SUBARU WRX STI, MITSUBISHI EVO AND GOLF R REVIEW
As tested pricing:
Lancer Evolution MR SST: $73,390 (RRP)
WRX STI spec.R automatic: $63,000 (RRP)
Volkswagen Golf R DSG: $61,490 (RRP)
The arrival of an automatic-equipped STI in September 2010 marked the first time that all three were available with a self-shifting gearbox. The question is: which is best, and, does opting for an automatic really dilute the fun factor?
TMR chose to test the highest-grade versions of each car – the STI spec.R, the Evolution MR and a Golf R five-door with nearly every option-box ticked. All have sat-nav, all have leather and all have enough mod-cons to make the daily commute bearable. Most importantly though, all have automatic gearboxes.
We put all of them to the test not only on sinuous mountain roads, but also on congested urban streets. The outcome wasn't as conclusive as we'd like, but each car possessed its own unique advantages – and disadvantages.
Best Mechanical Spec: Lancer Evolution
All three cars have four cylinders, a turbocharger and all-wheel drive underpinnings. Both the Golf R and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution make do with a 2.0 litre displacement, while the WRX STI boasts a 2.5 litre boxer four.
Despite their outward similarities, each powertrain varies significantly in output. The Golf R is the least powerful, with 188kW and 330Nm. The Mitsubishi is next with 217kW and 366Nm, while the Subaru produces 221kW and 350Nm – 50Nm less than a manual-equipped STI.
Both the Golf and the Lancer feature a six speed twin-clutch automatic transmission, with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. The Subaru makes do with a conventional five-speed hydraulic automatic, also with paddle shifters.
The Golf's drivetrain utilises a sophisticated stability control program to shuffle torque between each wheel, with a constantly variable front-rear torque split. The STI's torque split is normally 45:55 front to rear, but is also variable according to road conditions.
Unfortunately, Subaru’s STI automatic misses out on the Driver Control Centre Differential (DCCD) of the manual model, which enables the driver to direct more torque to the front or rear axle via a centre console-mounted switch, and thus induce more (or less) oversteer during cornering.
The Lancer Evolution's S-AWC system can split drive not only front to rear, but right to left. By actively sending more power to the outside wheels, it improves cornering grip markedly. The driver can select from Tarmac, Gravel or Snow modes, which enables greater slip angles and better traction on loose surfaces.
All cars feature a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, with the Golf R we tested also being fitted with the optional Adaptive Chassis Control suspension package.
Best Interior: Golf R
The Golf R has the classiest interior of this bunch, with excellent material quality and a supremely solid build. There's nothing inherently bad about the Mitsubishi's or Subaru's interior design, however they appear down-market in comparison to the Golf's cabin.
The Golf's leather-trimmed seats were preferable to the STI's standard pews (which had good upper body support but poor lateral support in the squab), but were outshone by the deeply-bolstered Lancer Evolution's Recaros.
We prefer the shape of the Evolution's perfectly-concentric and nicely trimmed steering wheel, however lament the lack of telescopic adjustment in the steering column. The Golf's flat-bottomed steering wheel looks cool, but its deep scalloping doesn't work when twirling the wheel from lock to lock.
The Golf R's shift paddles are mounted to the wheel itself, which can cause issues for big-handed drivers. The column-mounted paddles of the STI and Evolution are a more comfortable distance from the wheel.
While the Evolution has the grippiest front seats, they're also the least comfortable in this match-up. The Golf's seats are the best compromise between comfort and performance, while the softer STI's front seats are the easiest to live with in day-to-day driving.
Best Performance: Lancer Evolution
There's no denying it – the Lancer Evolution is easily the best performer. Although it's down 500cc on the Subaru's motor, the Evo's propensity to rev and its physics-bending chassis technology make it the zippiest car over a twisting road.
Its Getrag-built twin-clutch gearbox shifts in the blink of an eye, and the grip from its Dunlop-shod rolling stock is eye-widening. From a perfomance standpoint, the Evolution MR is hard to beat.
The Golf puts up a decent fight mind you, and, despite being the least powerful, it too is impressively rapid on a country backroad. In stark contrast to the Lancer, the Golf R's powertrain is almost lag-free, and the seamless shifts of its DSG gearbox give no interruption to power delivery.
Conversely, the STI is handicapped by its gearbox. Although the Subaru's automatic blips its throttle on downshifts, it's a fraction too slow on upshifts. On any other day we’d be mesmerised by its performance - especially for an auto - but it feels slow in the company of the Evo and Golf R.
It also doesn't feel as 'pointy' as the others, despite riding on the same Dunlop SP Sport 600 rubber as the Evo.
Where the Evo and Golf R enjoy firm, direct steering, the STI's tiller feels over-assisted and a little loose. There's more feedback than the Golf R's over-isolated steering, sure, but the STI's wheel could do with a meatier feel.
Where the STI does excel, however, is in urban driving. The hydraulic auto is easier to live with in start-stop traffic (whereas the Evolution and Golf R's twin-clutch transmissions are not), and the STI's suspension is far more compliant than that of the other two – the Golf R in particular borders on unbearably firm.
Our Verdict | Best Overall: Lancer Evolution
The Golf R is the most well-rounded of the bunch, and, a full $12k less than the Evo (as tested), the best value of these self-shifters. On the flipside, its too stiff for regular street duty (unless you opt for the optional ACC suspension) and the drive experience feels a little sterile.
The self-shifting STI also just misses the mark; it is too heavily compromised by its automatic transmission. That said, for day-to-day driving, it would be our pick. The other two can't match it for overall comfort, and, also a plus, there’s a lot of appeal in its aggressive lines – an important consideration for those laying out $60k-plus on a performance car.
While the Lancer Evolution isn't terribly comfortable thanks to its steering wheel position and firm suspension, it is without doubt the fastest and most satisfying at the wheel. If you want a car that you can drive to work on weekdays and dominate trackdays on weekends, the Lancer Evolution is the car for you.
In terms of whether optioning an automatic transmission spoils the fun, well yes, in the case of the STI and Golf R it does. The STI is immensely quicker with a six-speed manual, and although the Golf R is arguably at its fastest with a DSG bolted to its engine block, the manual is more enjoyable and engaging.
The Evolution’s twin-clutch is the exception. It feels raw, like it was plucked from a racecar and dropped into a streetcar by mistake. That’s part of its appeal though, and we prefer it to the Evo's old-tech five-speed manual.
So, if you’re looking for an auto and racecar performance, Mitsubishi’s twin-clutch SST Evolution gets our nod.