01-27-10 - GTI and WRX test drive

So my practical side wanted me to drive some cheap cars. My criterion was : reasonably fun to drive, hatch back with big enough boot to fit a bicycle, small enough to be a nifty city driver (eg. easy to parallel park, easy to dodge shopping carts in parking lots, and it should cost less than $25k. So I decided to check out the GTI and WRX. (you might question the omission of the Mazdaspeed 3 - in most head to heads that I've seen, the GTI beats the 3, also the VW and Subaru dealers are right next door to each other and the Mazda guy is way the fuck somewhere else, so he got left out). (also sadly, the wide variety of other "hot hatch" options that are available in Europe don't exist over here; for example, oddly, the good Ford Focus RS does not exist here, even though the Mazda 3 is actually a Focus, and the Volvo C30 is also a Focus !).

The GTI : right away the fit & finish is very impressive. The interior feels a lot like a BMW, everything clicks and fits perfectly, it feels solid; the steering wheel is just like a modern BMW wheel (thick and mushy) which IMO is not a great thing but people seem to love that. Headroom is plenty for a 6'2" man, the seats fit pretty well, and has a nice lumbar adjustment even in the manual seat. I like the feel of the cloth seats and the option of cloth is a big plus. The rear cargo room is not awesome, but you could fit a bike with front wheel off. One annoyance in the GTI interior is the fucking touch screen radio which is not optional; god damn computers in cars are such rubbish, give me regular buttons you morons.

Driving the GTI : whoah holy laggy throttle response batman. Again this is just like modern BMW's, but in a bad way. It's literally disconcerting if you glue your eyes to the RPM meter and pulse the gas pedal, it just lags by a solid second. It's like they're running a low-pass delay filter on your gas pedal inputs. I guess this is partly due to the small turbo (again similar to modern BMW's). You don't really ever feel a big turbo kick, what you feel is just a slight mushy lag in the power. Once it does come in, there's plenty of power, it feels pretty light and fast (even though it's not actually light at all), just because it's nice and small. It feels nifty; visibility is very good, steering feel is good, not great (though my standards are a bit distorted since I've been driving Porsches). Handling is generally nice though it has somewhat disturbing understeer when you corner fast. There's torque all over the rev range, which really is just a bit annoying to me because it means I don't have to downshift to punch it which removes some of the fun feel of a manual. The clutch is super easy to use, but that makes it numb and soft, it's got tons of travel and it's not clear where the engagement is exactly; again it feels like a lowpass has been run over it; it's sort of like you're just stomping your foot in pudding and after your food it out of the pudding you've shifted. The ride is amazingly smooth for how tight the body is, they've really sorted that well; it doesn't roll much at all through turns, but it also smooths out road bumps better than mushy cars like the Versa for example - again this is very similar to modern BMW's.

Conclusion on the GTI : very polished small semi-fast car, I like it a lot. As a city car with a bit of cargo room and enough power and handling to be fun, it's excellent. In tight traffic and city conditions I think this is the best of any car I've driven the whole time. If I had to just drive around downtown Seattle, I would want this car. For a real sporty car, it's a bit lacking; the understeer is a sad inevitability of FWD, the steering is not quite as raw as I'd like, and worst of all the throttle lag is very disconcerting, overall it just feels a tiny bit too softened, I'd like everything tighter by one notch.

(BTW on FWD and understeer : the Honda Prelude ATTS system had this completely sorted back in '98 ; they spin the front wheels independently, so in a turn the outside wheel spins faster, and you can actually accelerate through turns to turn *harder*, unlike normal FWD ; you can always apply the right amount of torque to get perfectly neutral steering if you can find the right amount of gas for the curve. It was fantastic, and yet nobody else has adopted it, I would love to see it in every FWD car. Whoah check out this awesome ATTS Manual ; see page 18-19 ).

The WRX hatchback is actually much bigger than the GTI when you see them both in person. I hated the WRX hatchback when it first came out (like everyone), but you know, now I actually like it better than the old WRX sedan; the shape is actually sportier looking, and the retarded hood scoop is much smaller, almost tolerable now. It's also quite practical, the rear cargo space is much bigger than the GTI, in fact it's almost as big as the old WRX station wagons. The fit & finish is much worse than the GTI; it's a lot louder and rattly on the road. It feels mushier in corners, with more body roll, but you can gas through corners more aggressively, and actually gas your way out of understeer a bit.

The turbo on the WRX is a totally different beast from the GTI's ; it's much bigger, takes longer to spin up, and then when it does it has way more punch; the WRX still has that old fashioned turbo car feel, at low RPM when you start it up you're like "omg get going, where is the power?" and then it kicks in and you go "oh, there it is!" ; when it does kick, it really does kick (apparently it now has 265 hp and does 0-60 in around 5 sec which is pretty amazing for a car this cheap - hmm they must get that number with a really hot launch). It kicks sooner than in the older WRX, but it's just nothing like the turbos the Germans are making now. That number is faster than a Cayman, but the cayman feels faster to me because it's lower and stiffer; still there's no doubt that when the turbo kicks in the WRX it feels like you just activated the afterburners in your jet and you can't help smiling or perhaps giggling. One nice thing about the WRX turbo is does reward the driver for shifting correctly to keep it in the power band (though that required you to interact with the annoyingly clutch).

The WRX actually feels less "sporty" even though it's a lot faster; it feels heavier even though GTI and WRX are almost the same weight despite the WRX being much bigger (I guess all that extra weight in the GTI is in shocks and sound dampening, and metal interior bits instead of plastic ones). In theory the GTI gets good gas mileage while the WRX does not, but I'm sure both would get terrible mileage in my hands.

