The GTI : right away the fit & finish is very impressive. The interior feels a lot like a BMW, everything clicks and fits perfectly, it feels solid; the steering wheel is just like a modern BMW wheel (thick and mushy) which IMO is not a great thing but people seem to love that. Headroom is plenty for a 6'2" man, the seats fit pretty well, and has a nice lumbar adjustment even in the manual seat. I like the feel of the cloth seats and the option of cloth is a big plus. The rear cargo room is not awesome, but you could fit a bike with front wheel off. One annoyance in the GTI interior is the fucking touch screen radio which is not optional; god damn computers in cars are such rubbish, give me regular buttons you morons.
Driving the GTI : whoah holy laggy throttle response batman. Again this is just like modern BMW's, but in a bad way. It's literally disconcerting if you glue your eyes to the RPM meter and pulse the gas pedal, it just lags by a solid second. It's like they're running a low-pass delay filter on your gas pedal inputs. I guess this is partly due to the small turbo (again similar to modern BMW's). You don't really ever feel a big turbo kick, what you feel is just a slight mushy lag in the power. Once it does come in, there's plenty of power, it feels pretty light and fast (even though it's not actually light at all), just because it's nice and small. It feels nifty; visibility is very good, steering feel is good, not great (though my standards are a bit distorted since I've been driving Porsches). Handling is generally nice though it has somewhat disturbing understeer when you corner fast. There's torque all over the rev range, which really is just a bit annoying to me because it means I don't have to downshift to punch it which removes some of the fun feel of a manual. The clutch is super easy to use, but that makes it numb and soft, it's got tons of travel and it's not clear where the engagement is exactly; again it feels like a lowpass has been run over it; it's sort of like you're just stomping your foot in pudding and after your food it out of the pudding you've shifted. The ride is amazingly smooth for how tight the body is, they've really sorted that well; it doesn't roll much at all through turns, but it also smooths out road bumps better than mushy cars like the Versa for example - again this is very similar to modern BMW's.
Conclusion on the GTI : very polished small semi-fast car, I like it a lot. As a city car with a bit of cargo room and enough power and handling to be fun, it's excellent. In tight traffic and city conditions I think this is the best of any car I've driven the whole time. If I had to just drive around downtown Seattle, I would want this car. For a real sporty car, it's a bit lacking; the understeer is a sad inevitability of FWD, the steering is not quite as raw as I'd like, and worst of all the throttle lag is very disconcerting, overall it just feels a tiny bit too softened, I'd like everything tighter by one notch.
(BTW on FWD and understeer : the Honda Prelude ATTS system had this completely sorted back in '98 ; they spin the front wheels independently, so in a turn the outside wheel spins faster, and you can actually accelerate through turns to turn *harder*, unlike normal FWD ; you can always apply the right amount of torque to get perfectly neutral steering if you can find the right amount of gas for the curve. It was fantastic, and yet nobody else has adopted it, I would love to see it in every FWD car. Whoah check out this awesome ATTS Manual ; see page 18-19 ).
The WRX hatchback is actually much bigger than the GTI when you see them both in person. I hated the WRX hatchback when it first came out (like everyone), but you know, now I actually like it better than the old WRX sedan; the shape is actually sportier looking, and the retarded hood scoop is much smaller, almost tolerable now. It's also quite practical, the rear cargo space is much bigger than the GTI, in fact it's almost as big as the old WRX station wagons. The fit & finish is much worse than the GTI; it's a lot louder and rattly on the road. It feels mushier in corners, with more body roll, but you can gas through corners more aggressively, and actually gas your way out of understeer a bit.
The turbo on the WRX is a totally different beast from the GTI's ; it's much bigger, takes longer to spin up, and then when it does it has way more punch; the WRX still has that old fashioned turbo car feel, at low RPM when you start it up you're like "omg get going, where is the power?" and then it kicks in and you go "oh, there it is!" ; when it does kick, it really does kick (apparently it now has 265 hp and does 0-60 in around 5 sec which is pretty amazing for a car this cheap - hmm they must get that number with a really hot launch). It kicks sooner than in the older WRX, but it's just nothing like the turbos the Germans are making now. That number is faster than a Cayman, but the cayman feels faster to me because it's lower and stiffer; still there's no doubt that when the turbo kicks in the WRX it feels like you just activated the afterburners in your jet and you can't help smiling or perhaps giggling. One nice thing about the WRX turbo is does reward the driver for shifting correctly to keep it in the power band (though that required you to interact with the annoyingly clutch).
The WRX actually feels less "sporty" even though it's a lot faster; it feels heavier even though GTI and WRX are almost the same weight despite the WRX being much bigger (I guess all that extra weight in the GTI is in shocks and sound dampening, and metal interior bits instead of plastic ones). In theory the GTI gets good gas mileage while the WRX does not, but I'm sure both would get terrible mileage in my hands.
The clutch and shifter are just awful; the clutch travels way too far and it's impossible to find where the gear engagement is; the shifter is way too long and rattles all over and vibrates in your hand uncomfortably. It's just rubbish. On a test drive of course I couldn't really push the WRX, but I could feel it had loads of capability, it would be fun to get to know it and try to toss it around. The WRX seats are not ideal (no lumbar and a bit of a weird bucket curve for the spine) but they're definitely tolerable.
Obviously the WRX is AWD ; it's unclear how useful that actually is vs FWD. Also for those familiar with the WRX redesign, apparently the 2008 one was rubish, but now it's good again. I dunno, I didn't drive the 2008 but this one is good, in fact there's no reason to get an STI anymore because the WRX spec is so close to it now and it's way cheaper.