The new Subaru WRX STI has a lot to live up to, especially now that we know the garden variety WRX is a significantly better car than the old model in every way. The early signs are good, because the STI in Premium guise, as tested here, immediately ramps up the bang-for-your-buck factor. At $54,990 (or $49,990 if you forgo luxury kit), it’s a massive $10,000 cheaper than the model it replaces. A saving of that magnitude can’t be underestimated for budget-conscious performance car buyers. Subaru is not only making the STI more attainable, though, it’s also aiming to broaden the appeal of the Subaru Tecnica International version of the ‘Rex’. If that trademark sky-high rear wing has ever put you off buying one, you can, for the first time, have it deleted as an option. Why? Blame the Germans. Especially the Volkswagen Golf R, which has has stolen a march on the STI in recent times with its ability to fly under the radar and offer rapid, turbocharged all-wheel-drive performance. The latest-generation Volkswagen Golf R is likewise devoid of options – save for a DSG dual-clutch automatic that takes the RRP up $2500 to an STI Premium-matching $54,990. The Golf has always been a case of evolution rather than revolution, with Volkswagen unwilling to stray too far from its legendary formula, but the latest, seventh-generation model is in particularly good form. The question the new R needs to answer, however, is whether it can improve on its predecessor by being more than just a nice, flagship version of the famous German five-door and become a proper super-hatch. The first-ever Audi S3 sedan (which shares its platform with the Golf) joins our shoot-out as a wild card entry. Philosophically, it bridges the divide between hatch-only Golf and sedan-only STI by being a German sedan, but at $62,200, it is easily the most expensive here (choosing the S3 Sportback saves a few grand, though). Add metallic paint ($1150), the S performance package ($4990) and panoramic sunroof ($1950), and you're suddenly looking at a lofty $70,290. It’s the most luxurious vehicle in this group but we need to find out whether the extra luxury, coated with a serious dusting of sporting credentials, is worth the price premium or if it dilutes the driving experience. ON THE ROAD If you’re fussy about the transmission you use, your decision could well be made before we go any further. The WRX STI can’t be had with an auto, and the S3 sedan (unlike the S3 Sportback) can’t be had with a manual. Only the Golf R offers a choice: six-speed manual or six-speed DSG. On test, then, the STI has to take the fight to the Germans with a conventional six-speed manual transmission. At least it gets more grunt to distribute to all four wheels. While the two German cars share the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, the STI gets an extra 500cc of capacity, creating enough of a power and torque disparity to potentially make a difference. The Subaru’s 2.5-litre turbocharged flat-four – carried over with tweaks, unlike the WRX’s all-new 2.0-litre – generates 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm between 4000-5200rpm, and the STI as tested weighs in at a heaviest-in-the-group 1537kg. By comparison the four-cylinder sitting under the bonnets of the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R produces 206kW at 5100rpm and 380Nm at just 1800rpm. The S3 sedan tips the scales at 1460kg, leaving the Golf R as the lightweight at 1435kg. First up, we leave the confines of the city and head out onto the open country road, pointing the three cars at one of our favourite road test loops, with a good mix of tarmac and dirt. So, what’s the difference between the S3 and Golf R that share engines and platforms? As it turned out, quite a bit. The Golf R also gets standard adaptive suspension, where the S3 gets fixed dampers standard, but here uses a different style of (magnetically) adjustable suspension that comes part of a $5000 option pack. The Audi claims the 'comfort' award overall. On rough country backroads, the S3 is the most assured, slightly more controlled than the Golf in its softest setting yet just as absorbent around town. It’s here in this environment that all three testers find ever more convincing ways to explain away the price premium. At the other end of the divide, though, the Volkswagen’s ‘Race’ mode is significantly firmer than the Audi’s firmest setting, though there isn't much between them with the middle ‘Auto’ setting in each, which strikes a balance favoured by all three testers. Despite using the same engine, the S3’s note has a real subtlety to it, where the Golf has a deep burble at idle and through the rev range. CarAdvice deputy editor Dan DeGasperi was the first to remark that the Golf R’s throttle seemed sharper than the S3’s and nobody argued. It’s a subtle difference, but at speed the Golf R has the ability to sweep through a corner rapidly with lighter throttle inputs. In outright handling terms there isn’t a lot to split the Golf R and S3 aside from the difference between the two cars’ stiffest settings. The Golf R's handling is nothing short of astonishing. Where you’d expect the STI to be the driver’s weapon of choice of this trio in the twisty stuff, it’s the nimble VW that is the star. It’s also a weapon in a straight line, and the R’s engine continues its emphasis on sportiness with a deeper note than the S3’s through the rev range. It’s hard to fathom that vehicles as comfortable as the Golf R and S3 can be so capable when the going gets tough. Both have a portion of the drive being sent to the rear wheels (despite a front-wheel bias), which they both noticeably do more often than their previous generations which were always a bit ‘relaxed’ in sending drive to the rears. Yet there’s a discernible point of difference about the Golf R and its agility, primarily because of its lack of roll. The Subaru WRX STI unfortunately hasn’t advanced as far past the outgoing model as we all hoped. This is especially stark given how much better the