Fast laps over, we get set for the road
Golf R’s ride has a sophistication that the Civic can’t match
The 308 is a good car to drive and it has price on its side
Two driven axles give the Golf and the A45 strong traction
Dan is told the keep-touching-it-to-win-it contest was fake
“I’ll have the foie gras, a pork pie and an Irn Bru”
A45 has a rapacious appetite for speed; Civic keeps it honest
Time for the big showdown: the ultimate four-way hot hatchback slugfest.
This is McGregor versus Mayweather – with Jet Li and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin throwing boots, fists, random exploding objects and folding chairs from the wrong side of the ropes. Front-wheel- drivers line up against four-wheel-drivers; new vogue dual-clutch paddle-shift auto ’boxes against the tactile involvement of a manual; and two of the longest-established purveyors of the affordable performance hatchback against a couple with less pedigree, but no shortage of ambition.
This is more of a cup final than an end-of-season top-four play-off. The cars contesting it – the Honda Civic Type R, Mercedes-AMG A45, Peugeot 308 GTi and Volkswagen Golf R – have only had to beat their nearest rival to qualify. And although it’s interesting to wonder exactly how our line-up would be different if our judges had simply nominated their four highest-rated driver’s cars to go forwards, doing that would likely have made a final redundant. We’d already know who liked what, and how much. And there’s nothing like a bit of suspense, is there?
And so, having mixed road and track testing throughout this year’s Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car thus far, it’s time to head out onto the mountain roads of south Wales in the company of cars that have all won once already and earned the right to be considered afresh.
And they’ll all get a proper chance at success, too. Lining up a 266bhp, £29,000 Peugeot against a 376bhp, £42,000 Mercedes-AMG and expecting a fair fight may seem naïve, but this isn’t a normal comparison. Our verdict will be all about real-world driver appeal – and it’ll be balanced against a value-for-money judgement, as the verdict of any test with the word ‘affordable’ in its title must. Our old friend the law of diminishing marginal returns should actually make life toughest for the pricier cars in the running.
Since you’ve already read about these cars once, there shouldn’t be much introducing left for me to do – except to remind you that a couple of these finalists that you think you know well have been updated or tweaked since the last time we wrote about them at length. The Peugeot has been in receipt of an exterior styling overhaul that has added a f lash of colour and a slightly more aggressive glare to the front end, as well as a few new cabin appointments. For the Golf R, VW has laid on an extra 10bhp of power, 15lb ft of torque and an extra intermediate ratio for the car’s optional dual-clutch gearbox. The A45 appears in the same form in which it saw off the Audi TT RS and Ford Focus RS in a group test in late 2016 – although it looks even angrier than it did back then thanks to the various sharp-edged aerofoils of AMG’s aerodynamics package. And finally, there’s the Civic Type R, almost every nut, bolt and inch of which is interesting and new to the hot hatchback fold.
I’d go so far as to say that the Honda is distractingly, disproportionately interesting. Whether you’re fascinated or repelled by the way it looks, you soon realise, after a long drive, that your reaction to those looks could end up being the least important factor in deciding how you feel about it. When I marched triumphantly back into what passes for a circuit office at the Llandow track and announced to everyone inside that the Audi RS3 Sportback I’d just driven had set the quickest lap time of the test (not to mention that it had become the only car on test proven capable of 100mph from rest in less than 10sec) precisely nobody cared. Everybody expected the RS3 to be monstrously quick. And, at the time, everyone was engaged in animated, stunned, enthusiastic conversation about a Type R they simply hadn’t dared hope could be this good.
And so it’s with the Honda that we embark upon this final comparison: a car that was so much more adhesive, balanced, communicative and absorbing on the circuit than anyone was expecting, and that continues in a similar vein on the road, while also encountering some new obstacles and revealing a few fresh limitations.
