FERRYING THE KIDS BUT KEEN TO HAVE A BIT OF GRUNT?
Those in the market for a family sedan with a turbocharged, four-wheel-drive flash of aggression, please form an orderly queue.
The Subaru WRX Premium and Holden Insignia VXR aren’t rivals in a direct sense. The Subaru is smaller and less expensive than the Holden, for a start: a small-medium model at $54,990 versus a medium-large machine for $69,990.
But they go together, don’t you think? For all the difference in market position, the concept is the same: take an ordinary family four-door, then ramp up the excitement with a powerful forced-induction engine and all-wheel drive.
Even if those ordinary sedans are largely an unknown quantity in New Zealand. The WRX is based on the Impreza four-door, which we haven’t seen here for many years but exists in other markets. Insignia is also a mainstream range of General Motors models in Europe. But in both cases, New Zealand just gets these hot X-factor versions.
There’s an old-school aura around both cars. The WRX is an iconic model with heritage, ability — and an unfortunate boy-racer image that Subaru has been trying to move away from with the latest generation, which is more luxurious and refined than previous models. You can even have it as an automatic.
You could accuse the Insignia of being just plain old. It might be new to the Holden brand, but the current Insignia made its international debut back in 2008. The platform is related to the now-defunct Saab 9-5 and the Holden/Chevrolet Malibu. VXR stands for Vauxhall Racing, but in left-hook European countries the car is also known as the Insignia OPC (Opel Performance Centre).
There’s a $15,000 difference between the cheaper Subaru and Holden.
And now to business: both cars aim to thrill, as you can tell by looking at them. Oddly, the Subaru is the more visually conservative of these two; the body kit is subtle and it rides on modest 18-inch wheels, although the prominent bonnet scoop says it all.
The Insignia might be seven years old, but it’s still a stunning-looking car. The VXR goes big on the bling, with monster 20-inch alloys and lots of silver trim, including some aggressive nostrils in the front bumper.
The WRX is powered by a 191kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-four, while the VXR boasts a 239kW/435Nm 2.8-litre twin-turbo V6 (an engine built by Holden, in fact). But those figures are not indicative of a huge performance gap, because the Holden weighs 300kg more than the Subaru. So power-to-weight wise they’re pretty close: 132kW per tonne for the VXR versus 126kW for the WRX.
Real-world performance-wise the WRX feels far more sprightly, with crisp responses from both the engine and transmission. Yes, the transmission: it uses continuously variable technology but it’s all Subaru’s own work, which is why it’s called Subaru Lineartronic Transmission (SLT). On paper, it’s not a great configuration for a performance gearbox, but in practice it works brilliantly. It operates in continuous mode for normal driving, but apply heavy throttle or select Sport Sharp mode and it flicks into an eight-step calibration.
The VXR’s turbo boost seems to be on slow-burn at low speed and the gearbox is a conventional six-speed unit that’s torque-limited in first and second ratios, so it doesn’t give the impression of rapid acceleration — at least at first. The claimed 0-100km/h time is exactly the same as the Subaru, though: 6.3 seconds.
But victory to the Subaru on efficiency; it returns 8.6 litres per 100km in Australian Design Rules (ADR) testing, compared with a thirsty 11.3 for the Holden.
Once you’re cruising, the Holden powertrain feels fast and fluid, with a very different character to the Subaru’s more frantic power delivery at open-road speeds. The Insignia sounds good, too; it has a real V6 burble, which contrasts with the rather thin soundtrack of the WRX. You get a bit of turbo-whistle and that’s about it: the days of the boxer-beat seem to be long gone at Subaru.
But the days of virtuoso chassis engineering are not. The WRX has superb steering and handling, with a nimble cornering attitude and great seat-of-the-pants communication. It might be more grown-up these days, but the WRX is as much of an enthusiast machine as ever.
The interior of the Subaru WRX
On paper, the Insignia is more sophisticated than the WRX. Like its rival, it has three drive settings (standard, sport and VXR), but unlike its rival they modify not just the powertrain but also steering and suspension. There’s clear differentiation between them: Sport livens things up noticeably, while the aggressive gear changes of max-attack VXR mode mean it’s for those very serious driving sessions only.
The VXR also has a clever all-wheel-drive system, and on wet roads (which characterised much of our test week) you can feel the drive being shifted around the car to help keep the chassis in check. Clever and very capable, but ultimately the heavy Holden lacks the grip-and-go attitude of the Subaru.
These cars are not just about speed. They both have some excellent active safety equipment, including lane-change alert, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and reversing camera. The Subaru also has an odd camera feature that gives you a view of the left front wheel for parking — interesting idea, but surely a look at the rear rim would be more useful when parking against a kerb?
Sadly, the WRX still doesn’t get the camera-based EyeSight technology of the Forester and Outback, so it can’t match the VXR’s adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert or autonomous braking.
The WRX’s interior is vastly improved over previous generations, but it’s still more functional than fancy. Cabin design has never been a Subaru strong point, but the new touch-screen infotainment unit is pretty slick and the sat-nav system now has traffic information built in. Leather upholstery is standard on the Premium model.
The interior of the Holden Insignia VXR
The Insignia’s interior is as ornate as the exterior. There’s lots of black under lashings of silver garnish, which may not be to all tastes but it does create a certain ambience. You sit in heavily sculpted Recaro seats and enjoy a few high-tech touches like a virtual instrument panel and touch-controls for the climate control and seat heating.
The bottom line
We said the Subaru WRX and Holden Insignia VXR were not direct rivals — but you still want a winner, right?
The Holden has striking looks, a great soundtrack and a sumptuous feel, but on a bang-for-buck basis the Subaru still does the better job of blending genuine enthusiast appeal with the family values of a three-box sedan. It’s our winner.