The point behind these “Is Luxury Worth it?” tests, where we pit loaded mainstream-branded cars versus fairly base-model luxury rides, reaches a strange plateau with this particular matchup. Odd couple? You betcha.
Both machines are powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Both cars drive all four wheels, possess four doors, and seat five. The C-pillars, especially from a rear three-quarters view, look spookily similar. The BMW lacks its famed Hofmeister Kink—that small forward thrust down where the door or window frame meets the belt line. It’s meant to emphasize the rear-wheel drive that BMWs have had for more than 50 years—because being front-drive-based, what’s the point?
Both cars started life as less expensive vehicles—an Impreza in the case of the Subaru and a Mini Cooper (it’s true!) if you’re talking BMW. The base price of the Subaru is $37,895, whereas the base price of the BMW is $38,495. That’s pretty dang close.
Here’s where the two differ. The STI has a flat boxer engine. Aside from sounding different, flat engines lower a car’s center of gravity. The BMW’s engine is smaller—2.0 liters compared to the Subie’s 2.5 liters—and produces much less power: 228 horsepower compared to 310 for the STI, and 258 lb-ft of torque compared to Subaru’s 290.
Here’s where I’m going to point out that yes, there is a 301-hp/332-lb-ft BMW M235i xDrive GC, but it begins life at $46,495, before any options (and there are always options). That’s the tricky part with these comparisons. Something’s got to give.
The 228i comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission and has a permanent front to rear 50/50 torque split. When cruising requires minimal torque, the multiplate clutch disengages torque to the rear to save fuel, whereas when traction’s an issue, as when climbing a steep hill, that clutch closes and the rear wheels may receive all the torque. However, when the hammer’s down, no more than 50 percent of the engine’s peak torque is ever sent to either axle.
The Subaru is six-speed manual only and still features that trick center differential (called Driver Controlled Center Differential), which can be left in automatic mode where the computer figures out which axle needs the torque, phased for grip (+) so that the front axle gets more torque, or the opposite (-) so that the rear axles gets the majority of the twisting force. Alternatively, there are six manual modes that allow you to program where the torque goes.
The Series.White package adds $5,700 to the STI’s price. For that cash layout you get 19-inch forged aluminum BBS wheels, a reworked suspension with Bilstein dampers off the STI Type RA, groovy yet barely grooved Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, and cloth Recaro seats. Option package 04 also nets you a black finish on the mirrors, badges, and shark fin, plus a red insert in the grille and silver brake calipers. Total as-tested price of this Series.White -equipped STI is $43,959.
The BMW’s big option is the $4,000 M package, which gives you sport steering, a rear spoiler, and some driver assist systems, among a few other things. Doesn’t seem like the greatest value add to me. There’s a much more feature-packed $3,050 Premium package, which includes seemingly everything and the kitchen sink (keyless entry, heated steering wheel and front seats, adaptive LED headlights, panoramic moonroof, head-up display, and so on). As-tested price for the 228i Gran Coupe is $48,495.
My colleague and MotorTrend en Español managing editor, Miguel Cortina, joined me to figure out how to compare these two. We decided that because BMW still employs its Ultimate Driving Machine tagline and because the 228i has the M Sport package, taking the cars on a back road canyon drive was the right way to compare them. Plus, I live eight minutes from the bottom of Angeles Crest Highway, and I’m nothing if not a lazy man.
I’d taken the BMW home the evening before following a photoshoot (also up on Angeles Crest) and found it to be a pretty good little sport sedan. Also, the Subaru is old. That anachronism of an engine (EJ257) has been in use since the STI first arrived on American shores in 2004. Yeah, the road might favor the Subaru in theory, but this is a brand-new Bimmer, front-drive-based or not. We were in for a good fight. Things didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Here’s a sampling of my notes after my first run up in the STI: “Nice to get back to my roots! Yes, the STI is flawed. The suspension is under-damped, the steering is comically overboosted, the interior is Dodge quality (that’s bad), and it possesses the only flat-four I can think of that sounds worse than a Porsche 718. That said, what a perennial butt kicker of a hot hatch that’s actually a sedan because Subaru stupidly got rid of wagons! Grip and go, as someone more into brevity than I might proclaim. One of the few cars that’s as safe (to me) with the traction control fully off as on. Especially on these glorious tires!”
Miguel—who, full disclosure, is no Subaru fanboy—wrote this as his first impression: “Talk about paying tribute to the brand. The STI feels as close to a rally car as one can get. Its shape, size, and hard-to-drive manner are not really for me, but on a road like ACH, it really shows its strengths.”