new WRX is. The ride is significantly stiffer than the WRX’s, which is fine for the racetrack but not so enjoyable on nastier road surfaces. Consequently, the STI would be the hardest car to live with in this company purely based on daily driving. That’s compounded when you factor in the vague take-up point on the clutch pedal, which is more like an on/off switch. In fact, multiple testers stalled the STI crawling into parking spots or taking off from lights. And in an era where turbocharged engines are becoming increasingly advanced and starting to make turbo lag an issue of the past, that throttle response delay remains a traditional bugbear in the 2014 iteration of the STI. It really is a laggy engine when it’s outside the meat of the rev range. Hit a reasonable incline at 2000rpm and you need to work the gearbox to get the engine into the 2500rpm (or ideally 3000rpm) range to really pick up speed. Open the taps on a windy country road to get the boxer engine into the heart of its torque curve, and the STI starts to make a lot more sense. When the turbo cranks up, there’s a kick in the face and surge of acceleration that neither the Golf R nor S3 can match. The STI’s strong point is its gearshift: short, precise and a pleasure to operate regardless of road speed. The shift can feel notchy at times, but it’s all part of the connected feel the STI delivers so well – and exclusively so. On both road and track, though, that timely changes by the driver are crucial. Get into too high a gear too early and the 2.5 falls off boost; hold a gear too long and the engine starts to get a little breathless at the peak of the rev range. For the latter, short-shifting before redline was the trick to achieving smoother and more seamless acceleration. The WRX STI’s steering is better on the open road, too, where it’s sharp at speed and the quick ratio makes easier and more enjoyable work of tight bends. Around town, especially at crawling speed, the Subaru’s steering feels too heavy. The older-style hydraulic power steering is now starting to suffer in comparison with newer-generation electro-mechanical power steering systems, feeling dull and suffering bad rack rattle over even slight bumps. We all appreciated the STI’s active centre diff, though, which when set to rear-drive mode delivered the most involving, mechanical drive of the trio. Extra drive to the rear allows the driver to steer the STI with the throttle more than ever before and certainly more than either the S3 or Golf R. Both Dan and CarAdvice founder Tony Crawford remarked that they would love the active centre diff as an option for the WRX… The previous STI was a better track car than the old Golf R, however, so has anything changed there? ON THE TRACK The car that’s best to drive on the open road isn’t necessarily the best on the racetrack, but that is how the story unfolded at NSW’s Wakefield Park. We headed there for an early morning blast, prepared to take into account the shortfalls of road tyres at manufacturer recommended pressures and the associated grip issues that come with them once you’ve run a few laps and generated enough heat to make them squawk and complain. We decided on three laps for each vehicle. One out lap, one flying lap, and one cool down lap with Dan our pilot for all three cars. According to the clock, the Volkswagen Golf R was the fastest of the three (1.11.54 seconds), with the S3 just behind (1.12.03), and the STI third (1.13.06). The STI was partially hobbled by what seemed to be a strange, hard-cut rev limiter that came in well before the engine reached redline in most gears. We couldn’t quite work out why the STI wasn’t playing ball. It’s possible without the time lost due to the strange baulking, the STI could have been neck and neck with the Golf. On track the Golf R sits the flattest through corners regardless of speed, and has the most grip. It also has razor sharp turn in and grip on corner exit is impressive. The S3 surprises with its playful nature at speed and keenness to wag its tail following mid-corner throttle lifts - delivering more fun on the track than anticipated. It is definitely softer in its suspension’s firmest mode when compared with the Golf on the track, but this is only a bad thing for outright track times, and there’s not much in it in any case. INTERIORS The S3 stands head and shoulders above the Golf R and STI when you take your place behind the wheel. For some time now Audi has had a lock on the luxury sports feel that is so hard for some manufacturers to nail down. All three testers agreed that while the S3 is the most expensive here, the cabin ambience and finish feels very much in keeping with the $70K-plus asking price. It has the best entertainment interface, the best audio system, the most premium feel to the controls, seating and finish, and the quietest cabin, too. There’s still road and wind noise at freeway speeds but not as much as the Golf R and STI. The S3 has a back seat that is big enough to make it a genuine family run-around, and plenty of boot space for what is really a compact sedan. We liked the visibility, and the seating position in both the driver's and passenger's pew. Pairing your phone via Bluetooth is simple and the connection reliable. The sat-nav also works well. The Golf R feels more premium inside than the STI despite the price parity, but not quite as premium as the Audi. In this sporting test, we liked the lack of leather in favour of a more race-focused interior design with Alcantarta trim. The Golf R’s infotainment screen is too small, especially when assessed against the Audi’s larger 7.0-inch display. That factor might not be a problem for many, but it’s definitely noteworthy once the asking price passes $50K. At night especially, the blue-strip lighting in the cabin is classy, and it’s these little touches that set the Golf R apart from the STI. As with the S3, the Golf R has the benefit of back-row seating that is actually useful and comfortable and the hatch design opens up to serious luggage space