Better Than Par (Motor, May 1994)
Magazine article reproduced from Motor, May 1994.
Volkswagen's latest Golf VR6 is an excellent car with a lot more go than its appearance might suggest, but the BMW 318is coupe is an even bigger surprise package.
A Volkswagen that costs around 45 grand? It hardly seems possible even by today's inflated standards. Imagine the incredulity of VW Beetle fanatics of the 1950s if they'd been told of such a possibility. Back in those days, car prices were measured in hundreds, not thousands. But here it is, the 1994 Volkswagen Golf VR6: the most expensive Volkswagen we've seen - and the quickest, point to point.
The Golf VR6 looks pretty much like any other Golf at a glance - we're talking the second, less-boxy, more aerodynamic version of the Golf, not the older style car Aussie enthusiasts remember mostly for its rapid GTi version.
In Europe even this third generation body style is now a few years old, and the VR6 model goes back more than a couple of years, so it's not a new car. It is, though, an ideal car to spearhead Volkswagen's re-entry to the Australian market. Oz speed limits will spare BMW and Mercedes-Benz owners the embarrassment of having to pull out of the fast lane to allow a flat-to-the-boards Golf to go bombing by - as regularly happens in Germany. But the VR6's jack-rabbit pace away from the traffic lights won't go unnoticed.
The price takes a bit of getting used to. Sure, it's got that smooth, powerful, and compact 2.8-litre V6 engine and performance to match. And, yes, it comes standard with lots of expensive goodies like central locking, power windows, air-conditioning, trip computer, alloy wheels, and an airbag for both the driver and the front passenger, but the price puts it well into BMW territory. If you consider engine size and performance, plus the fact that this VW is a sporting car despite its family-hatch looks, the BMW 325i Coupe is probably a fair comparison, but a look at the price of that particular Bee-Em shows it is way out of reach of anyone struggling to put together enough bikkies to buy this VW.
Price-wise, the more realistic opponent is the BMW 318is Coupe, which lists at $52,220 in manual transmission form. But we thought that might be an unfair match in the opposite direction, with the Golf able to easily outpace the BMW in a straight line. Still, a dollar is a dollar, and if a buyer had around $45 to $50,000-odd to spend, wanted a car with four seats and sporty performance, then both of these cars would have to be on the list. If the BMW was bowled over, so be it. Time, however, was to show us this wasn't as much of a mismatch as it at first appeared.
The two cars certainly didn't look like a matched pair. The Golf is a medium-sized family car and can comfortably carry four adults. The extended, all-but flat roof-line ensures that rear seat passengers have sufficient head-room and the seats, though Germanic-firm, are comfortable. In Europe the Golf comes in three-door and five-door hatchback versions. In Australia we get only the five-door, so rear seat passengers don't have an athletic climb into the rear seats.
Function loses out to form when it comes to rear seat headroom in the BMW. It gets by, as a result of placing the rear seats noticeably low to the floor, but this is a stylish coupe, with the emphasis on style; rear seat comfort for adults was not a major consideration. Considering it is more of an effort to climb into this two-door car, the BMW loses out to the VW if you're planning to regularly carry four adults.
Talk in terms of two adults only, or two plus a couple of not-yet fully grown offspring, and the BMW comes back into the frame.
The BMW looks fashionable and fast; the VW's appearance is more family and functional, but the looks belie the performance - in a straight line, anyway. The VW's 2.8-litre V6 engine produces 128 kW of power compared with only 103 kW from the BMWs 1.8-litre in-line four. That's pretty good for a 1.8, incidentally, but there's no real substitute for cubic capacity.
Another difference in approach between the two cars' engines is that the BMWs is a big-bore, short-stroke unit that loves to rev; the VW's has a smaller bore, very long stroke design that generates real grunty torque of 235 Nm at 4200 rpm. The BMW's peak torque figure is 175 Nm at 4500 rpm. So the advantage the VW has off the mark becomes even greater in the mid-range speeds as this torque factor takes over.
You can feel the weight of the BMW when trying to make quick up-hill starts from rest; it's just a little tardy getting into motion. But, once underway, it is surprisingly brisk. The VW, meanwhile, has gone. It's 2.4 seconds quicker to 100 km/h and takes 1.5 seconds less time to cover the first 400 metres - travelling 15 km/h faster at this point.
It was raining during most of our test period, though, and wheelspin was a big factor with the Golf-even in brisk traffic light starts. In Europe the VR6 has traction control to reduce wheelspin at speeds less than 40 km/h for snow and ice conditions. If the feature is retained in the Oz version, it wasn't noticeable; we had tyre-spinning, torque-steering wheelspin on a number of occasions in fast standing-start situations. But it's quick, this Golf.
Overtaking acceleration on the open road was also a strong point of the VW, although the BMW was never really a worry, as long as the driver took care to select the right gear and to anticipate overtaking moves.
