Top Gear on Ice: Audi RS3 vs Mercedes GLA 45 vs Subaru WRX STi

Three flavours of four-wheel drive performance battle it out on our Swedish ice lake

Im hoping this is suossa1, because if it’s rovda2 we’re all in a lot of trouble. Mind you, I’ve also seen roavku3 out here which is a bit nerve-wracking when you drive over it, and later in the day, when the sun has gone to work, there’ll be patches of vuohčči4 too. I don’t think anything on this earth is slipperier than vuohčči. Except maybe lavki5. 

The native Scandinavian Saami people (also known as Lapps) do have a lot of words for ice. About 175 basic stem words apparently,with all sorts of arterial meanings leading off from there, I don’t doubt. They also have more than 1,000 words for reindeer. But, when ice and reindeer encapsulate your entire existence, it’s no wonder you keep coming up with new and interesting words to describe your surroundings. It’s not like we Brits have a leg to stand on: I can use the word mizzle and you all know precisely how it differs to drizzle. 

it’s midway through day two and we’re developing our own lexicon of ice…

Anyway, it’s midway through day two and we’re developing our own lexicon of ice. There’s ‘place where frantic flailing occurs’, ‘ice that causes Audi to snap from oversteer to understeer’ and, most lethal of all, ‘Subaru tyre ice’. That’s where all noise disappears bar the electronic click of an ABS system doing precisely nothing to slow you down. 

These, I probably don’t need to point out, are the ‘safe’ cars, the ‘easy’ cars, the ‘everyday’ cars. Out here, they’re the cars we’ve been using to get ourselves about, to load up with camera kit, to carry snacks and coats. The back seats of the Subaru are hidden under a thick layer of Monster Munch, the weight distribution of the Mercedes GLA is severely affected by Peli cases. There’s nothing intimidating about a 4wd hatchback, even one with 355bhp, when it’s parked next to a Bentley of roughly twice the size and weight or a rally car with tyres straight out of Death Race 2000. 

The potency of the Audi RS3 isn’t in doubt. Broadly speaking, the concept is identical to the last RS3, but the new one has undergone myriad small changes and one big one: the switch to the new MQB chassis. The 2.5-litre, five-cylinder turbo motor has been upped by 27bhp and 11lb ft, so it (surprise, surprise) has the edge for power and torque over the GLA, there’s a 7spd S tronic ’box in this one and 4wd that can send up to 100 per cent of torque to the rear axle. 

It’s a permanent 4wd system, torque split 50:50 the same as the Subaru in normal driving, but, unlike the Merc, it doesn’t decouple the back axle in a bid to improve efficiency. The multi-plate clutch is mounted on the rear axle to help even out the nose-heavy weight distribution, and is controlled by software rather than hardware. It has some torque-vectoring capability, and there’s a function in the Drive Select system where, if you select Dynamic mode, and put the traction control into its Sports setting, it sends more power to the rear. Enough, apparently, to induce oversteer…

The Merc is more front-biased, power only sent rearwards when the systems deem it necessary. As with the RS3, the electro-hydraulically controlled multiple-disc clutch is integrated into the rear diff, and when slip is detected up front, a hydraulic pump presses the clutch plates together, channelling torque to the rear end. But only up to
50 per cent of it – that’s the most it can deliver, whereas it’s the least the Audi can apportion. 

You know the rest of the GLA. It’s the high-rise A-Class, a bit of body-cladding to armourplate it against the urban elements. The modest 2.0-litre in-line four cylinder has one beefy blower, giving the 355bhp Mercedes a specific power output of 178bhp per litre of swept capacity. The figures for the Audi and Subaru are 146bhp/litre and 120bhp/litre respectively. You’ll have to forgive me here, but for drivability and response, high specific output figures are rarely a good thing, suggesting an engine that makes all its power, all of a sudden, all at the top end. The Merc gives away half a litre of capacity to its rivals, and an extra cylinder to the RS3. On paper, it’s the most efficient, and blatting back and forth between our lodge at Ottsjö and Kall it managed 37mpg, the Audi 32, the Subaru 25.  

Nothing looks more at home on the ice of Lake Kvarntjärnen than the WRX STi. Well, until it starts moving. But as a static object, the proportions and stance of the Subaru are just about perfect. It looks balanced and fast, up on its tip-toes yet set square on the surface. This is how it’s always been. Don’t forget cars such as the RS3 and GLA owe their origins to these rally replicas, they were just cross-bred with hot hatches – and in the case of the Merc, cross-bred again with an SUV.  

