Watch it at wheelstv WheelsMag.com.au/Tassietour
BOATS AND cars usually don’t mix. When describing how a car handles, if you’re painting the picture using any references to water or nautical pursuits, there’s a strong chance that said vehicle is a wallowing, nauseating pile of sick. And therefore not suited to Tasmania’s magnificent roads.
If you’re from mainland Australia, however, and want to traverse the Apple Isle in something other than a rented Camry, it’s across Bass Strait you’ll go by the only means possible, on board the ‘new’ Spirit of Tasmania, which apparently isn’t a boat at all. It’s a ship. A bloody huge one that also transports cars.
When a recent launch invite mentioned ‘new Audi RS3 Sportback’ and ‘Tasmania’ in the same sentence, our ears swivelled like K-9’s, provoking the obvious question: “Any chance one could be left there and we’ll ship over the party?” Followed by another, this time to the office crew: “What should we take?”
Well, how about the sub-$100,000 performance stars of 2015?
After burying six cars in the Spirit’s bowels for a surprisingly calm passage (see sidebar, right), the aforementioned Audi RS3 made its rendezvous at Devonport’s terrific Laneway cafe to square up against a mouth-watering cross-section of what $50-80K currently buys you.
The list reads like a ‘who’s who’ of semi-affordable performance. A now-iconic front-drive turbocharged manual coupe (the Renaultsport Megane 275 Cup Premium), an equally cult-ish rear-drive V8 manual sedan (Holden Commodore SS-V Redline), a small but very feisty hot hatch (Mini John Cooper Works), a larger and longer-tailed variation of the world’s favourite hot-hatch (VW Golf R Wolfsburg wagon), a purist-pleasing, traditional rear-drive turbo-six (the BMW M135i) and a most un-traditional, mega-boosted hot hatch in box-fresh 2016 form (Mercedes-AMG A45).
Almost unintentionally, our selection throws up a bunch of mini comparos. New 280kW A45 versus the 270kW RS3. Slightly cheaper 240kW M135i versus both those two and its smaller 170kW Mini family member.
All-wheel-drive Golf R versus its pricier RS3 relative.
Megane versus anything with four cylinders and a pulse.
And SS-V Redline versus the lot, packing the greatest performance-metal-for-money quotient on the planet.
Starting at Devonport, the route will see us circumnavigate Tasmania anti-clockwise, stretching beyond Burnie to Somerset, then south down the splendiferous Murchison Highway through the Hellyer Gorge, Tullah and Zeehan before overnighting in Strahan, 245km away. Day Two will consist of a 300km thrash south-east to Hobart, while Day Three will kickoff at sparrows at Baskerville Raceway, 22km from the island’s capital in a town called Old Beach. And end with a mad dash back to the ship, roughly three hours north, with all cars and crew intact. Or so we hope.
THE Spirit of Tasmania (I & II, operating simultaneously) have recently been gutted and refurbished, eradicating the RSL-on-water feel of the previous, circa-2002 fit-out.
Mid-century-modern seating and a hint of hipster in the new Tasmanian Market Kitchen buffet (replacing the former ala carte dining area with its exxy prices and restricted space) have thrust the Spirit of Tassie straight into this decade.
Overnighters can travel frugally by sleeping in a Recliner (think Economy class), or choose from 222 ensuite-equipped rooms – twin singles, four-person bunk beds, or a Delxue Cabin with a queen-sized bed.
The day trip is 9am-6pm, the night version (always our choice) is 7.30pm-6am. Check out spiritoftasmania.com.au.
EVEN FOR those of us who’ve spent umpteen years behind the steering wheels of highly powered Holden Commodores, the VF Series II V8 feels and sounds like a breath of fresh air. Finally, there’s an exhaust note worthy of eight cylinders, while the meaty, sharper-geared 304kW 6.2-litre LS3 V8 is the perfect companion for the Redline version’s excellent FE3- tuned chassis.
Even on 20s with a tray out back, the new Redline rides remarkably well, and so our manual sedan proves as it hugs the Tasmanian coastline west of Devonport before taking a less-travelled 43km route via Mount Hicks to the famous Hellyer Gorge. Well, famous to anyone who follows, or has competed in, Targa Tasmania.
