Welcome to the domain of the accidental hot hatchback, the somewhat limelight-shy, affordable driver’s car.
It may not be a place you’ve been seeking out, but it could become so once you’ve read this group test. So prepare to be surprised by exactly how much verve and vigour the best examples of this breed now offer – and for the kind of money you might otherwise spend on a mid-range diesel motorway hack.
This is the niche of the ordinary family fivedoor made just a little bit extraordinary. Specially engineered performance front-drivers exist somewhere else, in an altogether less accessible place. The cars we’re lining up here run with suspension settings, wheels, tyres and brakes shared with many of their sister models, as well as the most temptingly potent petrol engine in the line-up (leaving aside top-of-the-line GTIs and their ilk). These are, for the most part, just good-handling hatches fitted with the engines that begin to make that handling tell. And this is where we find out which is the quickest and best to drive.
The Ford Focus Red Edition takes the petrolpowered Zetec S as its basis, adding painted alloy wheels and brake calipers, a two-tone exterior paint job, some extra standard equipment and an upgrade for the 1.5-litre Ecoboost petrol turbo engine that increases peak power to 180bhp. It ought to be our favourite, but current-generation Focuses haven’t always done justice to their maker’s reputation for market-leading ride and handling. We’ll see if more of a sporting remit makes the car a safer bet.
The Seat Leon EcoTSI plays its part in the Spanish maker’s range of warmed-up FR models, so it ought to be among the shorter-odds options, too. Drawing power from a downsized, 148bhp 1.4-litre turbo engine fitted with fuel-saving cylinder deactivation, it has the look and feel of a junior performance special. But will it have enough poke to really put on a show?
The Mazda 3 2.0 Skyactiv-G Sport Nav is flying the flag for atmospheric aspiration, with its high compression ratio promising a zingy 163bhp. It’s relatively pricey but has curvy, alternative styling and a rich and well-equipped interior. It has also impressed on previous acquaintance with other versions with its game and responsive handling. It’s here on merit.
And the reason they’re all gathered together now is our final competitor: the Vauxhall Astra, which has just had a 197bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre motor strapped down into the front of it. ’Nuff said.
This SRi-badged Vauxhall comes into our comparison with the readily apparent relative advantages of power and implied pace, then. We’ll see how great that head start really is when the Autocar timing gear is applied. What matters from the kick-off here is that these cars are as evenly matched as we can make them, in the ways likely to matter most to their owners. All have showroom prices of little more than £20,000; all can be lodged on your P11D tax return at a benefit-in-kind tax rate of around 20%; all qualify for insurance at a group rating of around 20. So all make a Focus ST or Volkswagen Golf GTI look costly to run.
Let’s get on with it. What we’ve got here, viewed somewhat harshly, perhaps, are four volumebrand protagonists deploying relatively powerful engines, ‘sporty’ bodykits and high equipment levels in order to tempt you not to do what the world and his wife have been doing for a decade or more now: buying ‘premium’. And if you’d rather have an entry-level 109bhp 1.6-litre diesel Audi A3 Sportback, fair enough. There are lots of reasons why many of us buy a sensible, upmarket diesel car, but few of them would sustain an Autocar group test worth reading.
But if you’re less bound to the lowest-emissions, cheapest-to-run car you can get and more interested in the driving experience than the badge that comes with it, prick up your ears. Because I reckon you could be quite taken with the idea of spending the same money and yet getting a car capable of sprinting to 60mph in under eight seconds rather than about 11. Or getting an engine that spins all the way to 6500rpm, rather than only 5000rpm, and which sounds a bit more ‘modern F1’ than ‘Formula One Logistics Ltd’. I certainly would be. And if you are minded to trade premium-brand prestige for all-round sporting appeal, the more of that you get, the better the trade will surely seem.
Slide into a Leon FR and you’ll find plenty of instant sporting appeal, engendered the way that any hot hatchback might conjure it at first: with thickly bolstered, part-leather sports seats, a purposeful-looking three-spoke leather steering wheel, shiny pedals and some jazzed-up instruments. To sit in the Seat is to understand instantly that you’re about to drive something fun.
