DAWN OF THE
HYPERHATCH

The hot hatch market has never been so competitive, and with the arrival of VW’s Golf GTI Clubsport S, the competition has a real fight on its hands

by DAN PROSSER
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

ust as there has to be a winner, there must also be a loser. The hot hatch sector has never been stronger than it is right now, but that point is actually better demonstrated by the car that loses this group test rather than the one that wins it. The machine that comes home in fourth position will be rampantly fast, hugely exciting to drive on road and track, and perfectly useable every day, too. But it will also be presented with the wooden spoon. The winner, by extension, will be a car of such radiant quality that it deserves to be recognised alongside the best performance cars of the moment at any price point.

Our search for the world’s greatest hot hatch will take us to the spectacular and revealing moorland roads of the Yorkshire Dales, to Bruntingthorpe’s two-mile runway and to the Bedford Autodrome’s West Circuit. Over three days, we’ll learn which is the most enjoyable hot hatch on the road, which is the fastest in a straight line, and which is the quickest on circuit.

After all of that, the victor will still have much to prove. The Renaultsport Mégane 275 Trophy-R is the most thrilling car of its type of the last few years – of all time, perhaps – and the winner of this test will square up against it in a meeting of giants. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets, please.    

J

Few real-world performance cars have ever garnered more column inches and YouTube minutes than the new Ford Focus RS. It has been described by some as the best car on the planet, full stop, and by others as a let-down. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but at least on one point we can reach a consensus: the RS is a more intriguing car for driving all four wheels. With a centre diff and a rear drive unit that juggles torque between the rear wheels via a pair of clutch packs, the RS finally has the sophisticated four-wheel-drive system Blue Oval devotees have been crying out for.

The Ford’s 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine develops 345bhp, with 347lb ft of torque from 2000rpm, making it comfortably the most powerful car in this line-up. At £31,000 it looks like strong value in this company, too.

The cheapest of the four cars, though, is the recently updated SEAT Leon Cupra 290, which starts at £28,380. Its 2-litre engine is good for 286bhp and 258lb ft – the latter from just 1700rpm. In our experience, however, these Leon Cupras always feel stronger than their claimed power and torque figures suggest. It’s also the only car here that can be specified with two pedals, though today we have the full complement.

The Leon shares its drivetrain and platform with the new Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, which is by some margin the most hardcore Golf ever built. Limited to 150 units for the UK – all sold out, despite the £33,995 price tag – the Clubsport S was developed for the sole purpose of snatching the front-wheel-drive production-car lap record at the Nürburgring. Clocking a time of 7min 49.2sec, it did just that earlier this year. Its engine is in a higher state of tune than the Leon’s, delivering 306bhp – and 280lb ft from 1850rpm – and it does without rear seats in order to win a precious second or two around the Nordschleife.

The car it usurped at the Ring (leaving to one side for a moment the fact that this Nürburgring lap-time squabble is entirely unregulated and probably quite meaningless) was the Honda Civic Type R. The Civic matches the Clubsport S for power output, but with 295lb ft from 2500rpm it shades the Golf on torque. The Type R starts at £30,000.

In order to level the playing field as much as possible, all four cars wear the same rubber. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 is quickly becoming the go-to tyre for supercar, supercoupe and superhatch manufacturers alike. It’s standard-fit on the Clubsport S and an optional extra on both the Focus RS and Cupra 290, but we’ve had to fit them ourselves to the Type R (this is our own long-term test car), which is only offered with Continental SportContact 6 rubber by Honda.

The Cup 2 is spectacular in the dry but dicey in the wet, so it’s a relief to be welcomed to the Yorkshire Dales by dry, albeit murky, misty weather for the early part of the day. I’ve driven up in the Clubsport S from VW UK’s headquarters in Milton Keynes, which has given me plenty of time to get acquainted. The unusual thing about the Clubsport S is that despite doing away with rear seats simply to save a few kilos, it just doesn’t feel that hardcore on the road. This is an extreme hot hatch without actually being all that extreme, because it’s still very refined over a long distance, it has a great cabin, and it rides comfortably. You do hear a little more road noise because there’s no rear bench to dull the sound, but that aside, the Clubsport S feels much like a standard GTI on the motorway.

