2008 Sport Sedan Shootout
BMW 135i vs. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution TC-SST vs. Subaru Impreza WRX-STi spec R vs. Volkswagen Golf R32 4MOTION
– words by Matt Brogan, Rose Harris, Paul Maric & David Twomey
– pics by Paul Maric
You might notice that at the close of each review we offer a suggestion to “Road Test the Rivals”. So we thought, why not do just that and test four of the closest competing sports sedan rivals out there, the BMW 135i, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru Impreza WRX STi and Volkswagen Golf R32.
Our rationale was simple enough, to see which of the four sports sedans in the sub-$80K category represented not only the best performance and handling dollar-for-dollar, but to also to take in to consideration those factors not often represented by mere facts and figures.
This test aims to combine the performance credentials of each car then to offset them against forgotten factors such as comfort, liveability and practicality. Then we were to translate the findings of our little experiment in to a simple, fun-filled review and accompany it with a video. Sounds like a breeze right?
The simple fact of the matter is, that like each of the cars tested, each of us have our own purpose and personality, and as a consequence we expect different things from our cars. So it goes without saying that things got a little tense around the CarAdvice office last week, and the final result was not without much contretemps. First of all, the cars in full.
2008 BMW 135i Coupe
CarAdvice Rating: (4.25/5.00)
During the photography for this test, one of the stops happened to be right next to a group from a Victorian BMW club. A couple of Alpina BMWs and an AC Schnitzer formed the group. The guys walked right past the black 135i Coupe and waltzed on over to the Evolution and R32 which were sitting next to the Impreza WRX STI.
We watched inquisitively as they questioned David about the STI and grinned when the R32’s exhaust received a parcel of 3000rpm. They didn’t take much notice of the 135i Coupe and this seemed to be a reoccurring trend during the road test.
So it was obvious the styling wasn’t doing much to attract attention, but luckily the rest of the package well and truly made up for it.
As drivers, we spend almost all our time behind the steering wheel, so it needs to be a comfortable place to be. Needless to say, the BMW fit the bill. The steering wheel has considerable girth and is a pleasure to hold on to. The small diameter of the wheel also makes it a pleasure to use on tight mountain runs.
One point of irritation which can’t be ignored is the amount of effort required to put on your seatbelt. Nearly dislocating your shoulder isn’t uncommon when trying to get a grip of the seat belt. The 3-series Coupe features an electronic extender that passes the seatbelt to the front passenger and driver, but the 1-series misses out on this privilege.
It’s strictly a four seat affair – and that’s a fair stretch. Trying to fit any moderately sized adult in the rear is a far-fetched leisure, it can be done, but certainly is not recommended for long trips!
i-Drive this, i-Drive that, it’s all you ever hear from motoring journalists. We refuse to believe they can all be as daft as each other and are of the firm belief that i-Drive is one of the most intuitive car computer systems on the market. It’s an easy flowing process and each button works logically. The satellite navigation could do with a bit of work though, it’s a bit 1990’s and needs a bit of Volkswagen styling 3D zazzed into it.
We were collectively in two minds about the build materials though. There are some fairly nasty plastics used throughout the cabin and they certainly don’t correlate to the $70,000+ price tag.
Let’s forget about plastic, seat belts and i-Drive for a moment and consider the way the 135i drives. Had it not been for this aspect, the BMW would have been given the boot from the list based on its price and relative lack of style.
The test vehicle was a six-speed manual, which really allowed us to interact with the car and get a better feel for its abilities and the way it shimmies.
Kick the clutch and stab the starter button, that’s all it takes to turn over one of the smoothest engines on the market. Under the bonnet lives a twin turbocharged, 3.0-litre, inline six-cylinder engine. With the 135i Coupe weighing just 1485kg, you can bet your bottom dollar that this thing will haul arse – no matter what gear you’re in.
The numbers you need to know are 225kW of power and 400Nm of torque. Although BMW claims a 0-100km/h time of 5.3-seconds, the several runs we performed returned 5.0-seconds each – Maric would like to think that’s the result of his quick shifting.
The gearbox is as smooth as it gets in this segment. Unlike the Subaru’s arm snapping gearshift, the BMW’s transition through the cogs allows for easy driving when tootling around town, while also catering for quick shifts when stretching its legs.
It’s hard to pick that you’re working with a turbocharged engine here. The rev band is so linear that you don’t feel the turbochargers starting or even transitioning. Nail the throttle in any gear and the revs climb with ease and with little fuss.
