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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Turbo Toyboxes

We must be stupid, or at least masochistic. Aside from the fact that last year's version of this test inspired six pages of madness in our discussion forums, the cars you see in these photos have been involved in some of the most drawn-out and rage-filled threads in Car Lounge history. Yet here we are, checking tire pressures in pit row at Autobahn Country Club. We've brought along last year's winner, the Mazdaspeed3, plus four newcomers. Two of them, like the Mazda, are front-drivers: the Chevrolet Cobalt SS and the Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works. In addition, the Subaru WRX returns with more power, more brakes, and more stiffness, while the new Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart rounds out our all-wheel-drive set. And, of course, all of them have turbos.

A quick disclaimer, because some of you are surely already complaining: This isn't a mega-comparo of every turbocharged monster under $30,000. Our mission is to compare this year's additions to the segment, using our old favorite (the Mazda) as a reference point. This isn't to say the Volkswagen GTI, Dodge Caliber SRT4, or any other car isn't worthy of our time, but only that they aren't new or improved since last year's test. On that same note, all five of the cars we're testing here deliver a rewarding experience. While Motive has its idea of the best one, no car in this group is a real stinker. Here they are, in ascending order.


Best Lap: 1:49.2
Top Speed: 100.2 mph

When the Lancer Evolution arrived in the U.S. for 2003, we Americans finally had access to our first four-door Mitsubishi enthusiast car since the Galant VR-4. But unfortunately, the only way to enjoy one for under $30,000 was to forgo niceties like power windows and a radio. With the current Evo, the buy-in is even higher, opening the door for a 'tweener car to split the difference between that rally star and the pedestrian Lancer. That car, the Lancer Ralliart, nabs parts from each. The all-wheel-drive components come from the last-generation Evo, while the engine is a less powerful version of the Evo X's. Using a single-scroll turbocharger, the boost comes on earlier but doesn't produce the same eye-watering surge of power. The Ralliart's seats can come from either car, with the Lancer GTS seats as standard and the Evo's Recaros offered as an option. The GTS also donates wheels to the Ralliart, though the Yokohama Advan tires are specific to the new model. Other than bumpers, taillights, and an aluminum hood, the Ralliart is the base Lancer's body double, losing the Evo's box flares and big spoiler.

Mitsubishi's PR department readily admits that even with the Evo's all-wheel drive, the Ralliart is better described as a faster Lancer, not a baby Evo, and out on the track we see why. Of the five cars, the Ralliart is both the most prone to understeer and the one car that won't rotate no matter how rude the driver's inputs. A better set of tires might help the situation, but we think the problem could be more complicated than that. In any event, this certainly isn't a cheap Evo, but it is a pretty nice Lancer.

The one remaining bit of Evo hardware in the Ralliart not yet mentioned is the transmission, a dual-clutch automated manual borrowed from the top-level Evo MR. The Ralliart doesn't get the quickest of the MR's three shift settings, and it also doesn't get the hidden launch control capability. This is all part of the Ralliart's mission not to steal the Evo's thunder. However, this engine's better low-rev performance is a nicer match for the transmission — due to the Evo's lack of power under 3000 rpm, the tranny tends to struggle through engagement in the lower part of the rev range. Still, the automated clutch doesn't grab first gear very smoothly, which can get a bit tiring in stop-and-go situations. On the track, shifts snap by unnoticed and the transmission works flawlessly, though the gearing seems too short — the Ralliart needs fifth gear pretty often on a track where the other cars only see fourth once or twice. At least the 237-hp 2.0-liter makes impressive power, making the car feel nearly as quick as, and more linear than, the test's other all-wheel-drive car, the WRX. Its steering feels sharper than that car's, too.

Unfortunately, the Ralliart exhibits more flaws than the rest of the pack, and with the $2750 Recaro package (Recaro seats, HID headlights, Rockford Fosgate stereo, a six-disc changer, and satellite radio) it is also the second most expensive car here. At least those Recaros are the best seats of the group. In addition to the understeer, the Ralliart's brakes are a letdown — after half a day on the track, its fresh front pads are already spent and the pedal is near the floor before the brakes finds friction. The rotors, 11.6-inch vented up front and 11.9-inch solid at the rear, are borrowed from the Outlander crossover. They have more stopping power than a base Lancer's for sure, but these SUV brakes weren't engineered for extensive torture.

The way we see it, a few minor adjustments would make this newcomer a major player: tires and some suspension balance to dial down the understeer; a manual-transmission option to drive down the price; and a brake upgrade for anyone planning to give the Ralliart track time. As it stands, the Ralliart is a good, comfortable, all-weather street performer, but it needs more of the Evo's demon spirit out on the track.


Best Lap: 1:48.6
Top Speed: 101.9 mph

Subaru's WRX has had the affordable-but-fun all-wheel-drive-sedan segment all to itself since it arrived here, so it goes without saying that Mitsubishi saw the 2008 WRX as the car to beat. And the Ralliart does beat that car in most quantifiable ways — power, comfort, speed, and technology. But unfortunately, it'll compete against the 2009 WRX.

Instead of 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque, the 2009 engine, thanks to a larger turbo and more free-flowing exhaust, makes 265 hp and 244 lb-ft. Instead of last year's 205/50R17 all-season tires, the 2009 WRX wears 225/45R17 Dunlop SP Sport 01s. In addition, the '09 gets larger diameter anti-roll bars, higher spring rates, and firmer dampers. Mitsubishi probably wasn't expecting all that.

Those changes were good enough to give our 2008 WRX's track figures a kick in the pants, boosting the car's top speed by three mph to 101.9 mph and our cutting our best lap time to 1:48.6, down from 1:50.6 last year. (While we tested a sedan last year and a hatch this year, Subaru claims a meager one-pound difference between the two models — 3174 pounds for the sedan, 3175 for the hatch.) We praised the WRX last year for its neutral chassis, and the '09 model remains impressive, only without the feeling that the car's willingness to rotate might put it on its roof. The engine's newfound power is equally welcomed, though it still lacks fire at the low end.

The 2009 updates turn a decent car into a very good one, but the WRX still has some personality quirks we can't get used to. The engine's power delivery resembles that of a rubber band — pull it back, and watch out. The suspension has been firmed up, but the damping could be firmer still, and the loose steering — good for rally cross drifts but not for track attacks — could be tighter as well. The shifter is the most vague of the bunch and occasionally rejects an overly hasty attempt to find second gear. The brakes aren't quite as weak as the Lancer's, but they aren't much better, either.

Halfway through our testing, discussion of a winner is premature, but we've unanimously decided on a split through the middle of the bunch, with the three front-drivers fighting for an overall win and the two pseudo-rally cars duking it out amongst themselves. Certainly, if this test took place in December the story would be different. But on a snowless October day, the two cars driving all four wheels just aren't as rewarding on the track or the street. That's not to say that the drive configuration is to blame — all-wheel drive can certainly pay dividends toward solid lap times — but suspension issues are (the Mitsubishi's understeer, the Subaru's softness). Among these two, the WRX slightly edges out the Ralliart. The Mitsubishi is far more attractive, plus its power band, transmission, (optional) seats, and mellow everyday dynamics have the edge on the Subaru, while braking is a wash. The Subaru is more visceral, more mechanical and communicative, and the peak engine performance reaches higher. The tiebreaker? The Subaru is offered in a more useful five-door shape, has a $1500 lower base price, and comes standard with sport seats, while the Recaro package drives the Ralliart's price close to $30,000.


Best Lap: 1:48.1
Top Speed: 102.9 mph

Mazda's segment-owning turbo king has fallen. And what good timing, considering the next generation Mazda3 is set to debut in just a few weeks. While we managed to shave some time off last year's hottest lap, the Mazda's new best of 1:48.1 falls back to third place behind the Mini and the Chevrolet. Driving the Mazdaspeed hard is a comfortable, easy experience that could make a first-timer feel like it is his daily driver. The Cobalt and the Cooper take more getting used to, and even at the end of a full day at Autobahn we feel as if we could have still shaved tenths off our times in those two. The Mazda finds its limits slightly faster and is overcome by understeer before the situation gets messy.

Because it is so predictable, the Mazdaspeed3 can be driven the most consistently. Its steering feels numb and over-assisted next to the Mini and Chevy, but the car is simple to place right on an apex with a hint of trailbrake-induced rotation to set up the exit. Getting back on the throttle, the Mazda has the shortest downtime while the turbo re-spools, and all 263 horses seem to be available any time the clutch pedal isn't depressed.

