Reviews and Road Tests
This is a damn good time to be a car enthusiast. Let's face it, there
are so many desirable cars on the market right now that even choosing one
can be difficult. You want a sport's car? How about the new Nissan 350Z or
the new Mazda RX-8? A sports GT coupe? The Infiniti G35 or Audi TT or
Porsche Boxster could all fit the bill. Want a hot compact? No problem…
how about a Mini Cooper S or a Ford Focus SVT or a 20th Anniversary GTI or
an Acura RSX Type S or a Honda Civic Si or a Dodge Neon SRT-4 or a… well
you get the picture. There are a bewildering number of great cars on the
market geared for people like us.
In the middle of all this, Volkswagen is winding down the 4th generation Golf lineup and announced a special R32 version of the Golf with a 241hp 3.2l V6, all-wheel-drive, big wheels, big brakes and host of other performance minded features. Intended to be the pinnacle of the Golf lineup, the R32 looked to be yet another German market only vehicle we wouldn't see here in the U.S. Well at the same North American International Auto Show that the Subaru WRX STI was announced at, Volkswagen very quietly put an R32 on the show floor and officially announced it would be for sale within a year. Suddenly car enthusiasts choices became even more difficult.
As is natural with car enthusiasts, debates raged over whether the EVO or STI is the better car. One is purported to be slightly better handling, the other with quite a bit more power. Could the Volkswagen R32 possibly compete enthusiasts asked? With all these cars hovering around the $30,000 mark, all with decent power and all-wheel-drive it was too easy not to compare them. However it was also clear at least in the case of the R32 that maybe it had a slightly different mission than the other two cars. The R32 is based on an all-wheel-drive V6 Golf and has no connections to any currently competing Volkswagen rally program. It is also a hatchback whereas the STi and EVO are sedans. In Europe the R32 has a proper competitive place against the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA and the Ford Focus RS – two cars not sold here. Here in America the Golf R32 will be unique, so the nearest vehicles to compare it to are the STI and EVO. But can it compete? Maybe the better question is should it? The answer lies ahead.
As fate would have it, the moons and stars aligned and we were able to not only arrange to get all three cars together, but all of them arrived in blue (cue the Twilight Zone music please). You think anyone noticed these three cars together? You betcha… we could barely get out of a gas station parking lot without being barraged by questions most of them wanting to know which is better. Our answer? Which ever one you like the most…
Our goal here is not to rehash 0-60mph or quarter mile times… that's already been done to death. What we wanted to see is how these three cars behave both on the street and on the track. We wanted to determine what differences if any exist between them and help sort out the pluses and minus of each car. In the end there are significant differences in how these cars go about their daily business but at the same time we are also talking about little nuances in their behaviors. The ultimate decision will come down to what you personally like and what your personal needs are. With that in mind, let's get started…
Volkswagen Golf R32
Here in the U.S. when you put Volkswagen and performance in the same sentence you usually think GTI. However you won't find any GTI badges on the R32. The R32 is the pinnacle of the 4th generation Golf platform and, while looking much more conservative parked next to the STI and EVO, packs a ton of significant improvements under the skin.
First, the most noticeable difference between the standard Golf and the Golf R32 comes with a quick glance at the exterior. The front bumper has been completely remolded and incorporates 3 large mesh air inlets with a lower overall profile, subtle side skirts have been added to the sides of the car and a redesigned rear valence that incorporates two chrome 3" exhaust tips rounds off the styling elements. Other significant features include a 20mm lower stance than the standard German market GTI, 18-inch OZ alloy wheels wearing 225/40ZR-18 Michelin Pilot Sport rubber. Rounding everything off are subtle R32 badges front and rear.
The 32 in the R32 designation represents the displacement of the 3.2l VR6 engine under the hood. This version of VW's VR6 engine is the same found in their new Touareg SUV. This 3.2l offers a power output of 241hp (177kw) at 6250rpm and a max output of 236 lb-ft (320Nm) from 2800 – 3200rpm. Both the horsepower and torque curves are very linear on the R32 providing nice low-end grunt and sweet high-RPM sounds.