So others have moved on, but despite the fact it withdrew from rallying years ago, Subaru hasn’t. Still got a turbocharged flat-four engine, manual gearbox and a pure hydraulically controlled centre differential with a viscous limited-slip diff on the rear axle. Yes, the stability system will get its electronic teeth into things if it deems it necessary, but it can be fully deactivated, and here, unique among any of our 12 cars, you have some measure of manual control. The DCCD (Driver’s Control Centre Differential) allows you to tinker with the locking of the centre diff and LSD. Auto + sends more power to the front, Auto - to the rear, or there are six steps of manual control. Leave it alone and in ordinary driving, away from the challenges of an ice lake, the effects of 296bhp and 300lb ft are split evenly front to rear.  

Knowing all this, we had expectations. That the RS3 would be lairier than before, that the GLA would be a sorry disappointment and that the WRX STi would cream them both around the lap. 

Wrong on all counts. 

One corner at Kvarntjärnen revealed the characteristics of these cars best. The One Where the Audi Snaps from Oversteer to Understeer. Not the pithiest corner name admittedly; it’s the long left-hander at the far end, the one where the opening image for this feature was shot. In that picture, all appear to be conforming to expectations: the Audi is in a four-wheel drift, the Merc is understeering and the Subaru is going faster than any of them. 

As you may have guessed from the corner name, the photo has caught the Audi in its transition phase. This is brief, a mere moment of calm before a flurry of flailing. You turn in with the Audi and it feels good, you’re off the power and the extra weight on the front has encouraged it to dig for that bit more grip than the back, which is moving off line. Now you’re back on the power, and it’s starting to slide, to arc into oversteer. You unwind the steering, to apply opposite lock, it feels like heaven. You go for a dash more power…

…and all of a sudden, it’s as if the leccy brain has woken up, had a panic attack and spat all the power to the front axle. Instead of viewing the picturesque ice lake from a side window, the front wheels accelerate and the nose swings back round as the car transitions back intoDefault Audi mode. You’re now facing the trees head-on. They come closer quite quickly. 

Nothing looks more at home on the ice than the WRX STI

Behind it, the Merc driver is having a much more placid time of things. Where the Audi seems happy to throw a bit of power to the rear, then have sudden second thoughts, the Merc is more balanced in its approach, more considered, appears to do some thinking first. So you go in, tickle the throttle, the electronics have a ponder and decide that the best method of attack will be the four-wheel drift. It then sticks with that decision until you’re out the other side. It’s amazingly neutral. OK, so it makes the same decision at every corner, but as simple tricks go, it’s a good one and suggests Merc has set the electronics up to be very predictable.  

The Subaru is the only car that gives you options. It has a manual handbrake, after all. It’s also the best balanced and responds most accurately to inputs through the steering and throttle. Here, you can flick it in if you decide on broadside, or go in more gently and let the differentials nullify the understeer. It may be crude, cheap and rowdy by comparison with the Germans, but it has that extra level of control and involvement that actually lets you know not only what’s going on, but that you have some say in what to do about it. And yes, pressing the switches does make a difference. Plus it was one of only two cars here (the other being the Lamborghini Huracán) that was faster with the stability-control systems in Sport than with them turned off. Stig was less than impressed by that. 

One thing let the Subaru down: tyres. All three were on winters, but the STi’s Nokians seemed unable to get keyed into the surface as well as the GLA’s Pirellis – it was hopeless under brakes. The RS3 was slowest of all – a combination of tyre and traction issues. It was decent enough through gentler, shorter corners, but you had to be patient and super-smooth to go quickly, or the turbo would quickly ramp up and it would abandon all decorum as a barrage of wheelspin arrived. 

It’s altogether possible, of course, that these traits (eagerness, the fast-reacting 4x4 system) serve the RS3 very well as a road car. It’s closely related to the Golf R, after all, and that’s our favourite hot hatch of all at the moment. We’d love to report that they do, but we weren’t, for some curious reason, allowed to drive the RS3 on the road. What we can tell you is that the five-door-only RS3 has a typically lovely cabin, good seats and a pleasingly burbly exhaust. 

We can tell you more about the GLA, and it’s good. I’m not a massive fan of the A45 AMG – it’s too nose-led, and the ride is clumsy – but the GLA’s extra suspension travel makes it more relaxed and absorbent, without losing much body control. It felt taut, rapid and not nearly as peaky of engine as I’d expected. In fact, it felt so at home in the heart of Sweden, it could have been a Volvo. Just faster, more composed and sweeter to drive. 

The Subaru? It feels old away from the ice. It’s noisy on the road, the gearbox is sharp, a cheap orange glow bathes the interior. I find it hard to see why people would have this instead of a similarly priced Golf R these days. But, boy, does it still know how to move, and on the ice very little moved with more dexterity. Rávnnot6, that’s what the Saami would call it. 

What do you think?

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