Volkswagen Scirocco v BMW 123D v Mazda RX-8 v Volvo C30 T5: Scirocco group test

The all-new Scirocco isn’t the only option if you want hot hatch practicality with a little more style

It may not be the most conventional opening gambit for a group test, but I’m going to front up with a confession. My first car was a VW Scirocco. Not the wedgy, bulbous-tailed mk2, but the pert, pretty mk1 – Giugiaro’s finest hour as far as I’m concerned. Mine was a gold 1980 1.6 GLi. I can still remember the reg number (CJO 635V), the mileage when I sold it (83,459), what I got for it (£350 – the front wings were totally rotten) and the promise I made myself that one day I’d own another Scirocco.

Never thought it could be a new one, though. But let’s face it, the resurrection of an old badge is nothing new. Retro sells and the original Scirocco was a popular car – somewhere north of half a million mk1’s were produced. And now, 16 years after the demise of the last Scirocco, and having been through a Corrado interlude, a new chapter begins.

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It’s an important car this, because it has such a broad potential audience. It’s a hot hatch with a sense of style, a coupe with proper rear seats, a TT for less money and a natural stepping stone for those coming out of Minis. As VW’s back- catalogue proves, the compact coupe is hardly a new invention. Back in the day, all the big guns hunted here. The VW Corrado aimed its fire at the Nissan 200SX; the Vauxhall Calibra stalked the Ford Probe; even Rover got in on the act with the fearsome 150mph Tomcat.

Now, we don’t pretend to know what goes on in the boardrooms of Japan and Germany, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see this class making a concerted comeback in the next couple of years. Not that the Scirocco is going to be short on rivals when it arrives in September, anyway. And here they are. There’s the Mazda RX-8. It’s fresh from a facelift, called the R3 (your guess is as good as mine), and costs two grand more than before. Why? Did you not spot the body-coloured front bumper, side skirts and rear wing? Me neither. Luckily the bumf also talks of a ‘stiffer bodyshell, uprated suspension, lower gearing, enhanced dynamics, and new Recaro sports seats’. That’s more like it. We admired the original, and the limited edition PZ was better still, so there’s a fair chance this one might poop on the Scirocco’s party.

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As could the BMW 123d. It’s such a fine car this, having impressed everyone on our eco test (issue 120) by mating 48mpg with proper rear-drive thrills. Yes, we know it’s a five-door you can see on these pages – BMW didn’t have a three-door or Coupe available at the time of our test – but in dynamic terms it makes little difference. And yes, it is a diesel. No mistake there. Why not a 125i? Because the strangled 3-litre is perhaps the most disappointing engine BMW builds; the 2-litre twin-turbo diesel, on the other hand, is one of the best.

Finally we have the car that is spiritually and conceptually closest to the Scirocco, Volvo’s C30. I must admit to having a soft spot for this car. It’s willingness to try to do something different and yet be altogether sensible at the same time is not without appeal. This is our long-term T5, knocking on the door of its first service, yet on the surface, at least, it’s happily shrugged off 12,000 miles.

The two-tone paint (Cosmic White and Java Pearl in case you’re wondering), elongated back windows and strong shoulders ensure it’s handsome in a chunky, upright way, but details like the square grille and glass tailgate serve to emphasise the car’s vertical height next to the Scirocco, where the styling cues (shallow back window, wafer-thin grille) move horizontally. In fact, visually the Scirocco knocks the C30 dead. It’s not just that it’s new and white, but that the shape works so well. It’s more flowing than the Volvo, has a more defined sense of purpose and even tastier alloys.

The Mazda’s darkened wheels are equally tasty, and certainly help give the RX-8 a more steely appearance. It looks tougher than before, more solid and purposeful. The rear-hinged rear doors are still a talking point – and a useful feature too. Of course, the BMW also has five doors, but there’s no sense of occasion to getting into the back of it, and barely any more room once you’re in there either. The Bee-Em’s styling is also way too plain in this company, the less stunted three-door being the better looking 1-series.

