Forbidden fruits: Nissan Z vs Subaru WRX vs Toyota GR Corolla

Nissan Z vs Subaru WRX vs Toyota GR Corolla 2

Nissan Z and Subaru WRX continue legendary badges, while the GR Corolla reinvents the ’90s rally formula

These three Japanese performance titans aren’t available in the UK – what are we missing out on?

With Queen Elizabeth II on bank notes and place names like Richmond and Surrey, the west coast of Canada is most emphatically a British Columbia.

Apart from the cars, of course, which are largely unlike any thing you will find in the UK. It’s primarily a land of American-style pick-up trucks and massive SUVs – but there are some Japanese interlopers that you won’t find in Britain. There’s a perfect premise, then, for us to gather the best of them atop a coastal ski hill.

From Toyota, there’s the GR Corolla, a sop thrown across the Pacific since North America doesn’t get the GR Yaris. Toyota has taken the three-pot buzz-bomb spirit of its homologation-special hatchback and infused it into a more practical four-door shape. We’ve called the bog-standard Corolla “pleasingly mischievous”, so how does nearly 300bhp and an adjustable central differential grab you?

From Subaru, Canadians are lucky enough to have both versions of the latest-generation WRX – what we once knew as the Impreza WRX. You might perhaps not recognise how the yobbo boy racer of the 1990s has matured into a family saloon with the disposition of a fluffy golden retriever. Yet the bonnet scoops and turbochargers are still here, and so is the World Rally Blue paint that evokes memories of Colin McRae and Richard Burns. Select either manual for maximum enthusiasm or CVT for daily-driver practicality and keep the brim of your baseball cap as flat as Saskatchewan.

Lastly, Nissan’s simply named Z heaves into view with the world-weariness of Toshiro Mifune’s wandering ronin in Yojimbo (a brilliant movie from 1961 – go check it out). Not entirely a new car but an ageing platform given a fresh body design and a twin-turbocharged V6 engine borrowed from Infiniti’s parts bin, this coupé is a little on the heavy side but still robust. And charismatic: Toyota asked BMW for help with the GR Supra but Nissan kept the Z’s development fully in-house, and it’s the better for it.

These aren’t direct competitors for your hard-earned pounds (well, dollars), but all promise thrills for keen drivers. So let’s see whether British enthusiasts would be within their rights to have a sour-grapes attitude to these forbidden fruits.

Nissan Z: The last samurai

Nissan Z front cornering

We’re now three decades away from the golden age of Japanese bubble-economy manufacturing. The likes of the twin-turbocharged Mazda RX-7 and Mk4 Toyota Supra are now classics to be polished and enjoyed at the weekend. But the car that proved the Rising Sun’s performance bona fides is still here to stir up trouble.

While the Z is simply named, it’s not really the right name for it: it’s more a reborn 300ZX, right down to the vintage-look tail-lights. Where the 240Z sold in the thousands because it was scarcely more expensive than a compact saloon, this current Z is more a muscular alternative to a V8 Ford Mustang. It feels engineered to be sold to the same people who either bought a 240Z new or just missed out on doing so.

Nissan’s management planned to end its sports car line after the 370Z , but the Z was championed in-house by Hiroshi Tamura, chief product specialist for the GT-R and long-time Nismo executive. His argument was that a low-volume sports car was still necessary to satisfy Nissan’s pride, even if it wasn’t hugely profitable.

Nissan Z driving – rear

The Z is an optimisation of the 370Z , which arrived way back in 2008. Despite the interior touchscreen and updated exterior styling, this is a car with old bones. The retro look is well executed, despite a mandatory front licence plate adding a whiff of Olaf, the goofy snowman from Disney’s Frozen films.

Its old-school roots are a boon. On a real-world back road, the Z is a faithful, predictable companion. The power delivery from the twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 is leonine and the action of the six-speed manual gearbox is meaty and notchy. It feels like changing gears with one of those huge, wooden-handled knives you’re given at a steak restaurant.

The Z brings nothing new to the table, but by harking back to a golden age, it delivers the required nostalgia. Europe’s sports car market is shrinking as a whole and Nissan’s focus is now firmly on electrification and crossovers. The Z feels like a last hurrah that more of Britain’s Nissan fans deserved too.

Subaru WRX and Toyota GR Corolla: Rally throwbacks

Toyota GR Corolla and Subaru WRX driving – front

On paper, the WRX and the GR Corolla look like rivals, with each having a turbocharged engine, four-wheel drive for all-weather grip and a sensible four-door layout for families. But on price alone, they live in entirely different worlds.

If Subaru still produced the hardcore STI variant, perhaps Gazoo Racing’s hot hatchback would have a fight on its hands. However, Ebisu’s accounting department is currently a great deal more interested in selling the Crosstrek and Forester SUVs to people wearing cargo trousers and brightly coloured puffer jackets.

