Thursday, March 18, 2010

Comparison: 2010 Mazdaspeed3 vs 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart vs 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX vs 2010 Volkswagen GTI

"These cars are pretty amazing out here," I said to MT editor-at-large Arthur St. Antoine, as we filled our hatchbacks with Chevron's premium petrol, both of us grinning from ear to ear, still relishing the comedown off adrenaline. He'd been driving the 2010 Mazdaspeed3, I'd been trailing in the 2010 Subaru WRX. From our starting point to our fuel stop 12 miles down the road, it took us all of 10 minutes. Average speed: 78 mph. That may not sound especially brisk, but on the challenging curves of our secret Sport/Utility of the Year test loop in the Santa Ynez Valley, that's a hasty clip.

Every autumn when we drive the year's field of SUVs around this loop, it generally takes our skilled editors about 40 minutes to complete one lap. Crunch the arithmetic -- average speed: 60 mph. As we quickly learned after 12 short miles, sport/utilities, even the nimbler crossovers, are no match for real performance cars -- and sporty, turbocharged ones at that. Not that we didn't already know this fact, mind you. It's simply that we'd only ever driven bulkier and slower SUVs around the circuit, so finally getting to savor attack mode in cars able to blast from 0 to 60 in under five seconds, laterally accelerate at 0.90 g, and erase 60 in 102 feet was about as liberating as sliding into sheepskin slippers after a day in steel-toe boots.

In addition to the Mazda and Subaru, we brought along the all-new Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart and the sixth-generation Volkswagen GTI. The fifth-gen GTI, you may remember, won our last sport-compact shootout, a test that included sedans, hatchbacks, front-drivers, all-wheel-drivers, turbos, and natural aspirators. For this go-'round, though, we invited only turbocharged four-door hatchbacks, in search of the ultimate utility missile. Would the all-new Vee-Dub retain its title? Would the Mazda have the speed to throw an upset? Or would the all-wheel-drive Mitsu and Subaru, for years rally archrivals, be the bearers of bad news to their front-drive foes?

Time for a game of spring chicken.
Rough Around the Edges
In some regards, the Lancer is as sharp as the weapon its namesake brought to battle. The six-speed TC-SST twin-clutch automatic, for instance, is a quick-firing, intuitive gearbox that dispels any wonderment as to why the Ralliart doesn't offer a manual. The steering too is precise, beautifully weighted, and full of feedback. Then there's the utility factor, in which the Mitsu tops all others in cargo capacity with the rear seat down-46.6 cubic feet, to be exact. That's an impressive figure, especially considering the steeply raked C-pillar that signifies the Sportback moniker.

Yet, in other regards, the Lancer's blade is a bit rough around the edges. The 2.0-liter single-scroll-turbo I-4 pulls strong -- 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.2 at 95.9 mph -- but it's a boomy, coarse engine that often sounds overworked.

"Engine is really loud," says St. Antoine. Making things worse is the Ralliart's lack of sound deadening. "Heard and felt lots of road noise and tire slap; the whole car sounds hollow," notes Mortara. Given the Mitsu's porcine 3598-pound curb weight, it's reasonable to assume the car would sound solid and substantial -- not exactly. That curb weight, alas, also impedes handling and braking performance, as the Ralliart imparts a nose-heavy feel that jeopardizes front-end grip.

If it did, the Tri-Diamond would have a title contender on its hands. After all, the Ralliart bakes a lot into its $28,310 base price, notably Bluetooth, automatic climate control, 18-inch alloys, and full-time all-wheel drive with active center differential and front and rear limited slips. Our tester, which had the $2750 Recaro Sport Package -- Recaro seats, Xenon headlamps, Rockford Fosgate audio, and satellite radio -- came competitively priced at $31,060. But to place higher among this stout group, it takes more than just being competitive.

Unsurprisingly, the Lancer puts up the least favorable lateral acceleration (0.84 g), figure eight (26.6 at 0.67 g), and 60-to-0 braking (115 feet). Mitsubishi, it seems, needs to let more of the Lancer Evo goodness trickle down to the Ralliart.

