Cast your mind back a dozen years. The undisputed hot hatch king – the Peugeot 306 GTI-6 – has just deftly oversteered into the great car park in the sky. With a fizzing 167bhp from its naturally aspirated 2.0-litre twin-cam engine and six forward gears, it convincingly held the hot hatch high ground.
Two years later sees the 212bhp Ford Focus RS and the 210bhp Seat Leon Cupra R, and an all-new breed of hyper hot hatch is born, mutating like a freak organism over time into the giant-killers of today; 250bhp has become the minimum requirement in this class.
We’ve gathered some tuned examples of the current breed to analyse them against the clock and along typically awkward B-roads.
The Mk3 Ford Focus ST is from Buckingham-based Superchips, a company that has existed in the engine management tuning business since the 1980s. This Stage 2 upgrade (costing £1446) features a full Miltek exhaust from the turbo back, including a high-flow sports cat and a replacement air filter. The mapping is implemented by the firm’s Bluefin hand-held computer, which allows customers to switch between maps themselves and receive updates over the internet. Superchips claims a new power peak of 292bhp (up from 247bhp) and 332lb ft at just 2115rpm.
The Mazda 3 MPS hails from BBR GTI in Brackley, but because a BBR’s demonstrator isn't available, we’ve been lent a customer’s car. This Stage 2 conversion, features a remap, high-flow exhaust downpipe and sports cat and a higher-flow fuel pump and inlet hoses. It is the only car here to have modifications to the turbo. Coupled with the 2.3-litre MZR engine's big, brawny characteristics, the claims are 350bhp and a wild-sounding 368lb ft.
However, this car was booked in for a larger turbocharger (and full suspension upgrade) after we’d driven it and, in BBR’s opinion, the front-mounted (as opposed to standard top-mounted) intercooler fitted by the owner hurts the claimed outputs and throttle response when combined with a standard-sized turbo. We’ll see. As is, the engine mods cost £2890.
K-Tec Racing’s Renault Mégane RS 250 follows the standard route of remap coupled with a replacement air filter and new cat-back exhaust, but also features a new intercooler. The claims are 295-300bhp and 320lb ft, with as much as 80lb ft more than the standard car at 2600rpm. The price for this, including fitting and a year’s warranty, is £1691. Unfortunately, K-Tec’s Nitron adjustable coil-over suspension-equipped demonstrator was unavailable, so we’re using a privately owned car with the above modifications plus 19-inch alloy wheels and Eibach lowering springs.
Finally, there’s the Thorney Motorsport Vauxhall Astra VXR-R, a limited edition of 100, although tuning parts are available separately. On the engine side, there’s a three-inch exhaust with sports cat, a replacement panel air filter and a remap, giving 320bhp and 310lb ft.
Thorney has kept the standard switchable dampers but fitted its own springs and tweaked the suspension geometry, changing the factory 20-inch wheels for some lighter versions. Importantly of all, the VXR-R is available from any Vauxhall dealer, with a lifetime warranty. You’ll pay £3749 for the privilege.
In a straight line
There’s no denying a 0-60mph launch provides a universally-understood barometer of acceleration. But with a split between privately owned vehicles and company demos, a greasy, near-freezing runway surface, it seems neither fair nor particularly revealing to try to spring this quartet off the line against the clock.
So we’ve decided to stroll away from rest and then give it the lot in second gear before 20mph. From there, it’ll be flat out through the gears until the end of the runway looms large, hopefully to about 150mph. We’ll add in-gear runs over set increments (30-50mph, 40-60mph, 50-70mph) in third, fourth and fifth, to get an idea of real-world flexibility.
First up is the Focus. There’s more of the offbeat snort filling the cabin, but it’s not so raucous to be irritating. Despite a leisurely launch, introducing all the torque in second gear has the front tyres on the cusp of wheelspin. 30-70mph is dispatched in 4.9sec, a couple of tenths up on Autocar's road test figures, and it is nearly half a second quicker from 80-100mph before snagging a genuine 150mph.
