Watch: Hot hatch warfare — Mercedes-AMG A45 vs VW Golf R vs Honda Civic Type R
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It was an amusing scene. DRIVEN staffers David Linklater and Andrew Sluys in a quiet layby; one sitting on a small chilly bin, the other holding an umbrella, both nibbling away on a couple of kiddy-size bags of chips.
“So, you'd both take the Golf, right?”
The question seemed to take them by surprise. A little flustered they both made cases of denial, before trailing off into a silent abyss one by one.
All the pre-launch talk around the Mercedes-AMG A45 S — the insane numbers, the layers of tech, the six-figure price — had me pondering just what it meant for a hot hatch to be truly great. The game has moved so quickly from bubbly fun to serious performance. Pitting the A45 against a couple of existing benchmarks seemed a good idea, just to try and make sense of it all.
Conveniently, two of the best hot hatches in the world just got a little 2020 tweak. The Volkswagen Golf R, on the eve of the eighth-gen Golf's debut, now has a limited edition one-of-25 $76,990 Performance variant. And, across the aisle, there's a new one-of-10 $64,990 Honda Civic Type R called the Mugen Equipped.
Neither alters performance output. Instead the Veedub adds an Akrapovic titanium exhaust, drilled discs, removes the speed limiter, and standardises the optional 19-inch Spielberg wheels and improved infotainment. The Honda, meanwhile, adds Mugen’s latest ludicrous body-kit package to an already quite ludicrous looking car.
The duo undoubtedly show their age most inside. The Golf's impeccably constructed interior is like an old pair of boots; endearing in its familiarity but ultimately not particularly chic or current. The Civic, meanwhile, juxtaposes one of the best bucket-seats in hot hatchedom with an awkward, unnecessarily complicated infotainment system.
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The AMG, feels far more current than the other two inside. But you'd expect that when it costs almost twice the price of a standard Type R at $111,000 (factoring in the optional AMG Edition 1 pack, our tester has a sticker of $118,990). As we wrote in our recent solo AMG A45 review, the biggest advance inside since the A35 is the improvements around the 'Hey Mercedes' MBUX voice interface.
The Golf is undoubtedly considered by many to be the 'daily driver' benchmark, with its mature cabin and tasteful styling. Even with its naff touch-screen, the huge adult-swallowing rear seats, biggest boot in class (420/1580 litres), and oddly compliant ride makes the Civic an arguable equal to the Golf as a daily package. But most negate these by pointing out its lack of a fifth seat and its prickly porcupine appearance.
Indeed, for some the Mugen Equipped's visual changes are just an extra lathering of Marmite on a car seemingly made from the stuff. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
For a car I labelled "blissfully ugly" back in 2017, I think the Civic has aged rather well. The amount of current-day conventional hatchbacks that come coated with aggressive vents and pumped arches, even in their basic variants, has normalised the Type R's look. At least to my eye.
In summation then we have the ‘consumer’s choice’ Golf, the ‘enthusiast’s choice’ Civic, and the bonkers, no limits, ‘throw the kitchen sink at it’ AMG A45. Three excellent four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbo hot hatches packing three different personalities.
The Mercedes has the other two smeared on toast when it comes to a Top Trumps stats battle. Its 310kW/500Nm dwarfs the identical 228kW/400Nm shared between the two Rs, and its ability to hit 100km/h in 3.9 seconds crushes the Golf’s 4.6 seconds and the Civic’s 5.7 seconds (noting that hauling the Honda to 100km/h in 5.7 seconds, in the real world, is near impossible).
Funnily enough, the Civic does claim one curious stat back from the AMG. Its 272km/h claimed top speed is the quickest of the group, although one wonders if all the superfluous wind-breaking Mugen cladding would knock this down a peg or two.
Not that a difference of one or two ticks on the speedo really matters anyway when road signs, trees, and stunned local wildlife is blurring into a visual custard through the windscreen all the same. While the A45 is a straight-line dynamo, the true speed of these cars collectively is on the race track and on the b-road.
So along with a week of humdrum grocery getting and fending off motorway on-ramp challenges from kids in Evos, each of our three combatants was taken west to some of Auckland’s best winding roads … individually and together.
The shiny new AMG naturally copped the most attention, from foaming journalists and pedestrians alike. As I wrote a few weeks ago in the forty five’s separate review, the way it drives on roads like these defies physics. AMG has done a hell of a job creating a car that balances its mountain of power nicely, clamps onto the road when you want it to, and toys around with a little bit of hip-swinging action when you don’t.
