Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 2

We're off to the track! Yesterday I outlined my plan to track test the nine cars that are on the shortlist for my next car purchase, and to do it on the Gran Turismo 4 video game. Today, I took the first four of them out onto the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Time to channel my wannabe Evo-mag writer side:

VW GTI Mk. V, 2 door, manual transmission- Best time of 1'53.369 - The first thing you notice about the VW is that it feels a bit sluggish, not surprising considering it's the least powerful of the nine cars on the list. Trying to gain speed as I climbed the front straight at Laguna was a chore, so I fully expected my first touch of the brakes to be equally disappointing. How wrong I was. As I executed the stopping for the Andretti hairpin, I found myself ending up well short of the corner. Lesson learned.

For low- and mid-speed corners, the little VW loves to dart for the apex on initial turn in, but if you carry even a little too much speed, that's quickly replaced by ugly front-wheel-drive ploughing understeer. As you can expect, backing off the throttle will solve the problem, happily without the lift-off oversteer that was so common on older GTIs.

There's no doubt the GTI is a nimble, fun car, but the lack of power and that nagging FWD understeer tendency definitely detracted from the experience.

Subaru Impreza WRX STi (JDM 2.0) - Best time of 1'45.554 - The game lacks an STi with the USDM 2.5 litre engine, offering instead a 2002 Japanese-spec 2.0 STi or the lightweight 2004 C-Spec STi. Of these two, the '02 seemed more like what I was looking at, especially as it sported the 2004 facelifted cosmetics for some weird reason.

The Impreza immediately feels much faster than the Golf as my first lap beat the best time that I was able to achieve in 5 with the VW. Corner after corner, the rally-rocket is afforded greater agility due to its free-revving engine that jumps in to solve any handling errors. Turned in too late? No problem, get on the gas and the car goes where you point it. In too hot? A quick lift of the throttle instantly rotates the back of the car in your favour. If you continue to push too hard towards the apex the car tends to a full understeery 4-wheel drift, as opposed to the Golf's ploughing.

The brakes are okay, but couldn't match the bite of the GTI and weren't helped by the massive speeds the car could quickly pick up. Acceleration out of the corners is magnificent, but correct gear selection is important, as a lack of torque made things difficult. This is perhaps indicative of the 2.0 engine - the 2.5 is supposed to be much better low down the rev range.

The STi is like an oversize go-kart, quick to respond, incredibly communicative, agile and fast as all hell. How the US version compares is to be determined in analogue, but I can't wait to have a go!

BMW M3 E46 Coupe - Best time of 1'43.764 - As the computer handed off control before turn 11, the car felt big, slow and heavy. Then I applied the power coming out of the hairpin and the Laguna Blue Beemer just pulled and pulled and pulled, before long eclipsing the highest speeds that the Impreza could attain. The shifting feels slow, perhaps due to turbine-like characteristics of the engine - you get the impression that there's a massive flywheel in there somewhere. The power delivery is so buttery smooth you hardly notice it until you reach brake markers and realize you're two gears higher than expected. A quick, panicky deceleration and it's time to get back on the gas as you pass the apex. Here is where the massive grip of the M becomes evident - pick your line and the car will stick to it come hell or high water. It's the proverbial "on rails" experience that makes Laguna's butt-clenchingly exciting turn 4 a joy to behold. Moments later however the BMW's major flaw comes through as you throw out the anchors for the difficult, misleading turn 5. You have all this speed, but very little with which to get rid of it, and the M3 made numerous trips into the gravel at both 5 and turn 2 as a result of crappy brakes.

Handling is more stately than in the previous two cars and demands a very different approach. There is certainly the feeling that it prefers that you brake in a straight line because it wants to steer from the rear wheels under power application, and trailbraking on corner entry causes unwieldy oversteer. It will turn in predictably but without the lightning sharpness of the STi or GTI and feels less twitchy as a result. Once you've got the hang of it, it's rewarding stuff, although finding the limit is much harder because its handling is so good (until things go wrong). This was also my experience in the E36 M3 I had a chance to drive a few years ago. It thus took more laps to put in a mistake free run. Once I did though, I killed the Impreza's time by 1.8 seconds.

This Beemer felt like a very serious, grown-up fast car. In the real world this is bolstered by the well-equipped interior and quality of finish inside and out. It faces the highest insurance quotes and one of the highest purchase costs on my list, so I envision a "head vs. heart" conundrum...

Audi S4 - Best time of 1'48.672 - This car is harder to find on GT4, since it's only available in the used car lot and only from time to time. I already had one in my garage, but specced up to 360bhp. First thing's first then, time to remove the chip, exhaust, racing clutch and racing suspension. Man, how I wish I could have kept them though...

...because the S4 was an utterly boring drive. The engine wanted to rev, but the chassis wasn't good enough to allow it to do so, demanding gentle turn in and prohibiting early application of power. What made things worse was that the rev-limiter was set too low, meaning the fun-loving engine ran out of room before it was ready, putting itself back into the low end of the rev range after a shift. Understeer was rampant, albeit in a 4-wheel drift pattern like the Subaru showed. Difference was that the Subaru would only resort to that behavior when it had run out of all other options. In the Audi you turn in a touch too fast and it immediately throws its hand up and says "sorry, too fast, back-off or we're making a reservation at the Understeer Motel for the next two weeks!"

Try as I might I couldn't improve my time. People talk about how the S4 is ready for modding and I see why - in stock form it's really not the sporting vehicle it claims to be. The engine note is somewhat flat for a V6 bi-turbo, and it certainly lacks visual excitement, going for style instead. Even with that approach, it kind of fails with its jelly-mould looks and lack of purposeful lines. Only a striking colour like the Nogaro Blue example I saw advertised locally can save its aesthetics.

So after the first day's competition, the scoreboard looks like this:

  1. BMW M3 - 1'43.764
  2. Subaru Impreza WRX STi - 1'45.554
  3. Audi S4 - 1'48.672
  4. VW GTI - 1'53.369
Tomorrow I'll look at the Evo VIII and fudge my way through the other four cars, none of which appear in the game...


Clive said...

Interesting concept - road test by Gran Turismo! Not sure how relevant it would be to reality but the game certainly makes you feel as if it gets the characteristics of each car right. I shouldn't say too much, however, since if I had to buy my favourite car from the game (admittedly GT 1 - I haven't really tried the later versions much), I'd end up with a Mazda Demio...

plucas said...

The VWR32 might also be fun. You can get a used one in that price range, and it has about 40HP boost over the gti mkv.

Nicebloke said...

Yes, I considered the R32, but prices for them here in the Bay Area are somewhat outrageous! I find it hard to justify spending $25k on a 3-year-old Golf, no matter how much ass it kicks, especially when an STI is faster and cheaper. If they were in the $15-17k range I'd be VERY interested.

But you're on the right track...