Monday, March 17, 2008

Return of the virtual track test - now with 100% less virtual

Back in the winter, when racing was scarce and the Playstation was looking dusty, I did a virtual track test of a number of cars I was considering buying, having switched jobs and putting myself in the place of being able to afford some new wheels.

So it's time to update the blog on the process, because I've made my choice and am in the process of buying something. Apologies for the tenuous racing connection in this post, but a number of readers had asked about where things stood.

A quick review of the contenders: '00-'02 Audi S4, '00-'02 BMW M5, '04-'05 Acura TL, '04-'05 Subaru WRX STi, '04-'05 Volvo S60R, '06-'07 VW GTI, '02-'05 Subaru WRX, '03-'06 Mitsubishi Evo, '01-'03 BMW M3 and I took a test drive in one other car not on the list, an '05 Pontiac GTO.

Here's how they stacked up:

Tenth: VW GTI: Admittedly a wild-card choice from the start, given it's front-wheel-drive platform, I was seriously concerned my partner K would fall in love with it whilst I would be less excited. This example sat on the nicer 17" rims as opposed to the ugly 18"s, and was a nice dark grey, with a carbon fibre intake under the hood. From the get-go it felt eager, with a fun power delivery from the 2.0 FSI turbo engine. The brakes were strong but snatchy. The two major knocks against it were the blah handling and an aura of cheapness. It didn't suffer from too much torque steer, but there was little of the planted feel you get with a 4wd or that lively back end in a RWD car. And despite VW's best attempts to match sister brand Audi in fit and finish, there was no doubt that this was an econobox. The nail in the coffin was the potential depreciation nightmare buying a very recent economy car for $18,000. Thankfully, K hated the car, after a brutal battle with the transmission which left both car and driver refusing to talk to each other.

Ninth: Acura TL: Another virtual non-starter due its FWD platform, but I've always liked the look of these cars, so wanted to see how they were to drive. After much searching I found a stick-shift example at a local dealer. The interior was the antithesis of the VW: it was light, airy, comfortable, classy, high-tech and generally pleasant. Clocks were easy to read and cutting edge in design. On the road, the power of the 3.2 V6 was really impressive, its sub-6 second 0-60 time very believable, despite the car's weight. All was going well until I hit the freeway on-ramp, and stood on the loud pedal. My gentle steering input was ruined by vicious torque steer as the front wheels struggled to cope with that much power whilst turning too. This resulted in instant disqualification, although I really liked everything else about the car. If they move the drive to the proper end of the car, this would be a true BMW 5-series competitor.

Eighth: BMW M5: Speaking of the 5-series... We tried an immaculate black 2000 M5, although pootling around Redwood City didn't reveal much of the car's handling or performance. What we could gather was that it was immensely powerful with a turbine-smooth delivery. However there was no getting around the fact that this was a massive vehicle. There was little fun to be had here, with the austere interior reminding me of those people who have a "formal" living room. K quite rightly exercised her veto power here, feeling uncomfortable with the size of the vehicle. To make things worse, the driving position and long hood required her to raise the seat to see where she was going, which forced her long legs up against the dash. I think it's safe to say that this is for people who want a big car that happens to be fast, not vice versa. In other words, not us.

Seventh: Subaru WRX: To be fair, the poor Rex had the dubious distinction of being driven after the STi, so comparisons were inevitable. Furthermore, it was forced to be compared with our current car, a lively, characterful 17-year old Subaru Legacy wagon that seems to go faster the further it goes beyond 200,000 miles. This WRX was filthy, owned by clueless owners and was fitted with a stupid HKS blow-off valve and turbo-timer, so the odds were utterly stacked against it. The 40bhp more than our wagon seemed like a small difference, and the grip levels were so much lower than the DCCD-equipped STi that it made for a tedious drive. The interior was utterly boring (which I knew from my rally co-driving days) and the seats were very average. My suspicion is that given a more entertaining road and less irritating owners, barking warnings and directions from the back seat, we might have thought more of this one.

Stay tuned for the top six...

No comments: