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 like 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.
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.
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