Power is routed to the ground through an MQ350 six-speed transmission and a Haldex electronic coupling for all-wheel-drive. The Haldex clutch-pack is an electronically controlled system that is touted for its ability to detect slip and go to full lockup quicker than most all-wheel-drive systems. This speed of detection and lockup enables the Haldex coupling to remain disengaged when not needed and operate as a front-wheel drive car eliminating most of the driveline friction commonly lost in full-time all-wheel-drive setups.
Backing up the power and driveline, the R32 receives 13.1 inch front ventilated and 10.1 inch rear ventilated disc brakes topped off with blue powder coated calipers. Volkswagen has tuned the R32's anti-lock braking system toward the performance end of the spectrum as well, ensuring minimal interference. Rounding out the ABS system is Volkswagen's Electronic Stability Program or ESP for short. ESP utilizes a variety of yaw sensors, wheel slip sensors and steering wheel input sensors to determine if a slip condition is occurring (like understeer or oversteer) and will brake an individual wheel to correct for the problem. Like all VW's equipped with ESP, the system can be defeated via a dash mounted switch.
The R32's suspension consists of MacPherson struts and lower wishbones on the front axle, while the rear sports of a fully independent forged dual-link trailing arm. The struts and springs used are factory sourced from H&R and Bilstein (although they are stamped "Volkswagen Racing") and provide a firm, flat ride for the aggressive driver. In addition, the R32 features larger diameter roll bars to provide an even flatter ride. This suspension is one of the most aggressive ever offered on a production car from Volkswagen and it is impressive.
When getting ready to drive the R32, you're not just stepping into a performance car, but a luxury one at that. The first thing you notice are the most extreme bolstered seats of the group. Made by Konig specifically for this car, they provide tremendous support and lock you in firmly during spirited driving, even covered in our test car's leather. Further examination of the interior shows no lack of time or energy spent in providing a luxury sports compact. One of the best steering wheels to ever grace a car wrapped in leather and first rate materials and fit and finish of the interior is a step beyond what is expected of a car at this price level.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (8)
The Mistubishi Lancer Evolution (or Evo as it's called on the streets) has been a long desired car in the States. Used as a platform for World Rally for a number of years, as well as the "preferred" street "rally" car in Japan, one shouldn't be surprised. Mitsubushi started to show the Evo VII (7th generation Evolution) at U.S. auto shows and it became apparent that we may finally see the Evo offered here. The steady debate however was how much Mitsubishi would waterdown the Lancer Evolution when it did get here?
The answer is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the Evolution arrives here packing in 19.5psi of boost, and makes a strong 271hp at 6500rpm and 273lb-ft of torque at 3500rpm. The semi-bad news is that the U.S. Evo got a 50/50 Viscous Coupled center differential with a limited slip rear and open front differential instead of an electronically controlled center differential with Active Yaw Control and front and rear limited slips. For reference sake, Active Yaw Control distributes different amounts of torque to wheels on each side of a car to improve handling. More information can be found here: http://www.mitsubishi-cars.co.uk/features/ayc.asp.
Despite lacking the trick differential setup of the other Evolution cousins, the car remains a supreme handler. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts with inverted shocks as well as forged aluminum lower control arms, stabilizer bar and front strut tower. The rear suspension consists of a multi-link wishbone setup with forged aluminum trailing-links and a cast aluminum cross-member and stabilizer bar. The car also features a very quick-ratio steering rack at only taking 2.1 turns lock to lock. The Evo is connected to the pavement by a set of 17"x8" Enkei wheels shod in 235/45R-17 Yokohama Advan A-046 rubber specifically designed for this car.
With great rubber and big power, great brakes are a necessity and the Evo is no slouch in that department. The Evo features Brembo brakes that include 12.5 inch front discs and 11.8 inch rear discs. These provide impressive stopping power, good modulation and little to no fade after repeated hard stops.
