subaru’s gruff 2.5L Boxer engine.” Says Jeff.

It feels quicker off the line and faster rolling on at speed. If pace is your question, Golf R is your answer. Likewise if you’re looking for something calm and unflustered in your engine bay.

But I’m not here for civility, I’m here for “yee-haw!”

I’m here for “you’ll never catch me alive coppa!” and “Bwahahahaha, why are you crying Jeff? What do you mean, ‘slow down’?”

The Subaru you can hear from a mile away, and it sounds glorious. Sure, the engine is only at its best way up high and it hurtles through the last few thousand revs so quickly that the gear stick is a blur, but that’s the whole point. Besides, it has a gearshift.

I mentioned in my stand-alone review the funny, unnatural feeling I got from the STI steering in long, sweeping bends (like highway off-ramps), and that Subaru’s explanation needed more testing. Having now tested the car again, and with better understanding of the VDC, DCCD etc I now see what I was feeling. It was the torque vectoring kicking in, and where the electric steering of the Golf mutes that effect in the wheel, making it less noticeable, the hydraulic steering shows it up. In tighter, twistier corners it wasn’t anywhere near as unnatural. In fact, it came alive in a way the Golf never did. Is it any faster? Probably not, but it is more analogue. And that’s worth something.

But what of the AWD systems? The Golf R AWD, as good as it is, is still nothing on the Subaru AWD system. The 4Motion system by Haldex is very much front-wheel-drive biased, something that is immediately apparent alongside the STI. (#push)

It’s not that this system isn’t sophisticated – it really, really is, with advanced computer magic that measures throttle percent, wheel angles, and braking to predict where you’ll want the most torque. Not to mention the brake-based torque vectoring system that is active on all four wheels.

Still, the Subaru’s real diffs give better feel and better balance down the drivetrain. There are three in total, one driver-controlled centre diff (DCCD) that sends torque front:rear through a range of 41:59 to 50:50. Max rearward torque (and the default position) is 59 percent, max front torque 50 percent. This makes the Subaru adapt a more oversteer attitude than understeer. The centre diff has three auto modes: auto, auto +, auto –. Auto + makes the system more keen to send torque forward, Auto – more aft. Manual mode has six settings that pretty much lock the diff where you want it within the 50-59 range. Then, both axles get a limited-slip differential to split torque left and right. There is also brake-based vectoring similar to what the Golf R has, but it works in tandem with the “real” diffs.

If you skimmed all that and went “huh?” you’re not alone. All you really need to know is that the Subaru system is more complex and delivers a more lively experience with less understeer, especially on loose roads.

With more tech, more fun, and more “phwoar” the STI wins this category.

Ride and Handling

Here is a classic case of Analogue versus Digital. The Volkswagen, you see, has electric steering, the Subaru, hydraulic. One is better if you like feeling every rut and bumple in the road, if you enjoy the sensation of the wheel dancing in your hands on the gravelly, rutted, piece of undulating, winding road you’ve found yourself on.

The other is better if you like your car tame and composed and if you prefer the steering wheel focus on the all-important job of actually changing the car’s direction.

It’s probably fair to say that realistically, the Golf R’s electric system is better, but who needs reality?! The STI’s hydraulic wheel reminds you of what the R makes you forget: That driving is actually pretty difficult. The R is easier to drive, the STI is more fun – sensing a theme yet?

The Subaru is heavier by 16 kg, 319 mm longer and 39 mm taller. It only has a 20 mm longer wheelbase, so much longer overhangs than the Golf R. These should all be disadvantages in the handling department. The Golf R has a wider front than rear track, however. On the STI that is reversed. That could point to why the STI turns in more quickly and convincingly, while the Golf R is more composed and stable-feeling.

It could also be due to the suspension settings, however. The dynamic ride control featured on the R is compliant, comfortable and adaptable, earning high praise from Jeff: “On the highway and in urban traffic, the Volkswagen is undeniably the one you want to be in. Its ride is better (when electrically adjusted as such).” There are five modes for adjustment – Normal, Comfort, Eco, Individual, and Race – and there are dramatic differences between them. It is, admittedly a much simpler-to-use system than in the STI. What settings should you use in the Golf? Traction control off, Race mode.

