According to at least three judges, not especially, although it’s still a prodigiously appealing all-round proposition and, as always with real-world performance cars, that matters when it comes to scoring. “It’s weird how one of the oldest cars here can still feel like one of the freshest, both inside and out,” says Davis, who also finds the moderate steering response better suited to road use than that of the rapier Focus ST. An engine tweaked to just shy of 286bhp finally gives the Golf the firepower to compete at the sharp end of the class, along with some vocal character, specifically induction roar. On the road, there’s also no doubt that this particular car’s track-day-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres give it an added dose of steering precision and feel – so long as it’s dry.
But this isn’t the usual flawless performance from the car that in 1975 made hot hatches mainstream. Questions are asked of its composure, feedback and interactivity, while on track it suffers from a stage fright similar to that of the Mini. It’s quick to a point and dull thereafter, translating none of its huge front-end grip into tail-happy dynamism, and at times it feels “oddly scrappy”, as one tester puts it.
What, then, of the mighty Honda Civic Type R? For starters, it isn’t new and we will admit the only reason it’s here is to act as a yardstick for the Ford. But it is quite a yardstick and we do love it. “It remains big and ugly and a bit too assured for its own good at times on the road,” says Saunders. “But no other car here has access to this sort of stability, grip, pace, drivability or outright body control on track, which is almost at competition-car level.”
My natural inclination is to quell such enthusiasm, but Saunders is right. The 316bhp Honda is not only the most powerful car in our line-up but it simply has a level of poise beyond anything else, too, and there’s greater mechanical involvement in the gearshift alone than in the entire driving experience of some of the others. “In a field of eight mostly front-drive hatches, it’s as vividly different from the rest as the MX-5,” says Calo. Shall we assume, then, that the Civic Type R is through?
Its closest rival here – the raw yet sophisticated, heart-poundingly quick and ultra-agile Renault Mégane RS 300 Trophy – isn’t. In fact, not one judge placed it in their top three, which is a shock, but taken all together, the French car’s flaws are too much to ignore. Davis, Saunders and Prior all cite ride quality, which, they say, is non-existent on a typical B-road because of the stiffened-up Cup chassis. Davis likens the robust spring rates and restless steering to chugging back a quadruple-espresso: “The hyperactivity is entertaining for a time but it ultimately leaves you feeling a bit rough and broken.” Saunders, though, reckons that in years gone by, you’d have put up with the brutality underfoot for the ‘perfect’ Renault Sport hydraulic steering and a chassis of almost mid-engined poise.