The battle for hot-hatch supremacy
Words: Karl Peskett Photos: www.OzCarSightings.com
When you think of the original hot hatch, which car springs to mind? Naturally, it’ll be the Volkswagen Golf GTI. As the years went by, it got more powerful and more luxurious, but it also got fatter and slower as a result. Then the Mark V came along and reinstated itself as a cult-classic hot-hatch for under $50,000. The Mark VI is more of the same, except it’s quicker, nicer inside and exhibits better handling.
A Japanese offering has also been making an impact over the years, appealing to those who want a genuinely quick car, especially with its MY09 power upgrade. Yes, the Subaru Impreza WRX is also a cult-classic, and with good reason. Brilliant acceleration, impressive grip, solid build – it adds up to a formidable package, which just so happens to sit in the same category, and at a very similar price-point to the Golf.
A head to head comparison, then, was just what the doctor ordered. They’re both sped-up, high-specced performance versions of run-of-the-mill hatchbacks that each have character, and each will put a smile on your dial. The problem is, which one should you choose?
The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mantra applies to the Golf. Essentially, the sheetmetal and interior have been restyled, but underneath, there’s plenty of carryover bits and bobs. The thing is, though, it feels like a different car to the Mark V. It may be the fettled engine, which now makes 155kW and 280Nm; yes the torque may be the same, but it comes in 100rpm earlier (1700rpm).
Or it could be the addition of adaptive chassis control, which is a $1500 option, but one that actually does what it’s supposed to, rather than just making a jittery ride without imbuing better handling. Whatever the reason, the Mark VI is simply a better car than its predecessor.
There was universal criticism when Subaru launched its current-shaped WRX. Comments on internet sites worldwide slammed the Impreza’s styling, and although it’s been with us for a while now, you still have to swallow hard to digest it. That said, it houses one of the best bang-for-buck chassis and engine packages around, which means that you tend to overlook its looks. But as a car, can you live with it every day?
For the most part, yes. The seats in the WRX are shapely, well padded, and while the fronts aren’t as well bolstered as the GTI (which really hold you in place), the rear seats are infinitely more comfortable than the Golf’s ironing-board-flat pews. If you took the Golf’s fronts and the Impreza’s rears, you’d have the perfect combination.
The driving position in the Golf is also infinitely adjustable, with plenty of height available on both the seats and the steering wheel. The Impreza, by contrast, doesn’t quite have enough height adjustment for the wheel. Even when your seat is in its lowest position, you still feel as if the steering wheel sits more in your lap, with the gear-lever also quite tall, unlike the Golf’s lower and slightly set back shift-stick, if fitted with manual. Thankfully the pedals on both are central to the footwell, with the Impreza’s being slightly easier to heel-and-toe, due to the Golf’s floor hinged accelerator.
The brakes on the Golf are grabbier than the Subaru’s but can sustain repeated punishment. The Impreza’s cannot. On the run through our test road, a snaking, undulating piece of tarmac, the Subi’s brakes started out fine, hauling up with plenty of feel and progression. By run four, however, they were smoking and once run five had concluded and we were parked up, they had lost all ability and the pedal sunk to the floor. Volkswagen’s brake setup smelled, for sure, but remained strong and felt as if you could do it all day. For the speed potential of the WRX, the pad compound is simply inadequate.
That potential comes courtesy of a 2.5-litre, horizontally opposed, turb0charged, four cylinder, which puts out 195kW and 343Nm, walloping the GTI’s outputs. It shows, too, with the GTI doing the 0-100km/h benchmark sprint in 6.9 seconds and the WRX in a staggering 5.3 seconds. But the numbers only tell half the story.
You see, if you were doing laps of the same track, the Impreza would romp away at the start, leaving the Golf in its wake…until its brakes failed. After five or six laps, the Subaru would have given up completely and the Volkswagen turtle would walk straight past it, continuing with its effortless acceleration, capable handling and fade-free brakes.
Both will handle corners exceptionally, too, with the entry speed on the Impreza really impressing. Strangely, both our test-drivers thought that the Golf had more grip mid-corner, despite its front-wheel-drive chassis. This meant that the Impreza would dive into the corner earlier and faster, but the Golf would play catchup if the bend was sustained for any length of time. Of course, the WRX would also power out earlier and faster, too, giving it an ultimately quicker lap time.
Turn in on the Subaru is exceptional, with excellent feel and weight through the steering, but as you reach the middle of the corner, it tends to lighten up and lose feedback, which is exactly where the Golf’s steering comes alive. The GTI’s tiller isn’t quite as communicative around dead centre and a few degrees beyond (where it’s weighted well but a bit numb), however when more lock is applied, you begin to feel more and more involved.