You’d think that Hellyer Gorge earned its name from the “hell yeah” challenge of its super-twisty 9km rainforest section, but it’s actually named after the first Pommy to survey the area (Henry Hellyer), who was also the first European to reach the summit of Cradle Mountain (in 1831).
Through the Gorge’s narrow, undulating twists and turns, I push hard in the SS-V Redline to maintain a lead over the Catalunya Red RS3 flashing in its rearview mirror. The VE/VF Commodore has never had great pedal placement for heel-and-toeing, but delving deep into the brake travel of this car’s resilient Bremboclamped discs, the big-boned Redline manages to thread the whole experience together with surprising deft.
Greatest of all, though, is its power-down ability.
Blipping down to second and nailing it from every apex, there’s barely any slippage from either of its 275mm-wide rear Bridgestones, at least on a dry day like today. Tasmania is experiencing its longest
“It held on a lot better than I thought it might through the faster corners. You can slide it around a little bit, but it’s so controllable at the same time. The engine’s really good; it just revs so hard now. It has a really nice gearbox [and its] steering is very responsive. The car does start to move around a bit more after a couple of laps when the tyres are quite warm, but it’s progressive and easy to correct. And lots of fun to drive hard.”
You wouldn’t know it from his youthful looks and quiet demeanour, but Matt Campbell is a rising superstar of Aussie tintop racing. Aged just 19, he’s already made a habit of beating some of the best Porsche racers in the country, like Craig Baird and Steven Richards, after he finished third overall in his rookie season of the Australian Carrera Cup this year. Not bad for a trained carpenter from the small Queensland town of Warwick. Racing is in Matt’s blood; his grandfather Bill Campbell ran Morgan Park Raceway and his Aunt ‘TC’, who taught him to drive, also races. Eventually Matt hopes to race Porsches internationally or bang doors with Craig Lowndes in the V8 Supercars championship.
Engine 6162cc V8 (90°), ohv, 16v Max power 304kW @ 6000rpm Max torque 570Nm @ 4400rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Weight 1766kg Power-to-weight 172kW per tonne 0-100km/h 4.9sec (claimed) Economy 19.3L/100km (tested) As-tested price $54,540
heatwave in 50 years and the all-paw Audi doesn’t have the advantage it may have had in the damp moss Hellyer Gorge is known for.
I stick with the Commodore until lunch, a diversion away from the A10 into the former tin-mining hub of Waratah, the first town in Australia with electric street lighting (1886). Over burgers (but sadly not beer) at the Bischoff Hotel, we’re regaled with stories of the area, but the most valuable is the suggestion that we head via Reece Dam, half an hour south, rather than the main highway.
Exiting Waratah in the only other manual of our group, the white Renaultsport Megane whooshes and crackles its way towards the Reece Dam turn-off on Pieman Road.
Indeed, every time you lift off the throttle, the 201kW Megane’s Akrapovic exhaust pops on cue, to an almost certifiable degree because this thing is truly nuts. In the best way possible.
And in a timeless fashion. Age simply cannot weary the Renaultsport Megane’s chassis – particularly the 275 Cup with its spunkier power output and mad-bastard exhaust – even though it’s certainly taking a toll on its interior. Still, the bits you work with, like its Alcantaraclad steering wheel, its metal-knobbed gearshift, its brilliant pedal placement and its vice-like Recaro buckets, are virtually textbook perfect.
Hammering into the setting sun along Pieman Road, the ageing Renault is sensational. You point and it
Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 201kW @ 5500rpm Max torque 360Nm @ 3000rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Weight 1376kg Power-to-weight 146kW per tonne 0-100km/h 6.0sec (claimed) Economy 16.0L/100km (tested) As-tested price $52,990
pivots, matching every driver input with a sublime level of poise that Renaultsport should bottle right now, just in case it forgets what constitutes handling greatness.
The next-gen RS Megane will be five-door-only, and possibly dual-clutch only, just like the Clio, so this is truly a moment to savour. As the road snakes left and right, peppered with the odd long-ish straight, I laugh out loud as the Megane blasts and cracks from its exhaust, edging its tail out with utter confidence on corner entry, adjusting its line almost instinctively via the throttle, and sucking itself towards each apex like a giant vacuum.
