This is your future.
This story was originally published in our October 2014 issue
I shall not dwell on the politics of abandoning our indigenous car-building industry, nor will I bore you with my views on losing home-grown performance heroes over the next year or two. But I will say, again, welcome to the future of performance cars.
I’m reminded of this as I drone up the Hume Highway towards Heathcote Park dragstrip, purely because the last few times I’ve made this trek it’s been in a large-capacity, local V8, with the plan to run it down the strip and write down some numbers. Not this time. Maybe not ever again.
Cars like the Golf GTI and Renault Megane 265, meantime, are the future. They’re the cars you and I and any other Aussie performance fan will be buying because, soon, they’ll be the best fast cars you can get for sensible money – if they’re not already.
Affordable mid-sized cars at the moment don’t seem to offer a hi-po proposition (since the demise of the Mazda 6 MPS, anyway) and the tiddlers are entertaining, but don’t offer the size and space most would list as a minimum requirement.
In the past, we were able to forgive the Golf GTI its DSG foibles and the Renault its wayward ergonomics because we all looked at these things as toys (well, some of us, anyway). But now that they’re about to become a bigger player to all men and women with a need for speed, can we continue to cut them this slack?
More specifically, with the latest updates to each vehicle, do those shortfalls even exist anymore? It’s a big responsibility, I tells ya.
The VW Golf GTI has been updated recently, moving from a one- to a two-model line-up. The base GTI remains and the new kid is placed one rung up. Say hello to the GTI Performance. It sits somewhere between the GTI and the all-wheel-drive Golf R, but in essence it’s a hotted-up GTI because it’s still front-wheel drive. Think Scirocco R with extra doors (and slightly less power).
For $4000 on top of the basic GTI’s price, the Performance package gets you R-spec brakes with 340mm rotors up front and 310mm down back, up 28mm and 10mm respectively over the GTI’s stoppers. Inside, you get Alcantara trim pieces for the tartan seats, the bi-Xenon headlights and LED tail-lights from the Golf R and another 7kW under the hood (for a total of 169kW).
Unlike in Europe, the local Performance is only available with the six-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission rather than the conventional three-pedal job.
But the biggest news is the addition of an electronically-controlled mechanical limited-slip front diff, replacing the mechanical version. VW says the computer-controlled diff interfaces with the car’s ESP and other electronic traction aids and leads to a quicker, more accurate distribution of torque to the wheel with most grip, including the ability to funnel 100 per cent of drive to one wheel if conditions warrant it.
If you’ve driven one of these big-torque tail-draggers on a track and found yourself waiting for the diff to lock up before you can get on the noise, you’ll understand why faster is better.
While VW has been busy expanding its GTI range, Renault has gone the other way, shrinking the Megane Sport 265 to a two-car line-up. Specifically, the Trophy and Trophy Plus models have been combined into this car, now called the Premium Cup.
Changes are thin on the ground and amount to a new nose, a revised info interface and the addition of stop-start tech. But to write the Megane 265 off just because it isn’t radically different is a big mistake, because this thing has shone every time we’ve sat behind the wheel.
First stop, Heathcote Park dragstrip and I’m curious to see what, if any difference the new diff makes to the Golf’s habit of axle-tramping like a demented jackhammer. None, as it turns out. This also makes launch control useless because it’s not grip that limits things, it’s how far into the bump-stops the front end is pummelling itself. Am I glad these ain’t my driveshafts!
The trick, it turns out, is to ignore the launch control stuff and try to walk the car off the line with a progressive tip-in.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds with the DSG gearbox, but if you fluke it, you’ll get a 14.8 second pass at about 160 kliks. Leave the car to its own devices and that time will blow out to about 15-dead as the axle tramp confuses the tyres and leaves you high and dry.
Into the Renault and you’re suddenly aware the French car has a fair bit more top-end thrust and extra willingness to tag the limiter (there’s a little light and a chime that goes off milliseconds before the ignition cut steps in). And, it’s a manual which, unusually, makes it easier to launch.
It axle-tramps, too, but you can feed the clutch and power in together, wait ’til the clutch and tyres have bitten and then feed it some more jandal (thank you Scotty Mac). Again, it’s a balancing act to get it j-u-s-t right, but if you do, say hello to 14.6 seconds at 161.6km/h. Nought to 100 takes 6.7 versus the VW’s 6.8, so it’s only the extra top-end rush that’s the difference.
On the road, there’s a little more to separate them, purely because the Renault is spinning harder in top gear (2300rpm versus 1800rpm) so it has more snap when you hold sixth and clog on.
The Renault’s mill is also a bit smoother both in outright terms and just ambling along.
The VW feels a bit grumpy at times because it’s overly keen to get into a taller gear sooner (to nail a fuel consumption number, no doubt). True, you can move the drive-mode to Sport, but then it’s too manic for the road and wants to hold each gear to redline – useless in a Safeway car park.
Brakes? About line-ball. Stopping distances were within 10cm of each other, but the Megane’s binders were smoking bad after just one panic stop, and the feel through the pedal was less reassuring than the Golf’s.