Continuing on to the Evo's interior you'll find the Recaro seats are just about perfect in size and design providing a nice compromise in comfort and size. Overall the interior has a "cheap" feel to it that belies the Lancer's roots. The dash does have a cohesive design that flows from door to door and everything is where you would expect to find it. The one glaring fault though are the gauges which are small, difficult to see due to poor contrast and are even worse at night, particularly when compared to the other two cars.
Moving to the exterior, the most obvious differences between the Evo and the standard Lancer is the large functional carbon fiber wing, clear Altezza-like tail lights, and an all new revised front fascia. Most of us here were split on the looks of the newer Evo VIII front bumper and preferred the Evo VII version better but we'll leave that up to you to decide for yourself. Without a doubt as to its intentions, the front mounted intercooler definitely grabs your attention with further reminders that you are driving a Rally inspired car.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi
While Mitsubishi had its heyday through the first weekend of the Detroit Auto Show, it was promptly put off with the announcement of the Subaru Impreza WRX STi. Simply put, Subaru shocked the market by bringing a car many never expected.
The first surprise was the announcement of the 2.5 liter horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder turbo. This is a far cry from the homologated 2.0 liter turbo 4-cylinder used throughout the world. Subaru has provided a better mix to satisfy the American consumer: a little more displacement to give that little bit of extra grunt particularly down low in the RPMs. That means a lot less perceived turbo lag to complain about. It's still there, but it is an improvement over the standard WRX under 3000 rpm. The new motor provides a tremendous 300hp at 6000rpm and a stump-pulling 300 lb-ft of torque at 4000rpm. The motor is also one of the first American production cars to use Subaru's Active Valve Control System (AVCS).
The second shock was that the car would have not only a front and rear limited slip differential setup, but that the center differential would be a Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD). This electronically controlled differential setup allows the driver to either allow the car control the differential, or permit the driver to set the differential bias to either a full lock or through to a 35 front / 65 rear bias, giving a wide range of driving characteristic feel.
The STi also comes with a sport-tuned fully independent suspension featuring coil springs and inverted struts. The front also features aluminum-alloy lower L-arms with liquid filled rear bushings and stabilizer bar while the rear features inverted struts with parallel links and a stabilizer bar. The car is connected to 17"x7.5" BBS alloys shod with 225/45R17 Bridgestone RE070 rubber (again unique to this model).
On the braking side of the equation the STi sports Brembo 4-pot calipers clamping 12.7 inch rotors up front and vented 12.3 inch rotors in back with twin piston calipers. Fade is nonexistent in our testing and the brakes are very easy to modulate.
Of course, the one thing many people were seemingly waiting for was the facelift of the bug-eyed Impreza. The STi received the new look for its appearance to the states and provides a sleeker and meaner appearance than its bug-eyed predecessor. While some, including our Subdriven guys, grew attached to the bug-eyed look, the redesign is a welcome improvement. To improve air-flow to the intercooler, a new, more aggressive hood scoop (read: huge) was included on the STi model.
Moving to the interior, you are greeted by a mixture of surfaces including Subaru's blue "Ecsaine" fabric lining the seats and interior which alternates with black and silver metallic finished plastics across the dash. A radio is optional in the STi which is more of a gimmick to underline the seriousness of the car than a necessity. Overall the interior of the STi is nice place to do some work and shows that Subaru spent some time to ensure a slightly more upscale feel.
On The Street
Raise your hand if you like to drive a race car every day. Okay, while some of these cars are the basis for race cars (or namely rally cars), they aren't quite like driving a full out race car on the street. The EVO and STI are however brash, loud and leave little doubt as to their intentions – be forewarned. They are however a LOT of fun to drive. But where do you draw the line where comfort ends and your fun begins?
For most of us, the drive starts by getting in the car and sitting down. All of these cars are extremely accommodating to performance minded drivers. All three cars can seat 4 people, albeit the R32 would be a bit cramped in the rear seat and would be best suited to children or short trips with adults. This is actually a potential blessing in disguise as the R32 has only 2 doors. Let your friends take their own car for a change.
