THE GENIUS of hot hatches isn’t always easy to pin down. In some ways it’s the ability of a car manufacturer to cost-effectively transform something utterly banal, automotive white goods if you like, into something infused with magic. Volkswagen’s Golf GTI has defined this class for four decades, and has provided a durable benchmark of excellence. Yes, there have been a couple of dud vintages of the hot Golf, but it’s been
Ton a roll since the Mk5 launched in 2003. Despite this test containing more overt claims on your attention, the Golf GTI remains the fulcrum; the standard by which the rest are measured. Additional terms of reference? We’ve limited the upper price bracket to $52K, which lets a few very spicy entrants sneak in, but unfortunately omits the Ford Focus RS, which is now only offered in LE guise at $56,990. Before you ask, Renault was unable to get the new Megane RS280 to these shores in time. With a front-wheel-drive record of the Nurburgring under its belt, the Honda Civic Type-R represents the most extreme end of our collection, with BMW’s 125i offering a suave rear-drive outlier at the other. Between those two bookends are ten mouthwatering choices, including a couple of Subarus that, if you’re being picky, aren’t hot hatches at all. We included them because we know that if you’re choosing cars like these, you’re likely to cross-shop an all-wheel drive, flat-four sedan.
The car that spawned this test was Hyundai’s i30N, the marque’s first attempt at a genuine top-end hot hatch. Despite poaching the cream of BMW’s M Division engineering and product development nous, the odds of the Koreans getting it right first time seem pretty long. Getting within arm’s reach of the Mk7.5 Golf GTI would be a heck of an achievement for Namyang.
Peugeot’s 308 GTI 270 also had us intrigued, and we were also keen to pitch the aggressively priced Golf R Grid into the fray. In short, this test was one that was almost impossible to call, so we devoted a week to an exhaustive road and track evaluation, in order to deliver a definitive verdict on the current state of the hot-hatch art.
BRYANT Park in Gippsland, more widely known as Haunted Hills, almost seems purpose-built for hot hatches. There’s not a flat section on the track, it packs 15 corners into its 1400m length and throws all manner of malign cambers, blind apexes and fiendish radius corners into a crazily immersive lap of little over a minute.
The lap starts at its highest point and then disappears into ‘Oh Shit’, an aptly named corner that loses camber and elevation with your runoff zone being an unyielding earth bund. In the track’s usual hillclimb configuration, this corner is taken from a standing start. We’d be running flying laps, so it turned into a heart-in-mouth, maximum attack scrabble. From there, the track snakes downhill to a fierce compression, that leads into a series of clockwise mainly right handers that make up the bottom loop, before hitting a sharp ramp onto the back ‘straight.’ Then it’s into three gradually tightening, beautifully cambered hairpins that lead the short incline back to the start/finish line.
There are any number of places where missing the braking point, putting a tyre onto polished kerb paint or getting greedy with the throttle will result in bent sheetmetal. Or worse. The key to a fast lap of Haunted Hills is precision, steely car control, aggression in the right places and a vehicle with strong front end grip, on-demand torque and classy damping. In short, it’s a track that rapidly separates the makeweights from the masterworks.
He’s proven his worth in any number of Wheels tyre tests, so it was natural we’d turn to Renato Loberto when we required metronomic precision of evaluation lap times at Haunted Hills. A Ferrari Corsa Pilota instructor and GT3 racer who’s stood on the podium at the Bathurst 12 Hour, Loberto also runs MotoKinetic, offering driver coaching, car set-up and automotive event management services. Delivering control laps within a tenth of each other around the Haunted Hills circuit, Ren also offered feedback on each car’s track performance, contributing to the final judging process. His early-morning familiarisation laps on the first day were performed in a hired VFII Commodore, which gained in provenance what it lost in tread depth.
STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE DOESN’T WASH IN THIS COMPANY
IN THE final reckoning, the Mini John Cooper Works registered the slowest lap time and one of the highest as-tested prices of our entire group. That combo alone ought to be enough to condemn it, but despite finishing flat last, and by some margin, the Mini is still a car that cracks smiles among all who drive it. Were you looking for a stylish hot hatch that offers zip away from the lights and feels kart-like and cheeky at moderate speeds, even at $51,850 (or $49K for a manual), a case can be made for the JCW.
The thing is, if you’re spending that sort of money, you’ve probably done a little more research. You’re looking for something with a broader spread of talents, maybe something that gets more impressive the harder you push it. If so, the Mini rapidly finds itself running out of answers.
This car’s biggest problem is its meagre tyre footprint. At 100km/h the Mini is putting 21 percent less rubber in contact with the ground than the Civic Type R. The 205/45R17 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo run-flats are an odd choice of boots for a flagship sports model (see sidebar).
They never inspire a great deal of confidence on a twisty road, moving around a fair degree under braking, prompting sharp stabs of corrective steering from the driver. It isn’t even the sort of prescriptive tail-happiness as displayed by the Clio Trophy 220 either. In that car you consciously bring the rear end into play. In the Mini, you often find yourself reacting to the car’s oversteer, even with all traction aids on, sometimes at very inappropriate speeds. And without the benefit of a limited-slip diff, it’s easy to overwhelm the fronts and lapse into understeer.
Many of the Mini’s issues could be solved with bigger and better rubber. The drivetrain is very good indeed, although 170kW starts to look a bit pedestrian at this price level. That’s more than 10 grand over the 202kW Hyundai i30 N. In other words, you really have to buy into the whole Mini shtick.
Some find the cabin comically overdone, while others see it as heavy-handed. The chequered flags running across the top of the dinner-plate clocks, a head-up screen that sounds like a snapping biro when retiring into the dash, and carbonfibre affectations in a car weighing more than a Peugeot 308 GTi from the next class up all make you question whether this generation JCW owes more to the marketing department than engineering.
