Rewind two decades and the Subaru WRX was the affordable performance king, its launch immaculately timed with the rise of Playstation rally games and the temporary demise of hot-hatches. By the end of the 1990s the Peugeot 306 GTi had died, while the Volkswagen Golf GTI had become a softie.
Not long into the new millenium, though, a hot-hatch reprise was led by a reborn Golf GTI, and the tables turned. By the 2007 launch of the third-generation Subaru WRX, it was the one that had turned soft. The superb Renault Sport Megane 230 F1 Team R26 of the same year rubbed salt into the wound.
But now we have an affordable performance comparison test that – for the first time in almost a decade – doesn’t follow a predictable plot. Typically, you could summarise that the Subaru WRX had lost its way, the Renault Sport Megane is the driver’s car champion, but the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the one you’d drive home. It’s no longer that straightforward.
The introduction of the fourth-generation Subaru WRX in 2014 is met with big changes and a bigger claim. Compared with the previous generation, body strength is up 41 per cent, the steering rack is 200 per cent more rigid, the front and rear springs are 39 and 62 per cent stiffer respectively, and there are stronger suspension components such as alloy front control arms.
All-wheel drive naturally remains, though the WRX gets a new front torque vectoring system to match its rear limited-slip differential (but not the STi’s centre diff that throws more drive rearward). The claim? That the Porsche 911 was benchmarked for handling prowess.
About the only thing that hasn’t changed much are the engine outputs. With this generation the WRX moves from a 2.5-litre boxer turbocharged four-cylinder to a new 2.0-litre that’s 12 per cent more fuel efficient, and tied to a manual gearbox that finally gets six gears. Its 197kW of power (at 5600rpm) and 350Nm of torque (between 2400-5200rpm) are 2kW/7Nm up on the old car that was also 26kg heavier, the stiffer new model coming in at a commendable 1424kg.
Perhaps Subaru underestimated the market when the old WRX was launched, not knowing that the Megane 230 F1 Team R26 would begin showing the world front-wheel-drive cars could compete with gravel-spraying all-wheel-drives. Its ace was a trick front limited-slip differential that meant drivers could pin the throttle mid-corner and not turn their tyres to smoke as a WRX driver got away. That the Megane packaged better steering, suspension and balance than the Subie was the beginning of the end for the legend.
The latest, $49,990 Renault Sport Megane 265 Red Bull F1 Edition assembled here is the pinnacle of what the French masters can do. With the same Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres as the 8:08 Edition that lapped the Nurburgring in that number of minutes and seconds (the fastest-ever front-driver around there until pipped on the technicality of semi-slick tyres by the Seat Leon Cupra), it has been the hottest of hot hatches for the past half-decade.
The Megane RS265 matches the WRX (and Golf GTI) for engine capacity and cylinder count, but produces 195kW (at 5500rpm) and 360Nm (at 3000rpm). The three-door hatchback-cum-coupe claims a 6.0-second 0-100km/h sprint – exactly what Subaru says the $11K-cheaper WRX will do.
The Megane RS265 has had another fight on its hands, though, in the form of the Mark VII Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Mark VI generation that ran from 2011 till last year was a sweetie, but with 280Nm of torque – 22 per cent less than the Renault – and no trick front diff, it was never as scorching-hot.
First, the new GTI lobbed, weighing a super-trim 1313kg (47kg down on the old one), yet it came with 350Nm (between an astonishingly broad 1500-4400rpm). The RS265 assembled here weighs 98kg more, handing the Volkswagen the superior torque-to-weight ratio, though the GTI only gets 162kW (between 4500-6200rpm). Even then, however, keen drivers would choose the Renault.
Gathered here, though, is the Golf GTI Performance, the Volkswagen hot-hatch that calls the Renault’s trump card with its own proper, mechanical limited-slip differential. It also raises power – to 169kW that comes in 200rpm later – and kerb weight (to 1364kg). Teamed with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic (a manual to match the Renault is available overseas but not here), the 0-100km/h performance claim drops by a tenth to 6.4sec.
Having not driven the GTI Performance or WRX before the start of this test, I genuinely didn’t know how this would end. How it will start, though, is by throwing them into the performance cauldron that is a racetrack.
First to straight-line performance – and it’s an easy win to the WRX. The Subaru and Renault claim the same performance, and their mid-range acceleration feels similar. However, where the front-driver is difficult to launch – with too much throttle it smokes like a Frenchman, with not enough it bogs down – the all-paw sedan will accept a brutal clutch drop from maximum throttle.
The Golf GTI Performance has launch control, so simply hold the brake with your left foot until the throttle is pinned, then release. The electronics take over, balancing wheelspin, but not by enough to match the WRX that leaps off the line. Instant gearchanges means the five-door hatchback chases down the sedan, though.
A tight track such as Marulan, in the NSW southern tablelands, should perfectly reveal the diff (ahem) between these sub-$50,000 affordable performance cars.
