Six Reasons To Pick The VW Golf R Over The Subaru WRX STI

February 18, 2015

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R might very well be the most accessible, livable car to offer both all-weather traction from all-wheel drive, plus 0-60 mph acceleration in less than five seconds—especially if you limit the contenders to those with an under-$40,000 price tag.

What it starts with is essentially the same sensible, sporty package as the Golf GTI. But the Golf R gets a significantly modified, 292-horsepower version of the GTI’s 2.0-liter in-line turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engine. Perhaps most importantly, it steps up to all-wheel drive and a more aggressive suspension tune.

Through our enthusiast site, Motor Authority, we’ve given you both a slip-sliding preview drive on ice from the proving grounds of northern Scandinavia, and then a tire-challenging on-track workout at Southern California’s Buttonwillow Raceway Park.

What remains? Well, the real world, of course.

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Polar opposites...attract different kinds of enthusiasts

And it demands a comparison, we think, with the Subaru WRX STI, which is a higher-output, 305-hp companion to Subaru’s more affordable (268-hp) WRX. It's been some months since we drove the STI, but really, any differences between the Golf R and STI aren't down to nuance. They're polar opposites, it seems.

The spec panels and performance capabilities are remarkably close. Yet it wouldn’t take very long, even just puttering along in traffic, to recognize that these are very different cars, however. Unlike the Golf R, the STI takes a more overtly track-oriented route with respect to the way it’s tuned; and in short, it wears that track flavor on its sleeves a little too much for most daily driving.

The Golf R is absolutely a darling for daily driving, and it’s a point that was again underscored when we recently had the chance to drive it on Southern California highways, as well as city streets around San Diego.

Like most other contemporary higher-output turbocharged fours, the engine in the Golf R maintains its drivability when you’re just moving with traffic; and it doesn’t feel any peakier than its GTI counterpart. There’s a slight bit more turbo lag when you ask for a quick burst of power; but in general this is an engine that’s happy in the middle of the rev range.

Another counterpoint to the STI’s rear-biased power split and rally-style driver-selectable diffs is the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system in the Golf R. It allows the VW to function mostly as a front-wheel-drive car; but when needed it can send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels.

An all-weather lack of fluster from the R, plus a 'secret menu' for handling

The Golf R’s system, and its Haldex 5 center differential, is definitely a setup that permits a lot of nuance, and it brings an Audi quattro-like lack of fluster to the all-weather driving experience. It’s all extremely smooth, with judicious brake application essentially acting as front and rear limited-slip diffs (VW terms it XDS+).

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

You can dial in a certain amount of rear bias to the STI’s system; meanwhile in the Golf R getting any measure of neautralizing or oversteer-inducing power to the rear wheels requires a full disabling of the R’s stability control system and a right foot solidly pegged. It almost feels like accessing a 'secret menu'...and really, you’ll want to keep that for the track. But what you do get are selectable driving modes that make meaningful changes to the powertrain, steering, and damping.

For the time being, all Golf R models have VW’s DSG twin-clutch automated manual gearbox setup; although it does include a nifty launch control feature, which we tried out a couple of times [you’ll need to consult your owner’s manual for that, ehem].

All Golf R models include a so-called progressive variable ratio steering system that serves to make the area around center feel nice and relaxed when you need it to be while allowing tight hairpins and parking maneuvers without crossing arms. And available adaptive damping makes all that extra capability more enjoyable without a jittery ride or extra road noise.

The Golf R comes in just two trim levels—a base package adding up to $37,415, and one costing $39,910, with the DCC & Navigation Package, including adaptive damping, touch-screen navigation, front and rear park distance control, and a Fender Premium Audio system. All Golf R models include bi-xenon headlamps, LED running lamps, push-button start, keyless entry, touch-screen infotainment, Bluetooth connectivity, ambient and footwell lighting, leather seats, a power driver’s seat, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, and dual-zone climate control.

Golf R costs more than STI, but less in loaded form

That’s a higher price at the base level for the Golf R, compared to the STI, but a loaded Golf R for less money than the top 2015 Subaru WRX STI Limited.

We do indeed think that Subaru missed the mark with its STI this time around, and that the WRX lineup is still missing a top-tech model that takes advantage of all the upgrades given to that model this year yet makes fewer concessions in drivability and livability.

