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Which is the best fast car for less than $70,000? For years it has been the Japanese all-wheel drives, but two contenders from Germany argue the toss…
A comparison test between the BMW M135i, Volkswagen Golf R, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X and Subaru WRX STI might seem like a war between Germany and Japan, but it isn't. Nor is it a showdown between rear- and all-wheel drive. Simply, the aim is to find the best sports car available for under $70,000, the near-perfect price-point for those looking beyond mere hot hatches but who can’t stretch to six-figure performance.
But the catalyst for the comparison is, of course, the arrival of the BMW M135i, which on paper boasts more power and torque than its established rivals for about the same money.
Last year, the 1 Series M coupe brought M3 performance for $50K less, sneaking under $100K by a few gorillas. Now, the M135i, despite getting a single turbo six-cylinder compared with the 1M’s twin-turbo version, boasts the same torque (450Nm) as the limited-run coupe, and near-identical performance for $68,400 – a further $40K saving. Actually, the supplied eight-speed automatic version costs $72,400, but slashes the 0-100km/h time by 0.2 seconds compared with the six-speed manual, ducking under five seconds by a tenth. At least the BMW badge isn’t an optional extra.
The Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution have owned this territory for near enough to two decades. Ever since Colin McRae and Tommi Makkinen took the wheel of their rally-spec namesakes in the 1990s, and the Playstation brought couch surfers a taste of their glory, the two have been cemented as icons of the late twentieth century.
It’s unlikely that buyers of those race-cars-for-the-road will cross shop the STI and Evo with the Volkswagen Golf R, but it is all-wheel drive and does match them for performance. It also undercuts them on price. The now-five-door-only VW starts at $49,990 for the six-speed manual, and $52,490 for the six-speed DSG tested here.
Our tested Lancer Evo base manual costs $56,990, but like-for-like with the auto Golf R, the Mitsubishi dual-clutch gearbox adds a hefty $5K.
Meanwhile the as-tested Subaru WRX STI Spec-R retails at $63,000 – $5K more than the base STI which lacks leather, sunroof and sat-nav. A five-speed auto is a no-cost option in the Subie, but it lacks the crisp shifts of the VW and Mitsu dual-clutchers and reduces torque by a considerable 57Nm.
With the STI, the choice is manual or something else.
It could be said that the BMW is being attacked from both fronts – by the hard-hitting, boosty rally weapons, and the definitive sporting all-rounder. Conversely, the M135i newcomer seems to have the on-paper goods to crush the three of them.
The BMW 3.0-litre single-turbocharged six-cylinder is one of the world’s finest engines. It nestles under the bonnet of the 335i and 535i sedans, and the 135i coupe, and does its job brilliantly in all of them.
The engine replaced the twin-turbo version previously in those models, yet dropping a turbo saw no decrese in power and torque thanks to the company using a twin-scroll turbo design – essentially, there’s two boosters working inside the one turbocharger, instead of two separate turbos.
In the case of the M135i outputs jump even higher, from 225kW/400Nm in its mainstream range siblings to 235kW at 5800rpm, and 450Nm kept flat over an astonishing 1250-5000rpm plateau.
Above: BMW M135i 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder
So when the M135i is ambling along in traffic, auto slurring to a tall ratio, it is producing maximum torque; and when the throttle meets the carpet, and the horizon is being reeled in, the M135i is also producing all the torque it can almost right up to the point of handing peak power the baton 800rpm past where torque tapers off.
Yet the turbo six also revs to 7200rpm with a snarly, creamy soundtrack that whets your appetite.
The BMW six-cylinder couldn’t be more of a contrast to the Subaru four – one is couth, linear, raunchy; the other laggy, whooshy, a firecracker. Not difficult to guess which is which. The WRX STI 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder produces 221kW and 407Nm, competitive numbers to push the 1520kg hatch to 100km/h in the low 5s.
Despite being slightly slower than the M135i in a straight line, thanks partially to a 14kW/43Nm deficit and a 75kg weight penalty, the WRX STI actually punches harder out of bends and through the mid range.
Where the BMW cleverly conceals two smaller turbo wheels in one housing, the Subie just gets one great big windmill to thrust exhaust gases back into the engine. Like any big wheel it takes time to overcome inertia and spin, so while it does move more wind than the BMW, it needs more time to do it.
The Subie makes peak torque at a flat 4000rpm, but feels like it’s making about half that number at 1250rpm – the point at which the BMW is providing its full figure – while the turbo begins to spool up. There’s then a big jump until peak power is developed at 6000rpm.
Above: Subaru WRX STi 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Consequently, the Subaru is dozy around town, sounds grainy at low revs, yet runs out of puff at high revs (it calls quits at 6500rpm). It has a smaller rev-range with which to work in, say 3000-6000rpm, but inside that it is a truly crushing performer.
The smaller-capacity 2.0-litre turbo Mitsubishi engine is similar in character, but it’s much better.
There’s less turbo lag in the suburbs, an angry, industrial soundtrack when pressed, and it revs to 7600rpm – like any good performance engine, the cut-out starts with a ‘seven’ not a ‘six’.
Unfortunately, the five-speed manual highlights the engine’s still-present turbo lag as much as the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic hides it.
In some corners, the Evolution is hard in the red in second gear, yet can’t give its best if shifted to third. Revving hard in fifth gear on the freeway is also less than ideal.
The Mitsubishi all-aluminium single-turbo four-cylinder makes its peak 217kW at 6500rpm – 500rpm higher than the Subie – and its maximum 366Nm at 3500rpm.
Above: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Although less torquey than the WRX STI, and despite weighing 1565kg making the Evo the heaviest car here, the Mitsubishi doesn’t feel slower.
But remember what we said about the only WRX STI to choose is the manual? For the Lancer Evolution X, it’s the opposite – choose the superb, aggressive-shifting dual-clutch gearbox to create a near-perfect performance weapon.
The Volkswagen may share its four-cylinder, one-turbo, 2.0-litre capacity, all-wheel-drive basics with the Evo, but it’s definitely on the side of the M135i when it comes to linearity and refinement. With 188kW and 330Nm, it’s the least well-endowed car here, but then it weighs 1476kg, less than the other two all-wheel-drivers.
Producing its maximum torque between 2400-5200rpm is only less than outstanding alongside the flat-bed delivery of the BMW, but it helps make the Golf R barely a second slower to 100km/h, needing around six seconds to crack that benchmark – the Japanese duo wedge somewhere between the M135i and Golf R times.
Being two pots short of a six pack, the VW can’t match the BMW’s lusty soundtrack. But, like the Golf GTI, the turbo four is zingy, cultured, and rev-hungry, matching the M135i’s 7000rpm redline.
All of which is fine with the $38,000 GTI, but for another $15K, a raunchier sound is expected. At the very least, a crackly-farty exhaust should be included, to stop drivers reminiscing about the wonderful-sounding 3.2-litre V6 in its Golf R32 predecessor.
Above: Volkswagen Golf R 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
All-wheel-drive systems are not one and the same, as the VW’s 4MOTION system proves. The company claims the centre differential no longer works on ‘slip’ angles – that is, sending drive only to the rear wheels when a lack of front-wheel traction is detected – like the old R32, but rather has an electrically-operated valve and pump to control oil pressure and allow the computer to control how much drive is sent to the rear wheels.
Apparently, up to 100 per cent of torque can be fed to the back boots.
It doesn’t feel that way. The Golf R has stacks of grip from its 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza tyres, but push past the limits of adhesion and it proves a blunt tool. There’s understeer in abundance, and no amount of aggressive-steering inputs to invoke a playful attitude will fix that.
It never feels like the Golf R is doing anything with its rear end – even a Golf GTI, with less grip at both ends, moves around more with its driver.
That latter virtue is something shared between the M135i and STI. Those two models have softer suspension than the Volkswagen, and on a gnarly bit of road aren't quite as nicely damped and comfortable, although the Golf does jar over really big hits.
The Subaru isn’t very good on typical country roads. Its shock absorbers are soft in the extreme, and on any surfaces bumpier than an ice rink the WRX STI starts to bounce its occupants, throw its front end off line, send shivers through the steering wheel, and even shudder its bonnet, such is its lack of control over bumps.
On smooth roads, the STI has plenty of body roll, but it allows the driver to feel what the mechanical centre, front and rear differentials are doing. The Subaru is the weapon it’s renowned for being when connecting (again, smooth) corners together.
Unlike in the Golf R, the Subaru gets a proper all-wheel-drive system with a button in the centre console that allows the driver to portion most of its torque to the rear wheels. Yet it still has enough ‘pull’ from the front axle to allow astonishingly early and hard throttle applications out of bends, maximising traction and allowing devastating pace.
BMW suspension tunes have been a bit hit and miss lately – the standard 3 Series and 5 Series are woefully uncomposed, yet when optioned with adaptive dampers, they are brilliant. The M135i gets non-adaptive dampers but with an M Sport tune, and it proves a fine option.
