Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gran Turismo virtual track test Part 3

Belly full of pizza, I got stuck into the second half of my track test of the cars on my shortlist for purchase in 2008. An overview of this madcap idea can be found here and the first half of the test here.

Today's line-up was a little more difficult to put together, as four of the remaining five cars are not actually in the game. A little creativity helped solve that issue though, as you will see.

Mitsubishi Evo - Best time of 1'43.333 - Comparisons with the Subaru WRX STi are inevitable, as indicated by a thread I started on the NASIOC forum asking for people's personal opinions on the two cars. Straight out of the box the Evo felt exceptionally fast with more urgency in the lower part of the rev range than the STi. Curiously, the game reports its power as 316bhp, whilst US manufacturer figures are 271bhp. Quite a difference, and I'm not sure whether this is the manufacturer being coy, GT4 being optimistic, or a difference in spec between the Japanese and US models.

Through the corners the Evo has a more neutral balance than the Scooby. Whereas the WRX will pitch in tail-happy and drift the front on corner exit, the Evo will get into a constant four-wheel drift all the way through. It's the kind of handling that makes you feel like a driving hero, regardless of how much is actually down to built-in handling gizmos. This doesn't diminish the fact that it will dive into a corner, seeking out the apex like a missile on radar lock. The downside of this very quick steering is that it's harder to keep in a straight line on the straights, where a subtle weave is a common sight (a victim of the video game interface and certainly not what you'd expect in the analogue world). It's also worth noting that the brakes are very good, and have an edge over those on the 'Rex.

There's a problem though, and it's something I've read about in real-world road tests of Evos: it's all a bit easy. This may sound odd, but this car drives like a video game. Remember those old-school arcade racers where you never really needed the brakes and could only get into trouble when you hit the scenery? The Evo is like that. To verify my hypothesis I took the car out for a few more laps, this time deliberately driving like a hooligan, braking too late, turning in too hard, applying the gas too early, and generally being cack-handed. Amazingly I was still clocking times as quick as I had in the STi, and on my filthiest, most wretched lap I was faster than the Audi S4 had ever gone.

What happens in the Evo when you drive like this is that the four-wheel drift becomes the standard method of cornering, and will end up simply scrubbing speed all the way through the corner, leaving you with a low exit velocity. Each corner starts out by feeling amazing but ends up being disappointing. It's the antithesis of the M3 where a thoughtful, measured approach gives great satisfaction thanks to that perfect application of power from apex to exit. I can only guess that it's the Active Yaw Control that's to blame here, a piece of electronic trickery absent on the US-spec Evo VIII. In the real world, where hooligan driving comes with more consequences, and any Evo I drive will be sans-AYC, it might make for a better drive.

Volvo S60-R - Best time of 1'47.384 - There's no S60-R in GT4, but there is an S60 T5 Sport. A trip over to the tuning shop gave me the opportunity to add on the extra bits that Volvo added in the real world: sports suspension, better brakes, close-ratio gearbox and uprated turbo. In the real-world there's plenty of additional engine mods, but the turbo upgrade in the game brought me right up to the 300bhp that you find on the R. The one thing I couldn't change was the drivetrain, so I had to make do with front-wheel-drive as opposed to the R's all-wheel-drive.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much, but ended up pleasantly surprised. The big Swede proved to be damn quick, hauling itself up and over the crest at Laguna's turn 1 with gusto and making me hope the brakes were up to the job. The S60 is very stable in cornering - you'd expect a front-wheel-drive platform to generally tend towards understeer, but in this case the long wheelbase seems to help it keep the nose tight. "Keeping the boot in" works in many places around Laguna, especially turns 3, 9 and 10, where it felt like it was running wide but always "just" made it around as long as you steadfastly refused to back off.

In retrospect, the close-ratio gearbox with its default settings may not have been ideal and I found myself frequently having to change down as I was exiting corners. Perhaps reverting to the original tranny would have helped in that regard. Braking performance was acceptable - nothing to write home about, but by no means a disappointment like the M3.

One of the best things about the Volvo was the exhaust note, a raucous growl, the result of the asymmetrical number of cylinders (five) no doubt. This example obviously didn't sport the accoutrements of the R version, itself available with a spoilers'n'skirts treatment, which in my opinion does wonders for the staid looks. Best I could do was purchase a set of Enkei alloys in the Gran Turismo wheel shop. A reduction in unsprung weight was an additional advantage and may have helped the car ride the kerbing (particularly through the Corkscrew) better.