In fact the BMW won’t be with us until the second day of our shoot. And the German-registered Scirocco shouldn’t be here at all. Its loan to us had originally been agreed on the condition that it wasn’t to leave Germany, but after much persuasion Volkswagen eventually agreed to allow us – or more specifically Roger Green – to drive it all the way from Wolfsburg to the UK for our test.

We could have trotted off to Wales, but the need to take all four cars to both the Millbrook Proving Ground and the Bedford Autodrome dictated a more practical course of action. So we’re on and around the B660, roads that are not known for giving cars an easy ride.

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I’m nervous before getting into the Scirocco, concerned that it won’t impress as much as when we conducted our initial drive on a polished German airfield (evo 120). I needn’t have worried – the Scirocco is relishing the task in hand. It feels properly well sorted from the word go, the low-slung driving position and wide track instantly reassuring, the 2-litre turbo engine and DSG gearbox snappy and alert.

But what makes the biggest initial impression is the ride quality. Our test car has the adaptive dampers that will come as standard on all early UK cars, and the three modes – Comfort, Normal and Sport, rather predictably – do exactly what they promise. In Sport the Scirocco is firm and feelsome, but has enough give not to be thrown around on rough roads. This means that even on the B660 the little coupe can be placed confidently and accurately, even though its steering isn’t as informative as the best here. Switching to Comfort changes the Scirocco’s character, making it more gentle and laid-back. It also allows more lean, so we leave it in that mode for the cornering shots.

So far I’ve found the Scirocco entertaining, capable and adaptable, but as Rog and I swap between cars for photographer Kenny P’s Canons, I’m about to find out how the others measure up.

I’m in the Mazda next. I’ve driven RX-8s plenty of times before, and initial impressions suggest not much has changed: properly low bonnet, scuttle and seat (an ace new Recaro), thin, reedy engine note. But as soon as you start moving you can detect the stiffer frame. There’s zero flex, and precious little suspension movement either, so the R3 is tight and focused. No wonder that, after collecting the RX-8 from its Gloucestershire launch, Lord Metcalfe commented, ‘I’d forgotten how good that car is.’

It has a more complex character than the Scirocco, an innate sense of balance thanks to its rear-drive layout and weight distribution. In short it’s a more interesting car to drive, highlighting the Scirocco’s front-drive, hot hatch underpinnings. It’s wonderful around corners. There’s no slack in the feelsome steering, gearchange or pedals and you can feel every bit of g-force build through those big wheels. There’s no need to fear turning the heavy-handed stability control off – the RX-8 is so well balanced and predictable that you can confidently exploit its limits.

That’s just what Rog is doing a few minutes later. I’m following in the C30 as we head for a downhill, off-camber right-hander. It’s about the eighth time we’ve been round it, but my first in the C30. The turbocharged Volvo has no trouble keeping up with the rotary Mazda during the run-up phase, but as soon as the RX-8’s LED brake-lights flash on I know I’m in trouble. The C30 has no brakes: yards of travel, and my thumb and forefinger could do a better job on the brake discs than these pads. That first service can’t come soon enough.

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But that’s not the only place the C30 falls flat. It’s puddingy around corners; not sloppy exactly, but lazy, with no verve or urgency. The lightly sprung steering’s pretty wayward, requiring broad, sweeping inputs, so you find yourself aiming to the nearest foot – in the Mazda you choose your inch. Suspension control is lacking too, with steering kickback and a jittery approach to corrugated sections, caused by the chassis’ lateral movement.

The 123d joins the fray the next day. Like the RX-8 it’s a delight to lob at corners. Despite the weighty diesel lump up front there’s none of the understeer that afflicts the C30, just a sense of the car pivoting from a point directly under the driver’s seat. It’s neat, crisp and controllable, although the chassis isn’t as talkative as the Mazda’s. The suspension’s less absorbent than the Scirocco’s too, with more vertical movement that takes the edge off its poise. THERE’S AN INTERESTING three-way battle shaping up as we head to Millbrook. The RX-8 and the 123d have their noses in front in terms of sheer driver appeal, but the Scirocco is running them very close indeed. The VW may not have the purity of the rear-drivers, but it’s engaging, enjoyable and, well, pretty damn fast.