The Mini’s 2495mm wheelbase is fully 120mm shorter than the control-sized car in this gathering, the Golf 7.5, and you feel it both on the road, where the Mini’s on-limit skittishness degrades its crosscountry ability, and in the packaging of the vehicle, making it one of the least comfortable for rear seat passengers, with pinched headroom, persistent tyre thrum and the sole recompense of some natty Union Jack suede head rests. Again, much of this would be forgivable were the JCW priced around the upper range of its B-segment hot hatch brethren, possibly even $45K, but the fact is it’s not.
If you just want the range-topping three-door Mini and couldn’t give two hoots about the finer points of ride, handling and finesse, then the JCW won’t disappoint. But if you’ve read this far you’re a bit more curious than that, and we have 11 more deserving destinations for your money.
$ 51,8 50
Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
170kW @ 5000rpm
320Nm @ 1450-4500rpm
6-speed automatic Dimension (L/W/H/W-B) 3874/1727/1414/2495mm
211 litres Tyres
Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2 205/45R17 88W Fuel consumption
12.3L/100km (tested) Power to weight 139kW per tonne 0 -10 0 k m / h 6.1sec (claimed)
? Naughty feel; fast and feisty; classy powertrain
? Modest grip; cheesy
So why was our test car fitted with some rather ghastly 17-inch wheels when Mini supplies the car as standard with tasty 18s? When asked, BMW claimed that 17s with run-flat Hankooks can be ordered via dealers. The JCW would have undoubtedly finished higher on the scoreboard with more rubber on the ground, and we’d happily take the hit in ride quality for all the benefits that extra grip would bring. Still, at an as-tested price of $58,550, our assessment of the Cooper S JCW’s value proposition remains unchanged.
REAR-DRIVE WILDCARD DOES THE ‘TWO BURNING’ BIT JUST FINE, BUT THE TWO TURNING...
GRANTED, a mid-range 1 Series isn’t the most obvious inclusion here, especially as Munich’s smallest (non-EV) isn’t even trying to be a hot-hatch.
But wearing the BMW roundel, a standard M Sport package and a $50K price tag meant we couldn’t ignore the company’s final (ever?) rear-drive five-door. Welcome, then, to this dirty dozen’s wildcard entry.
Squat, serious and defiantly cab-rearward, the 125i looks like it means business, especially in far-happier LCI guise as launched back in 2015.
The minor changes made back then lifted the quality and ambience inside as well, eschewing the bland, rubbery austerity of the past. Quality fittings, supportive front seats ($2100 optional Comfort Pack items), elegant instruments and what is now iDrive perfected are all solid reasons to step up to a BMW. Mind you, paying hundreds extra for Apple CarPlay when a $14K Kia Picanto throws it in for free smarts.
Surprisingly, the 125i’s rear packaging isn’t bad, despite RWD and lofty seating. Yes, the amount of available room makes it cosy for six-footers, but at least they fit. And – lack of storage or centre armrest aside – a well-shaped cushion and backrest, air outlets and thoughtfully placed grab handles means at least the rear occupants feel cool and clamped in.
Which is important as the BMW’s 165kW/310Nm 2.0-litre direct-injection turbo four is a potent, polished performer, mating seamlessly with ZF’s intuitive eight-speed auto for rousing acceleration and muscular response in the mid-range, backed up by on-brand powertrain silkiness.
Additionally, the 125i’s handling and roadholding on the right road gel beautifully, with massive levels of grip and just enough play in the tail when provoked hard for the keen driver to cover ground and carve-up corners with quick and satisfying precision.
At Haunted Hills, Renato reckoned the BMW’s rear-end could easily be coaxed around in a playful manner, while stickier tyres would have made it even quicker around the circuit because the performance was certainly there. The 125i is effortlessly quick.
Back in the real world, however, other aspects of the 125i’s chassis left us wondering whether BMW is suffering corporate memory lapse. It seems that Munich has forgotten what made icons like the E46 3 Series so dynamically remarkable.
Poor ride is a bugbear with recent BMWs, and the 125i at least starts out well with good primary ride that ably soaks up bumps, and moderate tyre noise on 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza rubber. But the vertical pitching endemic in all current 1 Series variants remains; this was the group’s only car to hit its suspension travel stops at speed with just the driver inside. And the secondary ride is restless on all but the smoothest surfaces, which is plain tiring.
Yet the biggest problem with the 125i is the very thing punters would expect a rear-drive BMW to absolutely nail – the steering. Inconsistent and remote, it lacks crispness and intimacy to a deeply disappointing degree. Flicking through the drive modes does alter the weight, but doesn’t inject any more feel. Perhaps this is Munich’s ploy to make us welcome the hopefully more dynamically sorted next-gen front-drive 1 Series with open arms.
Keep in mind that all the other ingredients are present – the slick powertrain, sticky chassis, and subtly menacing appearance – and the 125i’s disinterested steering comes as an unexpected slap in the face. Without the desired damping finesse, body control and steering feedback, this car is the opposite of what M Sport represents. Wildcard? More like mild card.
It’s almost painfully ironic that the only rear-driver here – and BMW’s last rear-drive 1 Series – has the poorest steering of the group. So a lowly 11th it is for the otherwise likeable 125i M Sport.
