Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Return of the virtual track test - now with 100% less virtual - Part 3

And so to the top three cars on my shopping list. Remember that I first drove all candidates virtually on the magnificent Gran Turismo 4 Playstation game. At that time I was looking to learn about handling and get an idea of how quick the cars were. Back then, the BMW M3 led the way ahead of a Mercedes E55 (standing in for a BMW M5), the Mitsubishi Evo 8 and the Subaru WRX STi.

By the time K and I sat down to choose our car, there were only three cars left. Thrown to the curb were the cheap-feeling GTI, torque-steering Acura TL, overly-heavy BMW M5, uninspiring WRX, poorly-badged GTO, boy-racer Evo and expensive M3.

Third: Audi S4: The first S4 we looked at was much more appealing than I expected, decked out in bright red with the distinctive chrome Audi "S" mirrors. Inside the seats were a combination of leather and suede, the suede parts ensuring there would be none of the summer sweatiness that leather can create. Trim was a nice perforated titanium. Our test drive revealed little about the car, other than it had some decent power and credible brakes. One week later I found myself in another S4, this one ugly in silver with an all-leather interior with wood trim. Although I wouldn't have bought that particular car, it was close by and offered the opportunity to see how it really performed. The owner tossed me the keys and said "see you in ten minutes". Free of suspicious eyes, I took the car up around Twin Peaks, whose rough asphalt, variety of corners and minimal traffic provided a good venue to see what the 2.7 litre biturbo could do.

Straight off the bat the car exhibited notable turbo lag and I was forced to stay above 4500rpm. This could get very old when looking to accelerate into a gap on the freeway or city streets. The first hairpin told me much about the German's handling: heavy tyre squeel, as the car lolled over onto its sidewalls, protesting all the way. Having said that, it stayed on line - it was just a less than fun way of going quickly. This car's brakes were just as good as the red car's and were one of the highlights of the drive.

The thing is this: for $15,000 (or less) the S4 is a great car. K really liked it, especially the way it balances performance with refinement. My budget stretched further though, and the remaining two cars were just better, goshdarnit. As we mulled the decision over homemade pasta and mussels and a lovely French white, lower scores for external aesthetics and driving dynamics spelled doom for the Audi. Let's be clear however: this was a contender right up to the end.

Second: Volvo S60R: Who would have thought a Volvo would be one of my top two choices? In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised - it was the dark horse of the virtual track test, despite being represented by the front-drive T5 version.

We convened at the South Beach Marina to see a silver '04 S60R. Unlike the majority of Rs, this one came with the optional (albeit mandatory in my book) bodykit, that transformed it from boring family car on kick-ass running gear to impressive sports-sedan. It certainly looked the part, although silver would not be my ideal choice of colour.

A consistent complaint of mine about Volvos is the ugly treatment of centre consoles - they make 'em wide, with lots of space between switches. This one was no different. However the leather seats were comfy, the clocks attractive and the ergonomics good. Once on our way, the first thing I noticed was the very light power steering. This did not bode well for how the car would feel during more spirited driving, especially as the steering wheel itself was a little too thick for comfort. Once onto more deserted streets behind the baseball stadium the R showed its muscle: deep reserves of power, delivered calmly all across the rev range. On the few corners on our test route it had more poise than the Audi, which surprised us at the time since we assumed it to be heavier - later research indicated the Volvo to be marginally lighter. Up onto the freeway all was sedate, plush and effortless. Brakes were decent enough but not worth writing home about.

This particular example had been well-cared for, came with a decent service history and had just firmly established itself as a contender. This is the car we would buy.


...there was no such thing as a Subaru Impreza WRX STi.

We met the 2004 STi's owner at the top of Twin Peaks, with a test route planned out that took in some of San Francisco's best (few / only) drivers' roads. We waited as the clock ticked away before finally the bright white of the Scooby's HID headlights appeared in our mirrors. I'll be honest here: I've always loved the looks of this car - the flared arches, outrageous hood scoop and mad wing for me contribute to a coherent exciting profile. K thinks it's a bit silly and she's probably right. A quick walkaround of this car showed it to be in very nice shape. Time to hop in: we were greeted by a very attractive blue and black interior with the coolest, raciest seats known to man. They were also very comfortable. A twist of the key lit up the lovely red dials and the stock exhaust burbled away with its flat-four exhaust note. I pulled out of the parking lot and started my way down the hill. A stab of the throttle hinted at immense, immediate power, and the next corner promised of mind-bending grip. The run down to the bottom was very entertaining, but it wasn't until we started back up the other side that the blue rocket sealed the deal. The road was wide, empty and straight, so I punched it. I have never, ever felt such speed and power in a four-wheeled vehicle - it was intoxicating, I wanted more and wanted it NOW. Through the next few sweepers the STi remained utterly composed. Halfway up, the route turns right onto a smaller road with much tighter corners. Now we'd learn about grip. Each corner I went faster and faster, before one final hairpin in which I just piled on as much speed as I could. The rally-rep just STUCK. It was the proverbial on-rails experience.

Now it was K's turn. Taking it easy on the first few corners before the road straightened out I wasn't expecting her to pile on the beans quite as soon or as hard as she did. We were screaming down the hill, rushing headlong into a rough hairpin. At the last minute she lay on the fabulous Brembo brakes and all returned to calm. "Hello" I thought, "this might actually be a realistic option". By the end of her drive I could tell - she'd been bitten too.

Just to be sure, I drove a white 2006 STi a couple of days later, and had my mad driving dad check it out too. Performance was identical, but the plain black interior of this white car was less impressive. Still, it was nice to have my initial impressions confirmed.

The Decision
I dashed back on Sunday evening having driven the last of the cars, with no doubt in my mind. I was ready to call and make an offer on the STi there and then. K, in her infinite wisdom, wanted a more methodical approach. So out came the laptops (and wine) and a comparison list was drawn up. Fuel consumption, time to pay off based on the same monthly payments, trunk space, power to weight ratio and subjective ratings of aesthetics and driving dynamics were all analyzed and discussed. Remarkably, almost everything came out even. Yes, the STi has the smallest trunk, and the Audi is the heaviest, but for the most part the comparisons indicated that we were free to pick based on what we wanted, not what we "should" buy. K knew that the Volvo was fighting a losing battle. I asserted that if we bought the S60, I'd experience a twinge of disappointment every time I got in it, thinking that I could have had an STi. The writing was on the wall. With one final flourish in which I had to promise to contribute to the cost of her first track day in the car, the STi was chosen. A call to the owner, an offer, an acceptance and we were good to go.

In three days time, K and I become STi owners, and faster than virtually anything else we come across out on the public roads of America. Lock up your women, children and animals...


Anonymous said...

I remember when you started this.

And I'm sooo pleased you were smitten by Scoobyness (I have a classic, myself).

Enjoy many years of happy, trouble free, motoring.
That's the other thing about them - they're so reliable. In 8 years I've never had a problem until last week the radiator needed replacing. Not bad for 8 years, I thought.

And as for the 'on-rails' thing, someone once told me "if it corners like it's on rails, you're not going fast enough".

While I wouldn't suggest trying it on the road, find yourself a track somewhere and get it unsettled going into a corner to get the back moving - then you can just point the front wheels where you want to go and plant the throttle for some smoky tyre fun!!

Anonymous said...

'anonymous' above should be 'DBT' but for some reason it won't post when I enter it under Name/URL!

Nicebloke said...

Well I already have a 214,000 mile Scooby Legacy, that has proved the sheer robustness of these cars. Glad you've had the same experience with yours!