Hard to drive? As our road test editor, Chris Walton, has said time and time again, the STI hates to launch. That biggish four-cylinder with the huge, old-school turbo is gutless below 3,000 rpm. Forget about smoothly launching away from a stop sign. You’re either mini-dropping the clutch into a few grand worth of revs, or you’re lurching around like a student driver. Terrible first-date car. However, once underway that ancient engine creates great forward thrust and is happy to obnoxiously buzz along at 6,000 rpm. As Miguel said, the Crest showed the STI’s good side.
As for the BMW 228i, here are my initial thoughts: “Pity about the tires. Bridgestone Turanzas. File those in the ‘never heard of ’em’ bin. This BMW was frustrating at first because I was trying to drive it like an all-wheel-drive car. Once I calmed down, paid attention to what I was feeling, and began driving it like a front-drive car, things improved drastically.”
Did Miguel concur? “I came to this test with the idea that the 2 Series felt sloppy, that it didn’t feel like a BMW at all. So when I started going up the mountain, I was surprised but not shocked by the lack of steering feel—even in Sport mode—from the BMW model that is supposed to attract young buyers. Would you really spend more than $40,000 to get into a ‘sport’ sedan that doesn’t deliver much excitement at the wheel?” That would be a “no” from Miguel.
My counterpoint, though, is that driving a front-driver that at times sends some of its torque to the rear wheels makes sense. Tire limited? You bet your lederhosen. Perhaps as a result, the Gran Coupe displayed lift-off oversteer. What that means is when you begin braking into a corner, give some steering input, and lift your foot from the throttle, the rear end begins to rotate on the car’s axis.
When this phenomenon happens in a Porsche 911 GT3, we auto scribe types praise the behavior to the moon. “The car anticipates your next move! It knows where you’re going before you do! Purity of movement!” And yes, lift-off oversteer is a useful device for getting a car turned with less steering input than usual. But do such superlatives apply to an entry-level BMW?
My mind wandered back to Ralph Nader’s opus, Unsafe At Any Speed, where he chastises my late friend, the legendary Denise McCluggage, for waxing poetic about the joys of oversteer vis-a-vis Chevy’s maligned Corvair. But as Nader points out, Denise raced against Stirling Moss and Fangio, and she dated Steve McQueen. She knows car control. Do you?
My point is that although I think lift-off oversteer is a hoot and a holler, most folks won’t. Miguel certainly did not: “The Bimmer tires showed little grip—when going uphill or downhill, I felt the car was fishtailing a little bit when I pressed the brakes.” See what I’m saying? Most people will translate lift-off oversteer into “something’s wrong. “That’s not a knock against Cortina. I just have spent more time on closed courses than he has.
Back to the Subaru. That silly, too-light steering is masterfully direct and allows you to squeeze everything available out of a given corner. Yes, you whittle on the wheel 10 times more than you do in most cars, but you like driving, don’t you? The slowest thing about the STI is me changing gears, as the part of my brain that controls my clutch foot has atrophied.
Can you just leave it in third gear and bop around at 6,500 rpm? Why not? In fact, Miguel did (almost) exactly that. “I kept the transmission in fourth gear most of the time,” he said. “With the redline set at 6,700 rpm, there was no reason for me to be downshifting or upshifting—the power was always there.”
As for that trick center differential, should you rock it all the way to as much RWD as possible, the STI behaves worse in corners. There just isn’t as much pull off an apex. I liked it best two clicks aft of center, giving me a modicum of RWD bias, but leaving it in auto is actually probably best and quickest. Still a nifty trick piece of tech all these years later, as well as a shocking counterpoint to the BMW’s fixed 50/50 split center diff.
I liked the way the 228i Gran Coupe’s suspension behaved; it handled the constant bumps and bruises of Angeles Crest much better than the Subaru did. Also, the BMW was impressively quick. I’m talking seat of my pants here, as we were unable to test these cars, but I never would have guessed the BMW had a 77-hp deficit to the Subie. Then again, BMW does have a habit of underrating its engines, especially the turbocharged ones.
My big gripes with the 228i were the vague steering and frankly poor brakes. If you’ve been following the overall pattern of car reviews for the last couple decades, you know the story is that BMWs used to possess some of the best steering in the business. Then they didn’t. Then some models had great steering (X6 M, inexplicably) and some didn’t (3 Series). Well, the newest, smallest Gran Coupe falls into the latter camp. In comfort mode the steering is sloppy and vague. Things get a bit better in Sport mode, but it’s average at best and not as good as the Subaru’s.