Acura TL 3.2 - Best time of 1'53.544 - Once again, the TL is not in GT4, so I drove a 2003 Acura CL Type S. It shares a platform with the previous generation TL, which ended up being carried over into the car I'm considering. All three sport the same 260bhp 3.2 V6 engine. So I think it's safe to make comparisons using the '03 CL instead of an '04 TL. It should also be noted here that the inclusion of the Acura on my list is definitely a wild-card choice. Performance figures are good enough, so I decided to include at least one contemporary luxury car for the sake of diversity. Who knows, perhaps I'll prefer the gadgets and leather of the TL over the manic nature of a Japanese rally-rep?

Initially the car is similar in feel to an M3 with smooth, seemingly effortless power delivery. On arrival at the first corner, the brakes did their job well, the nose tucked in neatly to the first of the two apexes and stayed there until I was ready to put the power down to exit. When I finally did so it obeyed well without any loss of front grip and bounded off towards the next corner. The pattern repeated itself all the way through the first lap. "This is going great" I thought. The car seemed pliant, willing, fast and controllable. Then, as I crossed the start/finish line I realized why: it was slow. It seemed fast, but much of that was down to the rough ride that kept the vibration motors in the controller rumbling away throughout the lap. I wondered if maybe I wasn't trying hard enough, so I attempted to put in a couple of flyers, only to immediately find the cars limits. It won't do anything abnormal, but when the Acura is within its comfort zone it feels like it's doing a great job. Sadly that's because the car is never going particularly fast or being dynamically challenged.

A definite thumbs-down, despite the fact it seemed so good. I want an honest car - the Acura makes slow feel fast (whilst the Evo and STi make fast feel slow...)

BMW M5 - There is no E39-model M5 in the GT4 and no BMW even remotely like it. The E60 M5 is completely different with a larger V10 engine and much more power. Instead, I drove a Mercedes Benz E55 AMG. Best time of 1'43.656.

I picked the Benz because, like the M5, it weighs 4000lb, is rear-wheel-drive, has a 5.0 V8 and makes more than 400bhp. It's an utterly terrifying car to drive. The power is monumental and you can almost feel the shove in the back, which keeps building. The massive brakes do their job well, considering they're stopping 2 tons of car and the car is surprisingly agile turning in to corners. However, like the M3 (the only other RWD car in the test), when you get it wrong there's no room for error. Where the Evo will cosset you and make you feel like nothing's wrong, the Benz will send you into the bushes faster than you could ever imagine. My worst "offs" of the whole track test were in this car, most notably at turn 3, where a skim of the gravel trap is the norm but a collision with the fence is what the Benz delivers. That same rear-wheel-drive dislike of trail braking that the M3 exhibited showed up again proving that you have to be deliberate in doing one thing after the other to avoid running into trouble. With speeds this high, that kind of trouble is literally around every corner, as you struggle to slow it down, turn it in, hit the apex and get on the gas without jettisoning yourself off the road, spinning, or worst of all in a game like this, driving like a granny.

Eventually, after 6 laps, I was able to make a mistake-free run, and the time produced was good enough for second-fastest. With some more work, I see no reason why the Benz (and consequently the M5) couldn't outpace the Evo.

Subaru WRX - Despite the presence of 15 different road versions of the WRX on GT4, none of them are equivalent to the US-spec non-STi version. All have power outputs in excess of 275bhp, whilst the regular WRX puts out 225bhp. Amazingly, this is the one car I couldn't end up including in the test. Based on times from the STi I can only guess that with a power difference of 75bhp, it's going to be a good 5 seconds a lap slower, perhaps in the 1'50 range.

The final scores

  1. Mitsubishi Evo VIII - 1'43.333
  2. Mercedes Benz E55 AMG (standing in for the BMW M5) - 1'43.656
  3. BMW M3 - 1'43.764
  4. Subaru Impreza WRX STi - 1'45.554
  5. Volvo S60 T5 Sport (standing in for the S60-R) - 1'47.384
  6. Audi S4 - 1'48.672
  7. VW GTI - 1'53.369
  8. Acura CL 3.2 (standing in for the Acura TL 3.2) - 1'53.544
The verdict
Last place goes to the Acura, which ended up being a big fraud, but perhaps in the real world this isn't such a bad thing. Driving some of the great Northern California roads and feeling like you're going fast whilst not endangering your license is worth a consideration. After all, its pace was virtually identical to that of the VW. Ahead of the Acura is the Audi, which delivered in the engine department with a lovely free-revving V6 twin-turbo, but was badly let down by a chassis that seemed to suck all the joy out of the driving. The opposite can said of the little GTI, which I'm placing sixth. It certainly had a zippiness to its handling, but going up and down the hills of Laguna Seca (and in the real world, San Francisco), I wonder if a bit more torque would help complement the fun-loving chassis.