When sitting in any of these cars, size can make a great difference in comfort. We had a wide variety of drivers in attendance during our test and most found all the different seats comfortable. A few testers complained about the fitment in the R32 and others found the STi's side bolsters a little on the weak side. The EVO's Recaros seem provided the best blend of snugness and comfort (and the least amount of complaints). The STi seats look to be very comfortable, but our guess is that Subaru made them a little less aggressive for our market to accommodate American's lard butts. We suspect drivers would most likely be more at home in the R32 and EVO's seats whereas those in the STi suited our larger test driver a bit better.
Adjusting the seats in all the vehicles proved easy and quick. Both the STi and R32 had simple adjustments that made it easy to get into a comfortable driving position. However, some of our testers found the Evo's seat adjustment more cumbersome. The STi and the R32 get additional credit for their height adjustment in addition to front and aft movement.
Two of these cars are four-door sedans, so what about putting friends in the backseat? Mitsubishi put a little more consideration in rear seat passenger accommodations by providing both an arm rest and cup holders. The Mitsubishi also has more room in the rear seat, however the extremely flat bench leaves a bit to be desired. The Subaru's rear bench was more contoured and better supported, but space is at a premium compared to the Evo.
From the driver's seat the first and most obvious pluses and minuses with each of the cars laid in their dashboard design. The Mitsubishi suffers the most in this contest with cheaper feeling plastics and a gauge cluster that suffers from poor contrast and size. Both the R32 and STi faired better. The R32 had a clean and easy to read dash with a layout that was comfortable and pleasing to the eye. In fact, the entire dash and interior shined of a quality not seen in the manufacturing process of both the Subaru and Mitsubishi – real brushed aluminum accents instead of plastic pieces painted to look like metal. This is of course, where the luxury of the R32 stands out. If you want plush performance, this is where it's at. In the STi turning on the gauge cluster for the first time will put a smile on your face as the needles dance from one end to the other and a bright red electroluminescent glow sets in. The backlit gauges provided unmatched visibility during the day and night. The gauge cluster is definitely what makes the Subaru stand out while the rest of the dash remains very similar to a standard WRX with occasional bits of red stitching which remains nice and simple.
Once under way you can start to really sort out the differences in how these vehicles produce their power. The EVO produces little power in the lower rev range, but once the turbo spools up to 19.5psi of boost the car rockets forward. This is quite uncharacteristic given the car's company in this test. Being normally aspirated and with healthy low end torque the R32 simply pulls and pulls in a nice strong linear fashion. The R32 engine is less frenetic than the other two cars and begs you to hot rod it around the corners. This is accentuated further by a unique and wonderful stock exhaust note. The Evo and STi are remarkably quiet in comparison with the Evo having just a hint of exhaust tuning around idle. The STi falls somewhere between the R32 and Evo's low-end powercurve, giving a measurable amount of torque down low along with a great turbo rush up high that is more linear than the Evo.
While you're experimenting with the power, you'll start to notice the quirks (or lack thereof) in the gear boxes of all three cars. The Volkswagen suffered from the poorest clutch engagement feedback due to an overly light clutch and a twitchy response. Our test car served time as an show car with thousands of people sitting in it "playing racecar driver" with the clutch and shifter which reportedly left it with a hamstrung clutch takeup. This quick clutch takeup resulted in more difficulty in getting underway smoothly, often resulting in a jerky ride. The three other R32's we have driven didn't exhibit this behavior, so we chalk it up to this individual car and its past history.
Rowing through the gears on the Volkswagen is similar to the STi, as both offer short-ratio 6 speeds requiring a third shift before hitting 60mph. The gearing on both cars feels appropriate and in tune with the engines, permitting you to stay in the powerband as long as needed and making it even more fun to string out the engine. The 6-speed on the R32 in general felt great and not overly notchy or loud, leaving the only complaint being the odd clutch action.
On the STi, the 6-speed proves to be an improvement over the stock gearbox offered in the standard WRX model. The transmission shows no sign of weakness or shudder that became a frequent complaint with WRX owners. However the shifter felt sloppy compared to the other two cars with longer throws exaggerating the problem. The shifter in the STi seems tall, perhaps to facilitate the different stalk needed for the reverse trigger (you pull up on a part of the shifter to get into reverse), but either way cutting down the shaft will likely solve the problem.
The Evo was the only car in the group to have a 5-speed. The 5-speed allowed enough spacing to facilitate less shifting, but also forced you to push the car further in order to stay within the powerband. While the 5-speed didn't seem to exhibit any quirks during normal driving it was by far the "tightest" gearbox in the group with very short throws between gears. Aggressive driving tended to cause sporadic grinds between gears, namely 4th to 5th as well as 1st to 2nd. Hopefully that was simply a glitch with our well-worn test car.
Out on the road it proved to be difficult to stay below the posted speed limits forcing you to back off before your eccentric car grabs the attention of the local law enforcement. The R32 wins the stealth award in this group since the other two sport big wings, stickers and even gold colored wheels. If flashiness is not your cup of tea, you may want to apply elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, the Evo and STi might just as well be homologated street cars as they are brash, noisy and transmit every bump and pebble directly to your ear drums. The R32 offers significantly more sound dampening and does a good job of removing a significant portion of external noises but allows enough of the exhaust note to come through reminding you of what lurks under the hood. The Evo and STi feel more rigid than the R32 owing to newer platforms but seemed to transmit more road imperfections than the R32. The Evo provides a sporty mix with a stiff chassis that provides a tolerable mixture of outside noise and vibration with driver comfort. The STi seemed to be the noisiest car of the three with tire noise that was apparent at even slower speeds.
So obviously, if you want comfort and performance, the R32 is the comfort king in this group. The STi and Evo are kissing cousins in comparison with the Evo edging out the STi for comfort and performance on the street. So how do these cars compare on the track?
How we did it:
Nearly everyone that will review these cars has, or will, take them to a race track to compare their performance. This is the only venue you can safely explore the limits of these cars and really learn how they behave when pushed hard. We packed up all three cars and headed down to The Tire Rack in South Bend, Indiana. Tire Rack moved to new digs last year that included a new state-of-the-art warehouse and headquarters building complete with a small roadcourse and skidpad for testing purposes. The course we ran that day was identical to the layout used in The Tire Rack's tire comparison articles and consisted of a slalom test, tight left and right-hand turns, long high-speed sweepers and included one lap around a 200ft. diamter skid pad all segmented for time.
We also did independent skid pad testing on the wet skid pad to not only take
measurements but to see how controllable these car are under steady-state cornering and to get a feel for the characteristics of the all-wheel-drive systems. There were eight drivers total: two Tire Rack testers, two VWvortex staff members, two Subdriven staff members and two independent drivers. Each driver got a minimum of six laps in each car and ran the course two laps each turn for time. Drivers also rotated from car to car after each course lap in sets of three to ensure they were able to drive each car back-to-back.
The early consensus before all the testing was that the R32 didn't stand a chance against the more powerful Evo and STi. We also really didn't know what to expect between the Evo and STi since one is more powerful than the other, yet most U.S. magazines rated the slower car higher. We conducted walk-arounds of each of the vehicles and tire pressures were set to factory specifications. All cars were stock as they are shipped by the manufacturer, the only odd-ball being the R32 which was a German-specification model. Volkswagen assures us the U.S. spec version will be mechanically identical.
In doing our walk arounds, Tire Rack's main tire testers John Rasteter and John "Woody" Rogers pointed out that the both the Evo and STi had tires uniquely designed for those cars and that they were near-"R" compound rubber that has a very short life-span but rewards in serious levels of grip. The R32 rode on Michelin Pilot Sport high-performance street tires that make a great street tire with good wear characteristics but typically don't do as well on the track. They figured the R32 would be about a second behind the other two cars based on tires alone.
The first thing to point out is that each of these cars is a lot of fun to drive. We are talking about a group of cars with impressive credentials that put them in the top 10% of drivers vehicles period. However all three are very different in how they behave on the track and you ultimately can't judge any of these cars purely on paper. For instance the R32 is down nearly 60hp compared to the STi and is quite a bit slower in timed acceleration runs as reported in most magazines. It also had the weakest tires in this group, yet it managed to come within a second of the other two cars in the timed laps.
