Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Notes from comparing the 2008 Mitsubishi EVO, Subaru STI, VW Golf R32, and BMW 135i

On a recent comparison article for Sports Car International Magazine written by Alex Palevsky, I was tapped to drive the cars and offer my input. Here are my thoughts:

As a “driver’s car” the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X MR delivers the most positive feedback of the bunch, and despite the efforts to add a little refinement, the soul of the EVO is left intact. The razor sharp steering, the overall grip, the chassis’ willingness to change direction puts the EVO squarely on top. That said, it lacks a little of the EVO IX’s explosive feel – a tradeoff clearly made for everyday drivability. The styling is controversial – it seems more cluttered than the concept, and the front end suggests a fish with an overbite when viewed from the side. At the limit the chassis balance tips from neutral to rearward, making it easy to place, slide, and gather up. The sport-auto mode on the transmission is very intuitive, and does a good job of keeping the revs right where you want them when attacking a curving road – when operated in paddle mode (Ferrari-style with fixed paddle locations that don’t get lost with a turn of the wheel) the shifts are quick and positive. The car feels far more nimble than a trip to the scales would suggest.

Subaru WRX STI
The flares and optional wheels turn the otherwise bland WRX into a smoothly aggressive package – worthy of its WRC heritage. I desperately want to like the car – the power is definitely spot-on, and like the EVO, the ride has been refined to deal with everyone’s inevitable interaction with freeways. The problem here is that softening the suspension has amplified an issue I’ve always had with the STI (on the road) with the front differential. On and off throttle produce different turning arcs – step on the throttle and it wants to straighten out, lift off and it tightens up. This STI’s steering feels more numb than previous versions, and with a softer platform underneath it, it amplifies the effect to the point it impedes my ability to place the car accurately on the road. From previous experience, had off-road ability been on the menu for our test, the new STI will cover ground like no other car, and the front diff issue doesn’t rear its head off the tarmac. When pushed, the default is understeer – surprisingly the best way to combat it is to allow the DCCD computer to make it’s own decisions about where to distribute power in the AUTO- setting.

VW R32 Golf
For me the competence of the Golf was a huge surprise. This was by far the easiest car to bring to the limit, which was unexpectedly high. When cornering hard, the chassis is totally consistent no matter what the surface, or road camber. Drive it like a front driver with a heavy right foot – if you overcook it, a slight lift of the throttle will tighten the line and noticeably pitch the rear end a few degrees. Unlike the EVO, you can feel the car’s weight working the shoulders of the front tires hard when really hoofing it, and it was clearly the least powerful of the foursome. The DSG transmission is the smoothest of the paddle-auto shifters here, but I tend to get lost on the wheel-mounted paddles. The Golf also had the stiffest freeway ride of the bunch. The exhaust note is the least refined of the bunch.

BMW 135i
The motor is the class of the field – I was blown away by the powerplant and its lack of turbo lag when I last drove the 335i in Austria, and it’s just as smooth and silky in the 1 Series. It howls like a straight six, and has a little less weight to pull around than in the 3, making it even better. Driving to our showdown from Northern California, we thought this might be the ringer – it feels so right on the open road and around town – tight, crisp, and balanced but not harsh. With rear wheel drive and near 50-50 weight distribution, editor Eric Gustafson thought it might be like bringing a gun to a knife fight, but it turns out there are a few compromises that make it more tricky to drive near the limit. The suspension tuning that makes it so good on the open road and around town can seem unsettled long before you reach the adhesion limit of the tires. In long corners, especially when on even throttle with the weight of the car evenly balanced, it seems like the shock valving creates a slightly unstable feeling front-to-rear oscillation, and if you proceed further it funnels into understeer. In playing with it, the chassis (with this shock valving) wants the weight to be transferred to the rear on the throttle, or to the front under braking. So the closer you get to driving really hard with no compromises – you’re either accelerating or hauling it down – continually pushes that instability further into the background. When you lose grip, it will be at the front, and the BMW is slower to respond to throttle changes to pitch the rear and tighten the line than the other three. While I found it tricky at first, it was also rewarding to figure it out and make it work. I like the looks, and the size – it feels like the E36 BMW, and it has a simple, straightforward interior that you can reach across and almost touch the passenger’s door panel (like the original 1600/ 2002). There’s room for improvement in the suspension tuning.

Ranking –
1 Mitsubishi EVO MR
It does it all, it’s still razor sharp, with a little comfort. The motor sounds a little like a miniature UPS truck – but who cares? Fast, and fun.
2 BMW 135i – Love the motor, and silky daily driving experience. Despite the handling nuances, I enjoyed figuring them out and always wanted back into the BMW…
3 Golf R32 –Totally consistent chassis with high approachable limits – surprisingly fun to drive, and how often will you be drag racing these other three anyway?
4 Subaru WRX STI – wanted to love it, it’s got the power and the looks, but the steering made it feel like I was sailing instead of driving.