In the battle of the front diffs, it’s still the Megane’s that does a slightly superior job than the GTI’s. In flowing corners you can feel each car pulling itself into line when throttle is applied mid-corner (or about the time regular hatchbacks would push wide) as the limited-slip differential diverts power away from the unloaded inside wheel.
But in the tightest of bends, such as a double-apex right-hander that tightens back on itself, patience borders on frustration as you wait in both cars to apply throttle or suffer wasted wheelspin. The WRX just grips and goes.
The Megane RS265 remains a master communicator, a Porsche 911 GT3 condensed. Its steering is the most tactile, fluent, sharp system you’ll find this side of a supercar.
Not only are its grip reserves huge, but its balance is impeccable. On one off-camber left-hander it edged its bum out every time, not being unruly, but pivoting to help the nose point. The engine sounds like an industrial-grade vacuum cleaner with its menacing vwoorppp as revs rise, and the snick-snick manual and well-spaced pedals are driving heaven.
This is not an easy car to beat.
Moving into the Volkswagen and, well, it’s classic Golf GTI. There are no rasps and whistles as in the Megane, replaced with a smoother, deeper growl that’s more like when you dive into a pool than if you’d flicked on a Dyson. The steering is quick to turn into a corner, weighted well and consistent, but there’s none of the true road feel you get in the Megane. You could demolish a ripple strip and your fingertips would barely know.
The GTI is planted, and won’t slide its rear as readily, and the stability control interferes anyway (it has a Sport mode but can’t be switched off entirely). Slapping the steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters is also nowhere near as satisfying as flinging an alloy-topped gearlever.
The Volkswagen recorded a 46.06-second lap, or a mere 0.32sec behind the Renault. Quite simply, the Golf GTI Performance feels like a Megane RS265 that has been to finishing school.
Having driven the previous Subaru WRX around this very circuit and returned bitterly disappointed with its reluctant front end, nautical steering and rolly handling, scepticism joined me in the front seat of this new model.
There’s a newfound smoothness to this new engine. The flat-four throb at idle remains, but the industrial soundtrack is more distant, for the better, and there’s now a keenness to rev matched by a nicely spaced set of ratios stirred via a still-gritty shift action.
Only a few corners in, the steering reveals itself to be an early revelation. The giant on-centre vacant patch is gone, so you don’t need to cross your arms just to get the WRX turned in. There’s smoothness, mid-weighted consistency and impressive directness, if not the tactilty of the Megane.
A few laps in, though, and the WRX shows the true extent of its improvement. The new car is superbly balanced and hugely rewarding, no longer using all-wheel-drive traction as the only ace in its hand. Where the old car would lurch onto its outside front wheel when turning in, then wander its nose wide of the bend, the new one keenly jumps for the apex.
Adding too much steering lock only prompts the rear end to slide earlier, and suddenly you realise full throttle can be applied sooner than first thought. Do so, and the WRX leaps high, as though it has extended its hind legs, putting every bit of power to the ground better than either front-driver.
Three corners into its timed lap, I knew it had both its rivals on the floor – and it did, with its 44.8sec eclipsing the Renault by a full second.
Off the track and onto the road, and as expected the Golf GTI Performance makes up ground. Yes, it is $10K more expensive than the WRX tested here, but its interior feels about twice as nice. Enter the Volkswagen at night, and a millimetre-thick red line lights up on the door panel’s trim insert, which is possibly the coolest feature of any car under $50K. Alcantara trim covers the thick side bolsters of the tartan cloth seats, the steering wheel’s thin rim and elegant chrome detailing is exquisite, and there’s the same tactile controls and fine plastics quality found in every Golf.
Only the touchscreen grates. Its 5.8-inch diameter is smaller than the 8.0-inch unit in the closely related Octavia RS, and its resolution is much lower. The Bluetooth is easy to sync, though, and there’s the expected USB input in addition to two SD card readers.
The Golf GTI’s rear doors open to the roomiest and most comfortable rear bench, and it’s the only one with rear vents, though it runs second for boot volume – with 380 litres it is 3L ahead of the Megane but 80L behind the booted WRX (though the Subie comes with intrusive gooseneck hinges).
Quality and comfort are Golf GTI classics, and with the group’s only three-mode adjustable suspension the script runs true to form. In its most impressive auto mode, it is difficult to believe the Volkswagen is rolling on 225-mm-wide, 35-aspect 19-inch alloy wheels, such is the way it filters out road irregularities of all kinds around town. Yet on a country road it feels at once light on its feet yet superbly controlled. As is often the case, Comfort mode adds a little bit of float that can be less comfortable, and Sport feels a bit too tight.
There’s almost no turbo lag, only crisp responses, which makes low-speed tootling as delightful as maximum attack punting. The DSG and engine work like great tennis doubles partners, efficiently upshifting and feeling torquey when you’re off it, and being ultra-smooth and responsive when you’re up it.