To that point, we’d recommend the Golf R if you want to step up to something with a little more performance (and maturity) than the WRX. Likewise, the Golf R isn’t as outrageous as the STI, but it’s just as likely to make you grin. It’s not a car that you’ll need to make excuses about—to enthusiasts or to loved ones.

Click on to see some of the point-by-point reasons why we’d favor the Golf R over the STI.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI

Styling that isn't too boy-racer

Simply put, we think that the Golf R can play both sides; it looks the part of a performance-oriented hatchback, yet it can go under the radar and look quite formal when you need to be taken seriously—or seen as a responsible parent. Let’s face it: The STI can appear more than a little tuner-car-like, with its lower aero work, exessive front overhang, and oversized (albeit functional) rear wing. Although there are plenty of times we’d like to flaunt it, there are also plenty when we’d rather not.

2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

2015 Volkswagen Golf R (Euro spec) - Preview Drive, Sweden, January 2014

2015 Volkswagen Golf R (Euro spec) - Preview Drive, Sweden, January 2014

There’s a manual, but it’s not required

While Golf R models for the remaining portion of the 2015 model year are only offered with VW’s dual-clutch DSG gearbox, which allows the faster acceleration time and better fuel economy, from the 2016 model year on the Golf R will be offered with a choice of that or a six-speed manual gearbox. That’s a big advantage over the STI, which can only be had with a six-speed manual.

We should add, however, that the STI’s manual gearbox is, hands down, the best in this segment; with a tight, super-precise parallel-rod linkage instead of the common, less-precise cable linkage in the Golf R and even the Subaru WRX, the STI offers the shift feel that experienced track-day enthusiasts want.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

Hatchback convenience

Subaru redesigned the STI as a sedan-only performance model in its latest iteration. That brings the STI, full-circle, back to the sedan design with which it was launched; although it’s worth wondering if the STI might be a tighter rival to the Golf R (and the upcoming Ford Focus RS) if it were a hatchback.

The Golf R offers the exact same cargo space and versatility as the GTI, with rear seatbacks that fold almost flat—enough to fit oversized items without the need for a van or utility vehicle. There’s a pass-through for long items, as well—even though you’ll probably want to put the skis up top on a rack.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015

A ride that you could live with, day in and day out

The Golf R rides with the sophistication of a vehicle that’s a class larger and a price category higher. In top-trim models with the superior DCC adaptive suspension system, that’s especially true, as the system helps filter out general road roughness and coarseness while allowing a firmer calibration (and you have multiple drive modes to control that). Yet the standard-suspension car is still still quite good in its ride—firm but absorbent enough for choppy freeways or pockmarked city streets.

On the other hand, jittery is the way we summed up the STI’s ride quality. In addition to the road noise, you get a ride that crashes over bumps and potholes and would become a difficult companion for some big-city commutes.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R (Euro spec) - Ice Driving

2015 Volkswagen Golf R (Euro spec) - Ice Driving

A cabin quiet enough for conversations

The Subaru STI is the sort of model that always keeps you in touch with what’s happening under the hood and at the wheels—and that’s not necessarily a good thing if you have travel companions. There’s a lot of road and tire roar in the STI at speed, and you hear a fair amount of gearbox whine. And finally there are the engine sounds, piped into the cabin via a resonator system, and seemingly present whether you want it or not. It all adds up to a vehicle that has the soundtrack of an old-style sports car, in some ways; don’t bother talking, the STI is your soundtrack.

You’ll probably manage, in the Golf R, however, to have a perfectly normal conversation. It has great sound insulation in general, blocking out most road noise. And it pipes a simulated baritone engine note into the cabin, through a special sound actuator at the base of the windshield—although it saves its most vocal for the most aggressive, foot-to-the-floor driving.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Far better fuel efficiency

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R achieves an EPA-rated 23 mpg city, 30 highway. Meanwhile the Subaru WRX STI gets ratings of 17/23 mpg. And that factors out to a significant 7-mpg difference in these two vehicles’ EPA Combined ratings—translating to a difference in your annual fuel costs that’s likely to be in the thousands. Furthermore, the STI lacks direct-injection technology, which helps with efficiency in light-load conditions—when you’re just plodding along in traffic, for instance.

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