1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
165kW @ 6500rpm
310Nm @ 1400-5000rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4329/1765/1421/2690 mm
360 litres Tyres Bridgestone Potenza S001 225/40R18 (f), 245/35R18 (r)
) Power to weight
118kW per tonne
6.1sec (claimed) 3yr resale
? Refinement; roadholding;
M Sport styling details
? Muffled steering; vertical
Two-box design rear-drive hatches are rare (before BMW it was the ’60s Mitsubishi Colt 1000F or ’77 Mazda 323 in Oz), and when the current 1 Series vanishes next year, it will switch to the FWD UKL2 architecture as per BMW X1/X2 and Mini Clubman. Sadly for purists, two generations of 1s since 2004 have failed to give BMW the dynamic edge. The lighter, roomier, electrification-ready new model (with AWD availability) will see Munich fall in line with the next Golf, A-Class and A3, all due next year.
AMONG THE THINGS QUICKER THAN THE OLD REX IS THE PACE OF PROGRESS
YOU CAN buy a Subaru WRX for $39,240. That’s really not a bad deal. The car we have here is the Premium edition, which ladles on a bunch of gear you don’t need and adds around $6500 to that figure, lifting it not only to within a few grand of the heavierhitting WRX STI but also into the gunsights of some very talented rivals.
On track, the WRX made a decent fist of its hot laps. “That front diff gets power and torque there but pulling out of some of these tight corners when it comes on boost, it really lacks that front grip you think you would get out of an AWD,” said hired gun Renato Loberto. “The chassis doesn’t let you float the rear end into corners as much compared to, say, something like the Type R. That’s where it lost time.” Still, fifth against the clock isn’t a bad result for the old stager, breaking the tape ahead of far more expensive rivals such as the Golf R, Mini JCW and BMW 125i. To inject a dose of perspective here, its lap time was still closer to relative lightweights like the Clio Trophy than it was to front runners such as the Civic Type R and Hyundai i30 N.
So has the WRX jumped the shark in the face of a new wave of hot hatches? The cabin feels laughably outdated, but then it was ever thus with the Rex. The seating position is too high and pedal placement is poor, with a yawning gulf between brake and throttle pedals. Ride quality is better than expected, but up the pace and the body feels pitchy; dips and crests setting up notable oscillations.
As Renato observed on track, it’s hard to quell the WRX’s inherent understeer bias with a quick throttle lift, the car feeling much like a front driver in its natural balance. It’s quite soft in roll too, but the electrically assisted steering system quells the rack rattle and kickback of its STI big brother, and turn-in is positive without inducing nervousness in the helm about the straight ahead. The soundtrack is memorable, the engine still retaining Subaru’s flat-four character, while the Dunlop Sport Maxx RT tyres are a decent OE selection, aiding the superb drive when gassed out of tight corners. But the WRX’s long-throw, rubbery gearshift argues a great case for spending the extra on an STI instead.
Ultimately, there’s no getting around the fact that the foundations of this car’s platform are old. In many ways it feels a decade behind the better cars here, and it proved the second thirstiest on test (predictably pipped by the STI). Today’s WRX is left behind by cheaper front-wheel-drive rivals that are better finished, deliver more tactility and mojo, and offer longer warranties, cheaper insurance and superior safety tech (EyeSight is not offered in manual WRXs).
As a $40K car, the WRX is not without merit. That said, other than its ability to get you to the highest chain bay at Falls Creek in winter, or to fill its boot with more stuff, it’s hard to think of anything the WRX does better than the i30 N for much the same price.
Still, if the Hyundai doesn’t appeal, then the WRX – in base trim at least – is the next quickest thing for 40 grand. Just don’t feel tempted to throw more money at it. The WRX is a cheap car and making it an expensive one merely blunts its edge. It might feel antediluvian at times, but the WRX still has a certain fun-to-drive appeal. Subaru’s problem is that this appeal grows more niche with every passing year.
1998cc flat 4, dohc, 16v, turbo
197kW @ 5600rpm
350Nm @ 2400-5200rpm
6-speed manual Dimension (L/W/H/W-B) 4595/1795/1475/2650mm
460 litres Tyres Dunlop SportMaxx RT 245/40R18 Fuel consumption
131kW per tonne
? Grip; value; analogue appeal
? Outdated cabin; vague
So we think the WRX is a bit long in the tooth? Who cares? Certainly not loyal Subaru buyers. Last year, Subaru sold 2614 WRXs, which is a very respectable figure for a highperformance car. Contrast that with 786 BRZ registrations in the same year or, if you prefer a more durable benchmark for sports-car sales, 1459 Mazda MX-5s. In other words, the WRX still has some serious showroom pull. Only VW’s GTI/R pairing beats that tally, making up around 25 percent of total Golf sales. None of the other cars here even come close.
BASE STI THUMPS UP-SPEC WRX, BUT LITTLE ELSE IN THE CLASS OF 2018
IF THERE’S one car capable of keeping Honda’s front-drive Civic Type R honest in terms of sheer thrill factor for 50 big ones, it’s Subaru’s entry-level WRX STI. Yep, in 2018 you’ll need to spend $51,190 (not including on-roads) to slot yourself into even the base STI, yet what that money buys is a glorious slice of yesteryear. And the sort of car Subaru’s fan base probably expects when buying a WRX of any kind.
Laughable steering rack rattle aside, the STI represents a clear step up from the base Rex in a bunch of key areas. Firstly, its gearchange. The sloppy and vague piece of tat that swaps ratios in the boggo Subaru is transformed into a tighter, sweeter and delightfully positive instrument in the STI, working an engine that is both fruitier in its flat-four flavour and stronger in its mid-range. And even thirstier, making this the heaviest drinker on test.
The STI’s dynamic flavour is in keeping with its ‘back-in-the-90s’ fuel thirst. It might be more agricultural in some ways than a standard WRX, but this adds layers to its personality. And let’s be honest, who buys an STI and expects refinement?
