THEY SAY THE onset of madness is often accompanied by the sound of bells ringing in one’s ears. Ergo the raspy drone of a flat-four Subaru engine, offbeat yet sonorous, must be warning my brain of impending full-blown insanity. That whacky boot attachment ain’t helping either. The Scooby’s got an almost electronic strain to its noise, synthesized and filling the cabin all the way from idle to red line – in stark contrast to the traditional ‘turbo two-litre’ thrum emanating from the Megane RS Cup, audibly defined by a clean swoosh of induction punctuated with the occasional chirrup of two Continental tyres slipping on dry tar.
There’s not a lot in common between these track stars other than that they embody the performance ethos of their respective brands, and despite their conflicting bodyshells they’re perfect rivals on and off the track. Both are massively appealing to a more hardcore buyer. Four wheels and as many cylinders are their only common denominators, with the Japanese whip a signature boxer and the Frenchie a traditional in-liner. Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drivetrain now features a 41:59 front to rear power split, whereas the Renault is a typical front-driver. Both feature mechanical limited-slip differentials, so both grip tenaciously, but that essentially is where similarities end. Now let me tell you the tale of the hammer and the scythe. But first, meet the weapon master we summoned to wield them.
The troll than lives beneath the bridge
Enter Deon Joubert, a grizzled ex-racer (think NASCAR, touring and production cars, karts, or insert any number of racing disciplines here) with a penchant for stunt driving who, when tasked with lapping Cape Town’s Killarney Circuit, boasts an unprecedented home ground advantage.
‘My old man used to run the place,’ he jokes as he convinces the track’s maintenance crew to chill in the shade while we conclude our hot laps. ‘These okes must think he still does, I get away with murder here,’ he opines, with a mischievous smile that morphs a second later into the laugh of a madman.
Dressed to kill in his Enviro racing overalls, an old glint resurfaces in eyes that have seen the entry and exit of, literally, millions of racing apexes. Giggles from the peanut gallery accompany Deon’s attempts to sheath copious facial fur with his JIMCO racing helmet. We’re not sure why Deon traded his Top Gun aesthetic for the Deer Hunter look, but each time we ask him he mutters something about 2012 and the end of the world. Scary stuff – we’ve since stopped asking. Still, you can’t ignore the pearls of wisdom thrown out mid-lap from a master hand like Mr Joubert. Sometimes it’s humble: ‘I’m more accustomed to rear-wheel drive, but can do the good times in FWD and AWD I suppose …’ Other times a bit too honest: ‘This thing would go quicker without that big f**king wing!’ But all of his feedback is invaluable in confirming our suspicions and predictions, giving insight into what each corner of the car is doing. Importantly, even with two occupants on board, Deon is able to produce eerily consistent lap times and from this we can glean the pedigree of a champion. Now, let’s get back to the track weaponry.
It takes all kinds
If you haven’t solved the simple analogy, it goes something like this. The WRX STI, despite its Subaru Intelligent Drive systems, VDC stability and traction electronics, and adjustable centre differential, still pulls off a faithful muscle car impersonation – therefore it’s the hammer in our group. A soft suspension, its first concession to real-world driving, means that fierce throttle inputs will point that bulging hood scoop at the sky in true pony car style. That relentless cyber-roar from the four-pot scares off most German V8s and then there’s that sunroof, slightly at odds with our understanding of a true race pedigree, trading perceived rigidity for some extra weather to heat that Recaro leather. These are true racing pews that will bite a chunk out of your thigh almost as quickly as the killer items slotted into the RS, and grippy they both are for sure.
The STI interior is Subaru-basic. Cruder still is the multimedia head-unit, a rectangular affair pinched from Forester that has good connectivity in the form of a Bluetooth to cellphone interface which I am yet to figure out, plus AUX and USB plug-in ability for your travelling MP3 collection. This matters little as you’ll suffer to hear a damned thing over the exhaust drone. Both cars reward your inner geek, with the ‘SI Drive’ dials (Intelligent, Sport, Sport Plus) and adjustable ‘C.DIFF’ of the STI rivalling the stalk-activated onboard track monitor of the Renault, complete with lap timer, sprint timer and G-Force displays plus extensive mapping of the throttle and shift light.
