Which fun, fast hot hatch is best? What our car journos would actually buy
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DRIVEN's headquarters is, generally, one rolling ongoing argument after another about all things four-wheeled. Whether it's cars currently on test or rose-tinted memories from years gone by, the next passionate vehicular debate is never far away.
It made sense to take this excitable energy and turn it into something (hopefully) useful. As such, welcome to DRIVEN's new online content series (published each Monday), where we pick out the cars that we would actually buy with our cold hard cash.
We've covered a bunch of different bases so far, from utes to a look specifically at Mazda. But this week we're kicking things up a notch or two, by looking at one of the most competitive vehicle segments of the moment — the pint-size performance hot hatch.
Editor, Dean Evans: Renault Megane RS
Having grown up on hot hatches (given it’s off-sale) I have to rule out my preferred Ford Focus RS. And given we’re yet to drive the ST, I’ll keenly gravitate towards something I normally don’t; a French car.
The F1 team’s car may be underperforming for its soon-departing Aussie driver, but I fell in love with Renault’s Megane RS during some track time around Pukekohe during last year’s AA DRIVEN NZ Car of the Year program. Good on the road, it was like unlocking a bonus level of a video game on track. The power from the 205kW/390Nm 1.8-litre turbo four is strong, and with launch control it keeps swiping right through the paddle-shift dual-clutch gearbox.
The immense Cup-pack Brembo brakes are made for this scenario, and the way it’s seemingly drawn into a corner, helped by four-wheel steering, with such a sweet balance on the limit, and power-down from its tricky Torsen mechanical LSD, it just ‘had me’ at the exit of the first tight corner. On the first drive/first round of COTY scoring (we do a second round-sweep to recalibrate), the Megane was my provisional number one. That it combines the practicality, size and ease of a hatchback was just the chocolate drizzle on a fresh crepe?
OK, the price does sting a bit at $62,990 for the DC gearbox, but this is one of the ultimate dual-purpose daily drivers: choose casual mode for Monday-to-Friday, and activate the stopwatch for track days. In Sainsbury’s Orange, please.
Deputy Editor, David Linklater: SEAT Leon Cupra
I think hot hatches have become way too mainstream and it’s all the fault of the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The thing is just so quick, engaging, easy to drive and luxurious that it’s become the default Golf-choice for anybody with the right budget – whether they’re a car enthusiast or not.
So to recap: the Golf GTI has undermined the hot-hatch concept because it’s such a brilliant all-rounder.
If only there was a hot hatch as talented as the GTI but more, well, interesting. Actually, there is: the Seat Leon Cupra (that's "Cup racer", people). The Leon is basically a Spanish version of the Golf and the Cupra is the hot version. It’s front-drive like a Golf GTI - proper hot hatches should be, despite all this AWD stuff that’s creeping into the genre.
On that point, while the Leon Cupra is FWD like a Golf GTI, it’s got an engine more like a Golf R: a mighty 213kW from its 2.0l turbo-four. Told you it was interesting.
Disclaimer: the current Leon is at the end of its model life and “Cupra” has now been rolled out into a separate performance brand. So the replacement for this car will be a Cupra Leon, not a Seat, if that makes sense. It’s already been revealed, but won’t be here until 2021.
So a Leon Cupra is not the latest thing. But at $57,900, the current Leon Cupra is a lot of very cool hot hatch for the money.
Senior Multimedia Journalist, Matthew Hansen: Honda Civic Type R
Well, duh. What else was I going to pick?
There's a lot of hot hatches out there currently tickling all of my demanding fancys. The Hyundai i30 N plays a very close second thanks to its prioritisation of fun (and gurgling banging exhaust debauchery) over lap times. A nod too to the Ford Fiesta ST; incredibly competent, engaging, and a bit of a steal at 35 grand.
As someone who owns a Civic Type R, my placing of it at the top of the pile might look like bias (well, probably). I'm happy to acknowledge the downfalls. You'll probably look like a vape dealer come bitcoin enthusiast rocking up to any la-de-da business meeting with one, and if you want an automatic (in hot hatch terms, rendering you a heathen) there isn't one available. What a shame.
But, the 228kW/400Nm Type R has a lot of its rivals on toast. At $59,990 all of its mid-tier rivals, and it feels quicker on a backroad or squiggly race track than anything south of an AMG or Audi RS ... a point quantified by the lap-records it's set all over the globe and its 'officially unofficial' victory in last month's comparison with the Mercedes-AMG A45 S and Volkswagen Golf R Performance.
More than that, it's also a sleeper of a daily driver. The 420L boot is enormous, the turning circle is tight, the controls are light, and the ride quality is uncannily comfy in every mode other than R. And to finish, I present this factoid. My 13-year-old Type R is worth a handy $20,000 — a number that hasn't changed in the two years I've owned it. Check out the resale values of similar age rivals, and I promise you'll wince.
It looks like a crumpled paper crane and has all the hallmarks of a track-day specialist, but it's also the most fabulously sensible purchase in segment. By miles.
Digital Writer, Andrew Sluys: Volkswagen Golf R
As someone that joined Mr. Hansen for the aforementioned hot hatch comparison, my interpretation of results was a little bit different.
The Volkswagen Golf R feels, oddly, like a car living in the shadow of its slower self — the GTI. To the untrained eye, it’d be hard to differentiate the Mk7 Golf R from the GTI variant, but this is exactly what VW wants — something tasteful, subtle, and truly perfect for any situation.
The R also adds that little layer of extra intrigue over a GTI, particularly in the recently unveiled 'last hurrah' Performance variant (the Mk8 being, of course, just around the corner). The kit you get for just $3000 over standard sticker makes it an absolute steal; namely the speed limiter delete and the Akrapovic exhaust system. If you're concerned about looking like a wallflower, know that you're definitely not going to sound like one.
The Golf R, Performance edition or not, does an excellent job of bridging the gap between adrenaline-inducing moments and giving the feeling of control. It had no issue keeping up with the Civic and AMG through tight turns during our test, but understandably fell short of the latter on the straights. Braking was one aspect of the Golf that was extremely impressive. A high-performance braking system replaces the standard setup in the R Performance, combining a set of drilled brake discs with special pads.
At $76,990, it does fall at the more expensive end of the scale, but provides incredible performance in a premium package. All of it wrapped in a neat and timeless design.
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