With its adjustable drive split permanently dialled to the rear, the STI is a playful and hugely capable performance car – one not entirely suited to a track like Haunted Hills, but as Renato pointed out, “if you had a faster course like Phillip Island, you would see a massive difference in lap time. Still, it’s an absolute joy to drive, certainly over the crests where other cars are struggling for grip; it also has a huge amount of mid-range torque.”
Out in the real world, the STI is one of few cars here whose overall limits far exceed what you can extract without becoming intimate with Aussie scenery. Covering ground fast in the STI is such a thrilling experience because it involves moderating its abundance of grunt, certainly in relation to the amount of grip available. And the harder you drive it, the better it gets.
When you’re absolutely spanking the STI’s hindquarters, its over-light steering suddenly becomes animated as its drive system pumps power through the front axles, and if you’re brave enough to disengage ESC (beyond the mid-level Trac Mode setting), the STI will even serve up delightful oversteer drifts if you stomp the right pedal early enough when exiting a corner.
The STI’s advantages over the base Rex don’t stop there. A lower seating position with excellent in-house buckets creates a far superior work space, and enough detail bling to add a touch of sparkle to Subaru’s robust but workmanlike interior design elevate the STI closer to the hot-hatch (or sedan) barometer in 2018. It looks better too, with 245/35R19s on retro-chic rims that fill the guards, making its Impreza sedan core look less long-nosed, high-roofed and frumpy. And it has much stronger brakes, as well as superior damping when loaded with mates (though both Subarus are a long way from delivering a level ride).
Yet there’s no escaping this is an old car trying desperately to keep up with the cool kids. And the STI makes such a racket that even its beefy Harman Kardon stereo struggles to be heard.
Back in 1989 when the WRX template (and the STI’s EJ-series engine) was born, Byron was lining up at Ticketek anxiously waiting to buy Roxette tickets. Almost 30 years later, wearing rally-inspired clothes hardly seems Dressed for Success. Yet there’s still lots to like about Subaru’s rough-and-ready AWD sedan.
In a world of young supermodels, the STI is Henry Rollins in new trainers. Yet when the cards are on the table, it plays a fast and engaging game.
$ 51,19 0
2457cc flat 4, dohc, 16v, turbo
221kW @ 6000rpm
407Nm @ 4000rpm
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4595/1795/1475/2650mm
Yokohama Advan Sport V105 245/35R19 89W
Fuel consumption 18.2L/100km (tested) Power-to-weight
143kW per tonne 0 -10 0 k m / h 5.2sec (claimed)
? Hard-driven thrills; uncompromising
? Hard-driven thirst;
At January’s Tokyo Auto Salon, Subaru revealed its ‘Viziv Performance STI Concept’ intended to give a pie-in-the-sky indicator of what to expect when the next-gen STI surfaces in 2019. Underpinned by the promising Subaru Global Platform that debuted under the latest Impreza, the next-gen STI will retain its much-loved flat-four engine layout but there’s a rumour of hybridisation bolstering its off-the-line shove. There’s also a chance the concept’s striking tail-light treatment and greater styling differentiation could banish Subaru’s notorious production-car timidity.
CZECHS KEEP THE VISUALS RESTRAINED WHILE DELIVERING EYE-WIDENING GRUNT
FOR TWO generations, the Skoda Octavia RS has been the Golf GTI you have when family duties and/or large pets and load-lugging demands conspire to take over your life. Be it a liftback sedan or deeply alluring wagon, the quirkily handsome RS blends quality, practicality, affordability and puntability like few other machines.
But how does a pumped-up brood hauler fare under the scrutiny and intensity of a 12-car sporting fest? Better than you’d probably expect, certainly from a performance perspective, though perhaps without the athletic edginess that Skoda’s ‘RS245’ moniker and ‘wicked’ marketing speak might imply.
With 180kW/370Nm at its disposal (11kW/20Nm more than a stock RS) and an electronic limited-slip front diff dealing with output distribution, there’s the basis of a terrific Q-car here. Only the RS245’s Porsche-inspired 19s (wrapped in pricey 225/35R19 Pirelli P Zero rubber) betray this Octavia’s latent performance potential, though even with that footprint, the hot Skoda doesn’t quite manage to put into practice what its on-paper spec promises.
Our hired gun Renato Loberto thought as much when electronic intervention impeded the RS245’s wallop over Haunted Hills’ mountainous circuit, throwing the ESC into a fritz. Yet its inherent goodness still shone through – “down the back straight and up the hill, it was [nearly as quick] as the Type R; really fast, great braking, really good chassis,” noted our pro.
On the road, the Octavia RS245 ultimately proves better than initial brisk driving suggests, once you push beyond a layer of relative disinterest (curiously, in contrast to the agility the RS245 conveys at urban speeds). As long as you resist the desire to be brutal with it – guiding it onto its outside rear tyre and allowing its weight to settle – then the Skoda feels poised and determined. There’s a satisfying handler lurking beneath the Skoda’s dapper dress sense (and beyond the howl of its Pirellis), though the steering lacks intimacy around straight ahead and never feels as immediate as 2.1 turns lock-to-lock might suggest.
Traversing a challenging mid-corner hit on our test loop (tackled deep into three figures), the Octavia RS245 showed what it’s really capable of. Even in Sport mode – the firmest of three settings – the Skoda’s damping and body control absorbed the disruptive ridge with effortless efficiency, though at other times, the Skoda’s ride treads an unremarkable middle ground, regardless of suspension mode. Even loading it up with four adults fails to smooth out the rough edges of a lumpy road, compounding the impression that the RS245’s suspension doesn’t match the standard set by Volkswagen’s A-grade hatches. And the axle tramp that blights the front-drive Superb so badly is still in evidence here, albeit less severe.
