Cars.comparison: All-Wheel-Drive Rockets

While you may think all-wheel drive is only useful on slippery roads, it can also be beneficial in performance cars. All three of the models listed here are equipped with it, but beyond that the similarities fade somewhat. We have a sedan and two hatchbacks featuring turbo-four-cylinder and six-cylinder power. The question remains: Which is the best all-wheel-drive rocket? Keep reading for the answer.

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The Contenders
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI2008 Volkswagen R32
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Base MSRP
TBA$34,995$32,990
Price as tested
TBA$35,640$35,430
Boy racer appeal
Mad: With its aggressive shark nose and prominent intercooler, the Evo is more badass than ever, and its sedan body style gets more respect. A choice of two spoiler sizes mean it's as showy as you want it to be. Rad: The STI's wide body styling is reminiscent of some Porsches. The previous-generation sedan's massive rear wing is gone, but there's still a substantial liftgate spoiler and quad exhaust. Its hatchback style and overall design, however, make it less tough — and less appealing — to many.Sad: While the R32 has a sporty stance, there's no overkill to be found. The wildest element is perhaps its available Deep Blue Metallic paint color. Some say it's not different enough from the Rabbit and GTI.
Engine and transmission
Though its launch is disappointingly soft, the 0-60 sprint is still thrilling. The splendid twin-clutch paddle-shiftable automatic is better than the VW's, and it's the only contestant to offer a choice, which mitigates the manual's unconscionable gear deficit. (Five speeds? Really?) The integrated drivetrain settings are truly useful.The turbocharged four-cylinder delivers strong performance if you're willing to rev it, but Subaru's got a problem on its hands when the less powerful Impreza WRX is a more entertaining daily driver. The STI's short-throw shifter has a mechanical feel. The clutch is easily mastered, but whether the drivetrain adjustments are worthwhile is debatable.The only six-cylinder in this trio will push you back in your seat if you want it to. Manual transmission fans should look elsewhere, though, as a DSG automatic is the only transmission offered. Apart from a slight delay after pressing the steering-wheel paddle before an upshift occurs, it's a quick-shifting transmission.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
17/2217/23 18/23
Ride and handling
It's no luxo cruiser, but the Evo's ride is pretty refined. The steering is a high point, and though you can't direct as much torque to the rear wheels as the others do, the engine, transmission and AWD communicate beautifully, and the roadholding inspires. Low-profile tires combined with a sport suspension make for a rough ride on broken pavement. The STI steers with a light touch and changes direction in a heartbeat. The taut suspension communicates road imperfections, for sure, but there isn't any harshness. Body roll is well controlled, and the R32 feels balanced accelerating out of a corner. Steering effort is on the light side.
Braking performance
Designed for track use, the Brembo brand brakes are more effective in normal driving than you could hope for. The firm pedal effort feels appropriate for a performance car, and the Brembo brakes slow the car with civility. Like most German cars, the R32 has trustworthy, fade-resistant brakes, but VW may have given up performance by staying in-house.
Soundtrack
The exhaust is sporty, but the conventional inline-four-cylinder doesn't distinguish itself like the others do.The boxer engine's distinctive growl is present, but the cabin itself isn't that isolated, which allows road noise to intrude at highway speeds. The raspy, mechanical tones that emanate from the R32's tailpipes will likely surprise your passengers. Once tuners hear it, they might not feel a need to modify it.
Seat comfort
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Of the three, the Evo's seats are the best for sporty driving, with prominent side bolsters and suede inserts. In terms of comfort, though, they're not the best. The backseat is accommodating, like the R32's, and the rear doors are a bonus.
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The STI's front sport seats are comfortable enough, and the leather and suede surfaces are common performance car elements, but the side bolsters are rather small. The hatchback's backseat isn't as comfortable as the R32's.
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The standard front sport seats have firm cushioning and are finished in leather. Large side bolsters mean business but aren't overly restrictive, and the adjustable head restraints are a big plus. The rear seat's backrest has an upright angle, but the backseat would have no trouble carrying two adults.
Interior quality
Like the Subaru, the new Evo's interior has, well, evolved above the crudity of the earlier generations, but it's no VW.The materials are decent, but the STI's cabin can't match the R32, which is the overachiever of this trio. The R32's cabin stands tall in this company thanks to the use of high-quality materials and detailed stitching. You'll appreciate the effort VW has put forth, even if you're not a perfectionist.
Cargo versatility
Not surprisingly, the sedan body style and conventional trunk make this one the cargo loser with 6.9 cubic feet of space. Due to the added bracing, the backseat doesn't fold down. There's a spacious 19 cubic feet behind the rear seats. With the backseat folded, there's 44.4 cubic feet of space for your stuff. A low liftover height should make loading luggage into the R32's 9.7 cubic foot cargo area easier, and folding the rear seatbacks increases total capacity to 43.4 cubic feet.
 
Editors' choice
The competition between this car and the Subaru is as hot as ever, but there's a lot of sophistication in the Evo's drivetrain, and it shows when you take it out and really push it. It's not just easy to drive; it's easy to drive very well.In this matchup, performance is one of the most important factors, and while the new STI puts up big-time power and torque numbers, the seat-of-the-pants experience isn't equally impressive. It has a lot going for it otherwise, but performance can't be overlooked in this comparison. The R32's reserved looks and elegant cabin make it the elder statesman of this group, even though it's just as new as the Evolution and STI. If you're looking for performance in a grown-up package, this is it.
Posted on 1/2/08
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