And yet the extent to which that’s also true in the Ford, Vauxhall and Mazda declines as you progress along that list. The Focus has a tactile leather steering wheel and a downsized, short-throw gearknob, but its short-cushioned cloth seats and the pervasive greyness of its cabin don’t win it so many brownie points. The Astra’s seats, although comfy, are equally plain-looking and its interior is spacious and flashily decorated with chrome and gloss black trims but quite monochrome and cheap to the touch in places. The 3, meanwhile, heads off on a tangent all of its own, with its plush heated leather seats and textured metal heater controls. You’d imagine, to begin with, that it wasn’t intended as a driver’s car at all.
Until you hear it running, of course. At that point, you’d know for certain that the Mazda is aimed at keener drivers. The car’s normally aspirated 2.0-litre engine has a rorty edge to its tonality at medium revs, and it’s simple and pleasingly vocal to listen to. Its gearlever feels hefty and taut through the gate, while its clutch and steering have matching weight. Allied with the crispness of the throttle response, all of that makes the powertrain seem keen and willing to work.
Mind you, it does have to work in order to make the 3 feel fast – and thusly we come to the particular performance level at which these hatchbacks operate. Unless you’ve only ever driven diesel hatchbacks, you probably won’t hop into a near 200-horsepower Ford and be blown away by the rate at which it’ll accelerate. But funnily enough, that only adds to the appeal.
All four of these cars will go hard enough to feel like they mean business. Hard enough to excite you, to overtake effortlessly, to engage you in the process of driving them, and certainly to cover ground more quickly than the majority of family five-doors. But not so hard as to make you worry that the occasional bit of indulgence on a favourite road will inevitably lead to the removal of your driving licence.
There are faster cars and slower here, of course. Our timing gear confirms the superiority of the Vauxhall on outright pace, which turns out to be unquestionable (see table, p43). The only car to dip under 7.0sec to 60mph and beating its rivals by more than 5.0sec to 100mph, the Astra delivers grunt of an altogether higher magnitude than its competitors. For the record, a 2009 Golf GTI was no quicker. Its engine has creditable throttle response and loads of mid-range torque, and it revs quite freely high on the tacho. Although its gearlever and clutch feel a bit stodgy, neither prevents you from marvelling at how urgently a £20,000 Vauxhall can be persuaded to go.
And yet we’re not really in territory where the fastest car is likely to steal the show. There will always be quicker hatchbacks than £20,000 will buy, after all. So the fact that the Seat’s 1.4-litre engine puts it in either first or second place in a couple of the sprinting disciplines we measured earns it equal credit to the Astra. Although it suffers a bit of turbo lag below 2000rpm, the motor feels very torquey once the turbo spools up and revs with urgency.
The 3 undoubtedly feels like the slowest car here, has the least mid-range thrust and needs the most determination to be driven quickly (although it’s a determination you’ll revel in taking). The funny thing is that the Focus is slower against the clock when accelerating to 60mph from standing and a solitary tenth of a second more flexible when pulling from 30-70mph in fourth gear.
While the Mazda’s power delivery feels pin-sharp, the Ford’s feels meek and thin by turbocharged standards, particularly so in the lower intermediate gears, where it’s almost as if the ECU limits torque output to protect the gearbox. Whereas every full-bore gearchange in the Mazda feels precise and rewards matching precision in its driver, they’re marked by a frustrating lapse in turbo boost and lengthy interruption in forward thrust in the Ford. As clear as it is that the Vauxhall’s engine rules the roost here, the Ford’s props up the pile just as plainly.
Where the Ford hits back is in its maker’s traditional area of strength. Getting the lowered sport suspension that comes with every Zetec S, the Focus is the best-handling car here, which comes as heartening news. A medium-firm, rubber-footed ride is delivered along with flat, taut body control, responsive and balanced handling and weighty, incisive steering. The car’s damping authority is good enough to deal easily with a decent-sized pothole struck at pace halfway around a corner, and better than any of its rivals, yet its spring rates also manage to leave room for a bit of suppleness and compliance.
