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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Twenty years ago if you wore your cap backwards and fancied yourself a bit of a lad, then you probably aspired to swap your over-accessorised - and utterly wretched - Hyundai Excel for a Subaru WRX.
Subaru created the perfect wheels for the grunge generation when it fitted its Impreza small car with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Bling-free but fast and supremely capable thanks to all-wheel drive, it was the automotive equivalent of rebellion.
It stuck two-fingers up at the established brands and pierced the nose of old-fashioned performance. It was probably one of the reasons turbocharging and bad behaviour are still bracketed together by road authorities.
By now, those boys will all be driving SUVs in the suburbs and wondering if they can afford to get their tatts removed. Turbocharging has become commonplace for efficiency rather than shove-in-the-back acceleration, so the sexiness has gone. But the WRX, or Rex as it’s known, has hung around.
The fourth generation rolled out last week, with the Targa ribbons of Tasmania as its proving ground. Subaru wants to remind us of the original and distance the newcomer from it at the same time.
Equipment levels have risen, with a reversing camera now among the standard fit items. The price has dropped over the outgoing model and remarkably, at $38,990, it’s $1000 cheaper than the 1995 edition.
If the sticker had kept pace with inflation, it would be nudging $70k by now.
Subaru managing director Nick Senior says the original recipe still works: “Take a popular production car, breathe some magic on the engine and suspension, and use motorsport for marketing.”
So we’re reminded of its motorsport heritage and how winning three world rally championships in a row did plenty to establish credibility for Rex. “Only a handful of vehicles have been able to garner the following, the success and the status that the WRX has achieved using that recipe,” Senior says, bracketing the Rex with the Mini Cooper S, Lotus Cortina and Torana XU1.
Nevertheless, Subaru was surprised by the success of the car, with almost 38,000 sold across two decades. The fortune of Rex has paralleled the rise of Subaru itself; Australia has a special fondness for the no-nonsense cars and we’re one of its largest markets outside the US or Japan. The sales goal is ambitious: 5000 this year, or 13 per cent of the brand’s total volume.
It must achieve that in the absence of a hatchback version, as this one comes as a sedan only. In this market that’s scant loss says Senior, with the hatch just 10 per cent of volume most years. And there’s an offset because this time there’s an automatic as well as a manual.
The aim is to attract shoppers who previously would have gone for something else entirely - a locally made V8 sedan, perhaps - and entice more women. So far it has been a boy zone with only one in eight buyers female. “We need to take WRX on a journey that entices new customers to the Subaru brand,” Senior says.
Even the design feels like a reworking of old themes and next to the superseded car similarities were more striking than the differences. At least this time, unlike with the ugly second generation, Subaru will not be forced into a hasty facelift. Marketing boss Andrew Caie says WRX has come of age and it’s now very different from the original.
The car has a longer wheelbase and is wider, which translates into more cabin room and a bigger boot - by 40 litres - for a respectable 460-litre capacity. The goal was greater refinement and comfort, as well as a lift in cabin ambience.
Refinement and interior quality were part of the focus, and a lot of work needed to be done to lift the previous cabin up from its low-rent ambience. Now the dash top is soft plastic while highlights around vents and carbon-fibre lookalike trim raise the tone. Also good are the seats and a more attractive wheel.
However, switchgear consistency of feel still needs some work, there are too many switch blanks and the door-grabs are cheap cut-outs in the armrests. The control screen remains a fussy, small-button unit. These sort of details reveal we’re still in Subbie-land. The WRX does not hit Mazda 3 or Golf levels of cabin presentation. In the back, there’s adequate adult headroom and good knee room but it lacks vents.
Under the bonnet, which has a repositioned intake scoop for better visibility, sits a new direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder downsized to 2.0-litres from the previous 2.5. It produces just 2kW more power and 7Nm more torque - hardly big leaps - but the peaks arrive lower in the rev range.
In many ways, fuel efficiency gains are more vital these days and with a manual transmission there’s an improvement of more than 11 per cent to achieve 9.2 litres per 100km. The automatic, a continuously variable transmission with eight programmed ratios, delivers a better result although it’s almost 60kg heavier than the manual, which has put on just 14kg compared with the outgoing car.
This WRX “is the best by a considerable margin”, Senior says. It can “thrill, reward and inspire while being livable 24-7”. If it aims to attract more buyers then it does so as its place in the market has come under assault from luxury brands moving into smaller cars, even with performance variants such as the Mercedes A45 AMG, and volume brands aim higher.
Against these arrivals, there’s something almost touchingly old school about the Rex recipe. What used to be signature features, such as turbocharging and all-wheel drive, are commonplace now.
Subaru also builds on its safety reputation with an additional airbag for the driver’s knee and the best score achieved by the brand in independent crash tests. A stiffer body structure would have helped there and other engineering changes include retuned suspension, upgraded brakes, a quicker steering ratio and Active Torque Vectoring, which brakes the inner front wheel during cornering to tighten the car’s line.
Noticeably improved noise levels make the cabin a much more pleasant place to be. The engine stays quiet almost to the point of anonymity. If you do hear it, it’s fairly industrial. But most of the time you get little sense of what it is doing.
This unit gives its best through the mid-range but it has failed to banish turbo lag, the delay between the engine gaining revs and the turbocharger whirring into action. It powers the car effectively, although it lacks the sort of blinding turn of pace that used to mark this variant out from the small car crowd.
A six-ratio gearbox replaces the previous five speed and it has a snickety action, making some shifts possible to fluff. The ratios left me wanting more, with insufficient room in the fat part of the engine’s rev range to avoid falling into holes in the second-third-fourth sequence on windy roads.
The CVT auto, to my considerable surprise, turned out to be the answer. Its broader spread of ratios makes the most of the engine through tight roads. It’s easier to drive quickly than the manual and - although I’m a CVT hater - it would not be a deal-breaker.
The car remains extremely capable on the right road, with a sweet chassis that sits with a lot of composure, holds its line through corners and sorts itself out through the all-wheel drive system unless you do enough - a fair bit - to provoke understeer. Bump absorption and control over dips is roller-coaster right.
The quicker steering will win no prizes for feel but it turns in very well, especially to tight radius corners. There were one or two issues as well. The brakes smoked up, going soft in the pedal, after hard use and the car’s electronics spat the dummy, presenting a blinking array of lights. Apparently, it reset after turning off the ignition and turning it on again. Just not when I did it.
Subaru has refined the recipe and delivered a solid and fast, exceptionally competent cruiser. It no longer feels like one step removed from a rally car, without losing its special combination of ingredients.
If it can shake off the lingering whiff of 1990s, then it looks value against rivals such as the Golf GTI and other hot hatches. That should bring buyers and these days, they don’t even need a baseball cap to look the part.
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