Like the STI, there’s a fair bit of roll, and undulations on country roads get the M135i moving around a bit. Yet, unlike the Subie, the BMW remains composed, comfortable, and faithful on all roads. Admittedly, with only rear-wheel drive, it can’t match the pace of the ‘proper’ all-wheel-drive duo – it scrabbles for corner-exit traction in the same place the Japanese cars release their rubber band sling.
Crucially, however, the M135i is heaps of fun to drive hard. There’s no corruption to its quick and largely tactile steering – save for a bit of lost motion when holding a bit of lock – and the front end is sabre-tooth pointy, despite the long inline six up front. The
M135i also feels the lightest on its feet, and despite prodigious grip from the 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza tyres, it is the most tail-happy (and therefore driver-happy) of the quartet. Throttle steer, courtesy of the wham-bam-thank-you-mam nature of the eight-speed auto and crisp power delivery, is there for the taking.
The Lancer Evolution X is extremely hard, but arguably the outright best handling car here. Its suspension rates are such that it doesn’t so much go over bumps as steam roll them.
Occupants can hear the suspension thumping and thudding over imperfections, and the dashboard shivers over really big hits. But the Evo will not be moved off its line, and will not require a change of pace over any surface.
The Mitsu has seemingly unending grip at the front, and the sort of agility reserved for a very special breed of very expensive sports cars. Its steering is so blindingly quick, even telepathic, a complete contrast to the slow, numb, and rattle-prone steering in the Subaru. It even makes the mid-weighted, sorta-quick system in the VW look well off pace. Cheeks will be torn off faces before the Evo X starts to understeer.
Yet its all-wheel-drive system allows as much play as the STI’s, with lots of torque going to the rear wheels thanks to an active centre differential with yaw control – basically, lots of sensors that tell drive where to go.
Bracing between the front and rear strut towers helps strengthen what is essentially a regular Lancer sedan body, but it also means the split-fold rear seat is ditched and boot space reduced dramatically. Other vices carried over from the regular Lancer include the awful road noise and terrible cabin plastics. But not the compliant urban ride, clearly.
Despite having superior driveability to the STI around town, the Evo’s ride is borderline harsh at low speeds.
Above: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution interior
Above: Subaru WRX STi interior
The STI’s relative softness works better around town, where it skims over small imperfections – but it still crashes over larger ones. Like the Mitsu, the Subie’s interior is below average, with hard and grainy plastics and a low-res touchscreen, although it is quieter across all surfaces.
It’s when the driving gloves are off, and workday commuting resumes, that both the Golf R and M135i put the clearest lead over their Japanese competitors. Each of the Germans rides with firm, comfortable discipline. Both are ergonomic, well equipped and quiet.
Ultimately, the Volkswagen’s interior is too Golf-generic, where the BMW scores with a wide 10.2 inch colour display and nicer steering wheel, if not superior cabin plastics. The rear-drive M135i also has tighter rear accommodation.
Above: BMW M135i interior
Above: Volkswagen Golf R interior
There’s an obvious winner here – it costs the most, but the BMW M135i is a peach to punt hard, is properly quick, and sounds fantastic, yet also feels properly premium in its design and refinement.
It also used the least fuel on test, slurping 13.9L/100km compared with 14L/100km for the Evo, 15L/100km for the STI, and a surprising and disappointing 15.2L/100km for the hard-working yet slower Golf R.
The Volkswagen Golf R seems quite the bargain, given that it’s $20K cheaper than its fellow German. But it actually appears overpriced when it’s only marginally quicker and barely any more fun than a regular Golf GTI.
It’s just relegated to the lowest step of the podium by the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Unlike the Subaru WRX STI, which takes the bottom placing due to its flawed steering and inadequate body control, the Mitsu is the best car here to drive, with brilliant steering and composure on all surfaces.
It’s enough – also unlike the Subie – to compensate for its below average interior, refinement and urban ride. But, as Molly would say, do yourself a favour and get the infinitely superior dual-clutch gearbox.
Or just buy the best car here. For the first time in, well, ever, that $70,000 car is a posh, performance rear-drive German…
This comparison review first appeared in the February issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the latest issue.
Engine: 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 235kW at 5800rpm
Torque: 450Nm at 1250-5000rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 4.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 7.5L/100km claimed (13.9L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 175g/km
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 217kW at 6500rpm
Torque: 366Nm at 3500rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
0-100km/h: Not available
Fuel consumption: 10.2L/100km claimed (14L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 243g/km
Subaru WRX STI Spec-R
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 221kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 407Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-100km/h: 5.2 seconds
Fuel consumption: 10.5L/100km claimed (15L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 243g/km
Volkswagen Golf R
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 188kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 330Nm at 2400-5200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 5.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 8.7L/100km claimed (15.2L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 201g/km