This new Civic is a big car. It has the grip, handling response and body control of a considerably smaller one and so disguises its size very effectively on track. But on the narrow, serpentine roads that wind this way and that around the Rhondda Valley, it feels wide as the stone walls around you suddenly close in. You may also notice your outside front wheel thumping along the cats eyes in the middle of the road more often than you’d like. And if, like me, you instinctively like small hot hatches and rank compactness as one of the things that brings people back to this breed of performance car who have the means to buy faster and more exotic road cars, well, that might trouble you a bit.
At least, it might trouble you for a bit, eventually. To begin with, you’ll be too busy working out how Honda’s engineers have distilled so much old- fashioned precision and tactility into these controls. How they can have made a modern turbocharged engine feel so dramatic and yet authentic with it, in the era of the dreaded ‘exhaust sound modulator’. And how the hot Civic can generally have come on so far as a road car in just one model generation.
Pressed into the pit of your palm like the cool metallic handle of a carving knife, the Type R’s gearlever is lovely to the touch. It snicks positively through its gate in a short, taut, perfectly weighted action that is so singularly special as to make the shift quality of the 308 GTi’s six- speed manual ’box seem limp, baggy and uninviting. Drive the Peugeot in isolation, of course, and you probably wouldn’t have much cause to complain about its gearbox. By the standards of most modern cars, it’s fine. It just takes a manual shift as supremely sweet as the Honda’s to make you appreciate what you’ve been missing been missing: that added dimension of driver control and mechanical engagement that a paddle-shift hot hatchback can never give you.
And then there’s what happens when you’ve selected a fairly low gear in the Civic, the road ahead opens up a little and you reach for the carpet with the accelerator pedal. Although the Honda’s four-cylinder engine is the second most potent in our final four, what it gives up to the Mercedes-AMG would be enough to power a small supermini – and its lead over the VW on power is only paper thin. But you soon realise two key truths about the Honda: that it’s quite a lot quicker on the road than the stated engine outputs and performance claims lead you to believe; and that it also has more pace than you’ll ever really need, or be able to enjoy, on the road for very long. Not masses more – and certainly not the eye-widening surfeit of grunt of the A45, which is thrilling and worrying in almost equal measure. But there’s no doubt that whereas the Mercedes-AMG goes farther than it needs to in that respect and the 308 GTi not quite far enough (although the 308 has a particularly zesty way about it), both the Golf R and the Civic Type R hit the bullseye where hot hatchback performance is concerned. These are both accessibly fast cars – but the Civic’s engine has more genuine charisma than the Golf’s.
There’s a moment’s hesitation as you feed in the power in the Honda; enough, certainly, that if you find turbo lag a particularly irksome phenomenon in a driver’s car, this one may not be for you. Which isn’t to say the Civic is some kind of 1980s throwback; just that there are modern driver’s cars that respond more crisply to the position of your right foot. The pervading, immaculately metered accuracy of the rest of the car’s controls make that stick out a bit. But once that instant of latency is overcome, the car lunges hard at the horizon and keeps working hard at crank speeds where other-four cylinders turbos wouldn’t. The surges of force the engine serves up on a planted throttle at 3500rpm and 5000rpm are addictive, and unless you’re on wet or very bumpy roads, there’s plenty of traction available under that pair of 20in front wheels and extra-wide 245-section tyres. A wiggle of wheel fight occasionally presents if the surface under those tyres changes when you’re using full power, but it’s certainly not torque steer and, as a constituent part of a properly absorbing, physical driving experience, it’s far from unwelcome.
The weighty, direct wheel of the Honda is one you hold with both hands. It’s heavier and more direct than any of the others and it offers greater feedback, too. By comparison, the Golf R’s steering could be managed with a couple of digits for most of the time. The A45’s is a little heavier and more satisfying, and the Peugeot’s is a slightly over- assisted, side-plate-sized object of criticism that we’ve run up against before. A hot hatchback’s steering should put you into such an intimate conversation with the front contact patches that you can almost feel the sidewalls flex and squidge with your fingertips. The Type R’s steering is excellent; both the A45’s and the Golf’s are very good; but the 308’s is poor, allowing you almost no feel at all for what’s a much better-balanced chassis than you might think.