Among these five, the Mazdaspeed3 is the best example of a car that's been engineered as an entire package — it really does present a unified personality. The smooth, quick power delivery is complemented by quick (if soft) steering, shifter and clutch action that matches both, and brakes that stop the car as consistently as the engine pulls it forward. The cabin feel, too, can be described as having a softened sportiness. The seats are supportive under heavy lateral G loads, but comfortable over the long haul.

The Mazda's interior and exterior styling don't hint at the fact that this car is rather elderly. The look is still modern and refined. We still applaud Mazda for offering it only in five-door form and only with a manual transmission, forcing buyers to chose a car that offers both the maximum involvement and maximum space efficiency. But in the end, the Mazda has been made to seem dull by two newer, sharper machines. The most notable chink in its armor is its limited-slip differential — and perhaps the Bridgestones it wears — which doesn't seem to put the power down as forcefully as the Cobalt's. Its inside tire spins a bit on exits, while the Cobalt's limited-slip delivers more mechanical feedback into the cabin and less smoking rubber. No worries, though — a next-generation Mazdaspeed was just spied at the 'Ring last week. We can't wait for its debut in Turbo Toyboxes, Part Three.


Best Lap: 1:45.3
Top Speed: 104.5 mph

To paraphrase a lyric from the band Spoon, if you have no fear of the underdog, then you will not survive. The Cobalt SS is one of the most dangerous underdogs around, wearing an exterior design that is the legacy of countless Cavaliers sold through the nineties and into the current decade. But this version of every GM employee's favorite soft-spoken compact doesn't just carry a big stick, it carries a Looney Tunes–sized baseball bat. Using a 260-hp, 2.0-liter, direct-injection Ecotec and a suspension that you've no doubt heard is Nürburgring-proven, the Cobalt serves up both the highest top speed and the fastest lap time of the day. Amid rumors of a Chrysler/GM merger, we can't help but think the Cobalt SS is a far better successor to the Neon SRT4 than the crossover-like Caliber SRT4. Yes, its cheapness shows through in some of the cabin materials, but it more than makes up for that with a feeling of lightness and brute power. Want some stats to back up our declaration of the Cobalt's greatness? The Chevrolet turns its Autobahn lap just under a second faster than the Mini, its closest competitor. The rest of the pack, including last year's winner, eats 2.8 to 3.9 seconds of Cobalt dust.

The Cobalt doesn't dance like a featherweight (as the Mini does), but consider how much each car weighs: The Mini comes in at 2701 pounds, the Chevy at 3012 (2975 for a coupe), and the Mazda at 3153, or nearly as much as the all-wheel-drive Subaru. Take the Cobalt hot into a corner and the rear lightens but never hints that it might come around, something that can't be said for the lighter, shorter-wheelbase Mini. On exit, the Cobalt's $495 limited-slip proves its worth, sending the power to the ground almost as well as the two all-wheel-drive cars.

Those aren't the only things that deliver the Cobalt's best-in-test speed, though. The SS benefits from the most contact with the ground, courtesy of four 225/40R18 Continental ContiSportContact2 tires. It also has the most torque (260 lb-ft at 2000 rpm) and ties the Mini for the most impressive braking force. Thank Brembo for both — the Cobalt uses 12.4-inch front rotors and 11.5-inchers at the rear, while the smaller Mini manages with 12.4- and 11.0-inch units, respectively. Using all those parts, the Cobalt muscles its way around the track like it was raised by a wild pack of Corvette ZR1s. That lap time you see here is just two seconds shy of the Lexus IS-F we tested at this same track in July. It's the perfect way to shame your rich friend into un-popping the collar on his pink polo.

The Cobalt's Ecotec engine is thoroughly enjoyable on streets as well, and we find ourselves using the throttle to spool and de-spool the turbo just for fun. Noticeable torque steer can be induced by plunging into the throttle mid-turn, but it's no worse than in the Mini or the Mazda. All three cars ride the same thin line of discomfort over bad roads, but the Chevrolet's GM Performance–designed seats take the brunt better than all but the Lancer's Recaros. The same praise can't be lavished on the shifter, which feels cheap and clunky but is better than the Subaru's. As a whole, the cabin reflects the Cobalt's lowest as-tested price. For $2500 more, our fully loaded Mazda has navigation and HID headlights, plus more space and a better design.


Best Lap: 1:46.2
Top Speed: 104.7 mph

Talking price might not be the best transition into our top pick, because it isn't cheap. But we'll just come right out with it: We aren't that rational. The John Cooper Works is a touch slower than the Cobalt SS; has a base price hovering just under $30,000; and is only suitable as a family car if you happen to come from a bloodline of midgets or clowns. But it's the one car here that can inspire laughs, smiles, and arm flailing from even our most serious editors. It's a blast on the back straight between turns 10 and 11, it's a blast through the front 1-2-3 hairpin, and it's a blast sitting still in pit lane while the brakes spew smoke. It is even fun sitting in Chicago gridlock. The JCW is everything we've liked about Minis taken to the next level. If we were rational folk, we'd declare the Chevrolet the winner for the sake of its dollar/performance ratio, but none of us can admit that we wouldn't pawn a few possessions or hold up a convenience store to raise the extra cash for the John Cooper Works. It's so entertaining on both the road and track that it makes the other four cars seem almost Camry-like by comparison. There's a JCW Clubman, too, if you're willing to spend even more dough for the extra wheelbase.

The key to the Mini's lively personality is its ability to do more with less. The retuned Cooper S 1.6-liter under the hood makes an extra 36 hp and 15 lb-ft of torque, but at 208 and 192, respectively, those are easily the lowest figures among these cars. Yet look at the track results, and you'll see that the Mini hit the highest top speed and recorded the second-fastest lap of the day. Much of that is due to the JCW's huge weight advantage, but it's also the confident brakes that don't mind being squeezed hard and late. Credit also the ContiSportContact3 SSRs — tires similar to those on the Cobalt, only slightly smaller (205/45R17) — and the sharp chassis, both of which allow elevated speeds in corners. The steering is the most direct of the group and the throttle responds quickly when the "Sport" button is triggered. The Mini provides constant and direct feedback through all of its controls and the free-flowing JCW exhaust spits and burbles and guffaws to further heighten the sensory experience. Said one of our drivers, an active racer of his first-gen Cooper S, "This is everything I want my Mini to be."

The JCW's suspension tuning is spot-on, making it the industry's current front-drive chassis benchmark. But like a lot of very entertaining track cars, it also requires constant focus. Lift quickly going into a corner and the back of its short, 97.1-inch wheelbase will jump right over your shoulder. Similarly, standing on the brakes will make the rear end jiggle, though both situations are easily controllable with gentle modulation. And both help deter understeer, saving the front tires and asking less of the electronic differential lock control, which works fairly well but lacks the mechanical clawing of the Cobalt's true limited slip.

The Mini isn't without its flaws, of course. We're still not crazy about its Flava Flav speedometer or the fact that the volume knob is six inches from the rest of the radio controls. Additionally, the JCW's speed and handling overwhelm the pod-like seats, which carry over from the Cooper S. Being tossed sideways isn't quite as much fun when there's no lateral support there to catch you.


So there you have it. If you want the most thoroughly entertaining turbo compact out there, buy the Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works. Unlike the first-generation JCW, an expensive dealer-installed kit that only added minimal performance, Mini's first attempt to establish its own from-the-factory performance model is a hands-down success. It's a sensory explosion wrapped in an adorable little package. Unfortunately, it's also still an expensive little package, especially when you consider options. But hey, it uses the least fuel, so think of it as an investment. For the highest speed-per-dollar content, Chevrolet's Cobalt SS is impossible to beat. It's a perfect example of the type of performance GM is capable of when a dedicated team of engineers gets the resources it needs. The fit-and-finish isn't perfect — evidence that all the time and money went into speed, not prettiness. Both the Mini and the Chevy have caught up to and passed the Mazdaspeed3, but that's no reason to stick yours out on the front yard with a "Make Offer" sign in the window. The 'speed3 is still the most refined way to go fast on a budget if you don't mind getting beaten by a Cobalt. We wish the car a fond farewell as it leaves the market in the coming months. The Subaru and Mitsubishi both lack some of the assets of our top three picks (brakes, mostly) but either would be a good choice in northern climates or if your morning commute involves winding gravel roads. Of the two, the Mitsubishi is more subtle and relaxed in nature, but it's also pricier. The Subaru is the more entertaining choice, but it sacrifices looks and chassis composure. But rest assured — the battle between all theses cars has just begun. See you next year; same time, same place.