We all have our own definition of enjoyment. Some like horror films, roller coasters or chasing Double Gloucester cheese down steep hills. Others incline towards chess, Proust and triple-checking the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Behind the wheel, however, there is perhaps greater consensus. It’s hopefully not too controversial to say that, as enthusiasts all, our pleasure derived from driving a car comes from its performance, the manner in which this is delivered, the tactility of the steering, the grip of the tyres and the confidence these factors combine to deliver.
Except that’s really only half the picture. What if one car provides the ride of your life, but only in perfect conditions and on roads nowhere near where you or the vast majority of the rest of the country lives? What if it’s purgatory to drive it to anywhere you’d actually choose to use it? How should that compare to a car that’s perhaps less entertaining, but commensurately more usable?
Surely, the amount of fun a car has to offer has to be expressed as the driving satisfaction it provides multiplied by the number of times you are able or feel inclined to use it. There is, in short, a formula for fun.
So we thought we’d get some cars together, wildly diverse in character and purpose, but united in the provision of driving pleasure and loosely grouped around the £30,000 price mark.
Our intention was simply to find which delivered the best balance between functionality and fun. Is a car you’d only choose to drive in an ideal geographical and climatic environment a pointless indulgence, or does the joy it offers simply transcend all other considerations?
Likewise can a car primarily intended to transport families and their luggage ever provide enough pure driving excitement to be considered in such company? Or is the most convincing formula for fun somewhere between these poles?
One more thing before we start. Unlike most group tests, where a precise order of ability is sought, this is clearly not relevant here. If we didn’t already like and respect these cars, they’d never have been chosen to take part. To that extent they’re all winners. But, as we shall see, that in no way precludes one of them from being the most convincing of all.
Our most sensible competitor, at least on paper, is the Ford Focus ST-3 estate, keenly priced at £26,595 and known not only for being able to carry damn near as much clobber as a Volvo V70 but also for being the most entertaining estate this kind of money can buy.
A little less sensible on paper but a whole lot quicker is the Volkswagen Golf R, possibly the most broadly capable fast hatchback ever conceived and mightily attractive at £29,990 for a three-door manual or, as here, £31,315 with a DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
And, yes, we know the idea of a 30-grand Golf offering value seems implausible, but the reality is that it is not.
If there’s a bargain here, however, it’s the Subaru BRZ. When our plans for this test were forming it retailed for £26,495, but then Subaru sliced £2500 off its price, so now it can be bought for a very attractive £23,995.
We need to come clean about the Lotus Elise: it’s not the car we intended to use. Given its £29,900 price, a 1.6 Sport would have been perfect, but the only car Lotus had available was the supercharged S Club Racer, which is a little pricey for this company at £35,600.
Then again, the reason we wanted an Elise had very little to do with its performance and a great deal to do with the scintillating handling that’s common to both.
Finally, we needed the maddest thing wearing a numberplate our money could command, for which we were never likely to have to look further than Ariel and the Atom in its most affordable normally aspirated 245bhp guise. It costs £32,100 if you include the technically optional limited-slip differential that even the manufacturer says is essential.