The noise from 2500rpm onward is enough to give any car nut a hard-on. The induction noise, along with the exhaust note just beg the driver to push harder. It’s hard to describe, but second to only the R32, it’s one of the best sounds in this group.
Line up a twisty mountain climb and the 135i never ceases to amaze. Acceleration up to a corner doesn’t falter the chassis, there is no fidgeting felt through the steering wheel and it generally just feels composed. Tilt the 135i Coupe into the corner and it sits flat with next to no body roll.
Communication through the wheel is bang on, bumps in the road are felt and the somewhat heavy steering feel makes it feel like you are really controlling the car, there is nothing artificial about the process.
Engine response is perfection. Slight jabs of the throttle are felt immediately and can be modulated to further enhance the experience. Set the stability control to the limited mode and the rear end is happy to wiggle with healthy throttle applications.
One of the disadvantages the 135i Coupe has over its three competitors in this test is rear-wheel drive. Give the Beemer heaps out of a corner and it naturally wants to push the back end out. The combination of rear-wheel drive and an impressive power to weight ratio mean that the limit of grip is reached well in advance of the R32, STI and Evolution.
At 52:48 front to rear weight distribution, hard braking and weight transfer in corners is kept civil. The seating position is reminiscent of a go-kart and it feels just like one to drive.
A decent job of keeping things on track is done by the 18-inch wheels all round and 245-wide rubber at the rear.
The 1-series range has a set of performance options that can be fitted by dealers – and are covered by warranty. Things like an aerodynamics kit, carbon strut brace, light weight alloy wheels, six-piston brakes and sports seats can be purchased to go with the ball-tearing 1-series.
So let’s talk money. $72,230 is the RRP for the six-speed manual 135i Coupe, while the six-speed automatic can be had for $75,195. It’s a lot of coin and admittedly, there’s not a whole heap of car to show for it.
It is equipped with a decent wallop of features, but it is still considerably dearer than any of the competition we have it lined it up against in this group.
What’s the final verdict then? Well, this is the easiest of the mob to live with day in, day out. It has the cachet of the BMW brand and best of all, it really is ‘shit hot’ to drive.
However, it’s the price that is its limiting factor. Even considering the current state of the Australian dollar, the 135i Coupe retails for around $US35,600. So it beggars belief how BMW can get away with charging in excess of $A70,000 for the privilege.
Had it not been for the price, the BMW may well have taken top honours, but in this scenario it has panned out slightly differently – all because of the price point.
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2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution TC-SST
CarAdvice Rating: (4.5/5.0)
When we first drove the all-new Evo back in August (for full review click here), we were thrilled at just how chuckable the car was. Now we all know that’s not a real word, but if the Evolution is to be described in one word only, then that has to be it. Well, throw in a side serving of sting.
Our test vehicle varied slightly from the original plan, we had three standard manual gearbox competitors and Mitsubishi’s incredible new dual-clutch sequential manual, or TC-SST, which caught us off guard – but fear not, we made do.
Now die-hard sports sedan enthusiasts will tell you that if it doesn’t have three pedals then it isn’t a sports sedan, and to an extent we all agree, but this ‘box is without doubt the next best thing to driving a manual, and in some respects, even better.
For starters, response is lightning quick. Cog swaps are almost instantaneous and as if that’s not good enough, the centre differential settings are variable, with three traction setting (tarmac, gravel, snow) offering supreme grip, even in wet conditions as faced on our test day.
This makes an already brilliant package even better, and the ability to switch off the brain and just trundle around town in automatic mode was a big plus for all four of us. In keeping with our original plan the Evo presented a few slight flaws that lost it valuable points in the eyes of the decision makers.
The ride for one was harsh, and while this sure did make for physics defying handling, our test was also to focus on the car’s overall appeal and not just outright performance, so for this reason we looked more favourably elsewhere.
Also, the interior was a little under dressed for the occasion and although the Evo comes packed with some pretty nice gadgets, layout, decor and overall finish were not quite where they could be, considering the price.
“So what!” we hear you shout, “the Evo is king” – and to at least one of our number that sentiment is very true indeed, but after some serious debate and deliberation, it’s a very close second place for a highly evolved and rightfully revered sports sedan.