Fuji Hurried Industries
Except for a 2006 Impreza WRX STI sedan and a slammed 350-horse 2008 Cobb Tuning STI, the slightly modified WRX you see here is the quickest Subaru Motor Trend has ever tested. Well, at least to 60, which takes a scant 4.5 seconds. Quarter mile? Will 13.3 at 101.3 mph suffice? Better yet, the WRX isn't any slower to 60 than that '06 STI (it's equally quick) and is only 3/10ths behind at the quarter. And remember: That STI ran a 300-horse flat-four, a six-speed manual, a more advanced all-wheel-drive system, and bigger, stickier rubber.

We mentioned the WRX was slightly modified and here's the deal: Subaru had but one WRX hatchback in fleet and it happened to be fitted with a handful of Subaru Performance Tuning (SPT) parts. Some of the add-ons, such as a $370 front lip spoiler and a $170 STI shift knob, were more aesthetic than functional but most -- $820 cat-back exhaust system (adds roughly 10 horsepower and 10 pound-feet), $295 short-throw shifter, $25 STI shifter bushing, $230 front strut tower brace, $200 lower chassis brace -- played some role in enhancing performance. Compared with the '09 WRX in our last comparison, the '10 SPT delivers superior lateral acceleration (0.89 g versus 0.85) and 60-to-0 braking (102 feet versus 113) at the test track.

Out on our road loop, though, the SPT doesn't feel noticeably different from the standard WRX. The suspension still conveys a comparatively soft nature that is forgiving and compliant, especially over rough patches. There is noticeable roll upon turn-in, but it's moderate, and the car nonetheless delivers ample grip. The turbo flat-four exhibits a little lag below 3000 rpm but otherwise provides abundant power and lively response throughout the rev range. In fact, when spooled up, the growling flat-four pulls stronger than any mill here.

So what kept the WRX from ranking higher? In light of the others', the Subie's helm comes across numb. "Steering is the least sharp of the bunch," says MT road test editor Scott Mortara. The five-speed too, even with the short-shift kit and STI bushing, feels sloppy and rubbery at times and could certainly use a sixth cog for highway duty. As for the interior, St. Antoine notes, "Interior is functional -- good seats, simple controls -- but it looks really dated, with outmoded display fonts and materials." Not that there isn't plenty to love with the WRX (c'mon, 4.5 seconds, anyone?). Mortara, who ranked the WRX second, sums it up: "Who needs an STI with this car around?"

Speed Trap
If the WRX is a slip-sliding rally machine, the Speed3 is a point-and-shoot race car. The Mazda simply feels way more dialed in, ready to consume apexes for breakfast and checkered flags for lunch. There's no slop or slack on the Speed's menu. Sure the suspenders are discernibly tauter -- the downside is a more jarring ride -- but the reward is 0.90 g of lateral grip (best of the group) and a chassis that always feels alive. The body exhibits just a smidge of roll entering a turn, so steering inputs prompt instantaneous response. On-center steering feel is firm and precise, making the Subaru's feel loose and vague in comparison. Further, the standard six-speed manual offers a tightly spaced pattern that borders on Miata slickness, although a couple of us found it too tight on occasion, making it difficult to engage the desired gear.

Power from the 2.3-liter direct-injected turbo is nothing short of impressive -- 263 healthy ponies and 280 prodigious pound-feet-and, as a result, so are acceleration times. Zero to 60 takes only 5.8 seconds, the quarter mile just 14.3 at 98.9 mph. Both put it ahead of the other front-driver, the GTI. Sad to say, with that prodigious torque comes prodigious torque steer. According to Mortara, "Way too much torque steer, making the wheel almost pull from your hands as you try to drive through and exit a corner." Another vice: a highway fuel economy number (25 mpg) that barely surpasses the VW's city figure (24).

Inside, the Mazda delights with a modern, jazzy cockpit replete with Bluetooth phone and audio connections, automatic climate control, and leather-and-cloth seats. Our tester came with the $1895 Tech Package, which adds Bose audio, satellite radio, navigation, and pushbutton start. All said and done, our Speed3 cost just $25,840, or over $2000 less than the Mitsu and Subaru's base prices. So despite a "compact" nav screen that St. Antoine describes as "a bit of a laugher" and that nagging torque steer, the Mazda is one speed trap in which we're happy to get caught. 


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