The Reece Dam detour is almost twice the distance (96km) to Zeehan compared to the main highway route, but out on the plateau near Whaleback Lookout, surrounded by unspoiled 360-degree views, not to mention almost no traffic, it’s a moment to savour. As photographer Brammers and the film crew set up for a group shot, I nab the facelifted A45 for the first time – painted in a love-it-or-hate-it Ebaite Green metallic (I’m of the former) – and blast back down the preceding corners for a taste.
Twenty seconds in, the difference in character is blatantly obvious. Gone is the almost raucous, animalistic flavour of its exhaust, replaced by an entirely different sound. With its ‘loud’ exhaust button activated, the 280kW A45 produces a true high-fidelity sound – sharper, crisper and edgier than before – that’s more pure in its tone, but also a little more grown up.
I’m not entirely sure that I welcome the passing of its ‘dirtier’ personality, and I’m also not convinced that it needed adaptive dampers either. Unusually, the old A45 was the best-riding A-Class, which says volumes about the flaws of its lesser siblings, yet AMG wanted the updated A45 to appeal to a broader market, while still nailing the highs this super-hatch is capable of. Adding two grand’s worth of AMG Dynamic Plus package which includes a new front axle differential lock (and a tyre pressure monitoring system), can only enhance the pleasure.
Flush with the sweeter taste of AMG’s little road rocket, I grab its nemesis – the instigator of this sevenstrong epic, Audi’s RS3 quattro – for the final ’Roododging 100 kays or so into Strahan.
The voracity of Tassie’s wildlife and the volume of its road kill is well-documented, yet the off-beat RS3 manages to bark its way through the Mount Dundas forest without messing up its pretty face.
After the joys of the low-slung, intimate Megane, and the newfound crispness of the A45, I’m initially a little disappointed in the RS3. Maybe it’s the feeling that I’m sitting too high on its beautiful diamond-stitched leather Recaros. Or the vertical pitch of its (optional) magnetic-ride suspension in its cushiest mode, and the distance of its steering connection either side of straight ahead. I have no issue with its interior, which is a visual and tactile feast of gorgeous finishes and
“Very good in corners.
You can tip it in quite hard, gets a little bit loose on entry but very controllable and it just hangs on so well in the middle of the corner.
You can throw it around a bit and it can take it. You can chuck it in sometimes to get the rear around, and then just drive it through corners, being careful not to use too much throttle otherwise it will just understeer. But very controllable and very enjoyable. Just hangs on so well and has so much grip.”
“Possibly the quickest car in a straight line, and also smashes the rest under brakes. It does squirm around a bit under really hard braking, but as long as you’re smooth, it pulls up really well. It also puts its power down so well compared to the other cars. Its cornerexit ability is brilliant; you can feel the new front diff really working.
Coming off the turn, you can feed it loads of throttle, with heaps of lock still on, and it just gets it to the ground.”
characterful design, like the (optional) black seatbelts with red edges.
Unwilling to divert my eyes from the darkening road long enough to program its Individual mode, which separates the steering setting from damping, drivetrain, exhaust sound and ESC sensitivity, I push on with the RS3 in ‘Auto’, wishing at times that it had the adaptive cornering headlights of the Audi S3 I drove on these very same roads in the dark nearly a decade ago. But the RS3’s full-LED peepers throw plenty of white light forward, and somehow I don’t see a single glint of animal life.
Back at base camp in Strahan, an extended wait for the M135i indicates it hasn’t been so lucky. The Beemer creeps into town and joins us on the verge, carrying the war wounds of a wallaby kiss at 50km/h. Bumper cracked and dressed in fur, it highlights the one big risk of driving at dusk in rural Australia.
DEPENDING on your viewpoint, the eastern exit out of Strahan is either the greatest stretch of main road in the country, or the worst. From virtually the moment the 100km/h zone begins, just on the high edge of town, the Lyell Highway draws a squirrelly and wonderfully indirect 40km route to the Zeehan Highway, just outside of Queenstown.
Trucks, school buses, scenic dawdlers and enthusiastic locals trace its length every day, yet it’s the perfect back-to-back location for our magnificent seven.
Having hit town in the RS3 the night before, I decide to start with it … and discover a totally different side to its character.
