Compared: 2015 Volkswagen GTI vs 2015 Subaru WRX

Coming in around $30k, the Volkswagen GTI and Subaru WRX may not be the most obvious of rivals, but they offer similar fun at a similar price point and as such, are cross-shopped quite often. Even still, they are quite similar fundamentally. Both have turbocharged four-cylinder power. Both are synonyms for inexpensive fun. And both have a lot to live up to.

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As a genre-defining model with very few missteps along the way, Volkswagen has their work cut out for them each time a GTI refresh comes along. In the past decade, this challenge has been made even more difficult by the introduction of serious competitors to the US market from Ford, Subaru and others. Luckily, Volkswagen has not rested on their laurels for the seventh generation car, bringing experts from Porsche to tweak the GTI’s suspension, and developing a third generation of their EA888 2.0 TSI, good for 220hp and 258ft-lbs tq straight from the factory. Clearly the new GTI came to play.

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Whereas the GTI has always been about the package just as much as performance, Subaru’s WRX has always been focused on the numbers, and the new car is no exception. Our fourth generation tester comes in at just over 3300lbs, allowing the 268hp four cylinder to propel the WRX from a standstill to 60mph in just about 5 seconds. In our test car power is managed through a 6 speed manual transmission, although a CVT is available for the less manual-friendly. Admittedly we haven’t driven a CVT example, but we still can’t quite figure out why you’d want one. Aggressive 240 treadwear rated Dunlop Sport Maxx 235/24/17 rubber and a chassis that is 41% stiffer than the outgoing model work to increase lateral grip and responsiveness. It seems that Subaru has upped their game as well.

On paper, the cars seem quite similar, then. Thankfully, the spec sheets can only tell so much of the story, and the true measure of a car is not regulated to how well it goes, stops and turns. It was time to get inside the WRX and GTI, where the differences become quite apparent.

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Those with prior GTI experience can expect more of the same in the seventh generation’s interior, with a few slight changes. The interior materials in the Mk7 feel more upscale than those inside that fifth and sixth iterations. The center stack features a large touchscreen, ensuring easy operation through the infotainment system. Cruise control functionality has been moved to the steering wheel. The doors close with a familiar ‘thunk.’ The exterior of the GTI neither blends in nor stands out aside from the usual GTI badging and honeycomb grilles, which many potential owners undoubtedly will take comfort in. In many ways, the GTI does its best to disguise the car’s reasonable asking price and impressive performance.

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Inside the WRX is also somewhat similar to previous generations, and that’s not such a good thing. It looks and feels quite cheap in there, but then again, if you are seriously considering the WRX you will either opt for the leather and upgraded stereo, or you simply don’t care. With that said, the materials used are greatly improved over previous generation versions, proof that Subaru is moving in the right direction. The base radio in our test car was at best frustrating, and owners would be wise to discard it for an aftermarket unit as soon as possible. Sitting inside the car, you cant help but feel exactly like you are in the base Impreza- a car that retails for $10k less that the WRX’s going rate. Luckily the exterior is much more aggressive than the standard Impreza, with broad shoulders and large exhaust pipes which protrude from the motorsport-inspired rear diffuser.

When driving the cars back to back, you quickly get to know how different the two really are. Sure the WRX and GTI feature contrasting engine layouts, transmissions and drive wheels, but their differences go far beyond the obvious, with each car showing its strengths and weaknesses on the open road.

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Perhaps this difference is most visible when chasing our other driver through a windy bit of tarmac. With a much wider powerband (258 lb-ft of torque available at just 1500rpm) and idiot-proof DSG transmission, the GTI is extremely easy to drive in anger. In this setting, the car is only limited by its open differential, seemingly softer springs and 225 section tires. Fortunately for consumers, Volkswagen’s ‘Performance Package’ is arriving at dealers as we speak, which will serve to take care of two of the above complaints.

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In the Subaru, things are a bit more difficult, and much more rewarding. With peak boost not coming along until about 3,000rpm, you really need to keep the revs up to get the most out of the car. If you can keep it in that sweet spot though, prepare to have a blast. The stiffness of the suspension and chassis begins to make sense, while the wide sticky Dunlops keep you planted on the road surface. Due to a 50:50 torque split from the WRX’s center differential, the front end will begin to wash out mid corner when you’re on the throttle, but with proper modulation it can be kept to a minimum. The electronic steering rack is quick and direct, offering great feedback. Simply put, with an adjustable center differential this car would be really very good. Perhaps it’s best to leave that for the STI version, then.

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The GTI’s real strength is the daily commute, with the aforementioned softer springs soaking up uneven road surfaces, and the smooth powerband more than happy to just putt along at constant speed.  It’s in this setting where the WRX begins to fall behind. In traffic, it feels like the WRX is the devil on your shoulder, just egging you on while the stiff chassis and heavy clutch working to stretch out the passing minutes, making them seem like much more. The WRX just isn’t made for the 9-to-5 grind.

After a full day with the cars I felt conflicted. The WRX has the power and chassis to make most any trip an entertaining one. It’s the kind of car that makes you look for an excuse- any excuse to go out and find some fun stretches of road. In terms of driving experience when the road is windy and open, it is the clear winner… except it isn’t. The quality of the car’s interior and exterior plastics, while improved over the previous generation, are still quite disappointing for a $30,000 car. Even the steering wheel and shift knob- both key touch points- just feel hard and brittle. It’s the better car to drive, but not the better place to physically be.

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It’s by that measurement, that the GTI is the superior package. It’s much more comfortable. It’s nearly as much fun to drive. It’s got the feel and look of something much more expensive. To sum it all up, the GTI is simply more car for the same money. And it’s where we’d rather be.