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2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STi spec R
CarAdvice Rating: (4.00/5.00)
The Subaru WRX STi Spec R, with a name like that they don’t come much more iconic, yet the glow has dimmed a little in recent times and the latest iteration of the ‘Suby’ has come in for a far amount of criticism.
So what’s gone wrong, well for a start until right about now the ‘Rex” as it is affectionately know has only been available as a five-door hatch and that’s a big change for this car, which has always been a very popular sedan and had limited popularity as a hatch. The STi we should point out is still only available as a five-door hatchback.
There are reasons for this, of course, the US only buys sedans so all the initial production went there plus Subaru rightly divined that the hatch made a much better rally car so it wanted to concentrate on that version for its WRC campaign.
But none of this explains the general criticisms, the car is too plastic on the inside and too mainstream on the outside, and lacks some of the distinctive boxer-engine get-up-and-go.
Much of this of course is all part of Subaru’s plans to move the Impreza and its sporting sibling the WRX further into the mainstream market, for the very good reason of wanting to sell more cars.
Trouble is, with a car like the WRX that means softening it off, making it more acceptably comfortable and generally removing the hard edge that enthusiasts so loved.
So the STI carried the hopes of putting some of that old magic back into the WRX icon, and to a point it has, but on other scores it too has gone mainstream.
While the WRX looks were amorphous and apologetic, the STI looks chiselled and confident, it has pumped guards, purposeful looking vents in the front splitter -although on the road car they are essentially fake – and at the back four neat exhaust pipes poking out through a purposeful looking diffuser.
Under the bonnet things have also changed the 2.5-litre, turbocharged engine offers up a potent 221kW at 6000rpm and substantial torque of 407Nm at a reasonably tractable 4000rpm.
Just what you do with this extra performance and how you use it is down to a small round metal dial labelled “SI-DRIVE” just behind the six-speed gearshift.
You have three engine map settings to play with, Intelligent (I) for smooth and economical driving, Sport (S) for all round performance and Sport Sharp (S#) which the Subaru press kit says offers; “Truly dynamic engine performance”.
It’s all a very mundane way of saying you can sharpen the throttle response to racetrack precision should you want, and we can attest that it certainly makes a difference to how the car responds.
Thing is it’s very much a ‘wring the neck’ sort of performance, around town the STi almost feels sluggish and it’s only when you really put the boot into it that you really appreciate the performance that is on hand, which means that most of the time it all feels a bit muted.
Behind the “SI-DRIVE”, there’s another very interesting bit of technology, which is labelled “C-DIFF”. Subaru’s acronym for this is the DCCD (Driver’s Control Centre Differential). By moving the lever up or down, you can control the torque distribution between front and rear axles.
This means the drivetrain, too, is seriously trick, as the STi does not have the WRX’s viscous coupling in the centre differential. Instead it has a far faster-acting planetary differential with an electro-magnetically controlled clutch pack. What’s more, you can select the torque split manually, or leave it in auto and let an ECU do all the juggling based on inputs from yaw, pitch, steering angle and throttle position sensors.
If you were using the car on a track or trying your hand at some rally driving then there would be value in spending time learning to use this, for most people, and we did the same, the best bet is to just leave it in Auto and let the computer do the work.
As well there’s a six-speed gearbox, in place of the WRX’s five-speed unit, it works well and the ratio seem well-matched to the performance.
Suspension is basically the same as the WRX, but with uprated bushes and retuned dampers; the standard wheels are 17-inches in diameter, however on our Spec R car they are 18-inch BBS, but they’re an inch wider and shod with 235/Dunlop SP Sport.
The steering is still a speed-sensitive system but the STi has what Subaru calls a ‘fast rack’ and it certainly seems to feed the steering inputs in more quickly when you really start to hustle the car along.
The steering still isn’t big on communication, but does feel more direct and slightly weightier, which inspires more confidence when you’re attacking an unfamiliar road.
The ride has certainly lost most of its soft edges, so you feel the bigger tyres thumping over sharp undulations and breaks in the road surface, but the upside is a tauter ride, sharper turn-in, less pitch and roll, and reduced understeer.
If you are on the throttle, and coming into a corner, there’s some slight body roll. Keep yur nerve, turn in hard like you’re committed and the STi will hold the line perfectly and sort it all out for you.
Trouble is, like a lot about the STi it is only really effective when the car is being driven at 10-tenths and the trouble with that is that you cannot drive that way anywhere but on a racetrack.
