At fast B-road speed, there is as marked a difference in the way the cars ride and handle as there is in the way they accelerate. The Audi is a fast road car done for the road. So much is evident from the softer, more compliant ride it has than the VW, which feels a little bit uncompromisingly damped at all times, but always tightly tied down.
The Golf R steers very well for a modern hot hatch. It’s an instantly pleasing, instinctive, point-andsquirt kind of car. It corners with real bite, excellent balance and very little energy or directional response lost to body roll or understeer. Turning in crisply, settling immediately and passing the burden of lateral grip from its front tyres through to its rears equally smartly, the Golf gets the meat of the bend over in a heartbeat. It invites you to pour on ever greater pace before the steering wheel is even quite straight again. The brilliance of the Golf’s handling is in what it’s holding in reserve: that readiness always to go quicker.
In the Audi, you get something quite different as your prevailing speed increases: the unmistakable sense – as the car’s body control, lateral grip level, steering authority and power delivery all begin to harmonise at around, say, 60mph and 3500rpm in fourth gear on a really testing B-road – that the car is at its best. That it’s simply getting on with doing exactly what it was tuned to do.
You can drive the RS2 too hard on the road, if you’re daft enough; feel the steering feedback turn into kickback over harder-charged bumps and witness the handling balance ebb away. If you tackle slower bends with too much gusto, the Audi begins to handle every bit like you’ve read it does: like a half-empty shopping trolley with too much booze stacked in the fruit and veg compartment.
But stick to a brisk but roadappropriate pace and the RS2 gives so much back. The car begins to ride bigger lumps and crests like a hydrofoil hovering above the chop. Its damping is progressive yet still ultimately effective. You negotiate bends in beguiling conversation, committing the car precisely but waiting longer for it to relax onto its outside wheels, and getting a feel for exactly how hard those 20-year-old tyres are gripping, before doling out more boost and trimming your outward line as you go.
Is one car better than the other to drive? Objectively, yes. You simply can’t deny that the quicker, crisper, grippier and better-balanced Golf R Estate would be capable of feats and speeds well beyond the RS2 Avant and, in that sense, the underdog hot hatchback wins the day. It is the better performance machine – and anyone buying one should know it. The reason that it’s not celebrated in quite the same way as the RS2 Avant is that supercars have developed even further than performance estates in the past 23 years and ‘slaying’ them is now a job for machines of even greater power and purpose.