That’s no surprise given the strength of the Octavia RS245’s engine. With a guttural growl at low revs and mountains of easily surfable torque, the Skoda is a relaxing car to drive quickly. And if you do start to have a go, it’s an easy car to thrill with its deceptive rapidity. This Czech chariot is fast.
The Octavia RS245 is a better car than its genetically related big brother, the Superb Sportline. A lower and far more suitable driving position (on excellent Alcantara-clad highback seats), much better rear-seat packaging, less frumpy design – particularly around the hip area – and a more cohesive feel say this is the car Skoda spent time and money developing.
Space, warranty and individuality; it’s a compelling combination. The most complete Skoda may not be as sinful as ‘RS245’ says it should be, but as all-rounders go, this Octavia shines.
1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
180kW @ 5000-6700rpm
370Nm @ 1600-4300rpm
Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4689/1814/1448/2680 mm
Tyres Pirelli P Zero 225/35R19 88Y
Fuel consumption 13.6L/100km (tested) Power to weight
129kW per tonne
? Space; pace; individuality
? Could be more engaging;
Despite a perception that Skodas offer more for less, relative to an equivalent Volkswagen model, you’ll still pay handsomely for the Octavia RS245 tested here. Its seven-speed dual-clutch ’box means you start with a $45,890 sticker (or $2500 less for a slick six-speed manual), then need to add a $2300 Tech Pack if you want adaptive dampers (alongside autopark, keyless entry and a reasonable 10-speaker Canton stereo) and a $1500 Luxury Pack if lane assist, blind-spot detection and heated front and rear seats make you happy.
THERE’S A POINTER TO OTHER MANUFACTURERS: CHECK OUT THIS STEERING AND DAMPING
DOES anybody even remember that the Focus ST still exists? Ford’s forgotten hot hatch has languished under the extravagant side skirts of its extroverted RS sibling for ages, so frankly, little was expected from a series that struggled to see off the previousgen Golf GTI back in the day.
And who could blame sudden-onset amnesia? ‘ST’ (for Sport Technologies) might work for Fiesta but it’s meaningless in a Focus. The styling now seems heavy handed inside and out, AEB is a $2000 option, and the rear-seat package – while spacious – has all the charm of Tigerair, with roughly finished door pulls and no centre armrest, air vents or cupholders.
Knee-smashing dash ends, dour monotone plastics, rattly trim (from the Starship Enterprise lurking at the top of the windscreen), and auxiliary gauges that appear stuck-on with wood adhesive scream ‘don’t go further’. But at least the 2014 LZ facelift did banish the dashboard’s confusing button fest and Sputnikera tiny screen for a more expansive multimedia set-up that works a treat. Equipment levels are generous, the Recaro front buckets are mounted low and offer brilliant support, the driving position is excellent, the steering wheel amiably chunky and the Focus’s handbrake is of the classic lever variety. Yes!
The last four items loudly telegraph the Germanbuilt ST’s intent because, on the move, it rises above any notion of being the lardy, hard-drinking, torquesteering lout that its G-Star leisurewear-like bodykit and dated alloys might suggest.
Although the throaty 184kW/340Nm 2.0-litre turbo boasts a decent amount of low-rev response (backed by a brief 360Nm overboost function as well as a fitting exhaust baritone), there just isn’t the instantaneous punch available for the hefty Ford to keep up with this group’s faster hatches, though you’ll have fun trying because the pleasantly positive gearshift loves hard work and the ratios are perfectly suited to the engine’s power band.
What really makes the ST special though is its delicious steering, which oozes tactility and feedback to an almost sensuous degree after experiencing the BMW’s bland helm. Like all great hot hatches, it draws you through tight turns, relaying what’s going on below but also filtering out the bad stuff, as fluidly as possible.
The Focus’s chassis feels tuned for fast, faithful and linear roadholding every time, even with its howling Goodyear 235/40R18 rubber. With traction control off, they even manage to put the available power down cleanly – on dry roads, at least, if not on a challenging racetrack. There’s also an underlying suppleness to the way the chassis deals with surface irregularities, making the Ford a pleasure to belt along at speed.
At the circuit, Renato felt the ST was crying out for an LSD, as it squanders power in unnecessary wheelspin, though he also acknowledged how fluent the handling is through less constricted corners.
“Because you’ve always got that power at the front end you can let it float and really drive it hard and tow the rear back in,” he said. “It did the same thing on every corner for every lap, which is really good.”
The more time you spend with it, the more you realise how remarkably confidence-inspiring the Focus ST is. Mechanically, it’s so sweetly balanced. Torque steer is contained, ride comfort is more than acceptable, and the overall dynamic refinement contradicts the loudness of the design inside and out.
Even at the twilight of the outgoing Focus ST’s life, hot hatch fans would do well to remember this likeable, cultured punk once again.
Engine 1999cc 4cyl dohc, 16v, turbo
184kW @ 5500rpm
Torque 340Nm @ 4500rpm
Goodyear Eagle F1 235/40R18 95Y
15.3L/100km (tested) Power to weight 128kW per tonne 0 -10 0 k m / h 6.5sec (claimed) 3yr resale
? Fluidity; steering feel; Recaro seats; value
? Heavy-handed styling; dated interior
The Mk4 Focus ST is close, with Euro sales slated for this year, before arriving locally during 2019. It’s rumoured to be around 80kg lighter than today’s porker, with a revised 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four producing up to 200kW, again driving the front wheels, though via an e-diff to help quell torque steer. Beefed-up brakes and fresh driver-assist tech are also expected. Cleaner, evolutionary styling and a more elegant cabin with better quality will round out the rebirth. Ford is on the warpath.
