You have heard plenty over the years about Subaru’s rally-inspired WRX. And, owing to its longer life span, you have probably heard even more about Volkswagen’s genre-defining hot hatch, the GTI. It’s now in its seventh generation.
Goodness knows, you’ve also heard plenty from us about the southern Ohio area of Hocking Hills around Cedar Falls. We’ve been such ardent and vocal fans of the area’s beautifully maintained and lightly traveled roads that even the Hocking Hills 2014 Official Visitors Guide magazine devotes a story to what it describes as the “now-legendary” Car and Driver loop.
So it seemed only right that we should make another pilgrimage to our de facto southern base with the new iterations of these two storied performance cars.
For 2015, Subaru completely reworked the WRX, basing it on the current Impreza sedan. While the hatchback version is no longer available, say “WRX” and the image that probably pops into mind is the notchback version anyway. And of course that imaginary WRX wears some hue of the medium-blue paint that Subaru has used since the old Colin McRae 555 World Rally glory days of the mid-’90s. No surprise, then, that our test car wore WR Blue Pearl.
Because it’s a WRX, it is—let’s just come out with it—aesthetically challenged. Subaru teased us with an extremely cool-looking WRX concept vehicle a couple of years ago but then came to its senses and produced a head-scratchingly awkward thing. All is right with the world.
Bolted into the new, slightly larger body is a turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter boxer-four (a so-called FA-series engine) making 268 horsepower and emitting at least a hint of that typical Subaru exhaust-note thrum. It’s backed by a six-speed manual and, of course, comes standard with four-wheel drive. Our Premium-pack model stickers for $29,290.
It seems the seventh-gen GTI has been with us for a year or more, but it’s only just now going on sale in the U.S. Indeed, it was in our July 2013 issuethat this very same new GTI, in Euro spec, dusted the Ford Focus ST in a comparison test in southern France. That explains why the saucy Ford wasn’t invited back for this round. Based on all-new architecture, the 2015 GTI is bigger in all dimensions except height, and it carries the newest EA888 turbocharged and dual-injected 2.0-liter inline-four making 210 horsepower in standard trim and 220 in a Performance package–equipped version, such as our test car. It also has a substantial bump in peak torque (to 258 pound-feet, up from 207) and now wears proper summer tires that previously were only occasionally available from the factory. The standard “Clark” plaid fabric seat inserts seem even more plaid-y, as well. Our low-spec model stickers for $28,305 with the Performance package ($1495) and Lighting package ($995).
As you can probably imagine, our days are long and arduous—what with the demands of our clearly well-deserved celebrity status in these parts—and so we must periodically retire to the relative anonymity of the South Bloomingville Tavern, a country bar on the loop that is so thoroughly country that its jukebox is stocked with music ranging from country to western (and also Mountain’s seminal hit, “Mississippi Queen”). There, we would deliberate the outcome of this comparison test . . . actually, that’s not true. We’d determined the winner much earlier in the day. This gave us ample time to discuss more pressing matters, such as the source of the appeal of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries (available behind the bar), the veracity of the local legend about the King Toad and his Urine-Filled Mushroom Chalice*, and also how long it would take me to get punched in the face if I didn’t stop (unintentionally) effecting a cartoonish Southern drawl.
2015 Subaru WRX
Second place: The Legends of the Cedar Falls.
We swear we like the WRX. We’ve always liked WRXs, even that one with the horrible pig nose. We would shed a fat, lonely tear into our bottle of Bud (with the American-flag special-edition label) at the South Bloomingville Tavern if ever the WRX left us for good. So don’t assume that the brutal stomping the WRX has taken here means we aren’t charmed by the car.
Here’s the good news: The Subaru is fractionally more fun to drive around our loop of decreasing radii and the apex-at-the-crest-of-a-hill naughtiness than the GTI. It pivots into corners with uncommon certainty. Its low center of gravity (an inch and a half lower than the VW’s) and freshly starched suspenders keep the body level in pretty extreme circumstances. And, if you’re willing to drop the clutch of your personal car with somewhere north of 6000 rpm showing on the tachometer, the WRX can bolt to 60 mph seven-tenths of a second quicker than the GTI can (5.1 seconds to 5.8).