The Renault is our scythe, a sharper tool that, once you’re familiar with the slightly vague centre of the helm, can be placed on a 10c piece mid-corner. Your ally here is the suspension, in this case the R50k extra Cup chassis set-up, that remains flat as a pancake through even the most demanding of corners. Gear changes from the six-speed manual feel more positive than in the STI’s six-pack, in which I managed to miss third gear on two occasions. No such foibles in the slick RS. No, here the bugbear is a clutch that bites hard and sees you stalling more often than you’d like. Despite this, they’re both fantastically easy to drive, with the difference in power – 184kW in the Renault, 221kW in the Subaru – feeling almost negligible. Surprisingly, it’s the Renault that delivers the firmer kick in the seat on acceleration, although the numbers tell us a different story. The STI manages to sprint to 100 in 5.8 seconds while the RS does the task in 6.6. Blame a more linear power delivery and the undramatic nature of four-wheel traction and power delivery for the muting of forward sensation in the loud-as-hell Subaru. Still, the 407Nm of twist in the STI versus the 340Nm on offer in the RS leaves me wanting more in the Japanese car. ‘There’s almost nothing in it, this feels just as quick as the Subaru,’ is an opinion Deon keeps forcing on me each time he extends his right foot.
But that’s where underwhelming takes a break. Climb out of either track weapon and prepare for adrenaline invoking shock and awe. In the metal, both cars are separated from their more sedate stablemates by pumped-up arches, plus a myriad of vents, scoops, diffusers, airdams and gigantic exhaust exits (two per side in the STI, one triangular blower in the RS) that would shame a Harrier fighter jet. Interestingly, the Impreza badges have been omitted from the bodywork, in much the same way the Skyline nomenclature was binned from the Nissan GT-R, that other Japanese tarmac terrorist.
Another interesting discovery is that while both cars have similar capacity fuel tanks (60 litres in the Renault, 64 in the Subaru), the same amount of fuel chucked in saw very different readouts on their gauges – just under half in the Renault, just over quarter in the Scooby. Combine that with the STI’s ferocious appetite for unleaded against the Renault’s sipping nature, and it’s clear which will be less of a drain in the daily drive. Permanent four-wheel drive is traditionally thirstier, though factory claims of 10.5ℓ/100km for the Japanese car are laughably optimistic, while the French car’s 8.3ℓ/100km claim is probably not far off.
And the results are in
Killarney is a high-speed circuit, despite its relatively short distance. Lengthy back and front straights can see 200kph in some special road cars. The five turns that define it are a good mix of hairpins, constant radius bends plus a few that open up and close back down on you. There’s a treacherous double right-hander that saw both cars completely sideways while a grinning Deon carved at the steering, plus a kink designed to remind you who is boss.
Both cars felt hugely alive, in both any steering qualms were quelled, and braking prowess was more than adequately spoken for with the STI’s calliper and disc combo matching the Brembo items on the RS.
If this evaluation was purely academic, then the Subaru WRX STI is the better car, having traversed the circuit in just 1 minute 29.4 seconds. The Renault Megane RS trailed by the proverbial ball hair’s width at 1 minute 29.7 seconds. Keep in mind also that both cars carried the same heavy co-driver. Both fall short by the smallest of margins to the Ford Focus RS we tested recently (1 minute 28.9 seconds) and I only mention that because, hell, you were going to ask anyway.
Yet there’s a factor that must still be considered: value for money. At R399 000, the Renault Megane RS Cup is pricey for a hatch. However, it is perhaps at the pinnacle of the hot hatch genre. The Subaru sedan can be yours for R499 000, a full hundred grand dearer for a mere incremental dominance over the French effort, at least around our test circuit. Plus one would have to consider the unbridled nature of front-wheel drive which offers up far more smiles per mile than the safer STI.
Another thing to consider is living with these machines. While the Subaru feigns BMW 3 Series practicality with that sedan profile and two extra doors, its boot is only marginally larger than the Renault’s hatch thanks to the centre diff which lives under the shallow cavity. Plus there’s the noise. I love noise. At least I thought I did until my family and I spent the weekend commuting (everywhere) in the Subaru. The drone became unbearable, a fact confirmed to me when my neighbour said, ‘It’s a bit much hey? Phew…’ And that’s relevant because he builds stainless steel performance exhaust systems for a living, servicing some of the louder members of the local tuning fraternity. (It set off the car alarm of my wife’s GTI when it pulled up in front of the house. No supercar has ever done that. – Ed) The Megane, despite being a coupe, was more than capable of swallowing my family of five, and so what if I have the blue mark on my upper leg to prove it? Hang the lap timer, the Renault Megane RS Cup takes the chequered flag – and that’s a significant victory over a fantastic Subaru.