Fifth goes to the Mercedes, doing a fine job of pretending to be an M5. To say it's a handful is a bit of an understatement. If you listed these cars based on difficulty to drive the Merc would rank as most difficult. Along with that comes the greatest satisfaction, but in this case the effort required is too much. The M3 strikes a perfect balance in that regard, whilst the Evo is the polar opposite.

Ahead of the Merc is the Volvo, which ended up as the dark horse of the test. I can't wait to get behind the wheel of an S60-R, because that lovely 5-cylinder engine (mated to a chassis that does well in FWD form and must surely be even better with AWD) made for a truly enjoyable drive. At this level, the only thing holding it back is a slight lack of spark or excitement, something that the third place Mitsubishi has in spades. For years I've lusted after an Evo, but now I'm in the position to buy one it's not the slam-dunk that it used to be. Questions about its reliability, fit and finish, cosmetics and now, it's handling, all have me thinking much harder about whether it's the car for me. Still, they're damn exciting.

And so to the final two cars. Both are incredibly involving, but in entirely different ways, the M3 being a more cerebral, rewarding drive whilst the STi offers immediate satisfaction along with characterful handling. Based purely on driving pleasure I have to give it to the Subaru, mainly due to the slight nervousness and reserve that the Beemer induces in the driver. In the real world, they're also very different. My budget will just about get me into a 2001 M3, whilst I can get an '04 or '05 Subaru. Maintenance and reliability are cheaper and better in the Japanese car, but the BMW brings with it a level of luxury and refinement lacking in the STi.

I'll post again with real world test-drive experiences in two months time. First thing's first, I need to replace my motorcycle! That's a much easier proposition, since I know what I want. Oh, and since I don't own Tourist Trophy...


DBT said...

Just wanted to say this is a great idea; something I happily did before my last car purchase after reading a column in Evo magazine that did a road and GT4 test with a Mini Cooper and Honda Civic Type R.

I found the same as them, and have derived much pleasure from going through the game driving cars I've driven in real life to prove the point.

As you approach the limit the handling and behaviour of the cars in GT4 is earily spot on! I love it.
What it can not give you, even with a wheel, is obviously what the car actually feels like to drive; but you're about to find that out anyway as you go for the real world test drives.

One thing I will say is be completely honest with yourself and your driving.
Fun as it was to drift an NSX round almost every corner of the 'Ring in GT4 I know I'm never going to do that - maybe on an airfield where there's plenty of space for it all to go wrong!!
And though the STi may seem dull in it's understeer stance as you power out of a corner, in the real world it's nothing less than exhilerating piling on pace as quickly as it can.
And though much fun can be had braking and turning in late on the brakes to get the tail moving before stomping the throttle I'm neither brave enough to try this on the road, nor do I want to treat my car in this way.
At a track day in the wet at Snetterton, however (lots of run off) I found that it was happy to do exactly like in GT4 and had hours of fun murdering tyres, brakes and no doubt causing quite a bit of wear on the gear box.

Not always 100% though - I've driven three different 350z's. Two on road, one on track, and was dissapointed every time as it never lived up to the expectations I gathered from GT4.
By contrast the Monaro (Pontiac GTP for you, I believe) far exceeded expectations and was a tail happy tyre muncher that even a basic chap like me could handle.

Have lots of fun on the real world drive and let us know how you get on.

Nicebloke said...

So what did you end up buying?

paullucas said...

This makes me want an evo also:

Rob said...

I love this idea, and I am reminded of a show in the UK - Top Gear - in which the host, Clarkson, drove an NSX around Laguna Seca in the game (GT3 A-spec at the time) and in the real world. He could not get near his lap time, mostly because he was unable to make himself brake as late as in the game. His instinct for self-preservation was too strong!

A great, and fun, way to come up with a shortlist. It'd be the M3 for me from your choices - Subarus tend to be too hard-riding in my opinion, and might get tiring up and down those hills and bumps in San Fran.