with the seats folded down. The STI is clearly the least advanced in this company. It’s the cabin ambience that lets the STI down the most against the Golf R when you factor in the almost identical pricing. The cabin feels sparse and underdone, the plastics are in some areas harsh and unrefined, and the almost aftermarket control screen is a point of annoyance. All testers agreed that the STI felt a generation behind in terms of interior equipment. Neither Dan or Tony liked the pleated door trims, which are a nod to something in the past we can’t quite get our heads around. The STI’s seats are, however, supremely comfortable over any distance, and the SI-Drive switchgear gives the cabin an authentic racecar feel. Traditional STI owners won’t give a hoot about these interior shortfalls, though the issue though might come from buyers who are new to the brand and expect something a little more advanced. The second row seating is most generous in the STi, which, as with the other two vehicles, enhances its daily driving credentials further. Likewise the boot, which is spacious and swallowed a mountain of camera gear on our photoshoot day. VERDICT All three vehicles, while different in execution, offer up compelling reasons for buyers to part with their hard earned cash in their own unique way. The Subaru WRX STI is measurably less polished, significantly rougher around the edges and more than a little raw compared with either the Audi S3 or the Volkswagen Golf R – just its predecessor. Unlike the polished, improved WRX, the STI simply hasn’t changed. Its older-tech engine (even lacking direct fuel injection now standard on the WRX) versus the Volkswagen Group’s advanced turbo motor also contributed to a significant disparity in fuel use. The Golf R was the most efficient on test across a mostly spirited 500km-plus drive, using 11.68L/100km. The Audi S3 came in just behind, using 11.74L/100km, while the WRX STI slurped a considerably higher 14.5L/100km. More than anything, the extra fuel usage graphically illustrates just how hard the STI has to be worked to keep up with the almost effortless S3 and Golf R despite its larger engine. The STI delivers a brawny, connected, mechanical experience, however, that harks back to the glory days of performance cars. If you want to attend regular track days, have more of a motorsport-style experience, and be able to tune the engine to suit your needs, the STI is the pick of the bunch. It is by no means the sharpest tool in the shed, but if it’s an old hatchet in this knife fight it can still draw plenty of blood. The Audi S3 is significantly more expensive than its rivals here, and the price gap is big enough to question if it can be justified over the Golf R. There’s a tangible element of luxury afforded by the S3, though. The ride is the most composed and comfortable around town and the Audi badge delivers street cred and cachet. If you want to cruise around town in luxury and comfort with fun only a jab of the throttle pedal away, you’ll want the S3. Going with our knife metaphor, the S3 is a high-end chef’s blade. The Volkswagen Golf R isn’t as luxurious as the S3 and isn’t as hardcore as the STI, but it is the best all-rounder in this company. All three judges agreed the Golf soaked up every driving scenario effortlessly. Supremely capable on road, mightily impressive on track and comfortable when it comes to the daily grind, the Golf R is a performance hatch of palpable ability that you can live with day to day. Finally, it has come of age to leverage itself rightly above the Golf GTI. Its only (very minor) shortfall is that it is a Golf. There are so many on the road these days, even in R guise, that some may see the S3 and STI as more exclusive-feeling options. That isn’t stopping buyers rushing to the Golf in droves across all models, though. In fact, we needed a security guard to get Tony out of it by the end of the test. In the battle of the blades, the Volkswagen Golf R is the surgeon’s scalpel of this trio – taking victory with one ruthless, Teutonic cut. Dan says: For me, overall, the Volkswagen Golf R has come on in leaps and bounds over the old car, which was little more than a tubby, inert, too-expensive Golf GTI. It now feels quick, sounds special, and has an AWD system that works. It’s more than an all-rounder; it’s a proper mega-sports car that happens to do mundane things well. Although the Audi S3 sedan does luxury-sports to perfection, the Golf R is almost as comfortable and way more agile and dynamic (unless playfulness is your thing, which it actually is for me...). I love the S3, and it is technically the best car here and the one I went home in following our video shoot, but on value terms it is a clear second place. The Golf R has improved as much as the STI has remained stagnant – there are just too many rough edges, and because the Volkswagen has come so far with dynamics it is for me a bit hard to justify. Tony says: The S3 lives up to Audi’s trademark world-class interiors, with a superb cabin that is a clear cut above its two rivals. It’s also blisteringly quick and a superb handling sedan with a class-leading ride. But it’s also the most expensive vehicle here by some margin. The Golf R is the standout car in this contest. This is a potent bit of kit that combines whopping straight-line performance with brilliant handling dynamics. Its balance and poise under heavy load is simply outstanding. Its only disappointment is its relatively uninspiring interior, which fails to differentiate it from the rest of the Golf range. The Subaru WRX STI is the least flexible of the bunch, but perhaps the most focused. Its lack of an automatic transmission option will rule it out for many in the performance car market. It easily demands the most from the driver, but doesn’t necessarily reward the effort. It still goes hard and looks the part, but it’s significantly less refined than the S3 and the Golf. Photography by Easton Chang.
Sports car comparison : Subaru WRX STI v Audi S3 v Volkswagen Golf R