It settles into its stance with a notable lack of body roll and just hangs on, giving you seat-of-the-pants and steering feedback in spades, begging you to push it just that bit harder. Your knowledge of front-wheel-drive dynamics and their resultant power-on understeer is the only thing holding you back. The Impreza, however has higher real-world limits yet belies these with a touch of roll when turning in. It’s a result of its fantastic ride, something the GTI achieves by resorting to using its (optional) adaptive chassis control (ACC).
Ultimately, the WRX’s ride is better in all situations, not suffering from the Euro hard-edge damping which shows up on small creases and cracks in the asphalt, yet the GTI’s ride in Comfort mode is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, the ride is very pleasant, but when switched to Sport takes on the track attack stance of high grip/tight damping, with quick sharp vertical movements and an almost Evo-like solidity. Normal is the third in-between setting, which, if we’re honest, is too firm for every day, but too soft for punching around quickly, which means it’s the two extremes of the ACC which work the best.
The Golf’s DSG – as fitted to our test car – also trumps the Impreza’s manual gearbox (Subaru doesn’t offer a self-shifter for the WRX) in that it shifts quicker and produces a heavenly “whump” from the exhaust everytime you shift up. It also blips the throttle for a nice bark on downshifts. The paddles though take a little stretch of your palms to reach and are a bit small. If we’re being picky, it’d be nice to see larger, more prominent paddles which are easier to get to in quick motoring.
But these cars are not just about performance – although that is a fair chunk of their focus – which brings us to practicality. It’s all well and good to have a stripped out road racer, but to live with it day to day is the real test. And that’s where these hot-hatches come into their own. They give you the thrills without giving you the chills, as they’ve been based on practical, no-nonsense runabouts. But has the boost in fun made them unbearable?
To look at, the Subaru is fairly underwhelming. Acres of cheap, dark, hard plastic contrast with the Volkswagen’s soft-touch, impeccably built interior. The WRX misses out on the GTI’s neat touches like the metal bordering the vents, the fingertip metal accents on the window and mirror switches, and the – there’s no other word for it – perfect steering wheel with its flat bottom, perforated leather and metal spokes. The Volkswagen wins the beauty and quality contest, no doubt.
But the boot in the Golf is very short, and although it’s a tad taller than the Impreza, it’s nowhere near as deep. The WRX’s rear seats also fold down to produce a completely flat load area, unlike the GTI’s stepped load space, which cuts into usable room. The GTI counters with an advantage to those who have very small children – the anchor points for child/baby seats are on the back of the rear seats. You see, the WRX’s anchor points are at the rear of the car, under the hatch’s bottom lip, meaning the securing strap extends right across the boot, effectively cutting into the room (by a third) you’d be storing your pram in.
Both cars have six cupholders, both cars have similar amounts of legroom and width, and although the Golf has more headroom in the back, as mentioned previously, the Impreza’s rear seats are a nicer place to spend time due to their comfort. NVH levels seem to be better in the WRX, with a lot less road noise coming through the cabin, and with its better ride, is probably more passenger friendly.
It’s when you shut the doors that you really get a feel for the cars. The Golf GTI shuts with a solid thunk, unlike the tinny, rattly Impreza WRX, which sounds cheap by comparison. There’s a decent heft to the GTI that makes it seem much more expensive than the WRX, and running your hands over the interior, you can feel the difference in quality. For some, that will be the deal breaker.
For others, it’ll be the stupendous acceleration offered by the WRX. There’s a fair bit of lag, but once it’s wound up, from around 3000rpm, it hauls like there’s no tomorrow, unlike the GTI with its lag-free response. Which sums up the cars, really. Although they’re priced similarly, they have two different styles of invoking smiles.
The Impreza WRX’s focus is more about using its all-wheel-drive grip and flying in and out of corners with the interior an afterthought. The GTI is more about quality and finish, while still delivering an engaging drive. Both have practical sides, and both allow you to keep friends and family as company on your journey.
You have to think about something that you’re going to be living with from day to day. Fast is fun for a time, but you’ll never get bored with quality. While the WRX is an excellent package, the GTI is the more complete one. Sure, it’s slightly more to buy outright (in DSG guise), and the options are overpriced, but you do get what you pay for. The Golf GTI still offers thrills, but you’ll never regret hopping into the cabin each time you want to go somewhere.
Volkswagen’s hot hatch still reigns supreme.
Subaru Impreza WRX Specifications:
Volkswagen Golf GTI Specifications: