To quickly recap where I had last left off, my list was narrowed down to about 8 options in need of a test drive with a few early favorites among them:
- New VW Alltrack, GTI, or Golf R
- New Subaru WRX (already test driven) or STi
- New Genesis G70
- CPO BMW 335i/340i xDrive
- CPO Audi A4/S4
- New/CPO MINI Clubman (S or JCW) All4
After many years of reading about people’s difficulties in securing test drives of the more “special” vehicles of certain brands, I was expecting the worst as I prepared to visit the dealerships. I spent several hours scouring the internet looking for as many new and lightly used examples as I could find, because If I was going to be spending the next 6-10 years with it, I was going to get behind the wheel first, dammit.
I wound up with a list of about two dozen cars and an entire Saturday set aside to hedge my bets on finding at least one opportunity to drive each model. Well, all of them except the G70, because the nearest Genesis dealership was over 50 miles away and it’s been one of the less compelling picks so far. With my travel plans laid out, I steeled myself for an uncomfortable day of playing the buyer interested in buying Soon™, but not today.
Thankfully, everything went better than expected. I only got one hard no on a test drive request and dealerships were mostly respectful of my non-immediate purchasing timeline. Best of all, I stumbled across three (!) fellow autocross competitors working at various dealers who helped provide test drives that were a bit more meaningful than what I likely would have been permitted otherwise.
Obviously, my notes will be a bit less detailed than the WRX since I only got about 15-25 minutes in each car, but that was still enough to answer the bulk of my remaining questions and curiosities about how each of these were to drive.
VW Golf Alltrack: I was able to rule this one out pretty quickly. While better to drive and more fully-featured than my Outback XT, it lacked the power that helped to hold my interest in an otherwise mundane vehicle. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the Impreza, but it still felt a little slower than I liked. It’s an exceedingly well-rounded and practical vehicle, but I struggled to see myself being happy with it for an extended period of time. If I had more regularly-occurring uses for a full wagon’s amount of space, this would have been an excellent pick.
(CPO) BMW 335i/340i xDrive: BMW was absent from this year’s KC Auto Show, so this was my first chance to check one out in detail. Interior size both front and rear was comparable to the WRX, but the overall feature content here blew everything else away. The same could be said of power from that turbo I6, which was starting to feel like more than I could realistically see myself using on a regular basis. It brings a lot of comfort to the table, but not so much in the way of driver involvement. I can certainly understand the appeal behind these cars, but they don’t quite click with me well enough to warrant rolling the dice on partially-expended warranties and more expensive long-term ownership costs. I wound up skipping the CPO A4/S4 for similar reasons. I may try one of those Audis just for fun if/when I go out to try the G70, but this just doesn’t feel like the right type of car for me at this time.
MINI Clubman JCW/S All4: Both JCW cars and manual transmissions were strangely absent from this area, but that didn’t matter much when all was said and done. No new revelations appeared from behind the wheel of an S, other than the fact that I’d likely be relegated to a Classic (base) trim car due to the amount of headroom consumed by the sunroof in every other trim. This one was already on the chopping block and things only got worse the longer I tried to search for reasons to justify the price.
The Good, but not Quite Good Enough
VW Golf GTI: The dealer I did most of the VW drives at didn’t have any GTIs with both DCC and manual available, so I tried one of each. The non-DCC suspension was good enough that I could have lived with it, but the DCC was a big enough step ahead that would definitely be the way I’d want to go. I liked the VW manual transmissions I tried throughout the day. Even though I barely registered any feedback coming from the light clutch pedals and buttery shifters, they fared remarkably well at providing easy and consistent operation no matter how gently or aggressively I approached each gear change. Compared to the Golf R, the GTI didn’t feel that much slower, but it sure spent a lot of time fighting and struggling to put that power down without a great deal of provocation. Considering the amount of rain and winter weather we encounter here, it gave me just enough pause to land on the Golf R side of the fence. Among the deluge of “Is the Golf R worth the extra money?” opinions out there on the internet, my own personal answer wound up being “yes”, but I could easily see myself going the other way if I lived somewhere with a more mild climate. It’s still a very good car in most every other regard.
Subaru WRX: Full review linked below assuming Kinja doesn’t eat it. Otherwise, here.
TL;DR: It’s a good all-around car, but I couldn’t quite fall in love with it. Compared to the others, it spreads itself just a little too thin, with its main draws only ever reaching parity with its biggest flaws instead of overcoming them. As with the GTI, this is a car I would be mostly content to own, but the big brother simply did it better.
VW Golf R: New, manual-equipped cars were absent at nearby dealers, so this this led to two separate test drives involving a ‘19 DCT and a ‘16 manual in an attempt to cobble together a mostly complete picture. After trying both, I can confidently say these live up to the hype. Power delivery was shockingly subtle to the point where it never felt like there was nearly 300HP on tap until I looked down at the speedometer. Boost picks up right before 3k RPM and holds on strong all the way to the top. There was some rev hang in both this and the GTI, but neither was as bad as the WRX. Ride quality was among the best of the day, with DCC in Race mode proving to me yet again that it could provide some very good handling with very little harshness to speak of. Steering was hilariously quick but didn’t provide much in the way of feedback. Overall, I loved how this car combined comfort, ease of use, and legitimate performance capabilities, but all the little shifts and adjustments and tweaks I could feel the car making on my behalf created a small but noticeable disconnect between it and me. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of interventions, but the systems here were smart and cohesive enough that I could probably learn to get along with them eventually. This certainly felt like the complete package that was going to win the day, but then...
Subaru WRX STi: I found myself approaching this one primed by many a review to expect the worst from this car’s “ancient” drivetrain and hard-edged demeanor. Instead, it wound up putting the biggest, dumbest grin on my face by the end of the day. Compared to the WRX, the interior wasn’t much better and the ride was only slightly more rough. The Golf R was the clear winner in those regards, but the driving experience provided by the STi’s “old school” tech quickly closed that gap back up for me. Where the Golf R was sticking its smart little buffer between my inputs and the resulting behavior, the STi was just doing what I told it to do and bouncing unfiltered sensory information straight back at me. There was no rev hang, no clutch delay, no slop in the shifter, no mid-corner suspension adaptation, no electric steering, and no break in driving all four wheels. All of that coupled with a narrower power band made it more work to drive, but the work was fun and familiar. Subaru may be dragging their feet when it comes to modernizing this car, but I still found plenty of charm remaining in this long-running design. All of that said, I’d be remiss to ignore the lackluster fuel economy, average warranty duration, and fatigue on longer drives, so this one isn’t just going to walk away with the win here either.
So... what now?
I wouldn’t mind going out to try the G70 because it’s a genuinely interesting entry into its segment, but after everything that I’ve driven so far, it’s not likely to change the outcome.
Honestly, the STi caught me way off-guard and now I’m torn between it and the Golf R. The rational side of my brain is screaming for the Golf R on account of it being the better choice by nearly every reasonable metric, but the emotional side is making a rare move (for me) and pushing back just as hard to go for the STi for the sake of fun and to get one last hurrah in before it too becomes more digital. There is a litany of other factors I’m trying to weigh here, but with these vehicles being as different as they are, there won’t be any easy answers. I think I’m going to have to sit on this for a few days, do a little more research, and see what actual negotiated prices I can come up with because this is going to come down to the line.