In Dynamic mode, with ESC Sport allowing some play time, the RS3’s steering (with just 2.1 turns lockto- lock) improves immensely when it’s being thrown about. On a multi-faceted, challenging road like this, the five-pot Audi feels brilliantly chuckable, and far less nose-heavy than I’d expected. Perhaps that’s the genius of fitting narrower rear tyres (235/35R19s) than front 255s), allowing a small amount of tail slip in order to dissolve understeer. Yet there’s so much rear-end purchase to lean on that you simply keep building speed and confidence, while digging deep into provoking some rear-biased drive out of corners. Unless you’re being ham-fisted with it, the harder you push, the better the RS3 gets.
It’s a fast car too, with a warbling 270kW turbo-five that insatiably growls its way to 6800rpm in a seamless surge.
But a bit more induction noise inside the cabin would be welcome, even though the exhaust barking on upshifts and crackling on overrun is a terrific party trick.
Engine 1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 280kW @ 6000rpm Max torque 475Nm @ 2250-5000rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Weight 1480kg Power-to-weight 189kW per tonne 0-100km/h 4.2sec (claimed) Economy 17.4L/100km (tested) As-tested price $82,370
Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 170kW @ 5200-6000rpm Max torque 320Nm @ 1250-4800rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Weight 1220kg Power-to-weight 139kW per tonne 0-100km/h 6.1sec (claimed) Economy 11.7L/100km (tested) As-tested price $55,450
“Doesn’t matter whether it’s high-speed or low-speed corners, initial turn-in sees it moving around quite a lot in the rear. You don’t want to hit a bump the wrong way, or have a little bit of attitude on it at the same time, otherwise it could actually turn you around. And it struggles up the hill; it doesn’t quite have the top-end power of the faster cars. It’s still fun, just not as complete as the others.”
The A45 loves blurting its exhaust too, only it’s never been as sharp as this. Its 280kW 2.0-litre turbo four produces a more sporting note than the RS3’s velvety 2.5, and it delivers both outside and in. But it’s the new A45’s finessed handling ability that shines.
In Sport+ mode, it’s a more neutral handler than the RS3, with not as much emphasis on its back end if you trail-brake into a corner, but it’s surprisingly resistant to understeer and has better body control than the pre-facelift model.
What stands out most is its focus. The refreshed A45 isn’t about messing around and dynamic histrionics; it’s about getting the job done with razor-like precision. It has barely any bodyroll and almost no lost motion in its approach to going hard. Yet if this sounds boring, believe me, it isn’t. Not in something this ballistic, with such tremendous throttle response and adjustability, and such serious power-down intent.
I’ve never been a huge fan of any Golf R generation, or even its R32 predecessor (rasping exhaust note aside), but the Mk7 Wolfsburg is really impressive on the Lyell Highway. Maybe it’s the extra weight out back but there’s something eminently likeable – and amazingly chuckable – about this Golf R for families.
It’s 206kW 2.0-litre turbo four sounds terrific when hauling hard, though its relative bluster compared to the A45’s super-gnarly soundtrack from the same engine configuration. The Golf understeers more readily than the RS3’s rear-biased AWD set-up, but ESC Sport still allows some slip in the tail for plenty of confidenceinspiring dynamic fun. Great seats too, with a driving position that feels slightly lower than the Audi’s, but what you gain in sticker-price saving, you clearly lose in ultimate edge and talent.
In contrast, the front-drive Megane manual feels like it’s hard-wired to your nervous system. In the dry, there’s almost no corner-exit understeer and its power-down is as impressive as the RS3’s and A45’s, or perhaps even better given the way the Megane pulls itself tighter in a corner. Add throttle adjustability par excellence and a faithfully wagging tail and it’s no wonder everyone climbs from the Megane astonished at how great its chassis still is.
That’s all bad news for the Mini JCW though.
Blasting away from our back-to-back base, the Mini’s muscular 170kW 2.0-litre turbo four makes all the right noises as it growls and blurts its way up through its ratio set, but you can already sense its relative lack of front-end grip. And, after a couple of corners, its lack of dynamic cohesion. There’s something a little synthetic about the JCW’s hot-hatch approach. Its steering feels overly reactive, and while its handling is fun to a point, its 205/40R18 low-friction tyres aren’t grippy enough to deliver what its balance and initial turn-in promise.
Until you get used to it, you can’t really lean on the JCW in a corner with the confidence of its rivals, yet there’s no doubting its speed or accuracy.