DOWNSIZING BRINGS A SUPERSIZE SERVE OF DRIVER THRILLS AND SATISFACTION
IF WE’RE talking hot-hatch heritage, no brand has a lineage as rich as Renault’s. And if we’re talking Clio size, the spirit that germinated in the hairy R5 Turbo (and all its luscious derivatives way back when) truly lives on in today’s range-topper, the Clio RS220 Trophy.
While the current dual-clutch-only generation (launched in 2013, along with the regular Clio IV) hasn’t achieved the fan-boy status of its smaller, non-turbocharged predecessors, there’s one thing that Renaultsport got right from the get-go: the current Clio RS’s chassis. Indeed, for this late-2017 update (that appeared in July ’16 in Europe), not a single change has been made to the suspension of any variant. Merely visual tweaks – all of which successfully update the Clio’s timeless elegance – and the addition of a six-speed manual transmission on the 88kW 1.2-litre turbo (which, sadly, hasn’t made it to Australia).
So that’s how we’ve managed to get away with testing a pre-facelift RS220 Trophy, not the latest black-wheeled variant (see sidebar) with its trick new lights, full leather cabin and extra-barky Akrapovic exhaust. It was the only car available for testing (all press Trophys had already been sold), though aside from slightly less crackle-and-pop from the rear, the old car’s dynamic repertoire is as per the cheaper and better-equipped latest version.
It only takes one corner to realise why Renaultsport wasted no time fiddling with the Trophy’s chassis set-up. Sitting 20mm lower at the front and 10mm lower out back than the ‘standard’ Clio RS200 Cup, the Trophy’s rear springs are 40 percent stiffer, its dampers firmer and its steering faster-geared for a truly ‘on-rails’ driving experience.
At Haunted Hills, Renato described the Clio as “very, very agile” and thought it rivalled the i30 N for best exhaust note, even without the wonderfully anti-social Akrapovic exhaust filling the cabin. And on the road, just like at the circuit, you consistently reap the benefits of the Clio Trophy’s manageable size and 1204kg weight, giving you seemingly more road to play with and handling that cannot fail to blow any enthusiast’s mind.
The ultra-taut Clio is one of the few cars where its handling limit lies beyond what is consistently achievable even on a fabulous road like our test loop. Its mid-corner grip and perfect balance are of the sort that make your eyes pop, giving the driver so many options as you scribe a line through a corner. Its throttle adjustability is so incisive that there is zero approximation in driving this Renault at any speed and its brakes are superb too. Dynamically, the Clio Trophy’s synergy is sublime.
If you’re planning on spending nearly 40 grand and want a true jack-of-all-trades, then Volkswagen’s Golf GTI Original is a far more sensible hot hatch. The Renault, on the other hand, is a selfish choice. You need to love and understand small cars to want a supermini as nuts as this, but what you lose in cabin tactility, rear-seat packaging and boot space, you gain in abundance in charisma, driver appeal and overall seduction.
Despite the Clio IV’s vintage, its styling has barely aged a day, yet handling this amazing clearly still doesn’t come cheap.
1618cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
162kW @ 6050rpm
260Nm @ 2000rpm
Michelin Pilot Super Sport 205/40ZR18
135kW per tonne
? Amazing handling; driver feedback
? Cramped rear seat;
Everything Renault has changed on the updated RS220 Trophy is for the better. Striking LED headlights and chequered-flag fogs are the face of the changes, along with black 18inch alloys and red-painted brake calipers, while full-leather seats (with perforated centre inserts) and a cracking Bose stereo neatly flesh out its cabin. Despite the equipment hike, the Trophy’s sticker price now has a ‘3’ in front of it, which is also great news. The downside of decent audio, however, is a reduction in boot size. If you want a Bose subwoofer filling your lower section, you’ll need to forgo 70 litres of shopping space.
RETRO-INSPIRED RANGE OPENER A CRACKING VALUE ALTERNATIVE WITH ACTUAL PEDIGREE
DID YOU know Volkswagen didn’t even bother importing the Golf GTI into Australia until 1990 – 14 years after the 1976 original (and the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti) popularised the hot-hatch concept invented by the Renault 16TS in 1968?
That’s quite a lot of history crammed into one paragraph, but then looking back is what the GTI Original is all about. Of course, to remain true in a local context, the latter would have to pay lipservice to that ’90 Mk2 five-door with its weedy 77kW/155Nm 1.8-litre single-cam lump, five-speed manual ’box and 14-inch steelies. Hardly heady stuff. Even the contemporary Corolla Twin Cam categorically outperformed the esteemed German. Talk about over-expecting and under-delivering.
Extra-wide doors aside (offering unimpeded access to the rear), the comparatively vast cabin follows all Mk7.5 iterations in espousing restrained quality precision from top to toe. Superb front seats provide comfort and bracing at speed, there’s ample room for five tall adults, while the dash’s intelligent functionality remains an industry yardstick. Cocooned in silky refinement, this GTI Original could just as well be a premium-branded luxo express, regardless of what’s been taken out to keep costs down. Just breathing in the rich aroma says all that.
But this is a hot-hatch grudge match, and here more than anywhere else, 42 years of GTI breeding shows … and shines.
Stick the slick-shifting six-speeder into first, and the turbine-smooth responses that follow as the Golf leaps off the line are formidable, with a favourable power-to-weight ratio helping keep the pace up right to the 6950rpm cut-out. Powertrains don’t come more delectable at this price point.
