If you want a little more driving excitement in your life, but you have to keep it practical and sensibly sized for urban commuting, then the Subaru WRX and Volkswagen GTI should be two possibilities near the top of your shopping list.
While these two models are both completely redesigned for 2015, and they both offer a lot of driving enjoyment, they’re nearly polar opposites in terms of design, performance, and packaging; and if you don’t already see the extent of those differences, you’re going to want to pay close attention to this comparison.
ALSO SEE: 2015 Volkswagen GTI Video Road Test
The walkaround: GTI, by a smidge
Neither of these models are very inspiring to look at, or very inspired in their designs. There really aren’t any design traits in common between these models; and it’s likely you’re going to be able to simply size up these designs and pick a clear favorite.
The WRX is only offered as a four-door sedan this time around, and while Subaru has done a lot to give the WRX a different look than the Impreza—there’s actually different sheetmetal all around—you’ll still see its affordable cousin’s plain three-box profile behind it all. As for the GTI, it’s handsome, with sporty cues, albeit a bit formal. It simply looks a little too much like the rest of the Golf lineup. Visually especially, there’s very little other than some special wheels and badging to separate this from a Golf TDI, for instance. But the profile is hot-hatch sporty; the wheels make it just flashy enough; and altogether it’s probably just the right compromise if you want to look like a mature parent.
Under the hood: WRX wins
The Subaru WRX got quite the upgrade under the hood going into 2015; its new direct-injection turbocharged 2.0-liter "boxer" turbo four now makes 268 horsepower, and because its peak 258 pound-feet of torque is delivered beginning at just 2,000 rpm you no longer catch the WRX flat-footed if you’re trying to slingshot out of a corner and forgot to keep the revs up. The GTI’s 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo four only makes 210 horsepower (220 with the Performance Package), but it feels nearly as lively in everything but all-out acceleration runs or high-speed passes, and its peak torque is the same as the Subaru’s engine.
Stepping in: Too close to call
Inside, looking at cabin layout from the driver's seat, both of these models are all business; there’s nothing all that super-performance-oriented (or gimmicky) about the cabins or the interfaces—although the WRX does have a separate configurable display that can show things like turbo boost. On the GTI, the cabin feels high quality, but it's a little drab; a red-stitched, flat-bottom steering wheel (just like the WRX) and available plaid upholstery are the most flamboyant things about the interior.
Heading to the backroads: Too close to call
Now’s the time to point out the elephant in the room: The WRX has all-wheel drive, while the GTI is only offered with front-wheel drive (if you want all-wheel drive, by the way, you’ll have to head over to the much pricier Golf R). While that sounds like a big deal, it actually isn’t—unless you really do plan to drive the WRX rally-style, or to drive year-round on snowy roads.
The WRX’s system feels honest, and it gives you immense confidence; its torque distribution is predictable, and the steering feels direct and well-weighted, adding up to a car that’s superbly well-balanced. On some very curvy, challenging driving roads we’ve found that the GTI is able to pull off some automotive parkour of its own without AWD—thanks to an electronically managed mechanical limited-slip front differential (part of the Performance Package) and excellent variable-ratio steering. There’s no plowing understeer here; the systems in the GTI will actually nudge your line, in subtle, seemingly magical ways, back tighter.