In fact these are all quick cars. And yep, that includes the C30, which posts a 0-60mph time of 6.6sec. Despite its DSG making it tricky to get off the line cleanly, the Scirocco manages a 6.2 – 0.9sec quicker than VW claims to 62mph with DSG. The BMW and Mazda both just pip the Volvo at 6.5sec each. In essence, though, there’s little to split all four against the clock – the differences come from the character and power delivery of the engines.

The Scirocco feels the most urgent. Its turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit is very responsive and gains revs rapidly – you can even detect a muted induction roar. The other turbo petrol engine here has an extra cylinder, but rather than letting the 2.5-litre in-line five warble away as it does in the Focus ST, Volvo has muffled it for the C30, the muted tones matching the car’s softly-softly approach but doing little to stir the soul.

For a truly bland engine, nothing can match a rotary, though. The old sewing machine analogy is a cliché, but it’s bang on the money – the RX-8 just moans at you about its utter lack of torque, finally starting to pick up the pace once the needle swings past 6500rpm. It’s smooth all right, but often frustrating to use.

The BMW, meanwhile, may be all out of puff at 4800rpm and have half the Mazda’s usable rev-range, but there’s no frustration here – the twin-turbo diesel is quicker on the uptake than the petrol Volvo and for in-gear muscle has the measure of all its rivals.

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TIME TO REFLECT. Best brakes? That award goes to the RX-8: firm pedal, little fade, good feel. Best gearchange? That’s a trickier one. It’s a toss-up between the VW’s technologically outstanding and super-rapid DSG and the snickety shift provided by the RX-8’s thumb-sized lever. Best cabin? Not the RX-8 (fussy design, cheap plastics), nor the featureless 123d. It may have overly soft seats, but as a place to spend time, the C30 takes some beating – and the Scirocco has plundered the depths of the VW parts bin too deeply to do it.

Best car? Well, the wooden spoon goes to the Volvo, that much was clear after ten miles, but even after hundreds of miles, sorting the others is tricky. After much deliberation the 123d is next to fall. Arguably the best 1-series, it’s fun to drive, but too plain and uninspiring in other areas to compete in a coupe dust-up.

There’s no question the Scirocco is the most rounded of our four, and in terms of sales may well wipe the floor with the C30 and RX-8, but that’s no reason for it to score a group-test victory. It is very good to drive, but it’s not the best at this level. That honour belongs to the Mazda RX-8 R3, the cracking chassis more than offsetting the wafer-thin torque output. By a majority vote, it wins. Me, though? I’d still have the Scirocco, of course.

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Trouble is, I’ve only driven up Goodwood’s main drive once before. That was this morning in a car the polar opposite of this: the Vauxhall VXR8. It was a cinch – there’s a direct correlation between the amount of tyre smoke produced and the cheering of the crowds. But from this Scirocco they’ll want to see speed…

Tempering my rather rash desire to give the crowd what they want is Niclass Birr. He’s one of the car’s development engineers and was a race mechanic at the Nürburgring 24-hours, where the sister car to the one here swept to class victory, finishing 11th out of over 200 cars. Today, lucky Niclass is relegated to the status of ballast and will mostly be trying not to wince as I nervously get to grips with his baby.

I’m intimidated just by the look of it – and the amount of attention it’s attracting. It’s got bigger crowds around it than this year’s Le Mans-winning Audi R10. Seriously. It’s extremely pleasant inside, though. The seat cups me like an ice cream scoop, curling my back into position. It slides too, and the steering wheel is adjustable.

I have plenty of time to familiarise myself with things while the marshals recover a car that carelessly discarded a wheel on the hill. Then it’s our turn. Fumble with the five-point harness, flick the ignition switch and stab the start button. There’s a characteristic racing rattle and chunter as it starts up, the DSG selecting first with a clunk.

And then, along with the supercars, we potter down to the start. Noise and vibration are my first impressions; Niclass and I have a quick shouted conversation over the din – we’re both in agreement about giving it the berries off the line.