Volkswagen’s hot-hatch mastery shows in how commandingly weighted and balanced the steering tune is, simultaneously providing feel while seamlessly editing out imperfections. As with the more dynamic drives here, the Original traces the chosen line without breaking a sweat, remaining calm yet playfully chuckable if the red mist descends. There’s a forgiving attitude at work here, too, enabling a margin of error that allows the Golf to be fluid and faithful, even when the driver isn’t.
Renato’s reaction to the Golf’s feedback and precision around Haunted Hills reflects the depth of bandwidth at hand. “You feel the rear [is] sliding around and you can exploit that in places to get rid of some of the understeer you’d normally get from a front-driver over the rises,” he remarked. “An absolute ball of fun.”
Back out on the open road, there is a point where the body control feels somewhat looser than the more hardcore handlers such as the telepathically planted Peugeot. Consequently, the GTI requires a bit more effort and commitment keeping up … though this comparative sogginess is only obvious with back-to-back blasts. Additionally, there isn’t quite the suppleness of GTIs fitted with adaptive dampers (or the 308) either, though the ride improves with more bodies on board.
Still, an overriding dauntlessness defines this Vee Dub’s dynamic character. Thrillingly quick yet incredibly composed and arrestingly refined when it needs to be, a more complete hot-hatch for the money just doesn’t exist right now.
Welcome, then, to this Megatest’s true ground zero, the standard in which others must meet to beat. The GTI Original is both the perfect starter and all-you’llever-need hot-hatch, and brilliant value to boot.
Though getting on in years now, the GTI is still never far from the top in any given field. As Molly Meldrum may have said if the Mk1 original was available here back in ’76, ‘do yourself a favour…’
$ 37,49 0
1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
169kW @ 6200rpm
350Nm @ 1500-4600rpm
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4268/1799/1442/2626 mm
Bridgestone Potenza S001 225/40R18 92Y
138kW per tonne
? Refinement; quality, pricing; gearchange; 3dr styling
? Lacks the crispness of the best hatches here
Dubbed so because of its classy three-door silhouette (by far the prettiest of the Mk7 family in most judges’ opinions) and focused packaging, the Original is an Oz-only exercise that includes tasty tartan cloth, unique 18-inch alloys and pared-back spec, shedding 25kg and $3500 in the process. If you’re worried about losing adaptive dampers, sat-nav, keyless entry/start and the broader colour palette of normal GTIs, then perhaps look elsewhere. Note, though, that sports suspension, AEB, Apple CarPlay, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, reversing camera, LED headlights and an alarm all remain.
R-BRANDED GOLF VERSION 7.5 FINALLY STEPS OUT FROM THE GTI’S SHADOW
IF EVER you needed an object lesson in the law of diminishing returns, the Volkswagen Golf R was your case material. More expensive than the iconic GTI, more powerful and, with the addition of all-wheel drive, successfully proving less was indeed more. Not any longer. Version 7.5 now has the talent to assert its rightful position in the Golf hierarchy.
So what’s changed? Power has stepped up from 206kW to 213kW, the price of this no-nonsense Grid Edition has dipped below $50K and the DSG wetclutch transmission gains an additional, seventh gear. We chose the six-speed manual version which is a tad slower across the acceleration benchmarks but which introduces an additional measure of tactility to the Golf R’s broad skill set.
While it’s not as overt as the cars occupying the podium positions, the Golf R is still huge fun to pedal along a challenging road. A sound symposer gives its engine more attitude than the GTI’s, as does an ESC system that’s fully disengagable. Volkswagen claims that this generation of 4Motion can send 100 percent of torque to either the front or rear axle, but only under severe provocation can you introduce an element of steer from the rear.
With the electronics off, it’s easier to move the R gently under its own momentum on the way into a corner and morph that into a buttery-smooth neutrality on the way out. Accurate steering and a good manual ’box help here, although some felt the gearing was a tad low for a car that develops 380Nm from just 1850rpm.
Gearbox aside, you’ll appreciate the measured nature of the Golf R Grid’s controls because the exterior inputs are happening so fast. It’s a fearsome ground-coverer, with just enough pliability in its damping to generate the confidence to wring out a big percentage of the EA888 powerplant’s potential on typical Aussie country roads. Rather than the fireand-forget weapon that the Golf R has occasionally been portrayed as, there’s a real subtlety to the handling repertoire of this car.
Overdrive it and it feels clumsy, lapsing into dogged understeer if you get too greedy with the throttle in tight corners. Work with the small weight transfers of the car, however, and it feels neat and even delicate, not a word you’d traditionally use to describe the Golf R. Try to drive it with the sort of aggression that the Civic or i30 N respond to and it can appear wooden, but a more sympathetic driver can extract the best from the Golf R without losing much in outright pace. A fierce mechanical front diff would help lift the Golf R into the upper echelon here and a little more outright stroke in the dampers would also be a plus on variable surfaces.
But the R is undeniably quick. Any car that can nudge 5.0sec to 100km/h is quite serious. That’s as rapid as a Porsche Cayman for less than half the price, and your $47K outlay also buys what might be the best interior of any of the cars assembled here.
For a good proportion of buyers, it’s this sheer presentability that makes the Golf R the default choice. It’s hard to think of an occasion where it would look gauche or out of place. Couple that with sharper dynamics, a more aggressive soundtrack and the Grid Edition’s value, and it’s a package that presents a formidable all-round challenge.
1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
213kW @ 5400-6000rpm
380Nm @ 1850-5300rpm
Dimension (L/W/H/W-B) 4263/1799/1436/2626 mm
380 litres Tyres
Continental ContiSport Contact 5P 235/35R19 91Y
149kW per tonne
0 -10 0 k m / h 5.1sec (claimed)
? Finish; composure; cross-country pace
? So-so front diff; needs more suspension travel
In order to bring the Golf R Grid to market from $47,490, Volkswagen has had to wield the red pen in a few places. Out goes the 12.3-inch Active Info Display and leather seat trim, the latter replaced with Alcantara. The 8.0-inch infotainment system with navigation and smartphone mirroring hardly looks a cheap afterthought, though, and the Grid also wears smart 19-inch wheels. As well as the five-door hatch (available with manual or DSG transmissions), Volkswagen is also offering a DSG-only Grid Edition wagon for $51,990.