The M135i, on the other hand, is completely different. Suave and sophisticated compared to the relatively brash RS3 and A45, not to mention the frenetic Mini, it’s a real wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is, until you notice the pink Hollywood tape holding its bruised chin together, and the highly professional collection of zip-ties trying to keep its intercooler parallel to the ground.
For a price that’s closer to Golf R territory than RS3 or A45, the turbo-six M135i hatch sits in its own little niche, underplaying its talents by looking very unassuming. But once you nail its loud pedal, prepare to see the whites of the driver’s eyes.
Its 240kW 3.0-litre is super strong, yet also refined, which disguises its accelerative ability somewhat.
BMW claims 4.7sec to 100km/h, which is pretty darn serious (and potentially a little optimistic), yet I think f
Engine 2979cc 6cyl, dohc, 24v, turbo Max power 240kW @ 5800-6000rpm Max torque 450Nm @ 1300-4500rpm Transmission 8-speed automatic Weight 1450kg Power-to-weight 166kW per tonne 0-100km/h 4.7sec (claimed) Economy 14.8L/100km (tested) As-tested price $70,344
“Very surprising, very different from what I thought it was going to be. Actually very quick in a straight line and very driveable. Really good at high-speed corners on turn-in, but it doesn’t slide. You can chuck it in, play with it a little bit, and it doesn’t move around much. It can start to step out under hard acceleration but nothing too excessive. Just probably lacking that bit of drive compared to the other cars.”
it loses something in the translation via an eight-speed automatic. Too many gears, too much shifting, and not enough time to savour the chubby six’s torque, let alone its sweet note.
The M135i handles fluidly, and it’s great to have rear-wheel drive for balance adjustment and cornerexit drive, if not brakes that feel a bit mushy. What it ultimately lacks is the definable performance edge of its sportier M235i coupe brother. Given its understated ability, is the M135i a performance car mainly in name and acceleration?
No one could accuse the Commodore SS-V Redline of that. Visually, aurally and dynamically, Australia’s finest is loud and proud, bellowing its way through the Lyell Highway’s cuttings, rolling moderately but with such excellent poise. There’s something deeply satisfying in a rear driver that has the power to exploit its chassis, and vice versa, and the VFII Redline delivers on all counts.
With its tireless brakes, tremendous V8 grunt and brilliant corner-exit thrust, the Redline again proves astoundingly adept at transferring its brawn into brio.
Indeed, it’s punchier out of second-gear corners than Mundine at his best, supported by its exceptional mid-corner grip and balance. Sure, the SS-V Redline is a big and relatively heavy sedan, completing the journey alongside three-door hatches weighing up to 500kg less, but it ties everything together superbly. And it’s fun!
Even our hired gun, Carrera Cup-winning Matt Campbell, is surprised at how agile the Commodore is: “It held on a lot better than I thought; it’s really fun”.
Engine 1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 206kW @ 5100- 6500rpm Max torque 380Nm @ 1800- 5100rpm Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch Weight 1509kg Power-to-weight 137kW per tonne 0-100km/h 5.2sec (claimed) Economy 15.5L/100km (tested) As-tested price $58,990
“Really good in the mid-corner phase, and really good under brakes.
It does understeer a bit under power out of corners, but I think for a wagon, it does really well. Obviously Baskerville is a pretty bumpy track, and it does make the Golf R bounce around a bit on entry, and it does push the nose a bit on the way into slower corners, but overall it hangs on really well.”
IT’S AFTER lunch, and Hobart is still almost 300km away. With yesterday’s wildlife love-tap fresh in everyone’s minds, and the odd rain squall dumping on Tassie’s perpetually drenched West Coast, we swap cars at the lookout above Gormanston and hammer east.
Given the apparent lack of love between the overstyled electric-blue Mini and myself, I volunteer for the JCW’s plastic key and set the pace to ‘must make it by sundown’.
With its LED headlights blazing, and rain dampening some very slippery corners on the other side of Queenstown’s mountain range, I tread the fine line between keeping the grip-shy Mini pointing in the right direction, and keeping the hard-charging A45 behind me honest. It’s a challenge that grows into a pleasure.
