One of the outcomes of AutoSpeed now having good access to car company press cars (and of course we're also hiring more cars than previously) is that quite often it turns out that we have two new cars to drive in the one week. And, while we don't run direct comparison stories in AutoSpeed, inevitably we make personal judgments about how the cars stack up against one another. So when I recently had a Peugeot 307 and a Lexus IS300 in my garage at the same time, comparisons were drawn.
Yes, I know that the $74,000 Lexus is in a completely different pricing class to the as-tested $32,000 Pug, but some interesting ideas can be taken from their proximity in my consciousness.
Like, before you looked at this pic, I bet you would have classed the Peugeot a 'small' car and the IS300 a 'medium' sized one. But as you can see, that's simply not the case. They're very close in length but the 307 is both taller and - because of its hatchback configuration - has a greater cabin volume. And I'll let you into another few secrets: one of these cars handles brilliantly and in comparative terms, the other - hrrrmm! - like a bag of shit. Oh yes, and one has an exemplary build quality and the other looks like it was a practice car for the assembly line.
But let's go back to the first point: relative sizes. In many ways, these two cars show one of the sea changes in car design. After many decades of cars getting lower and wider, the 307 is one of the many cars now getting taller. A higher roofline means a more upright seating position, which gives more leg- and knee- and foot-room in the same overall vehicle length. The windscreen of the 307 is simply enormous compared with that of the Lexus, and the rake angles of the two different cars' front glass are also massively different. But of course a taller car of the same width also gives a greater frontal area, increasing overall aero drag. However, the lower Cd being gained by many new shape cars adequately compensates for this.
In effect, car companies are now using 'small car' styling for cars which are actually medium sized. To get a real feel for this, start looking at old and new cars travelling side by side in traffic, and compare actual heights and widths. You can do this anywhere in the world, but here in Australia you'll find that when following - for example - a current Mini and a VB Commodore, the two are about the same width. A Toyota Echo is higher than most cars that 15 years ago were classed as family cars... it goes on. In fact, it's damn easy to win a bet based on this sort of old-versus-new car size discussion. Because medium (and I'd guess, soon also large) sized cars are styled to look small in isolation, it's easy to be completely fooled by their actual dimensions. It's one reason why cars like the current Corolla - or Barina or Astra - seem to have so much room. It's because they're not small cars!
Coming back to the IS300 and 307, the IS300 is also one of only a handful of cars in the world of this size remaining rear wheel drive. Packaging and cost advantages have been behind the decades-old move to driving the front wheels, almost universally by means of transversely mounted engines. The Lexus is RWD primarily for marketing reasons: the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class cars were firmly in its designers' sights. Of course, there will still be those dwelling in the Dark Ages who believe that a RWD car automatically confers a natural and distinct handling advantage... but driving one then the other of these two cars is really very good at showing that for the myth it is. For the IS300, despite its claimed advantages of driving the rear wheels, and despite its more realistic advantages of being fitted with stability control and having a more sophisticated suspension design, is so comprehensively outclassed in handling by the slightly larger front-wheel drive 307 as to make the drawing of handling conclusions from which end is being powered clearly the fallacy it is.
And build quality - and engine smoothness? Well, the Lexus just walked away with that one.
And it was only last week that I got to drive lots of kays in another pair of rather interesting cars. The Ralliart Magna was a car that we'd been looking forward to all year - our enthusiastic reviews of the normal and VR-X Magnas is the stuff of public record. And the STi Subaru WRX? Well, we loved the previous model and expected this one to be just that much better. Now I am not going to give away the main ingredients of our still to come road tests on each of these vehicles, but let's just explore a few comparative aspects.
I flew down to Adelaide primarily for the purpose of driving the two cars, and along with staffer Michael Knowling we did lots and lots of kays in them - probably a thousand in each. Swapping back and forth from vehicle to vehicle, following each other through traffic around the city on one day, driving around the Barossa Valley on another. And so it wasn't entirely unexpected that over the course of the week we should arrive at a red light, side by side. Michael was in the Ralliart (which was also weight disadvantaged by the presence of a passenger) while I was alone in the STi.
The STi - as you'll well know if you've had anything to so with the turbo four-wheel drive Subarus of the last decade - are not cars to do a full redline launch in... not if you want to be able to take the car back with clutch and gearbox intact, anyway. So when the light went green I launched at about three grand. The Subaru immediately bogged down, falling off its feeble low-rpm boost - and the Ralliart, both front wheels spinning, just stormed off into the distance. Changing at the redline left me multiple car lengths behind all the way to 100 km/h, whereupon we both backed off. This wasn't a contest where the cars were even remotely close; this was a straightline race where one car completely trounced the other.
In fact, Michael later said to me that he thought I'd deliberately let the Ralliart get away, so that I could see what it looked like accelerating under full power! But after that bog-down, I was flat to the floor and going as hard as I possibly could...
And at the other end of the speed envelope, things were not that much different. Above 180 km/h (the STi has lost its speed cut), the Ralliart kept up quite well, thanks very much.
Of course, throw in some corners and the STi was on another planet to the Magna - no doubt about that.
But let's come back to the engines for a moment. One thing I tried very hard to do with the Mitsubishi was to get some bad fuel economy figures. During my visit I was staying about 80km out of the city, and with the Ralliart a far nicer touring car that the hard-riding, laggy and noisy STi, it was the Magna that I was taking home most evenings. But concerned that the Ralliart was getting too many easy highway kilometres to get a realistic fuel consumption figure, over a few days I drove the car very hard. The resulting consumption? - about 12 litres/100 km. That's brilliant for a car of this size, weight and performance.
And, since the STi was doing the same duties, another interesting comparo could be drawn. The turbocharged 2-litre was actually drinking more than the 3.5-litre V6, with the STi recording about 13 litres/100 in these conditions. Now tradition has it that a turbo car can be very economical when being driven gently - and even on these hard-driven days, there was still plenty of light-load highway cruising thrown in. But no, here was the vastly more responsive, infinitely better torque curve, naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 turning in better fuel figures.
It's always interesting when you have two cars side by side...