The clutch and shifter are just awful; the clutch travels way too far and it's impossible to find where the gear engagement is; the shifter is way too long and rattles all over and vibrates in your hand uncomfortably. It's just rubbish. On a test drive of course I couldn't really push the WRX, but I could feel it had loads of capability, it would be fun to get to know it and try to toss it around. The WRX seats are not ideal (no lumbar and a bit of a weird bucket curve for the spine) but they're definitely tolerable.

Obviously the WRX is AWD ; it's unclear how useful that actually is vs FWD. Also for those familiar with the WRX redesign, apparently the 2008 one was rubish, but now it's good again. I dunno, I didn't drive the 2008 but this one is good, in fact there's no reason to get an STI anymore because the WRX spec is so close to it now and it's way cheaper.


Aaron said...

The Taint, hahah.

A friend has the GTI, I've driven it a few times. I didn't even know it was a fast car!!! He has the automatic version (so pretty much like Ryan's 1-series), and I totally agree, that car is very similar to the 1. Those germans really seem to know nothing about automatic transmissions. I can never get the GTI to accelerate properly. I tip the throttle, nothing nothing nothing, then BAM off it goes. Wtf, non-linear. Merging with that thing onto the freeway I've flogged it a bit, but somehow I just never feel like it has any power. Maybe I was doing it wrong. I'm actually super un-impressed with the finish in that car. The buttons are horrid clickly sqeaky plastic. It has that terrible 'three-blink' turn signal thingy. But, my biggest complaint about the gti was that it just doesn't feel fast driving it around. I feel like I'm being mean to it to make it go, like the engine weights 2000 pounds and I really have to hammer the throttle to get something out of it. But then, I get back into the Odyssey and that feels way faster even though it can't possibly be (like you've said before, torque is king). Driving Ryan's older WRX was way more fun than the gti for me. Part of that may have been that the wrx was a true manual and the gti was automatic... and again, maybe I was doing it wrong. I've also driven a Mazda 3 (but not the mazda-speed) and it feels a lot like the gti to me. The engine feels like it weighs a bajillion pounds. It does GO if you really force it to. My friend with the GTI, his wife has an older Impreza (the Sport, with the round headlights, with a true manual transmission). That car feels faster to me than the (obviously much faster on paper) GTI... the engine is just lighter feeling and more willing to spin up and go. I agree about the styling of the newer WRX. I feel like I'm supposed to hate it because everyone is saying they don't like it, but I actually like it better than the older ones too.

Aaron said...

To clarify, Ryan's 1 makes up for the non-linear automatic throttle response (in the way I was driving it anyway, which was probably *wrong*) with massive engine power. The engine in the 1 seemed light-feeling and powerful enough to make up for the weird feeling I get from the transmission. Teh GTI/1/3 all do this weird thing with their automatic though where first gear feels like it just istn' there. Like it's just sorta spinning the engine for fun but not letting you go anywhere, but then you press the gas to go, and something changes and my brain turns inside out.

Tom Forsyth said...

Note that the European Focus is a very different car to the US Focus. They are going to consolidate them soonish, but right now it's a similar-looking body on a fairly different base. That said, the US Focus is still pretty decent.

I has a Mazda 3 rental for a while and was shocked to actually enjoy driving a rental. And the Mazdaspeed version is FAST.

> Obviously the WRX is AWD ; it's unclear how useful that actually is vs FWD.

OK, my other car is absurdly impractical in any sort of low-grip situation, but the WRX has proved absolutely unstoppable. Remember when it snowed like a bastard last year? The WRX didn't - barely even noticed it - not once did it slide or wobble or even break a sweat even on 20-degree gradients with virgin snow.

I assume the mushy suspension on the WRX is because of its rally pedigree, and it's great if you drive along dirt tracks hiking or looking for birds, so we never played with ours. You can get very affordable kits (basically just a thicker anti-roll bar) that firm it up.

cbloom said...

"Remember when it snowed like a bastard last year? The WRX didn't - barely even noticed it - not once did it slide or wobble or even break a sweat even on 20-degree gradients with virgin snow."

Yeah, there's no doubt that it would have been awesome in that situation, but that was a freak rare snow, so you have to weight that utility by probability. In that same storm I drove the Prelude around Seattle and did fine - FWD in the snow is really not that bad (the problem I always have is clearance, not grip).

I guess the big win is that in the WRX I would try things that I wouldn't even try in a FWD car, like driving mountain roads in winter.

cbloom said...

"The buttons are horrid clickly sqeaky plastic."

Hmm that's funny, maybe the new Mark 6 is better, I thought it was comparable to BMW interior quality.

"It has that terrible 'three-blink' turn signal thingy"

God I fucking hate those things. Turn signals should be a lever you move up and down not a damn digital button.

The GTI actually has nice power, and the suspension and steering are pretty close to perfect for a city car, the only huge problem is the mushy and laggy throttle.

AndrewM said...

" the only huge problem is the mushy and laggy throttle"

Not saying that this is a great idea when buying a new car that _should_ go fast, but can these things (GTI) be chipped?

I chipped my old car (nissan), and it made a huge difference..

cbloom said...

"Not saying that this is a great idea when buying a new car that _should_ go fast, but can these things (GTI) be chipped?"

Yeah it looks like there are chips for the old models but not one for the new model yet.

Also presumably you can buy aftermarket seats for the 3, but it sucks to buy a car which you have to fix right away. (also chipping voids warranty)

old rants