Then you come to the interior and while there’s generous accommodation for four, and five at a pinch, with easy access through four doors it’s nothing special.
The rear seats are a bit flat and hard, the front seats were very nice leather and Alcantara faux race-seats produced by Recaro, the first such seats to incorporate side airbags, and they provided a good level of grip, although under extremes we found ourselves sliding around a bit too much in them.
The dash and centre console of the STI certainly looks better than the somewhat ‘low-rent’ affair in the standard WRX, having a nice touch-screen sat/nav unit and stereo head-unit, plus all the extra switches that go with the Si-Drive and the C-Diff to give it a more purposeful appearance, but there’s no getting away from the plastic look of most of it, not what you expect in a $60,000+ car!
In every race there are winners and losers and to fail in a four-horse race of champions is more about not producing the ‘little bit extra’ rather than being deficient in anything that really matters. We know full well that the Subaru WRX STi has its devotees, just as do the other competitors, but to us the ‘Suby’ just failed to chin the bar on the last attempt. That’s the way it is in this sort of company.
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2008 Volkswagen Golf R32 4MOTION
CarAdvice Rating: (4.75/5.00)
There is a lot to like about the Volkswagen Golf R32 and we all know it’s been around for a while (click here to read full review). It is the sort of car that pumps out enough grunt to keep the rev head in you happy while still being humble enough in the looks department to use as an everyday car. There is no mistaking the Golf is on the approach when you hear that intoxicating exhaust note.
For a sports sedan, we found the Golf to be very manageable, but not in a bad way – after all, you still know the power is there – and there certainly is enough of it. The 3.2-litre, V6 loves to rev and never feels as though it’s about to catch you by surprise. Driving along what must be some of Australia’s curviest roads, the Golf remained completely predictable with that brilliant 184kW always ready to go.
The R32 sticks to the road like the proverbial to a blanket and corners like it’s on rails. Gearshifts in the six-speed manual gearbox were easy to make and the clutch was user friendly. Torque, although only 320Nm, seems to come on as soon as you put your foot down; there is no waiting for a response which injects lots of fun into driving what is already a barrel of laughs.
The steering is tight, involved and accurate with near-perfect feedback and the compact design makes it an ease to park as well. Volkswagen’s 4MOTION full-time four-wheel drive system also comes standard in the R32, further assisting the impressive grip levels.
The Golf looks great, it isn’t making an obvious statement about its race-like power, which really appeals as you could easily see it being quite at home in the family garage, then taking people by surprise at the lights. We’d also have to say that a winning factor for the Golf is the usability as a day-to-day car. It’s just as happy doing the grocery shopping as it is on a twisty country road – though we all know where the fun is to be had.
Further adding to its family appeal is the supreme safety levels R32 offers. Kudos to Volkswagen for its five-star EuroNCAP rating on the Golf. The R32’s safety features include four-wheel ABS, plenty of airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners and front and rear crumple zones.
Active safety is where the Golf excels with anti-slip regulation to prevent wheel spin, electronic stabilisation program, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution all included standard.
Inside, there is no forgetting you are in a car that is built to go. The steering wheel is easy to hold with its moulded grips and flat bottom adding to that sporty feel. Instrumentation is simple but informative with an easy to use menu system, while the interior’s luxurious feel makes driving the Golf a pleasure. The leather racing seats too are comfortable – and ultra supportive – but in all honesty are a little bit of hindrance to get in and out of.
The R32’s visibility is crystal clear with no obvious obstructions. The hatchback’s boot space practical and the rear seats fold down to expand the 275 litre boot to a cavernous 1230 litres if required. The three-door version of the R32 that we tested is less than generous in the rear legroom department, so if it was to be a family car (or carrying back seat passengers regularly) best opt for the five-door variant.
By sports sedan standards, the R32 is at the lower end of the price scale, bringing the value for money card into the Golf’s deck as well, and combined with liveability and strong performance, it’s a winner – by a nose – in our books.
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Let’s face it, when you’re doing the shopping or running the kids to school it doesn’t really matter how many turbos or extra letters your car has to its name, unless you need to get your groceries home in a hurry, but by the same token there is no saying the fairer sex can’t appreciate a bit of grunt, and there was certainly enough of that on offer in this four car comparison.
First up is Subaru’s mighty Impreza WRX STi spec R. It looks great and has a race-like meanness about it while still maintaining a slick persona, quite a looming sight in the rear vision mirror. The large hatch opens wide to offer a plentiful cargo area and I really liked the bigger side mirrors, which provide great visibility.