What settings should you use for the WRX STI? Set the traction control (VDC) to TRAC, the engine management programming (SI Drive) to S# and centre diff to Auto –. Voila! Why TRAC and not Off? Because in TRAC you still get the brake-based torque vectoring, just not the traction control and stability control. Why don’t you want those? Because sideways.

Enough technobabble. Here’s Jeff on why the STI wins this category: “When we finally found a few fleeting moments away from traffic, and on some undulating, twisty rural routes, the Subaru asserts itself as the more serious sporting machine. When driven with aggression and, admittedly foolish disregard for physics, the Subaru is unflappable.

“It feels both planted and light on its feet, reacting immediately to steering inputs. By comparison, the R is composed and still very capable, but does not feel quite as confidence-inspiring.”

When it comes to ride comfort and composure the VW is absolutely head and shoulders above the WRX STI, but again, we find the Subaru more fun when hustled.

Interior and Infotainment

This stuff is often pooh-poohed as “unimportant” by the enthusiasts, but despite protestations otherwise a car’s infotainment system is is third-most used touchpoint in the whole experience – behind the steering wheel and pedals. Fourth-most if you’re in a manual. Being satisfied with the way you connect to the infotainment system is critical to enjoying your car.

Android Auto is the coolest thing to hit infotainment since I don’t know when. Paired with Sirius XM there is absolutely nothing else you need in a car. And bonus points to VW too for allowing me to choose what the steering wheel functions do! That’s a neat trick. Jeff, the audiophile (and apparent leatherphile) couldn’t say enough about the interior environment of the Golf. “Its Fender-tuned stereo is bright and powerful and the leather-covered seats are wonderfully comfortable.”

Subaru is trying, and their new generations of infotainment systems are better by far than those of old. But they lack the crisp execution of the VW and no Android Auto/Car Play is a big minus. The Golf feels more luxurious, with high quality materials and a better executed finish, not to mention a far more serene cabin.

The Golf R takes out this section of our little battle comprehensively.

Other Random Stuff

The Subaru doesn’t get a hatch. It didn’t when it first came out and it doesn’t again today and nor should it – I’ve always found more useable cargo volume from a proper boot anyway, what with seats and cargo covers in the way and all.

Our Jeff Wilson finds this a travesty, and it’s something that drove his brother to buy himself a Golf R instead. More people agree with Jeff than me, so we’d probably better wipe off a point for the Subaru not being a hatch. Also, the cargo volume is a generous 645 L (and expandable to 1,492) in the Golf, but only 340 in the STI.

So here, as elsewhere, the Golf makes a nod to practicality and shows off its breadth of talent. The Subaru with its refusal to sacrifice chassis stiffness for cargo volume shows off its focus.

The Golf gets better fuel economy too.

Verdict

Jeff says, “Those looking to campaign their daily driver in weekend rally events, or seeking the faster car in a track setting should choose the Subaru.  For the rest of us living in the real world of thick traffic misery and paying for our own fuel who still want a solid, all-round performance car are better off with the Golf R – a car that feels much more expensive than it looks.  Throw the VW’s hatchback usability and the Golf R becomes the obvious choice for me.”

For me, I’d like a Golf R to drive out to the twisties, and then I’d jump into the Subaru for the good bit. If I wanted a car, I’d pick the Golf R, but if I’m shopping in this category I don’t want a car, I want a toy. And because I’m writing this, the Subaru wins.

It has hydraulic steering, real mechanical diffs (three of them) and enough wow factor to make you grin like an idiot every time you walk up to it. Above all else, it is the most fun to drive.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Pricing: 2016 Subaru WRX STI
Base Price: $40,795
Options: STI front underspoiler – $440, rear underspoiler – $520, rear quarter underspoiler – $370, side underspoiler – $570, STI Performance Exhaust – $1,200
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,655
Price as Tested: $45,645

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance

Pricing: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
Base Price: $41,395
Options: Technology package – $2,015
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,605
Price as Tested: $45,115

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