As the shoddy weather retreats and Hobart’s 30-degree ‘heatwave’ beckons, I really start to bond with the Mini JCW. No, I don’t like its styling ‘add-ons’ and I wish someone had confiscated the crayons from the interior design team, but with its big sunroof wide open, its windows down, its cracking engine on song and its Harman/Kardon stereo cranking Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’ with distortion-free abandon, I’m having a seriously great time. And I’m being deafened by something other than its tyre noise.
Dial the JCW’s adaptive suspension down from ‘Sport’ (which I’d used in the back-to-backs) to ‘Mid’ and its ride is massively improved. It also removes some of the skittishness of its handling, moderating its over-eager steering response to create a much more balanced hot hatch. I’d previously questioned why anyone would buy an automatic JCW, but in this environment, its upshift blurting and amenable steering-wheel paddles make the whole car gel like I never believed it could. Finally, I can see some promise for a future Mini GP – easily the best variant in each previous ‘New Mini’ generation.
Hours later, we check into Hobart under the cloak of darkness, incident free. After dinner and a beer at the New Sydney Hotel, someone makes the call that fuel, a scrub, and track-spec tyre pressures might be a good idea before bed.
But it seems big-smoke Tassie isn’t quite sure what to make of our car line-up. With six hi-po Euros and just the one Aussie parked at the BP car wash, a longhaired local yells out “American Muscle!” with moshpit- like fervour, then gets into a VW New Beetle and dawdles away.
Engine 2480cc 5cyl, dohc, 20v, turbo Max power 270kW @ 5550-6800rpm Max torque 465Nm @ 1625-5550rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Weight 1520kg Power-to-weight 178kW per tonne 0-100km/h 4.3sec (claimed) Economy 16.1L/100km (tested) As-tested price $91,215
mag.com.au “Very quick in a straight line – over 190km/h down the shute. [But] braking I’m not too sure about. It has a bit of an odd feel under very heavy braking. It starts to pull up, but then the ABS releases a lot of pressure, so it sort of skates forward a fair bit. It’s pretty pointy, but it doesn’t really get the rear involved unless you really start to chuck it into tighter corners; only then does the rear start to come around. But it still doesn’t get a big slide happening, and you don’t really have to correct it.
You can just let the all-wheel-drive pull you straight.”
ANOTHER dawn rise, this time it’s for a really good cause. Baskerville Raceway. This hilly, bumpy, old-school Tasmanian track has a whiff of mini Mount Panorama about it, and Matt Campbell has never even driven it before. But after a few sighting laps, he reckons the simulator he’s been trying out is absolutely spot-on.
This race-winning 19-year-old knows his stuff.
First car out is the Golf R wagon, clocking a decent 1.04:3 and some solid praise from Matt. But the excitement factor just isn’t there. While the blackwheeled VW is a foolproof track-day car, it isn’t particularly happy at ten-tenths. Dial your enthusiasm back to eight, and with a bit of provocation, it’s kinda sporty and fun. But the hottest Golf on sale is more about being a proficient road car, at least until the rumoured 295kW R400 sees the light of day.
Next up is the Commodore. It was only 15 years ago that anything below an HSV GTS wilted like hot lettuce under racetrack pressure, yet here we have a Holden-badged SS (albeit a Redline) with genuinely astounding mid-corner grip and balance, not to mention brakes that are up to the task. Its 1:03.6 says more about the weight it’s dealing with than its lack of ability, yet it’s the fun factor that has everyone surprised. Whether drifting for the benefit of science or crackling on overrun while braking deep into corners, the Redline gives off a happy-go-lucky vibe that is infectious.
The pointy Megane is next, and while it doesn’t have the AWD Golf’s off-the-line squirt, it definitely has what it takes on a racetrack, as shown in its 1:03.3 lap time.
That said, while the front-drive Megane would be more suited to a fast circuit like Phillip Island than tight Baskerville, it’s still a blast to hear it popping, and feel it pivoting, around the Tassie circuit’s elevated goodness.
Yet the Megane does share one quality with the Golf.
Pushed too hard, it will scrabble for traction and can wash a bit wide in understeer, which is something you almost never feel on the road. Yet if you edge back a touch from the Renault’s slightly woolly extremities, it’s instantly back on line, chasing that dragon.
Next, the German big guns. And the Mini. The RS3 heads out first and clocks the best time so far – 1:02.6 – but it isn’t faultless. Matt has uncovered some braking quirks while setting a lap time and there’s ultimately some corner-exit understeer, though the RS3 is still a blast. As on the road, you can throw it around like a footy at the beach and it never goes out to sea. It’s just that it’s a bit too cultured to really go nuts.