However, the in-gear figures prove the most startling. All the increments in third gear are nearly half a second quicker than those of the road test car, and the unmatched linearity of the figures across fourth and fifth shows the ST has the widest and most usable powerband.
After feeling the force of the Mazda’s acceleration from the driver’s seat, it’s a shock to discover that it takes until 100mph for it to overhaul the Focus. That’s partly a result of the Ford’s brazen low-revs delivery but partly as, currently configured, the 3 MPS has too much turbo lag.
With fewer gearchanges required at three-figure speeds, the Mazda is off like a greyhound and comfortably exceeds 150mph - almost five seconds before the growling Ford. Third-gear increments are as quick as anything, but higher gears show the laggy side of the delivery, particularly the yawning 30-50mph time in fifth.
The K-Tec Renault is a savage thing. The F4RT engine's uniquely nasally voice is brought to the fore here whether you like it or not. It’s the quickest to 100mph, but suprisingly fails to reach 150mph. It also scores the lowest in-gear increment time: 2.3sec for 30-50mph in third, which translates as awesome and immediate overtaking potential. The figures in fourth and fifth show that it has the legs on the Ford on full boost, but not the same freakishly wide window of response.
On to the Astra VXR-R, which, because it’s still in development, is not yet giving the sort of figures promised. It’s close to the Ford and Renault until 60mph, and even holds a lead over the Mazda, but then falls steadily further behind, just reaching 140mph before our emergency braking intervenes. It also has the slowest in-gear times, whatever the increment. However, it absolutely demolishes the standard VXR we’ve brought along for comparison.
On the road
On Leicestershire’s serpentine back roads, in the dark and with temperatures around freezing, the Ford is a maniac. It’s non-brand tyres that scupper its chances of providing rapid cross-country pace. It wants to wheelspin everywhere, and the experience centres on how deft you are with your right foot. The new mapping allows accurate modulation of the throttle, but there’s no denying that the torque comes in rapidly. Whether this unruliness comes from the tyres, or because it lacks Revoknuckle struts and a limited-slip diff is hard to say. Nevertheless, the ST is an embarrassingly effective overtaking device, as our in-gear times proved.
The Mazda is similarly wayward, if for different reasons. The limited-slip diff does its best to contain the torque, but in these conditions it’s sniffing from verge to centre line and requires a firm hand. The 3 MPS was never our favourite hot hatch when new, but this 50,000 miler feels spongy and vague, dominated by the power. Having tried BBR’s full-house demonstrator with Koni dampers, I know that it’s a massive improvement on Mazda’s offering but, as is, this is more about accelerative thrills.
The Renault is even more aggressive than usual with this immediate grunt on tap. That the car handles it won’t surprise anyone familiar with the base car’s talents. It’s firm and uncompromising, a good deal removed from the kind of experience offered by a Golf GTI. But it's also the most fun to drive around Bruntingthorpe’s simple circuit and very effective out on the road.
The biggest surprise is the VXR-R. A 40mm suspension drop sounds like the last thing the Astra needs, but the revised spring rates work well with the dampers and even the firmest setting is now usable on the road. The new mapping has removed the standard car’s petulant throttle response. Leave it in Normal and the Astra flows, damping out the worst of the sudden dips in the road. It’s not as invigorating as the Renault, but right here, in these conditions and to get home in, it’s very appealing.
So what have we learnt? A used Mazda 3 MPS is a cracking basis for creating a 160mph-plus hot hatch; don’t fit naff tyres to a car that can breach 150mph with ease; the Mégane RS is even better with a bit more squirt; the Astra VXR has potential...
And yet, for all their speed, is this type of hot hatch heading into a developmental cul-de-sac? A humbly shod, year-2000 standard Subaru Impreza Turbo would have outrun them in these conditions, and although they’re faster, they don’t necessarily offer the entertainment of their forefathers with half the power.
And now, with the arrival of the £30k BMW M135i – which is appreciably faster than even these tuned cars – the high-power/high-cost hot hatch is under significant pressure from above. Nevertheless, buy used and tune intelligently and it’s hard to match the package of performance and practicality on offer here.