BEGUILING BLEND OF ELEGANCE, AGGRESSION AND ABILITY
YOU PROBABLY wouldn’t have picked the Peugeot 308 GTi 270 if asked which of the cars assembled here packed the most potent power-to-weight figure. You’d have likely nominated the Civic Type R or the Subaru WRX STi on that score, but it’s the unassuminglooking French car that claims the kW/tonne crown here, thanks in no small part to a 1205kg kerb weight that would have impressed Colin Chapman. It’s 65kg lighter than the Clio despite being a class bigger and would even make a base Toyota 86 look a bit of a bloater, despite seating five and packing a 200kW wallop. Coming from a 1.6-litre engine, that’s also the highest specific output of our field.
That gossamer kerb weight creates a virtuous circle in terms of dynamics. The 308 GTi rides beautifully, pulls up crisply on the brakes and makes the most of its power output, lapping quicker than the 221kW WRX STi and the 213kW Golf R. The initial impression is of polish and fluidity, the inherent suppleness of the suspension burnishing the Peugeot’s credentials as a fast road car. The Torsen helical limited-slip diff never feels quite as aggressive as that of the Civic or the i30 N, and there’s occasional tramlining from the 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports, but that aside, it’s an instantly appealing package. The EMP2 platform’s simpler and lighter torsion beam rear suspension isn’t quite as slick as a multi-link rear end, but the 308 GTi makes amends with a mighty front end, great body control and a powerplant that feels barrel-chested as long as you don’t dip below the turbo’s sweet spot.
The manual gearbox is slightly longer in throw than some here, but feels well-oiled and positive, although it can baulk if you try to rush the synchro. The pedal placement is probably the best of the bunch too. Switch the car into Sport and the sound signature makes heel and toeing so simple that at first you have to check to see whether the car is executing the perfect throttle blip on downchanges for you. The 380mm front discs and four-piston calipers are hugely reassuring once you’re dialled into the middle pedal’s short travel.
Of course, being a French car, there are the occasional ergonomic glitches, such as the way switching into Sport causes the digital speedo to vanish, retrievable by prodding the end of the lefthand stalk a few times. There were also a couple of annoying trim rattles.
The tiny, low-set steering wheel might also dissuade some. I love its roll-of-the-wrists directness and that feeling like you’re on a triathlon bike, measuring your inputs carefully. It makes the car feel precise and special, but for shorter drivers it can obscure the main dial pack. The rest of the cabin looks slick and a couple of our judges thought the minimalist architecture of the dash was the best executed of all gathered contenders. Yet space in the rear is tight and it feels meanly equipped, with no rear vents or power outlets, and the ride that feels so fluid up front is notably more fractious in the back.
Above all, the 308 GTi nails a brief of being fast, discreet and classy. The Volkswagen Golf R also delivers on that brief, but the Peugeot is notably quicker on a challenging road and, as long as you spec it tastefully, has that rare talent of flying under the radar. We love it, which is why it more than merits its podium position here.
1598cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
200kW @ 6000rpm
330Nm @ 1900-5500rpm
470 litres Tyres
Michelin Pilot Super Sport 235/35ZR19
166kW per tonne
? Stylish; rapid; comfortable ?
Quirky infotainment; tight in the back
Peugeot’s ‘i-Cockpit’ is based around three elements; the tiny wheel, the raised dial pack and the centre screen, which Peugeot project design director Pierre-Paul Mattei collectively calls a ‘magic triptych’. It can be managed in different ways for sedans, coupes and SUVs. “For both exterior and interior designs, we aim to have more purity,” he says. “308 is a really good example – so pure, so modern. This is the way things are heading. Can you imagine your smartphone with buttons now?”
A WILD CHILD THAT’S NOT SO MUCH ON THE SPECTRUM AS OFF THE CHARTS
NEARLY 20 years ago, road testers around the globe proclaimed the original Integra Type R as one of the best handling front-wheel drive cars ever.
Today the spirit of that incredibly raw Japanese coupe is infused in the Civic Type R, the fifth and most laser-focused since the series surfaced back in 1997. Yet it’s so much more than that.
In a nutshell, more than one tester declared this a cut-price Porsche 911 GT3, so exhilaratingly hungry for corners is its brilliant front end. Just like in that Integra, the Type R’s handling and body control are in an orbit all their own.
The way 400Nm of low-down grunt is channelled through to the pointy end via a gorgeously mechanical six-speed manual so instantaneously and without corruption is a triumph of engineering, resulting in a hyper hatch that is supreme in reeling in the scenery quicker than anything else this Megatest could muster. If an explosively quick point-to-point experience is your bag, look no further.
In fact, the harder you drive the Honda, the more it gives, and there’s still more in store, as that rousing triple exhaust alludes to. The Type R hasn’t so much been bred as genetically mutated and enhanced to annihilate the Nordschleife. And, yet, that it can also land from the UK and so effortlessly devour some random mountain pass in rural Victoria with such utter insouciance demonstrates immense adaptability.
Though taller gearing in second would probably have improved its track time at Haunted Hills, Renato revelled in how the Honda lights up no matter where the tacho needle is pointing; how the chassis “…is so hooked up in the rear”; and finally, how planted and non-floaty it feels for a front-driver. He’s definitely a fan.