Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance 2014 review
WE turn the spotlight on the VW Golf GTI Performance and ask the crucial questions, including the biggest -- would you buy one?
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It's almost 20 years to the day after the original Subaru WRX stormed onto the scene. The anonymous-looking four-door sedan proved to be an unlikely challenger to the established performance cars thanks to its light weight, turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive grip.
The $40,000 starting price was a bonus (it even lured me), but not everyone liked to pay for theirs. The WRX quickly became the car of choice among ram-raiders and high-speed criminals because of its ability to outrun police. It was the new bad boy on the block and its popularity soared despite -- or perhaps because of -- its reputation.
Australia is the third biggest market worldwide for the Subaru WRX, with more than 37,600 sold since 1994. Now up to its fourth generation, the WRX formula hasn't changed: the car still starts life as a base model Impreza and then Subaru adds the go-fast bits. It has been a proven recipe for two decades. But has the rest of the performance-car world moved on?
Subaru has wound back the WRX's price 20 years -- and shaved off a further $1000 for good measure, to $38,990 plus on-road costs. By Subaru's calculations, with inflation, the real cost of the new WRX should equate to $66,000.
Of course, Subaru isn't alone with this argument: the prices of the Nissan Pulsar and Toyota Corolla are also at 20-year lows. Send your thank-you note to the Japanese government, which has artificially devalued the Yen over the past 12 months to boost car exports.
Nevertheless, the RRP of $38,990 is a deft move from Subaru, which is well aware the WRX no longer has the market to itself. It has now limboed under the price of the Volkswagen Golf GTI (the undisputed king of the class for the past decade) and the Renault Megane RS, while only $700 more than the category's unsung hero, the Ford Focus ST.
Standard WRX fare includes seven airbags, a rear-view camera, a digital speed display, a geek mode that shows you how much g-force the car is pulling, cruise control, remote central locking, sports seats and steering wheel, unique front and rear bumpers and, of course, the vented bonnet that feeds air to the turbo engine's intercooler.
The premium model is less attractive when lined up against the competition. Adding $5000 to the price, to $43,990, it gains a sunroof, leather seats (with electric adjustment for the driver), touchscreen navigation, push-button start with sensor key, and an eight-speaker premium sound system. Automatic transmission returns to the WRX for the first time in 10 years; an eight-speed CVT adds $2000.
Subaru doesn't yet have fixed price servicing for its routine maintenance (due every 12,500km or six months, whichever comes first). Instead it has a complicated enquiry form on its website, which invites customers to ask for a quote.
Subaru is now conspicuous among the top-selling brands for its lack of a transparent service-pricing schedule. The company says a fixed price servicing program is being developed.
At least the WRX's resale value is sound, retaining 55 per cent of its value (average) after three years according to Glass's Guide, providing the kilometres are low, there are no modifications to the car, and the service records are impeccable.
After 10 years of having a turbocharged 2.5-litre engine under the WRX's bonnet, the new model has returned to 2.0-litre turbo power. The switch to a smaller engine is motivated by fuel economy. The new WRX is more efficient than before (down to 9.2L/100km) but still nowhere near as efficient as the class leaders (the VW Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST and Renault Megane RS sip 6.2 to 8.2L/100km).
Now with direct injection as well as other advances in technology, Subaru's new 2.0-litre turbo has 2 more kilowatts and 7 newton-metres of extra torque (to 197kW and 350Nm) compared with the old 2.5-litre turbo engine. This puts the WRX's power on a par with the current crop of hot hatch heroes but, as we would discover, it doesn't necessarily translate to better performance.
Subaru has gone back to basics and ditched plans for a hatch version of the WRX, so it is a sedan-only proposition for now. We were teased with a daring sedan styling change at the 2013 New York motor show, when Subaru whipped the covers off the most exciting show car to ever come from the Japanese maker's design studio.
The WRX concept's bulging flanks and sleek lines wowed fans and stunned the international motoring media. So there was much excitement when the designer standing next to the show car told reporters that elements of the concept vehicle would make it onto the production version.
As it turned out, however, the new Subaru WRX was to be the same as it ever was: a turbocharged engine in a relatively plain package. Customarily, production cars are toned down from the concept cars that precede them. But the new WRX redefined the contrast. Most car companies prefer to under-promise and over-deliver. On this occasion, the opposite was true.
Seven airbags and a strong body structure ensure the WRX comes with a five-star ANCAP safety rating. All five seats have a lap-sash belt as well as adjustable headrests (to prevent whiplash injuries).
A rear camera is standard on all new WRX models, however the display screen is small (not much bigger than a business card) and rear-parking sensors are an optional dealer-fit accessory.
Subaru has short-changed us a little: a rear camera (with a large display screen) and rear parking sensors are standard on a $20,700 Toyota Corolla sedan these days.
As with some original WRX buyers, the new model has put on a bit of weight over the past 20 years. The new WRX is not only 200kg heavier than it used to be -- and 14kg more than the previous model -- it's up to 120kg heavier than the current competition.
And as Porsche will tell you, weight is the enemy of performance. The Subaru's all-wheel-drive hardware takes most of the responsibility for the weight difference (the European rivals are front-wheel-drive).
