A Japanese, a British and a French performance car drive on to the same piece of asphalt… Sounds like the start of bad dad joke, doesn’t it? But in this instance, we’re being deadly serious, because although each possesses a unique drivetrain – front-engine rear drive, front-engine all-wheel drive, and front-engine front-wheel drive – they are in fact remarkably similar. Each of them appeals to the performance-minded motorist at its specific price point, being a notch below the out-and-out top-dog offerings, each is a turbocharged four-cylinder and none of them has a manual gearbox, favouring instead an easy-driving, two-pedal transmission of choice: dual clutch, CVT and automatic, respectively. We break out the trusty testing gear and let physics decide which is best.
Let’s start with the Scooby, shall we, because – on the surface at least – it is the most performance-focused of these here three amigos. Firm, squat, hard riding, with a low-slung boxer engine, four-wheel drive and a well-earned motorsport pedigree thanks to rally legends Colin McRae and Richard Burns – unfortunately, the everyday reality is somewhat less persuasive. Its 197 kW motor is the weakest here and its continuously variable transmission, a belt and pulley system with no gears that shifts the gear ratio, while undoubtedly the best of its type in the world, is not well suited to a performance application. Funny story: Back in the early ’90s, the Williams Formula 1 team actually developed a CVT for its all-conquering FW15C, the thinking being the engine could sit at an optimal, constant rpm with all speed control done by the gear-ratio pulleys rather than engine revs. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey built and tested one, and yes, it was supremely fast, but they immediately pulled the plug because, to quote Adrian, ‘It sounded horrible and would have been bad news for Formula 1. The sound of an engine lapping at near-constant rpm is horrible compared to that generated by gear changes and rising and falling of rpm.’ If it wasn’t good enough for Williams F1 two decades ago, it’s not good enough for us. Sorry, Subaru. Moving swiftly along…
Jaguar’s gorgeous sports coupé has been around for some time now, but that never altered the impression of driving one: It was vast and pretty tricky to pilot flat out. For the latest base-spec 2.0-litre turbo, though you can forget all that. After mere minutes behind the wheel of Baby Bluey, she shows herself to be a complete kitty cat. Smaller 19-inch wheels help to improve the pliancy on road and that enhances the overall driveability in every respect. The versatile turbo motor still punts 221 kW/400 Nm to the rear wheels – the most of this trio and only 29 kW/50 Nm less than the supercharged V6 in the lineup – but the response is lighter and torquier low down (from just 1 500 rpm). Sadly, you don’t get the spine-tingling V6 howl from twin trumpets; instead, there’s a pretty bullish snuffle and boom from the single central outlet. Here it’s the fastest car against the stopwatch, and the most economical, too, thanks to its low-slung, pert aerodynamic shape. This is one of the most connected F-Types I can ever remember driving – you play with it rather than wait for it to bite you in the backside – and when you back off and just want to cruise, it’s easy like Sunday morning. Interior-wise, you must go without a few nice-to-haves (heated and cooled seats), although you can option these back in at additional cost, but then, this Jag is already a R1-million-plus car. There’s much merit to the four-pot F-Type, and the asking price is a worthy trade-off. But there’s still one more vehicle to test…
Do a little dance
The long-anticipated Renault Sport Megane clearly takes inspiration from a lucky packet. Firstly, the interior dash is made from the same Chinese-water-pistol plastics you get in one, but this is a driver’s car, so we can forgive it for that. Then, it makes bizarre warbling Wookiee sounds through the speakers when you accelerate, providing the same sense of tinnitus that Baby in Baby Driver probably experienced on a daily basis. I found it quite off-putting. However, the motor is superb beneath it all, punching way harder than its 1 798 cc displacement suggests. But then grip off the line with only a brake-based electronic differential is poor, clocking nowhere near the 0–100 km/h manufacturer claim of 5.8 sec. All is forgiven when you’re up to speed, though, sidewinding it around a sinewy mountain road with 4Control four-wheel steer. On the right road, it’s one of the very quickest, most malleable front-drive hatches out there. You can drive it clean and tidy like you learned to at advanced driving school, but if you want to get it swinging around, you need to pull out some trail braking to kick the back out for big oversteer. Boot the throttle and it pulls back in line. The four-wheel pivot is nicely calibrated and helps turn the tail below 80 km/h with the rears going opposite to the fronts, and with the fronts above 80 km/h to tuck the rear in for extra stability. What a hoot, and it’s a performance car your average boy racer can still just about afford.
Slip takes it
The Subaru is absolutely great, especially as a daily drive, where the firm’s new EyeSight system works seamlessly like an extra set of eyes on the road to virtually drive the car for you. Unfortunately, these are performance cars, and Japanese insistence on continuously variable transmission lets the package down. It’s fine in a base 2.0 Impreza, less fine in the boosted WRX. Jaguar’s yummy F-Type 2.0 sets the handling- and performance standard here, but then it sort of should do, costing more than R1 million! It’s only marked down in the affordability and practicality stakes. That leaves us with the rowdy, racy Renault, which despite its many foibles, looks fabulous, proffers some gung-ho handling as if inspired by the rear-drive Jag, and most crucially, delivers the most bang for your buck. C’est magnifique!
In a nutshell
Subaru WRX Premium Sport Lineartronic
All the grip in the world, facelifted car that looks the business, great value for money
CVT – That’s the end of it
In a nutshell
Renault Sport Megane 280
Affordable, great looking, drives like front-wheel drive +
Bizarre acoustics, slow off the line, typical French interior
In a nutshell
Jaguar F-Type Coupé P300
Easy to drive, more than fast enough, real
Poverty spec and it’s still a million bucks