Miguel disliked the 228i’s brakes more than I did: “They don’t provide the bite that one would expect in a BMW. There were a couple of occasions where the brakes didn’t provide the stopping power that the car needed, causing me to slow down even more on my way down the mountain.” The 228i never felt dangerous to me, but it definitely contributed to a more cautious descent than I would have preferred. I’m thinking that for the cost of that $4,000 M Sport package, BMW could source some better brakes and tires. Doing so would radically help the otherwise pretty good car. Thing is, BMW should know this.
As I thought to how BMWs of yore would have handled Angeles Crest, my mind drifted to the late David E. Davis’s touchstone, head-unzipped review of the 1968 BMW 2002. His one story is credited with both defining American car criticism as we know it and launching BMW as a serious car company in the United States.
To quote David E., “To my way of thinking, the 2002 is one of modern civilization’s all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down. It grabs you.” The 2020 228i Gran Coupe doesn’t grab you. It’s certainly not one of the all-time best anything. That is what guts enthusiasts so much about modern BMWs. The brand defined the butt-kicking sport sedan segment for decades. Then BMW turned its back on what made it so damn great. Sadly, the 228i Gran Coupe does nothing to disprove that narrative.
What about the Subaru? I’ve driven all the boy-racer models over the years: WRXs, STIs, the aforementioned Type RA, even the $65,000 (gulp) S209. I can tell you that the Series.White is the best of the bunch, hands-holding-vape-pens down. There’s a joy of driving baked into this car that’s utterly lacking from both this particular BMW and the rest of Subaru’s non-WRX product line.
Moreover, the STI was happy being an STI. Meaning it’s not trying to fool anybody. The BMW is a Mini. A BMW—despite what revisionist marketers might try to tell you—isn’t front-wheel-drive based. Therefore, the thing is a bit of an imposter. Yes, famously, a study was conducted that allows BMW to say that the majority of its customers don’t know the difference between front-wheel and rear-wheel drive, so it doesn’t matter what they do. That’s a cop-out. It’s also intellectually dishonest. If you’re going to put a BMW badge on a car, make it mean something.
Miguel unwittingly made this point for me in his Subaru notes: “There’s so much heritage in the development of this STI that it’s hard not to think of famous Subaru Rally cars when you’re driving it.” Not only true, but also, what sort of heritage does BMW expect you to ponder when you’re driving the 228i Gran Coupe? iDrive?
I’m up on a high horse, and who am I to lecture BMW on product planning? I get it. If I may go all comic book geek for a moment, I really do think that with the stewardship of great brands—and BMW is unquestionably a great brand—there comes great responsibility. People are paying extra for that badge; you had better back it up.
Back to the David E. screed for a moment: 1968 was basically the crest of American dominance of the luxury car market. Starting in the 1970s, Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Chryslers all became fat, ungainly shadows of their former fly selves. Germans began their conquest then, and although the Japanese put up a good fight in the late ’80s and ’90s, German cars today define luxury cars more than any others.
The way this comparison should end is something like, “Although the BMW does cost more than the big-winged rally car, it’s worth it.” I can’t say that. I can’t even come close to calling this one a tie. The Subaru WRX STI Series.White beat the BMW 228i Gran Coupe up and down the mountain. Convincingly.
It’s an upset of a victory, but one that will maybe upset the right people in Bavaria. I’d love to do this comparison again in a few years and see a drastically different outcome. Don’t forget, Subaru does have a new STI on the way. Your ball, your court, BMW.
Get the Subaru if you
Want the better driver’s car
Love big wings
Want a great value
Get the BMW if you
Crave a BMW badge
Like intuitive infotainment
Can’t drive stick
|2020 BMW 228i xDrive Gran Coupe||2020 Subaru WRX STI|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.0L/228-hp/258-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4||2.5L/310-hp/290-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed auto||6-speed manual|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,650 lb (MT est)||3,399 lb (60/40%)|
|WHEELBASE||105.1 in||104.3 in|
|L x W x H||178.5 x 70.9 x 55.9 in||180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.5 sec (MT est)||6.0 sec|
|EPA FUEL ECON||23/33/27 mpg||16/22/19 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||147/102 kW-hrs/100 miles||211/153 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.73 lb/mile||1.06 lb/mile|