Although the four door layout is a family advantage and the cabin space certainly ample, the drive just wasn’t as smooth as the three rivals and required a little bit too much effort to manage smoothly. As much as the looks and practicality may be there the Rex just didn’t do it for me. Fourth place.
Moving on to BMW’s lovely 135i Coupe. If a fast luxurious ride is what you are after, then the BMW is it. A myriad of electronic gadgets and the smooth leather interior reminds you of the illustrious badge you are carrying at every glance. Comfort is at an optimum but the power is simply too overwhelming for me, especially with all that torque kicking in just over idle.
There is no doubt you can feel what the car is itching to offer as soon as you push the start button, but I found myself gripping to the leather steering wheel for fear of the rear end stepping out at any moment. Simply put I didn’t feel as in control as I did in the Golf or Evo. Despite great boot space the 135i is very tight in the back seat, and is best thought of as a two seater, which presents a challenge for even small families, and with that the Beemer takes out bronze.
I found a lot to like about the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, but not quite enough to push it to the top of my list. It has the obvious advantage of being a sedan which brings with it added space a hatch or coupe just cannot offer, but the big spoiler for me was literally that, the spoiler. The rear wing cut right across my line of sight in the rear view mirror which made reversing a challenge.
The boot space too is hampered by the water tank, battery and massive sub-woofer, which though I’m sure would sound great belting out The Wiggles, means losing valuable pram and grocery space. The racing seats are an effort to get in and out of but I did like the paddle shifts finding that the quick, responsive changes made the Evo a lot of fun. Behind the wheel I felt in control and felt Lancer gave me a more confidence inspiring drive, a very worthy runner-up.
Coming out on top for me is the Volkswagen Golf R32. I love the look. It is humble about what it carries under the bonnet and doesn’t have the out-and-out statement of a sports sedan. The rear seat access in the three-door version we tested is poor, so if kids are involved forget it, I’d definitely go for the five-door variety. Again the racing seats make an appearance, but that is a small compromise given the overall feel of this car.
Smooth gear shifts and fantastic braking make driving a pleasure and it sticks to the road, taking corners with ease. Even for the uninitiated it is easy to get a good note out of the car which you can’t help but appreciate, no matter what your ranking in the rev head stakes may be.
I could easily see myself driving this car day-to-day to do the usual mundane trips as well as enjoying a long drive out of the city listening to that oh-so-sweet note. Very hard to hand back. First prize!
The fact of the matter remains that despite our conclusion, everyone is going to want something different from their cars, and thankfully we all enjoy that privilege, but when you put these four head-to-head and adopt the assumption that you not only need to enjoy a fast and good handling car but also carry passengers, cargo and endure the rigours of peak hour traffic daily, the answer soon becomes evident.
The Subaru, as good as it is when driven at ten-tenths is one of those cars that must be driven in that manner to be enjoyed, but sadly not many roads allow this type of enjoyment. Around town it borders on being sluggish, feels heavy to drive and is somewhat plastic and uneventful from the both the driver’s and passenger’s viewpoint.
Our little BMW is absolutely blisteringly fast and should you be able to maintain throttle balance – and avoid wet weather – it’s a hoot to drive. Trouble is that if you’re a little to brisk in applying the throttle, especially when damp, it won’t matter if the ESP is on, in between or off you will soon end up facing where you’ve just come from – if you’re lucky.
The cult king – and rightfully so from a performance standpoint – Evo is a god among cars, and if it wasn’t for the bone jarring ride and ES grade cockpit, then it would have pegged a slightly higher score, and possibly over thrown the winner. As it is, the Evolution lost ground by a hair’s breadth on our winner, and caused a rukus amongst the road test crew at the same time, but in the battle of Japan versus Germany there could be only one winner.
As an all round performance vehicle, with the added bonus of unbeatable day-to-day practicality, you simply cannot go past the Golf R32. It’s significantly cheaper, has adequate clearance for suburban conditions, maintains poise wet or dry and has an exhaust note usually reserved for six-figure sports cars – and you’ve got to love that.
Inside and out the Golf is well finished, is manageable even in novice hands yet has a hard edge up top even the bravest drivers will seldom find. Grin inspiring grip, punchy where it needs to be and brilliantly balanced the R32 deserves a very closely fought first place.
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