16.5/25 3.5 stars
The flagship STI Spec R is $63,800 drive-away. In addition to the new model’s 19-inch wheels and six-piston Brembo front brakes, it gains a massive rear wing and heated Recaro front seats with power adjustment for the driver. Servicing costs are insanely high ($2295 over three years) and it requires a check-up every six months. Warranty is three years/unlimited km.
A new mesh insert in the front bumper, new design wheels and bigger front brakes (with yellow calipers) are the clues that this is the new one. Inside, the Recaro seats have red patches that match the red stitching elsewhere in the cabin. The sedan body is less practical than a hatch but it’s still roomy in the back seat and the boot is sizeable.
The 2.5-litre turbo four (221kW/407Nm) has more grunt than the Golf R but it has more weight to shift (1532kg versus 1450kg) and is matched to a six-speed manual only. There’s a noticeable delay in power delivery — then hell breaks loose at about 3500rpm. It uses 98 premium unleaded but drinks considerably more of it than the Golf. The respective claims are 10.4L/100km and 7.2L but neither will return these figures when driven enthusiastically.
Seven airbags, a 360-degree camera and five-star safety rating earned under earlier criteria. Today the lack of automatic emergency braking would drop it to four stars. Subaru has added tech where it can: LED headlights swivel with the steering, high-beams dip automatically (rather than mask individual cars) and blind zone warning and rear cross traffic alert are standard.
The WRX STI feels like a muscle car compared to other turbo fours. At car park speeds you can feel the heavy duty all-wheel drive hardware clunking and grinding. It’s much happier once on the move and on the open road where it shines with profound grip. It doesn’t like brisk acceleration from rest. Subaru claims a 0-100km/h time of 5.2 seconds; the best we clocked was 5.7 seconds. It gets to 90km/h in just 4.6 seconds, but then loses valuable time in the shift to third gear at 93km/h.
Volkswagen Golf R
20.5/25 4 stars
The VW Golf R starts at $58,500 drive-away (until a cut-price “Grid” edition arrives early 2018) for a six-speed manual. We’ve tested the new seven-speed twin-clutch auto — a gearbox which happens to be shared with the updated Audi S3 — from $61,125 drive-away. Warranty is three years/unlimited km. Service costs over three years are $1531. In isolation this is expensive. Next to the Subaru, it’s cheap. Intervals are 12 months/15,000km.
The updated Golf has subtle changes to the front bumper, grille and headlights. Most changes are inside, namely the large central touchscreen and super-wide digital instrument display. It’s a classier cabin and a more practical hatchback design if you need to carry larger loads.
The 2.0-litre turbo four gets increased outputs (213kW/380Nm) although it now insists on 98 premium unleaded. It’s almost silent compared to the Subaru but it has some character if you listen closely enough. Power delivery is smoother than in the Subaru. Combined with a seven-speed twin clutch auto, acceleration is almost seamless.
Seven airbags and five-star safety rating — which would stack up today because automatic emergency braking at suburban speeds (and crash mitigation at freeway speeds) is standard on the Golf R. Optional safety tech includes blind zone warning (standard on the Subaru) and radar cruise control and lane keeping assistance (neither of them available on the rival).
The performance is remarkable. VW claims 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds — previously, with six-speed auto, it clocked 4.9 seconds — and we matched only the latter figure. It’s still breathtaking, even though it doesn’t feel as fast because the acceleration is more linear. There are grip and poise to match and a fair degree of comfort around town. One caveat: the 19-inch wheels are not suited to Aussie back roads.
The Subaru WRX STI is a modern muscle car but the VW Golf R has brains as well as brawn and is deceptively quick. Call it a civilised sports car.