But if you want to talk feel, then let’s discuss steering. Okay, so VW has had a better handle on electric power-steering than anybody else at this end of the market for years.
Nothing’s changed. The Renault’s not bad, but it’s assisted by electricity rather than hydraulics and there’s a distinct smell of rigor-mortis at the straight ahead. Tip it in and it brightens up, but even then, there’s an artificial feel.
In isolation, you mightn’t grizzle, but jump from the Megane into the Golf and it’s a revelation. The GTI not only feels lighter through the tiller, there’s better off-centre response and heaps more realism to the experience.
And the Golf’s tricky diff? Well, if you need a reason to spend another $4000 on a VW hatch, this diff is it. Jam the Renault into a corner and its front-end bites initially in a way most front-drive cars will only dream about.
But you still have to wait not just for the apex, but the point where you’ve really started to wind the lock off again before you get into the throttle. Impatience will provide you with a spinning inside wheel, mucho smoke and a single neat black line. It’s still good, but it’s not perfect.
The GTI, though, rewrites the book on this stuff. You can still make it wash wide under centrifugal force if you enter a roundabout too quick, but once you’ve got the thing lined up with the apex, you can bang home the juice with a fair bit of abandon. If you’ve overdone it, you’ll feel a slight hesitation as the traction control detects a looming crash.
But instead of pulling the pin on the fuel and spark right there, the VW goes to Plan B which is to have the ESC tell the diff to get off its butt and shift anything up to 100 per cent of the torque to the outside wheel. At which point the power comes on hot and strong and the car drives itself around its inside front wheel. Brilliant.
This is a big call, but, blindfolded, even good drivers would have trouble figuring which end of the GTI is doing the driving. Here come the internet haters, but you can all get stuffed, because this is the bomb when it comes to grunty front-drive layouts. Try it for yourself and tell me I’m wrong.
Why it works is simple: post-apex understeer in a car like this is a function of too much grunt and not enough grip. Traditionally, ESC systems have fixed it by limiting the grunt side of the equation. The new GTI comes from the other direction and fixed the grip element, allowing the grunt to remain. And because of the diff-electronics interface, it happens much faster in this set-up. You’ll be seeing more of this.
On the road, both cars have a fair bit of ride compromise thanks to sidewall-less 19-inch tyres (Dunlops on the VW, Contis on the Ren). Even setting the driver mode to comfort in the Golf doesn’t help much – at least the German is sensible in its layout and specification.
Not so our French friend. It’s ergonomics are sketchy to say the least. The seat-belt warning light, for instance, is recessed into the info-pod deep enough that it can’t be seen from the driver’s seat. Rear vision is about as limited as a hatchback could ever be. The gauges are canted forward for no good reason.
At normal operating temperature, the needle on the temp gauge obscures the temp symbol, leaving you wondering what that gauge is reading. The cruise-control main switch is in the centre console between the seats and needs to be turned off so sports mode can be selected. There is one cup holder but it’s proportioned and positioned such that it’s not worthy of the name. I could go on.
On the other hand, the Golf’s boot is smaller (although the opening is bigger) and Renault has the better looking seats (but they’re both good to sit in) and a conventional park-brake.
But seriously, drive both in the right circumstances and the Golf GTI Performance reveals itself the better gadget if only because of that diff. There’s no huge dollar advantage going French, either, with a $47,990 sticker for the Megane and the GTI’s windscreen bearing a $48,490.
Like I said at the start of this, welcome to the future. Turns out it ain’t so bad after all.
|Volkswagen Golf GTi Performance||Renault Megane RS 265 Premium Cup|
|Body||4-door, 5-seat hatch||2-door, 5-seat hatch|
|Engine||1984cc, inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo||1998cc, inline-4, DOHC, 16v , turbo|
|Bore/Stroke||82.5 x 92.8mm||82.7 x 93.0mm|
|Power||169kW @ 4700-6200rpm||195kW @ 5500rpm|
|Torque||350Nm @ 1500-4600rpm||360Nm @ 3000rpm|
|0-100km/h||5.8sec (tested)||5.9sec (tested)|
|Top speed||255km/h (tested)||248km/h (tested)|
|Consumption||6.4L/100km (claimed)||7.5L/100km (claimed)|
|CO2 Emissions||149g/km (claimed)||174g/km (claimed)|
|Transmission||6-speed DSG||6-speed manual|
|Suspension||struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)||struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)|
|Tracks||1538/1516mm (f/r)||1588/1545mm (f/r)|
|Steering||electrically-assisted rack and pinion||electrically-assisted rack and pinion|
|Brakes||340mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (f); 310mm discs, single-piston calipers (r)||340mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (f); 290mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r)|
|Wheels||19 x 7.5-inch (f/r)||19 x 8.25-inch (f/r)|
|Tyres||225/35 R19 Dunlop Sport Maxx GT (f/r)||235/35 R19 Continental ContiSportContacts (f/r)|
|Positives||Takes the GTI concept to a whole new dimension; new hatch king||Still one of the best front drivers there’s ever been; faster than GTI|
|Negatives||Can’t have a manual; firm ride on 19s||Can be tiring day-to-day|