It’s so informal as you line up: no red lights to watch for, just a casual ‘Off you go’ from the marshal, then a flurry of wheelspin. I can barely feel it through the helm – steering feedback is not a GT24 strong point – but I am glad to note that, despite being equipped with 315bhp, an aggressive front diff and wet-weather racing tyres, the nose doesn’t try to sniff out the edges of the cambered tarmac.

It’s quick, but no more so than the VXR8. The brakes and gears are in a different league, though. The gearbox is a sensation – as quick as a straight-cut sequential, but far smoother, and when I wallop the middle pedal for the first right-hander the brakes deliver a metaphorical slap round the chops. OK, so I can brake later.

I’m not going to, though. Henry had already warned me: ‘Watch out for Molecomb. Brake before you see it. If you wait, you’ll be too late.’ So I hit the middle pedal early, just to be sure. After that the crowds thin and the hill proper starts. The GT24 has so much grip and traction that I reckon it could slice past the infamous Wall without lifting. I settle for walloping the middle pedal. Again.

With the nasty flint dispatched, I begin to relax and enjoy the experience. Which comes to an abrupt halt about 20 seconds later as we fly under the finish banner. Not exactly enough time to come to any in-depth conclusions about the GT24, other than the fact that, as race cars go, it’s a surprisingly friendly and drivable one.

Comparison

 VW SciroccoBMW 123DMazda RX-8 R3Volvo C30 T5
EngineIn-line 4-cyl, turbochargedIn-line 4-cyl, twin-turboTwin-chamber rotaryIn-line 5-cyl, turbocharged
LocationFront, transverseFront, longitudinalFront, longitudinalFront, transverse
Displacement1984cc1995cc1308cc2521cc
Bore x stroke82.5 x 92.8mm84.0 x 90.0mmn/a83.0 x 93.2mm
Cylinder blockAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloy side castings, iron centresAluminium alloy
Cylinder headAluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylindern/aAluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing
Fuel and ignitionElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injectionElectronic engine management, direct fuel injectionElectronic engine management, sequential multipoint fuel injectionElectronic engine management, sequential multipoint fuel injection
Max power197bhp @ 5100rpm201bhp @ 4400rpm228bhp @ 8200rpm227bhp @ 5000rpm
Max torque206lb ft @ 1700-5000rpm295lb ft @ 2000rpm156lb ft @ 5500rpm236lb ft @ 1500-5000rpm
TransmissionSix-speed DSG, front-wheel drive, ESPSix-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, DTC, ASC+TSix-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, TCS, DSCSix-speed manual, front-wheel drive, TC, VSCS
"Front suspension,MacPherson struts, coil springs, DampTronic dampers, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barDouble wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspensionIndependent four-link, coil springs, DampTronic dampers, anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, dampersFive-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
BrakesVentilated discs, 312mm front, 253mm rear, ABS, BA, EBPDVentilated discs, 330mm front, 300mm rear, ABS, EBD, CBC, DBCVentilated discs, 323mm front, 302mm rear, ABS, EBDVentilated discs, 300mm front, 280mm solid discs, rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels9.5 x 20in front and rear, aluminium alloy7 x 17in front, 7.5 x 177in rear, aluminium alloy8 x 19in front and rear, aluminium alloy18in front and rear, aluminium alloy
Tyres235/40 R18 front and rear, Dunlop SP Sport 01205/50 R17 front, 225/45 R17 rear225/40 R19 front and rear, Bridgestone RE050A215/45 R18 front and rear, Pirelli P Zero Rosso
Weight (kerb)1298kg1495kg1390kg1395kg
Power-to-weight154bhp/ton137bhp/ton166bhp/ton165bhp/ton
0-60mph6.2sec (7.0sec claimed)6.5sec (7.0sec claimed)6.5sec (6.4sec claimed)6.6sec (6.2sec claimed)
Top speed143.0mph (145mph claimed)142.7mph (148mph claimed)145.7mph (146mph claimed)142.3mph (149mph claimed)
Basic price£20,940£25,875£24,995£21,285
On saleSeptemberNowNowNow
evo rating5/54/55/55/5
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