The WRX first appeared on the North American market in the 2002 model year, and while the current version makes 40bhp more from it s 2.4-litre flat four, at 267bhp, it has also gained sufficient weight t hat most of the performance figures are essentially identical. In 2002, a WRX would show clean heels to a Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro, particularly during a spot of rain. Twenty years later, it will struggle to keep up with the feistier Hyundais.

Subaru WRX front cornering

Having said that, the WRX can still quickly scramble over broken paving that would trip up a Volkswagen Golf GTI. It’s also immensely practical, with rear seats big enough for either adult passengers or bulky child seats and a roomy boot. The point-to-point sharpness of the older models has been exchanged for refinement, which makes the WRX a friendlier highway cruiser.

The availability of a CVT since the previous (Mk4) WRX offended many a Scooby purist but basically doubled sales. It’s no sharp-shifting dual-clutch ’box, but does make the most of the boxer’s torque and suits the WRX’s easy-going personality. Besides which, no one is forcing the elastic band on you, and the manual is two grand cheaper.

With the extra plastic body cladding Subaru added for this generation, the WRX is essentially a turbocharged Crosstrek saloon.

Subaru WRX driving – rear

Sales have remained strong, so clearly the business case is there, if not purer rally-based desirability.

If the WRX represents a grownup acceptance of an ever-more changing automotive market, the GR Corolla sticks its fingers in its ears and goes running over the hills screaming at the top of its three-cylinder lungs. It’s as if Toyota was trying to exactly recreate the experience of a tuned 1990s WRX, complete with fluttering compressor surge, hissing on-throttle boost and a frankly embarrassingly basic interior.

Toyota GR Corolla driving – front

The GR Corolla steers more sharply than the WRX and the engine responds more quickly. The TIE-fighter styling is matched by its agility and the trick centre differential allows for some very tail-happy antics.

Everything about this little hatchback feels lightly deranged. It’s less stable under braking than rivals from Honda and Hyundai and it offers far less practical space than the WRX. You can even order a version lacking the rear seats. This basic Core model also costs 40% more than the entry-level WRX.

It’s wonderful and silly and only very slightly quicker than the lighter, smaller GR Yaris. Yet seeing that the GR Corolla isn’t actually that much more practical than the three-door sold in the UK, I’m not so sure the decision to have a single GR hatchback for either market was an unkind move on Toyota’s part.

Nissan Z vs Subaru WRX vs Toyota GR Corolla: Verdict

Toyota GR Corolla driving – rear

Of the two rally-bred family cars, only the GR Corolla moves the needle enough to be truly lusted after. The latest WRX is a fine Swiss Army knife of a vehicle for its use here, especially as 92% of British Columbia’s 500,000 miles of roads are unpaved. It’s a well-priced tool for camping and commuting – but Subaru’s best performance efforts can already be found on UK roads.

And swapping the GR Yaris for a larger, slightly more pragmatic version would be a fool’s bargain. A homologation special sold new out of a dealership is a very special thing in this day and age, and the smaller, lighter GR Yaris is better suited for the UK’s B-roads.

Which brings us to the Z , Nissan’s petrol sports car swansong. While its age and weight count against the Z, its throwback appeal can’t be dismissed. Were it available in the UK, it would be nimble enough for a B-road blitz, powerful enough for any jaunt to the continent and just massively appealing from both the outside and the driver’s seat. If there is any pan-Atlantic green-eyed jealousy to be felt here, it’s for the Fairlady.

First place: Nissan Z Sport

Nissan Z front quarter static

An old-school battler, ageing but invigorated with twin-turbo power

Price $49,337 (£28,800) Engine V6, 2997cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 395bhp at 6400rpm Torque 258lb ft at 1600rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual, RWD Kerb weight 1590kg 0-62mph 4.9 se c (est) Top speed 155mph Economy 28.8mpg CO2 276g/km

Second – Toyota GR Corolla Core

Toyota GR Corolla front – parked

A homologation special in spirit if not in the steel

Price $48,365 (£28,240) Engine 3 cyls, 1618cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 296bhp at 6500rpm Torque 273lb ft at 3000rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual, 4WD Kerb weight 1483kg 0-62mph 5.3sec (est) Top speed 143mph Economy 33.6mpg CO2 227g/km

Third: Subaru WRX

Two Subaru WRXs parked side by side

A kinder, softer and friendlier manifestation of Subaru’s rally ethos

Price $34,965 (£20,420) Engine 4 cyls, 2387cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 267bhp at 5600rpm Torque 258lb ft at 2000rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual, 4WD Kerb weight 1611kg 0-62mph 5.8sec (est) Top speed 134mph Economy 30.0mpg CO2 251g/km

Brendan McAleer

Source: Autocar

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