Which is better: The Subaru WRX or Volkswagen GTI?

A comparison of two popular compact cars.

Appearances can be deceiving, but the performance-oriented Volkswagen GTI and Subaru WRX are both practical cars at their core.

Sure, they’re not as versatile as a three-row crossover or a minivan, but they offer spirited driving characteristics with little sacrifice. Both the GTI and WRX have economy-car roots, but upgraded to make the daily commute a lot more fun. So which one is best? It all depends.

2019 Subaru WRX

The WRX has long been based on the thrifty Subaru Impreza, though the two models have begun to drift apart as they’ve been more specialized for their customers. Past iterations have been available in sedan and hatchback form, but the current WRX is only available as a sedan. The name WRX comes from World Rally eXperimental. It features technology and performance upgrades inspired by and derived from Subaru’s extensive rally racing experience.

The GTI blends performance with practicality. —Volkswagen

2019 Volkswagen GTI

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The GTI, which dates back to 1975, is based on the immensely practical Volkswagen Golf. The GTI used to be available in two-door and four-door variants, but it’s now just a four-door hatch. This makes the GTI fun and functional. It provides cargo space of 53.7 cubic feet, rivaling some small crossovers.

Styling

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but as far as “souped-up” versions of practical cars go, there is a refreshing level of restraint exercised by both VW and Subaru. Visual cues generally include larger wheels, aerodynamic lower front spoilers, and details that hint at their sporty nature. If you prefer subtle, go for the GTI, but if you want to flaunt it, the WRX’s massive hood scoop makes a bold visual statement.

Boston.com Dealer Specials:
The WRX features flared fenders and a pronounced hood scoop. —Subaru

Interior and Features

The cabin of the Golf/GTI is world class, and, frankly, it’s one of the best interiors of any modern compact car. It has the fit and finish of cars that cost thousands more, and yet it maintains a simple, easy-to-use control layout for the climate and audio controls. For 2018, the GTI received an updated infotainment system, which carries over to 2019. It includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but the bezel with this system has haptic buttons (like you’ll find on a microwave), and you can easily hit the wrong one when reaching for the controls. It’s really the only knock we can find against the GTI’s cabin.

The GTI comes with a unique Tartan interior, and is available with leather interior. —Volkswagen
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Meanwhile, the WRX has a similarly simple, intuitive interior layout, but it’s nowhere near the fit-and-finish of the GTI. There are plenty of hard plastics throughout the cabin, and although the sport bucket seats are well-bolstered, they are cramped for larger individuals. The WRX features Subaru’s StarLink infotainment system, which provides logical menu layouts and easy-to-read fonts. For 2019, StarLink gains Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Performance

The GTI comes with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-four making 228 horsepower (when using premium fuel), sent to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch (automatic) transmission. Acceleration and braking are strong. The GTI has 258 pound feet of torque, which pairs well to the tall gearing, allowing you to stay in the same gear longer through corners.

Despite its FWD layout, the GTI provides fantastic handling. Steering is well-weighted, and the car is a delight to drive. Various drive mode settings can soften the ride for sitting in traffic, or firm it up for a more spirited drive.

The WRX is standard with a precise six-speed manual. It’s available with a CVT. —Subaru

The WRX features a 2.0-liter turbocharged opposing four-cylinder engine; it’s also called a Boxer, named for how the cylinders “punch” at each other. It makes 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and sends power to either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT). Buyers can also get the WRX STI, making 310 horsepower, and is even more performance-focused. The six-speed is obviously more fun than the CVT, and both options route power to Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive. This makes the WRX a very practical for New England winters, but the stiff suspension will become evident when the potholes show up.

Price and Value

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The GTI starts at $27,595, while the WRX starts at $27,195. These two vehicles have been competing for the same hard-earned dollars for years now. It should come as no surprise that they are evenly matched on the road.

The GTI offers performance, reliability, and a high-quality interior. —Volkswagen

Thanks to its Golf underpinnings, the GTI feels like a more complete car, with a more comfortable, usable interior. The GTI’s drive modes allow it to be tolerable in traffic but fun on open roads. If you prefer the confidence of all-wheel drive, go for the WRX, but with the GTI, you give up almost nothing in overall comfort in order to gain performance — and that’s the critical difference.