If the extra energy and bass from the engine stepped the Volkswagen closer to Megane RS265 territory, then the LSD helps it leap into it. The nuances of difference in their delivery on the track is largely irrelevant on the road. Over several sweeping corners the GTI grips hard entering them, then mid-corner you simply apply boost and wait for the slingshot exit. This is Renault Sport’s game and Volkswagen is playing it damn well. Finally, a Golf GTI that is addictive to drive.
Swapping into the Megane, you immediately remember what a highly-strung hard bastard it is on the road. The clutch is firm, its take-up abrupt, the suspension determined to communicate every surface change and slight ripple up through the hard sides and base of the Recaro sports seats. The flipside to this is that the gearshift and steering become extensions of your arms, and the suspension is terrifically damped for driving on rough roads.
Where in the Golf GTI you feel as though you’re steering a finely crafted sports machine, the Megane RS265 is like a racer for the road, perfectly honed to go hard and fast and that’s it. As ever, it’s one for those who douse their Nandos in the peri peri sauce that makes you sweat.
The things the driver needs – seats, pedals, gearshifter, steering – are greater priorities than the trimmings that make you feel like you’ve bought a special edition hot-hatch with F1 stickers on it. The Megane’s interior feels two generations older than the Golf’s, not helped by the cliched piano black and chrome trimmings added with the RS265.
The R-Link seven-inch touchscreen exclusive to this Red Bull limited edition is also flawed, and sound quality is below average. The system itself works well, but the touchscreen sits far away from the driver, betraying the fact the Megane was never designed for a touchscreen. Where before drivers had to choose between satellite navigation or a Renault Sport Monitor 2.0, though, with the Red Bull they can have both.
The Renault Sport Monitor 2.0 is the coolest bit of gear in the cabin, which shows gauges for the brake boost and turbo pressures, coolant, oil and intake temperatures, and graphs for power, torque, throttle position, cornering G-forces. There’s even GPS data logging available via an SD card input, and an ESC Sport mode that sharpens throttle response and delivers the full 197kW.
If you didn’t already know what the Megane RS265 had been designed for, the system also provides advice, such as “if your brakes overheat on the track, remove the [front] spoilers to improve brake cooling”. Noted, though the beefy Brembos hold up brilliantly.
Swapping into the WRX, its controls initially feel rubbery, its chassis a bit aloof after the feelsome and buttoned-down Megane RS265.
After a while you realise that the suspension breathes with the road, like a true rally car. The last one did, too, except it would wallop its bump stops on big hits, and send shivers through the steering. The new car is having none of that. It always feels solid and secure, and its extra body movement highlights its inherent balance. It communicates its attitude through the driver’s seat more than the steering, and is throughly enjoyable to drive hard.
Around town, the ride is much better than the Megane’s, but not as supple as the Golf’s, and its engine is noticeably the most laggy down low, which makes it feel doughy unless stirred along. The only car here not to get stop-start technology, the WRX also claims to use the most fuel – 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres versus 7.5L/100km for the Renault, and an outstanding 6.6L/100km for the Volkswagen.
If the Megane’s interior feels dated, then the WRX’s is a letdown. With the exception of fake carbonfibre trim, the design and plastics quality are no different to that of a $23,990 Impreza, which happens to start from a lower base than the equivalent Golf or Megane. There’s few of the special touches that lift its rivals, either, the chubby, almost quartic steering wheel a single highlight.
A high-mounted 4.3-inch colour screen shows the obligatory boost pressure gauge among other trip computer functions. It does, however, contrast with the bargain-basement dotmatrix monochromatic audio display that also has an incredibly unintuitive Bluetooth system.
The WRX we should be driving, however, is the $43,990 Premium. It adds a 6.1-inch colour touchscreen with satellite navigation, and auto headlights and wipers to match its rivals, and gets leather trim over the Golf GTI, and a sunroof and electrically adjustable driver’s seat over both. That’s despite it undercutting the Golf GTI Premium by $5K (or $3K auto-to-auto) and the Megane RS265 Red Bull by $6K (though you can get the RS265 without Recaros and a touchscreen in $42,640 Cup guise). There will be many opinions on the new Subie's styling - we reckon it looks tough from a rear three-quarter angle - but in either spec the disappointingly undersized 17-inch alloy wheels remain.
This is a very tight decision. There’s nothing new to learn about the Renault Megane RS265, its brand of performance being so well established and reaffirmed brilliantly here. It is the most pure and connected car of the trio, yet it places third here because it asks compromises of its owner that these newer contenders don’t … contenders that now match it for driver appeal.
As the most improved car of the lot, the Subaru WRX is the comeback kid that is in some ways superior to its hot-hatch rivals. For $38,990 it is a fast and beautifully balanced bargain, a track day special, and for purists who require a manual transmission, it adds involvement over our winner in addition to saving them coin.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance, however, ultimately feels beyond $10K more expensive. As ever it is more comfortable and better finished than any rival, but benchmark urban driveability is now matched by competitive straight line speed and dynamics (track lapping excepted). Its staggeringly broad range of abilities means it simply can’t lose this contest.
Photography by Thomas Wielecki.