Another interesting point was in initial impressions. Most drivers felt the Evo felt flatter on the track and was more controlled at the limit compared to the STi. The STi seemed to exhibit quite a bit of bodyroll, dive and squat in comparison to the other two cars with the R32 having the most streetable/trackable suspension setup. All three cars resolutely understeered at the limit, however the R32 responded to throttle input more proactively than the others in the group. Lifting off the throttle on the skid pad caused nearly no change in the STi, caused the nose to tighten the line a bit more in the Evo and actually caused the rear end of the R32 to step out in a controlled fashion. The R32's stock suspension (remarkably we might add) actually had the most neutral setup allowing the driver to balance the car on throttle more easily than the other two. That said the drive-by-wire throttle common in the German cars is not as easy to modulate as the traditional cable throttles in the Evo or the drive-by-wire throttle in the STi. So a number of drivers had a hard time modulating the throttle in the R32 which made things a bit more jumpy on the skid pad where there R32 was sensitive to throttle input.
Between the Evo and the STi the Evo had less overall bodyroll, dive and squat and felt more composed at the limits. Overall it was easier to drive quickly and also easier to explore the limits and even go past the limits. The Subaru in contrast felt loose and slightly out of control coupled with the intense rush of power that can really make it feel intimidating. However, if you continue to explore those limits and can become comfortable with the ensuing chaos, the STi will reward you with faster lap times.
So as you probably guessed, the STi and Evo must have been close. In fact, they were extremely close. Final lap times resulted in the STi taking the overall best time by 1/10th of a second (in the hands of one of a Vortex staffers no less). The Evo and STi came within less than 1/100th on the top 10 averaged times. Owing perhaps to the comfort level people felt in the Evo over the STi at the limts, the averaged times closed the gap between the two cars. The drivers that were willing to put their faith in the STi were rewarded with slightly faster lap times (although still only by a tenth of a second).
The R32 obviously couldn't hold up to the STi and Evo, especially with the stock tires as it was very easy to overdrive them after getting out of the other two cars. The R32's best time fell within 7 to 8/10ths of a second of the STi and Evo's best times (in the hands of one of The Tire Rack testers), however the R32's top 10 average was about a second off. Given better tires, the R32 probably could have been right in the thick of it according to The Tire Rack. It still doesn't have the power of the STi and Evo, but it has quite nearly a true track suspension straight from the dealership owing perhaps to the fact that it was only designed to be a street car whereas the STi and Evo might be used off-road in a rally cross.
What about grip? On the dry skidpad, both the STi and Evo pulled a best .99g with the Evo just edging out the STi on the top ten average with a .97g versus .96g. The R32 was left back (but still respectable) with a skidpad measurement of .94g and an average skidpad of .93g. Considering the R32 exhibited the best overall suspension handling for the skidpad, tires seemed to be a restriction yet again.
On the wet skid pad we tried our best to upset these cars trying everything from left foot braking to severe lift-off with more turn-in and they simply stayed glued in place or just pushed into understeer. In fact during photography we asked one of our Subdriven staffers that rally-crosses to get the rear end out on the STi (something he is quite good at). He eventually had to give the car a scandinavian flick and heavy duty power on to get it out there.
In the slalom the STi turned the best time by 1/10th of a second over the Evo with the R32 following next 2/10th of a second later.
At the end of the test there was no one that wouldn't be happy in any one of these vehicles which speaks volumes about these cars. The decision concerning which one to buy will depend completely on your own tastes, preferences, needs and wants. If you want the fastest car in a straight line, the STi or Evo are your best choice. If you want the best handling car that is the easiest and funnest to drive, either the Evo or R32 will fit the bill. If you want something a little subtler with more creature comfort and a great sounding V6, the R32 may be your cup of tea. If you enjoy the rush of a turbo the STi and Evo will due quite nicely. All of this also depends on which car fits you better, which styling you like better, and a raft of other subjective things we can't decide for you. No matter which you choose, you can be sure that you are buying something special and unique that will place a perma grin on your face.
© Copyright 2003 by VWVortex.com