Ride sophistication is of almost equal importance in a great hot hatchback, I reckon, because on country roads, you have at least as many ruts and bumps to negotiate as bends. In this respect, the Honda is not quite our class hero. Nothing comparable rides an uneven B-road with the mastery of an adaptively damped Golf R, which has the compliance and chassis dexterity to smooth surface ridges away and filter out nasty imperfections quite brilliantly.
But the body control, handling precision and sense of connectedness that ride compromise leaves the Golf with are all farther off the standards set by the Honda than what separates the Honda from the Golf on ride. Select Comfort mode on the Civic’s drive selector and there’s a suppleness here that the previous Type R never even approached. On a really testing surface, it can feel as though Honda has yet to find the perfect tune for the car’s suspension: it is, perhaps, just a little bit too soft in Comfort, becoming ever so slightly wooden at times in Sport.
But most roads are gobbled up in a blur of speed, grip, vigour and excitement in the Civic. Most corners are simply greater opportunities for line-enlivening, attitude-adjusting, smile-widening fun than is on offer in everyday circumstances in any of the other cars here.
At the end of three days on road and track, our judges were unanimous: the Golf might have been objectively ‘better’ in the broadest sense, the A45 faster, the 308 GTi cheaper – but the Civic Type R had shown itself to be the champion driver’s car of them all. The most improved hot hatchback of 2017 is also the best.
Used ones: even more affordable
Can’t stomach the new hot hatch bills? A used version of one of our four finalists could be the solution.
It might sound a little tame in this company, but a used 308 GTi is worth considering simply for the value it offers. Go for the cheaper 250bhp derivative as you get only a slim acceleration advantage with the pricier 270bhp version. It’s generously equipped inside, too.
The Golf R’s popularity as an all- encompassing super-hatch means there are lots of reasonably priced used ones, which is really its trump card here. Optional sat-nav is rare, but with that fast-acting all-wheel drive, it is one of the most usable and quickest hot hatches.
Striking? Certainly. Fast? You bet. Despite its 306bhp turbo engine, the FK2 Civic retained front-wheel drive, just like the FK8 in our main test. Its ride has all the delicacy
of a brick to the face but the combination of that turbo punch and VTEC mean all is soon forgiven.
Shockingly expensive new, it still commands a premium over rivals asaused buy, but less so—and with all that power and four-wheel drive, it continues to dominate
in the traffic light grand prix. In fact, given that it packs supercar performance into a five-door body, you might call it a bit of a bargain.
WHAT’S QUICKEST? HOT HATCH RIVALS TESTED FOR ACCELERATION AND LAP TIME
Our satellite-verified performance numbers of these cars, carried out at Llandow circuit in South Wales, shine a spotlight in many of the places you expect them to. They confirm that if you want to give your hot hatchback a fighting chance at out- and-out performance dominance in 2017, it has to be four-wheel- drive. The only car with one driven axle capable of 60mph from rest in less than 5.0sec was the BMW M140i — and the only front-driver capable of dipping under 6.0sec was the Honda Civic Type R.
Oddly, launch control software was fitted to the four-wheel-drive Audi RS3 Sportback, Mercedes-AMG A45, Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R and none of the others — when really the cars with only one driven axle would have benefited from it much more. Half of our cars simply ran out of room to post a 0-100mph time, which is why the chart looks incomplete.
The most credit for a fast lap time goes to the Honda, which matched the considerably more powerful Ford despite a notable power disadvantage. The performance of the Seat Leon, meanwhile, was hampered by a slipping clutch apparent from the first lap of testing. A healthy Cupra ought to have out-accelerated the Peugeot at least.