Where the BMW took back the advantage was in winding, rain-soaked, mountain passes. "What did you have on your Wee ties this morning?" one of our testers asked after using all the grunt the Golf could muster and a fair dose of bravado, just to keep the BMW in sight. The suggestion was that the BMW driver had been "having a big go"; the reality was he was cruising - doing it easily and safely.
This BMW is one of the most poised, best-balanced cars this tester has ever driven. The latest 3-series cars' suspension is a very sophisticated development of longstanding BMW suspension practice. The front end still shows its MacPherson strut origins but its lower end is well located by BMW's long, curving, wide-based fore-and-aft lower arm and its geometry is now all '90s BMW.
Similarly, at the rear, BMW has what it calls a "central link rear axle". This consists of a very long lateral arm on each side, each located by a sharply curving trailing arm. Once again, if you look hard, you can see how this has evolved from BMW's much-loved but sometimes flawed semi-trailing arm system.
Ally these latest suspension evolutions and their computer-developed geometry to ever improving dampers and springs, plus BMWs almost 50:50 front to rear weight distribution and a wheelbase to track ratio borne of many years' study, and you have one of the best-balanced and safe handling cars ever to set tyre to roadway.
The rain during our testing served only to confirm this fact. For a start, we hurled the little BMW around a sodden racetrack when doing our performance testing and it was completely unflappable. Initial, safe, and not excessive steady-state understeer at anything less than race-pace turn-in speeds developed into progressive and controllable oversteer. What would you like: understeer, cornering "on rails", slight tail out, or full-blooded sideways slides? Your wish is the BMW's command. Only a request for a spin might test the 318is' versatility; such unseemly behaviour didn't seem to be programmed into the equation.
Well-mannered circuit handling transferred to those wet mountain passes for the BMW; it was never caught out on even the tightest, sneakiest or slipperiest corners. ABS braking added to the security with both cars, although the BMW once again demonstrated the marque's alarming habit of pushing the brake pedal firmly back at the driver when it lifts a wheel or completely loses traction on one wheel. We didn't notice this trait with the also ABS-equipped VW, although we often pushed hard enough to activate its anti-locking system.
Rain and wet, slippery roads magnified the Golf's habits of understeer and wheelspin under hard application of power. On the circuit, at the extreme limit, it had marked doses of both and needed considerable restraint to keep contact between the front tyres and the road.
The Golf also understeered and spun the wheels in the mountains, and demonstrated a desire to swap quite suddenly from understeer to roll oversteer when the driver lifted off the accelerator. It never snapped into anything close to a full slide or spin, we should add, but all of our testers found it uncomfortable in the way it would alternate between understeer and oversteer, defying the driver's attempts to be smooth and subtle with changes of balance.
Perhaps this lack of tidiness from the VV magnified the BMW's poise... but we don't think so. This tester, for one, came home from the test absolutely in love with the balance of the Bee-Em. Always, when we drive a small-engined, good handling car, we go home muttering "if only it had a bit more grunt... " We began to wonder: if the 318is is THIS good, how about the 320i and 325i? Yes, they are fine cars in their own right, and have a lot more poke, but the balance of this four-cylinder car (the bigger engines are in-line sixes) is so fine, you would be reluctant to change anything... well, perhaps some ongoing development of the engine - more power without losing flexibility.
Look under the bonnet of the 318is and you see a tidy and under-filled compartment with the neat twin-cam four-cylinder engine mounted way back in the engine bay and canted towards the driver's side of the car. It is mounted in fore-and-aft location, driving the rear wheels. Called the M42, this engine is more highly developed than the similar M43 unit in the other 318 models. It has four valves per cylinder, what BMW calls "differential air intake system" and a knock sensor that is sensitive to individual cylinders and cuts back only on that one cylinder if it begins to knock.
VW's approach to motive power is also interesting. The V6 was designed specifically to be mounted transversely across the front of front-drive cars. The vee of the engine is just 15', so that there are not two separate banks of three cylinders but rather a staggered row of six bores in the one block - much as Lancia often did with some of its Vee engines from the 1920s through to the 1970s - when Fiat rook over the company. The idea is that the bores can overlap one another to considerably shorten the length of the engine to around that of a smaller capacity four, yet without adding very much to the width of the engine (which translates to length of the car in a transverse location).
If such a narrow vee angle creates balance problems, it certainly isn't evident in this car. The engine is impressively smooth and vibration free. Certainly it is the smoothness and willingness of this engine - which never seems to be wanting for urge at any rpm from idle to the red line - that must have won the hearts of European testers who have raved about this car. On German autobahns it must be sheer joy, with its ability to cruise at high speeds and to accelerate rapidly for safe overtaking at any speed.