Subaru claims the new model can do the 0 to 100km/h dash in 6.0 seconds but the best we could extract (using a satellite-based timing device) was a pair of 6.4-second runs after a series of high 6s and low 7s.
By comparison, we've managed to achieve 6.0 to 6.1-second times in the European hot hatches -- quicker than the official claims. And car buff magazines have managed to extract repeatable 0 to 100km/h times of 5.5 seconds in the previous generation WRX.
The WRX's eight-speed CVT auto was a surprise package. It may be 0.5 seconds slower in the 0 to 100 dash than the manual, sluggish off the line and a bit of a drone at suburban speeds, but it is significantly quicker and more responsive once on the move, particularly coming out of corners. In "sport sharp" mode, the CVT holds one of eight pre-set ratios that keep the turbo on boost. As far as CVT autos go, in driving situations like these, it's a revelation.
The Subaru constant all-wheel-drive system and limited slip rear differential deliver some handling benefits, particularly in slippery situations. The steering is also greatly improved, and more linear in feel.
However, in normal conditions modern hot hatches, with their sophisticated stability control electronics and/or mechanical limited-slip differentials, are just as capable at clambering out of tight corners.
The WRX rides surprisingly well over bumps and thumps, due in part to the relatively tall tyre profile thanks to the 17-inch wheels (which look way too small for the car, even when they're painted in a charcoal finish). The Subaru's rivals have all moved on to 18 and 19-inch wheels and tyres; the WRX has had 17-inchers since the year 2000.
The other area where there is room for improvement is the brakes, which have a wooden feel even though Subaru says they have a "140 per cent reduction in fade resistance" due to a "high-response brake booster".
That may be so, but in our opinion the brakes aren't as good as the 2006 WRX, which had race-car-style four-piston calipers clamping the front discs on a car that's lighter than today's.
The front discs on the 2014 WRX are slightly larger than before (from 294mm x 24mm, to 315mm x 30mm) but they are only clamped by a "floating" caliper -- the same type used in taxis and regular cars.
That could explain why the front brakes on some WRXs on the media preview drive were left smoking after some sections of winding downhill road. They initially held up ok, but before long they weren't happy and were beginning to fade.
When we asked the WRX's Japanese chief engineer why the new model doesn't get four-piston brake calipers, he nodded in acknowledgement and said "STI", referring to the more powerful and more expensive version of the WRX developed by Subaru Technica International, due next month.
But brakes are an important ingredient in any performance car, regardless of price. That Subaru should hold the WRX back in this way is unfortunate. If this was done to create a bigger gap between the WRX and the STI versions, Subaru needs to find other ways to differentiate the models. The brakes should be sacred.
Then there is the engine. Subaru's graphs show that the new 2.0-litre turbo has a broader spread of power compared to the previous 2.5-litre turbo. In reality, however, there is still a lag below 2500rpm and the engine has an asthma attack at about 5500rpm, leaving you with a relatively narrow power band (compared with the turbocharged 2.0-litre engines from Volkswagen, Renault and Ford which get on boost earlier and whose power surges last longer).
In the car we tested there was also a subtle pause in power at about 4500rspm, which was easy for us to replicate but difficult to explain. Perhaps it was a turbo boost pressure change.
Slimmer windscreen pillars, a larger glass area and mirrors mounted on the doors improve visibility, but the dash can glare badly into the windscreen in direct sunlight. Inside, the WRX gains the storage benefits of the Impreza sedan on which it is based, with a massive glovebox, centre console and door pockets.
In other ways the WRX's more humble origins hold it back. For example, only the driver's power window has 'auto-up' functionality. The European rivals from Volkswagen and Ford have 'auto-up' windows on all four doors.
The premium model tested was equipped with an eight-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system, but the audio quality was only average. The premium systems in European cars are louder and crisper, in particular the Harmon Kardon system in the Mini Cooper S, for example.
The race-car-style flat-bottom steering wheel and the soft-touch materials on the dash and doors are welcome improvements, as is the six-speed manual transmission. After 20-years of sub-standard five-speed manuals Subaru has finally turned out a slick-shifting six-speed.
Which is a good thing, because you'll be keen to change gears to get the best from the exhaust note. Although muted slightly, the Subaru "boxer" engine's exhaust burble is back. And not a moment too soon.
The WRX finally has its character again. Its legions of loyal fans will no doubt be delighted because, in essence, the new WRX is the same as it ever was. But Subaru wants this WRX to appeal to a new generation of buyers as well. If only Subaru could step up to the design challenge and add some missing equipment to its greatly improved list, it might just have a car to topple the Europeans. As one colleague put it, the new WRX is better than it used to be, but not quite where it needs to be.
The new WRX is a big step up for Subaru -- and the company has made a lot of worthy improvements -- but it doesn't do enough to reclaim the ground lost to the $40,000 European performance cars.
The WRX's thirst compared to its rivals, lack of equipment compared to the cheaper Ford Focus ST, the absence of fixed-price servicing, the engine's comparatively modest performance and narrow power band, and the underdone brakes, all weigh against it in this demanding segment of the market.
The good news is that the WRX STI version, which addresses many of these issues, is just around the corner. In the meantime, we'd plead with Subaru to at least consider addressing the standard WRX's brakes and add navigation to the base model. Then it would well and truly be on its on its way to reclaiming lost ground.
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