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Top Gear On Ice: Subaru's WRX takes on the Audi RS3

  1. Ordinarily, driving 651bhp’s worth of hot hatchery on a frozen lake would carry the significant risk of being buttered up a pine tree. But there’s something reassuring about these two. Something evolved: four-wheel drive.

    Which is precisely why I’m on 40 precious centimetres of ice above Lake Kvarntjärnen. Why I’ve put on two stone in clothing. Why every creak and crack makes me want to give birth to a banister of super-condensed fear: we’re discovering if that all-wheel-drive reassurance is backed up by actual, tangible benefits. And we’re doing so on the slipperiest circuit known to lunacy.

    Words: Matt Jones

    Photos: Justin Leighton and Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. I’m heading for the Audi RS3 Sportback first. Reassuringly fruity (335bhp), reassuringly expensive (£39,930), reassuringly German. OK, so it looks a bit dull, but fumble the start button and it sheds its shopping-cart parentage with a turbocharged five-pot rasp. The little connecting road that leads from the middle of the lake to the track has been scrubbed smooth, so I switch off the traction control (as much as this Audi will allow) and experiment with grip.

    My goodness, this thing’s quick. Ice-launching in it defines efficiency: the exhaust barks a gurgle, four identical rooster tails sprout from each wheel and it simply flicks itself forward. There’s no fuss inside - just a sensation not unlike the Heimlich manoeuvre followed by a g-force facelift. Then the seven-speed S tronic ‘box finds you a new gear and repeats. In a straight line, the permanent quattro is sparkling, spangling brilliance.

  3. On corners? Not so much. Crunching onto the circuit proper, I can’t resist another blast of that five-pot. Then something goes very, very wrong. The speedo’s reading 90mph; I’m doing 40mph. The rear 255-section tyres are giving the ice a token nibble, but all the meaningful power’s being chucked up front. Everything’s conspiring to create understeer, which inserts me into three feet of snow-drift with a whump. Next corner - whump. Snow-drift. Next corner - whump. Snow-drift…

    So far, so miserably safe. Time for a rethink. Currently, there’s no known cure for being a bit boring, but a quick chat with Top Gear’s ice driving instructor, Ted (see p113), reveals ways to ease the symptoms. “Brake to get weight over the front wheels, turn in, off the throttle, let the back swing round as much as possible, then race, race, race.”

  4. The Ted method works. I’m Stig Blomqvist. I’m Hannu Mikkola. But, ultimately, I’m cheating.

    The Audi does not want to do this. It wants to protect me. It wants efficiency. No bad thing in the real world - the death-avoiding advantages of four-wheel drive and keen ESP are not to be sniffed at. But this isn’t the real world. It’s an ice lake. I want something uncouth. I want a…

    WRX STi. Six letters that own the rights to road-going rally cars, that promise not to let me down on - or smear me across - a frozen lake.

  5. You’ll have probably noticed that this isn’t actually a hot hatch - it’s the saloon version (which returned in 2010). But it’s the same weight (1505kg), has the same wheelbase (2625mm), identical turbocharged 2457cc four-pot boxer engine and costs not a penny more.

    Like its stumpy brethren, it’s also supremely un-Audi. The digital displays are LCD and orange. The switchgear feels secondhand. The seat’s so hard my bottom hurts. And within 50 yards, I’m grinning.

  6. This is a proper, rally-bred thing. The squat boxer engine, which feels like it’s a carpet’s breadth from my knees, drops the centre of gravity, inspiring confidence way beyond my ability. On the first left, the arse swings round till I’m on the lock stops andlets me put on as much power as I dare. The Audi’s ESP would have deposited me in a snow-drift 20 feet ago, but the incorrigible, playful little Subaru just wants me to keep going. Preferably faster.

    Wonderful on an ice lake. Less so when you’re dropping the kids off at nursery. But that’s what’s remarkable about the Scoob; there’s a proper duality to it. Switch all the Stig-spec buttons off, and it’s an obedient companion - the four-wheel drive gathers up over-egged corners before you even know you’re in trouble, and it’ll grip with reassuring tenacity on some deeply hostile surfaces.

  7. I’m still in the Subaru when I sweep off the track and onto the main road. The Audi’s behind when a tractor leaps out from a gloomy row of pine trees. We have to swerve to avoid it but both cars collect the problem and share it between the wheels. Had we been in front- or rear-drivers, there’s a good chance I’d be getting scraped off an evergreen.

  8. It’s not that the Audi and Subaru undermine the traditional hot-hatch idiom - they just stretch it in a different direction. Both still do what these sorts of cars should - add a shot of nitrous fun to every journey - and both do it in their own way (my ego sends its thanks to Subaru, my mother sends hers to Audi). But there’s a real feeling of added value here - they will keep you safer. They’re a lot better for massive great big skids on ice lakes, too.

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