But that is really the crux of the biscuit, isn’t it? In the real world, without the brutal launch, the WRX gets to 60 mph (from a 5-mph roll) in 6.6 seconds. The GTI, which is down 48 horsepower on the WRX, goes from 5 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. The difference in times speaks specifically to the WRX engine’s lack of flexibility. We know mummies with greater flexibility. Despite having the same number of cylinders and turbos and the same total engine displacement, the WRX is a toggle switch to the GTI’s rheostat. It reminds us a bit of the first great wave of turbo engines in the ’80s: Often you got less power than you wanted, sometimes you got way more than you could handle, but rarely did you ever get the exact amount of power you anticipated.
Compounding the uneven power delivery is a touchy throttle that, even with the measured use of your right foot, results in a festival of herking and jerking. Outside of the loop (like, for example, the roughly five hours of driving it takes for us to get there), the WRX’s tensed suspension is tiresome, thwacking and heaving uncomfortably down the road. Tire and wind noise add to the unnecessary sensory assault. And the thing wanders on the highway as if it carries with it its own heavy crosswinds that affect no other nearby vehicles.
The WRX allows its drivers to indulge in World-Rally dreams. Unfortunately, the real world is mostly transport stages.
On the loop, the WRX is the faster of the two cars. Not by much, but it’s faster. It also has front-end bite that the GTI can’t match. Only the aggressively light, feel-free steering and the spongy brake-pedal action mar the WRX’s back-road buzz.
For good and ill, the new WRX is a great WRX, wholly consistent with its lineage.
2015 Volkswagen GTI
First place: Legends of the Cedar Falls.
It’s hard to imagine how the GTI could have done any better in our scoring. Its balance of attributes appears to be tailored specifically to our points system.
Look, for example, at the “vehicle” category. The GTI has an enormous 19-point margin there, tallying a triumph in every measure except for rear-seat space, which was a tie. Call us dash-stroking softies if you’d like, but when a car company offers a more comfortable, slightly cheaper car with more amenities, better build quality, and cleaner, more-attractive styling inside and out, we are obliged to take notice.
In the “powertrain” section, the GTI takes a seven-point win despite its substantial horsepower deficit. The thanks go to the engine’s linear, torque-rich delivery. It also enjoys a superior-shifting six-speed manual and a stunning 4-mpg fuel-efficiency advantage (26 mpg C/D observed to the WRX’s 22). The same goes for the “chassis” category: The GTI blunts the WRX’s small outright performance advantage (slightly shorter braking performance and 2.5-mph-higher speed through our slalom) by delivering spectacular steering, excellent brake feel, and ride quality that is so much better than the WRX’s that it more than erases the Subie’s small handling edge.
The GTI not only feels more substantial than the WRX (despite weighing 209 pounds less), it simply feels like a consumer product that is better thought out and more carefully developed. Its control relationships and vehicle integration approach perfection, allowing for second-nature smoothness in operation. It’s quieter at idle and at a 70-mph cruise than the Subaru, but significantly louder at full throttle. That speaks to the Volkswagen’s dual-purpose nature. The GTI doesn’t extract payment for its performance the way that the WRX does. It’s rock-solid stable on the expressway, but it rocks out on curvy roads.
Assuming you are not hatch-phobic, it’s hard to imagine another reasonably priced car as satisfying as the GTI.
Driven with equal brio, the WRX will pull away from the GTI. But the GTI is damn quick and agile in its own right. Ultimately, it will load up its outside-front tire and, therefore, require a more judicious corner-entry speed than the Subaru. The Performance package’s electronically controlled limited-slip differential helps banish torque steer to a degree we didn’t think possible (please take note, Ford Focus ST), and it positively bolts out of corners in a way few other front-drive performance cars can, riding a huge, rolling wave of torque.