Then the Audi’s arch rival, the AMG A45. It feels lighter and punchier than the RS3, with gearing more suited to Baskerville and a brilliantly neutral attitude, with highly focused braking and gear shifting.
The adaptive-damped A45 manages to achieve the hard-driven racetrack poise of its (optionally) sportssuspended predecessor, while wailing, at scalpel-sharp pitch, one of the raspiest four-pot notes of all time. And the actual time? A 1:02 flat.
An even bigger surprise is the M135i. It sneaks under the radar to clock a 1:02.6 – exactly the same time as the RS3 – which says volumes about its balance and the strength of its drivetrain, battling against its lack of appropriate rear-end hardware to really channel all that relentless turbo-six drive to the ground.
Finally, the Mini. On Baskerville’s bumpy surface, with its damping in skatey Sport mode, the JCW is a bit unsettled, betrayed by its 1:06.3 laptime. There’s exhaust-blurting grunt aplenty and good chassis grip, but its underdone tyres and tail-wagging propensity when braking hard dissolve both confidence and speed.
With the track hot-lappery over and a looming Devonport departure, we head to the nearest BP for gullet-loads of 98 octane and definitive proof of what you pay for the performance on offer.
Not surprisingly, the lithe Mini takes the economy crown, though its 11.7L/100km average is better than anyone could’ve expected. The slightly injured M135i was nursed for much of the last two days, resulting in a solid 14.8L/100km, while the Golf R (15.5) and Megane (16.0) shows just how much fuel it takes to make big power from their small-ish turbo fours.
Unexpectedly, the rapid RS3 almost seems parsimonious at 16.1L/100km, whereas the A45 (17.4) and the big-capacity V8 Commodore (19.3) demonstrate not only their hard-driven thirst, but the enthusiasm of their drivers behind the wheel. Some cars were definitely pushed harder than others, and the SS-V Redline actually travelled the most distance (862km versus 808km in the Mini). ille’s
PRECONCEPTIONS are a funny thing.
As decent humans, we’re meant to approach everything with an open mind – like transporting cars across notoriously rough stretches of ocean without getting sea-sick – but you can’t help pre-judging what may be.
On the cruise over, after a few local Pinots, I suspected the Golf might be a bit boring, the Megane a bit creaky, the Audi a bit stolid, the M135i not quite quick enough, the A45 arguably too brutal, the Mini having a grown man’s thirst, and the Commodore perhaps a little out of its depth. As it turns out, all those preconceptions were wrong. The only thing we knew for sure was that, providing you stay away from local wildlife (in all its forms), Tasmania is driving nirvana.
Yes, it would be great if the stealthily quick M135i toughened up a bit (and was manual), but that’s the job of the 235i coupe, and the forthcoming M2. And while the Mini JCW isn’t without its flaws, there’s a really good hot hatch in there waiting to be realised.
The Volkswagen Golf R wagon has its little niche all to itself (if you exclude Holden’s SS-V Redline Sportwagon) and we reckon its an excellent allrounder, as well as a better car than the hatch that spawned it. But if the French offered us the Megane 275 Cup Premium in a carry-all version, that would be a wagon to covet. Instead, we’re left with an ageing but still amazing three-door coupe. If Porsche made a front-drive manual sports coupe, we reckon the Megane would be pretty close to what it came up with, both dynamically and mechanically.
The inevitable war between the RS3 and A45 is a bloody close one, and probably determined by just how seriously you take your hot hatches. The characterful Audi’s chubby five-pot throb, its chuckable chassis and its delectable interior make it seem like a turbocharged Louis Vuitton man-bag, whereas the updated AMG is just so focused – as well as more polished and wellrounded than it used to be – that the fashionable Audi can’t quite match its highs, or its soundtrack, or its blinding speed around a racetrack.
But you know what the real surprise was? The Commodore. For everyone. Without any hint of jingoism or #straya bullshit or nostalgia, the SS-V Redline manual sedan is a seriously fun, extremely accomplished and hugely likeable performance sedan.
It requires no excuses, and it serves as a great reminder as to how much Tasmanian roads are gonna miss polished rear-drive muscle cars like this.