But whatever else it was that created so much euphoria with these testers must have been lost in the translation to Oz conditions. This is an excellent car, but not a great car. Of course, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it could be said that driving pleasure is in the derriere of the driver. Our backsides tell us the BMW 318is Coupe really is a great car to drive. What had at first looked like a massive mismatch on the performance front had, in overall point-to-point terms, faded away to a non-event.
Perhaps we had missed a clue: the BMW has a well-placed footrest for the driver's left foot; the VW has no foot rest at all. One car was obviously developed by enthusiast drivers in extreme handling situations, the other... well, we're not sure.
Certainly much of the difference in handling and ride of these two cars could be ascribed to the tyres fitted to each. The BMW had Pirelli P600s in 205/60 x 15 size, attached to its 7.0-inch by 15-inch alloy wheels; the VW had Continental Sport Contact 205/50 x 15 on 6.5-inch by 15-inch BBS alloy wheels. The Pirellis were superb in the wet, excellent in all other areas.
The Continentals seemed unhappy in the wet conditions and were a harsher-riding tyre which transferred more noise, vibration and bump-thump to the interior of the car.
The VW also had a disconcerting habit of rattling its front end when cornering hard on less than smooth country roads. Whether it was in the steering rack (which we suspect) or elsewhere in The BMW is definitely ahead when it comes to the suspension, we weren't sure, but it made the styling, with looks that suggest both speed and a car feel and sound less than refilled. In the same certain chic; the VW's styling is fairly dated and situations the BMW was always smooth and quiet.
Differences in the cars' characters are obvious right from the outset. In the BMW you sit low and feel secure; in the Golf the driver is placed much higher. The VW driver has a better view of the traffic ahead, but tends to roll around more in corners.
Both cars have tilt-adjustable steering wheels. The BMW also has a clever seat-height adjustment mechanism operated by a lever on the right side of the driver's seat. Heavily spring-loaded, it takes only a slight lifting of the driver's weight for the seat to rise, and it travels down easily under the occupant's weight.
Both cars have attractive trimmed steering wheels that don't look bulky enough to contain airbags - which they do. Power-assisted steering keeps down the number of turns lock-to-lock in both cars, for quicker response to driver input. The BMW's steering feels sharper, though, because it doesn't develop as much understeer as does the VW.
Volkswagen embraces the airbag concept fully by adding a second bag to the front passenger's side of the car; shame about the loss of the glovebox. The Golf has a few oddments bins around the cabin, but nothing that effectively replaces a good old-fashioned glove compartment. BMW has opted out of the two-bag concept and therefore has space for a reasonably-sized, typically BMW, drop-out glovebox.
Switches for the front power windows in the Golf are on the driver's door, although the rear window switches are in the centre of the dash, with a lock-out switch between them. The BMW being a two-door, has just the two power windows, with the switches mounted on the centre console on either side of the gear lever.
An interesting feature with the BMWs power windows is that they power down slightly - about 15 mm - when the door is opened, then power back up again to fully closed after the door is fully closed. There is no frame in the door for these windows, so their sealing is dependent upon how snugly the window fits the rubber door-frame seal; the auto-power operation overcomes the inherent problems. The feature was considered a novelty when it was introduced on the larger 850i Coupe. Now, obviously, it has passed the test of time and is filtering down to the smaller models.
In fuel economy, the BMW was a clear winner. Smaller, in terms of engines, isn't always better - particularly if the smaller unit powers a rather heavy car and is then driven hard in order to stay with the more powerful car. But that wasn't the case on this test. The coupe's efficient engine and balanced handling enabled it to turn in highly respectable fuel figures, particularly considering it was driven hard at every opportunity.
Driving the Golf VR6, our test team members always seemed keen to use its power to the max, and this showed in the overall fuel consumption for our test period with an average of 9.8 litres per 100 km to the BMW's more frugal 8.7 L/100 km.
All through this test, direct comparisons have been difficult, because so much is different between these cars. But we kept coming back to the BMYV, and styling was no different.
In Europe the VW Golf is well-known, much-loved, and is something of a cult car. Cult cars are above styling in the truest sense and few Europeans would knock the Golf on this score. We admire its space efficiency and aerodynamic excellence for a car of its size and purpose, but if you're talking style, you're talking BMW 318is Coupe. This car has style and class and would be a worthy fashion accessory to the driveway of the chic-est house.
Even the BMWs alloy wheels, though based on a very old design now, blend with the overall shape. The VWs wheels, a spider-web looking BBS style that we didn't particularly like when it was new many years ago, are less attractive.
We're not knocking the Golf; as we said, it is an excellent car, but not a great car. The BMW 318is, in this tester's eyes at least, IS a great car. There's price, of course; the BMW does add up to a sizeable premium when you tally the final figures but we'd guess the difference would still be as great - maybe larger - when it comes time to resell. We thought the BMW was starting with an insurmountable handicap with its comparative lack of urge in this test. We were wrong; it emerged as the most desirable car of an impressive duo.