Hopping out of the AMG and into the Golf R, you'd think that the dollop of extra power and the playful rear created by the A45's 'AMG Torque Control' twin-clutch rear differential would be the biggest points of difference. After all, both cars are all-wheel drive and have rapid dual-clutch transmissions. Just how different could they possibly feel?
While the AMG is a burly thing to get on top of, the VW is far more deft, more balanced. You get the most out of it with smooth through-the-fingertips driving, despite it clearly having the slowest steering rack of the group.
It points to a private view I've suspected for a while now; that the Golf R is the best hot hatch built on the shared Volkswagen MQB platform. Including the Audi RS3.
The easy thing to point out is that the Golf R is almost 200kg lighter than the A45, which no doubt contributes to the sensation. But, just as much of its more casual approach to driving fun probably stems from its simpler mechanicals and softer outlook. Adaptive dampers and mild brake-based torque vectoring are its only real electronic tricks.
In other words, when you feel a whisper of lift-off oversteer from the rear, you know it's the real thing and not a tech simulation.
The Type R may appear outgunned here, with half the driven wheels of the other two and no extra power. But anyone familiar with its figurative and literal track record knows to take it seriously.
There is, genuinely, no discernible grip deficit in the Honda compared to the other two. Out here it feels comfortably quicker than the softer Golf, and almost matches the A45 for sheer thrills. Where the AMG forces a grin with the instantaneous way it hooks into the pavement on power, the Civic is more about the way its talkative front end links corners together seamlessly.
It's the light simplicity of the Golf and the A45's seriousness, rolled into one.
The bright red Honda was also the only car to appear here with a manual transmission (noting that, yes, the Golf R can be had with a manual). Its six-speed still ranks as one of the most direct in class, and brings more reward than the seven and eight-speed dual-clutch units fitted to the other two.
Each of the 2.0-litre turbo engines is an incredible testament to how far cars have come. The Type R and A45 make peak power at almost 7000rpm, rewarding drivers that commit to red-line. While the Volkswagen's peak power hits at a lower 5500rpm, it manages to feel just as sweet because of that new Akrapovic titanium exhaust.
It sounds wonderful; rendering every gurgling flurry of pops and bangs with gusto. Although yes, there is car-noise interior acoustics at play here, too. In isolation, it's hard to imagine feeling too disappointed with the Golf R's powertrain. Even though it's the weakest in practice out of these three. Honda's K20C1 meanwhile continues to be a faithful, super strong workhorse. There is no popping and banging theatrics, and for that matter no addictive VTEC cam profile change. But, it is wonderfully linear and versatile with its devastating mid-range abilities.
We've talked to death about AMG's immense hand-built M139, and inevitably it puts the Merc on a different performance plane in this company. It could be more charismatic or more rewarding I suppose, but it's hard to chase negatives when it bends the expectations of a segment so violently.
The Golf R wears its age remarkably well. What was true when it was a fresh model still holds up today, even as a replacement waits around the corner. Its Performance variant, too, is undeniably good value — finely juxtaposing the R's straight-cut demeanor with a redeeming bark.
That said, it can't quite convince me to surrender the keys to the Civic Type R. After almost three years, it still holds my crown as the most complete hot hatch in the game. It's the most fun of this trio, and its capabilities for the money continue to baffle. As we cram more and more power into these hot hatch things with no end in sight, the Type R feels like a car that's playing chess while the rest are playing checkers.
And then there’s the A45. In this company it feels like something from a different performance stratosphere, having clearly committed to a new power war. Whether you view these performance car power wars with awe or cynicism, you have to admire those who throw down benchmarks once thought impossible.
This is Mercedes-AMG at the top of its mechanical game, thumping its chest, daring the world to take it on.
Volkswagen Golf R Performance
Pros: Performance model excellent value, sounds marvelous, impeccable build quality
Cons: Cabin layout shows its age, subdued looks can divide
Honda Civic Type R Mugen Equipped
Pros: Rapid, practical, most fun in this group, certainly looks … erm … distinctive
Cons: Mugen additions not to everyone’s taste, naff infotainment
Mercedes-AMG A45 S
Pros: Insane ability, lovely interior, big improvement on the old one
Cons: Hard to argue it’s more fun than the Type R, price