And yes, the interior materials and fit and finish are spectacular, as expected. The GTI feels like a car that costs at least $10,000 more than the WRX, not one priced about $1000 less.
If you have a taste for the WRX, we understand. It’s a distinct flavor that’s not really offered elsewhere. But it’s a one-note experience with some regrettable side effects. It is the Andy Capp’s Hot Fries of sub-$30K performance cars with non-contiguous three-letter names. But the GTI is the better car.
Final Scoring, Performance Data, and Complete Specs
Legends of the Cedar Falls: Two affordable performance icons on our favorite affordable Ohio roads.
|2015 Subaru WRX||2015 Volkswagen GTI|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,290||$28,305|
|LENGTH||180.9 inches||168.0 inches|
|WIDTH||70.7 inches||70.8 inches|
|HEIGHT||58.1 inches||56.8 inches|
|WHEELBASE||104.3 inches||103.6 inches|
|FRONT TRACK||60.2 inches||60.6 inches|
|REAR TRACK||60.6 inches||59.7 inches|
|INTERIOR VOLUME||F: 52 cubic feet
R: 41 cubic feet
|F: 51 cubic feet
R: 42 cubic feet
|CARGO||12 cubic feet||23 cubic feet|
|ENGINE||turbocharged DOHC 16-valve flat-4
122 cu in (1998 cc)
|turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4
121 cu in (1984 cc)
|POWER HP @ RPM||268 @ 5600||220 @ 4700|
|TORQUE LB-FT @ RPM||258 @ 2000||258 @ 1500|
|REDLINE / FUEL CUTOFF||6700/6800 rpm||7300/6800 rpm|
|LB PER HP||12.4||14.1|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
MPH PER 1000 RPM/
|AXLE RATIO:1||4.11||3.24, 2.62*|
|SUSPENSION||F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|BRAKES||F: 12.4-inch vented disc
R: 11.3-inch disc
|F: 13.4-inch vented disc
R: 12.2-inch vented disc
|STABILITY CONTROL||fully defeatable, competition mode||partially defeatable, traction off|
|TIRES||Dunlop Sport Maxx RT
|Bridgestone Potenza S001
C/D TEST RESULTS
|0–30 MPH||1.7 sec||2.3 sec|
|0–60 MPH||5.1 sec||5.8 sec|
|0–100 MPH||13.8 sec||14.4 sec|
|0–120 MPH||21.6 sec||22.1 sec|
|¼-MILE @ MPH||13.8 sec @ 100||14.4 sec @ 100|
|ROLLING START, 5–60 MPH||6.6 sec||6.7 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 30–50 MPH||11.9 sec||12.4 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 50–70 MPH||8.0 sec||8.3 sec|
|TOP SPEED||144 mph (gov ltd)||124 mph (gov ltd)|
|BRAKING 70–0 MPH||159 feet||163 feet|
|0.92 g||0.91 g|
|610-FT SLALOM||46.6 mph||44.1 mph†|
|CURB||3314 pounds||3105 pounds|
|CG HEIGHT||19.5 inches||21.0 inches|
|TANK||15.9 gallons||13.2 gallons|
|RATING||91 octane||91 octane|
|EPA CITY/HWY||21/28 mpg||25/34 mpg|
|C/D 600-MILE TRIP||22 mpg||26 mpg|
|IDLE||51 dBA||42 dBA|
|FULL THROTTLE||77 dBA||84 dBA|
|70-MPH CRUISE||74 dBA||71 dBA|
* First ratio for gears 1-4, second for gears 5 and 6. † Stability-control inhibited.
Max Pts. Available
2015 Volkswagen GTI
2015 Subaru WRX
|FIT AND FINISH||10||10||8|
|FUN TO DRIVE||25||21||23|
* These objective scores are calculated from the vehicle’s dimensions, capacities, rebates and extras, and/or test results