Next in order of dynamic creditworthiness comes the Seat, which is equally as precise and direct-handling as the Ford and feels almost as nicely balanced through corners. It doesn’t ride as quietly as the Focus – due in no small part, I suspect, to the optional 18in alloy wheels of our test car – but overall it’s capable of every bit as much amusement factor.
That the Astra doesn’t trouble either the Focus or Leon here is to be greatly regretted, because if it got even close to the mark, it would be walking away with this contest. But the Vauxhall’s suspension, whose tuning isn’t tweaked but common with every other Astra hatchback, makes for an incongruous drive. The springing feels soft and long of travel over testing lumps and bumps, the dampers incapable of preventing the car’s body from rebounding disconcertingly from one to the next. Every unchecked deflection also exacerbates the inconsistent weight and feel in the steering, and the net result of 197bhp being transmitted through a relatively soft front axle is added disturbance to your intended line with every application of power.
The 3 puts on a more respectable showing, cornering keenly but riding with a slightly hyperactive oversprung and underdamped feel and steering with changeable directness that makes it harder to guide than it might be.
Which really leaves only one winner, as the time comes to tot up the scores – only one car that has shown strength in every key area: real-world pace, purposefulness of design and specification, handling prowess and value. The Leon 1.4 EcoTSI FR recovers from the ignominy of having entered our test with the least peak power on show to upstage its bigger-hitting and more expensive rivals from Ford and Vauxhall. The Leon feels like a car with a cracking chassis enlivened by the power and performance it deserves, with its rivals yet to be developed to that level of maturity, either under the bonnet or inside the wheelhouses. And although it may never be the most exciting driver’s car in the world, it could easily be the most exciting one in yours.
1 - Seat Leon 1.4 EcoTSI FR
Rating 4.5/5; Price £20,525; 0-62mph 8.0sec; Top speed 134mph; Economy (combined) 60.1mpg; CO2 emissions/tax band 114g/km, 19%; Kerb weight 1305kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 1395cc, turbo, petrol; Power 148bhp at 5000-6000rpm; Torque 184lb ft at 1500-3500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Insurance group/quote 18E, £562
0-60mph 7.8sec; 0-100mph 23.9sec; 30-70mph 7.8sec; 30-70mph in fourth 10.6sec; True MPG 41.3mpg
2 - Ford Focus 1.5 Ecoboost Zetec S Red Edition
Rating 4/5; Price £21,995; 0-62mph 8.6sec; Top speed 138mph; Economy (combined) 51.4mpg; CO2 emissions/tax band 127g/km, 22%; Kerb weight 1325kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 1499cc, turbo, petrol; Power 180bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 177lb ft at 1600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Insurance group/quote 19E, £580
0-60mph 9.0sec; 0-100mph 23.2sec; 30-70mph 8.0sec; 30-70mph in fourth 11.5sec; True MPG 39.6mpg
3 - Vauxhall Astra 1.6 Turbo SRi Nav
Rating 3.5/5; Price £21,135; 0-62mph 6.6sec (60mph); Top speed 146mph; Economy (combined) 47.1mpg; CO2 emissions/tax band 139g/km, 24%; Kerb weight 1350kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbo, petrol; Power 197bhp at 4700-5500rpm; Torque 221lb ft at 1700-4700rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Insurance group/quote 19E, £580
0-60mph 6.7sec; 0-100mph 17.0sec; 30-70mph 5.9sec; 30-70mph in fourth 10.8sec; True MPG 40.9mpg
4 - Mazda 3 2.0 Skyactiv-G 165 Sport Nav
Rating 3.5/5; Price £22,170; 0-62mph 8.2sec (60mph); Top speed 130mph; Economy (combined) 48.7mpg; CO2 emissions/tax band 135g/km, 24%; Kerb weight 1369kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 1998cc, turbo, petrol; Power 163bhp at 5000-6000rpm; Torque 155lb ft at 4000rpm ; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Insurance group/quote 22E, £640
0-60mph 8.4sec; 0-100mph 23.2sec; 30-70mph 8.0sec; 30-70mph in fourth 11.6sec; True MPG 40.3mpg