We’ll be spending the day on the Buttertubs Pass, which runs north away from Hawes and into the uppermost corner of the Dales. This is the kind of ground where a well-driven fast hatch will keep pace with just about anything on four wheels. The road is bumpy, too, but on first impressions the Clubsport S is pliant and fluid enough to take those bumps in its stride.

‘I hope that Golf has more suspension travel than the Type R,’ says evo features editor Henry Catchpole as I pull into the lay-by that’ll serve as our base for the day. Curious, I swap out of the VW and into the Honda. I like its seats – they’re heavily bolstered and clamp you in all the right places – but they just don’t drop down far enough. The Type R won’t be the only car here to disappoint in that way.

Within the first few hundred metres it’s clear the Civic is a stiffly sprung car. Much more so than the Golf. It’s constantly fidgeting over the bumps and undulations in the road surface, which means your head nods along involuntarily.

When you up the pace, that stiff ride quality becomes a problem rather than a mere nuisance. There’s one particular stretch at the far end of the pass that really unties the Civic. Four sharp crests follow in quick succession, a gentle left-hand bend taken in fourth gear linking them. With each yump, the Civic’s front axle gets airborne, wheels flaring up as the car gets light, then landing with a thump. The resolute suspension just can’t absorb the big input at the bottom of the approach ramp, as it were, which fires the front of the car skywards.

It’s an extreme scenario, certainly, but it demonstrates a point. The Type R’s suspension doesn’t have the travel or pliancy to deal with the shape of this particularly demanding road, the consequence being that you don’t feel confident that the tyres are in firm contact with the ground. Try committing to a road when you’re not even sure the car will stick.

I’ve driven this Type R enough to know that the chassis comes good when the bumps are taken away, at which point it feels super-agile with sharp steering and a neutral balance. But in the quest for the world’s best hot hatch, that lack of pliancy on the kind of roads that make up a big chunk of our network in the UK is a weakness that’s difficult to overlook.

The 2-litre turbocharged engine, meanwhile, is strong, but it lacks responsiveness compared to some and it’s thrashy at the top end. Throttle response improves in +R mode, but then the damping becomes even firmer. Why oh why doesn’t Honda let us decouple those two things? To its credit, though, the Type R does have the best gearshift here.

It also has a strong identity and a very bold character, both of which are sorely lacking in the Leon. I find it an attractive car – in the company of the Type R it’s almost completely missable, which isn’t necessarily meant in praise of the garish Honda – but it seems to be without any discernable personality.

That’s a pity because it really is a very good car indeed. It’s much more at home on the Buttertubs Pass than the Civic because it has the suspension travel to breathe with the road, rather than skip along it. This latest Cupra 290 model improves over the previous Cupra 280 with slightly tauter body control, which really builds your faith in the car. The steering is still a touch light and vague, though, even in the weightiest ‘Cupra’ setting, and the limited-slip differential doesn’t quite hook up enough to deploy the full arsenal without waste.

Its 2-litre turbo engine is responsive and it sings right up to the limiter, which really draws you in to taking the car by its scruff. More than any other car here, however, it settles right down and feels relaxed and grown-up when you’re not gunning for a personal best along a moorland road. The SEAT is comfortably the most broadly capable car here.

What it doesn’t do, however, is deliver the moments of ecstasy that you get in both the Focus RS and the GTI Clubsport S. With the sun having burned through the mist, I drop into the RS’s cabin and curse, once again, the heinous seating position. The seat is set too high – the optional shell-backed buckets exacerbate this – but with time you do grow accustomed to the lofty driving position. Like the Type R, the Focus RS feels resolute over the road surface, but when it matters it manages to soak up bumps without deflecting its body.

The Ford is a car that needs to be driven hard before it starts to make sense. At medium speeds its steering is heavy and numb, and you’re nowhere near approaching the balance and adjustability in its chassis. Step up the pace, however, and it comes alive, feeling alert and agile, and much lighter than its 1567kg weight (an evo figure – Ford claims 1524kg – and quite a bit heavier than our 1320kg weight for the Golf). The steering begins to feel natural and gives a real sense of connection with the road surface, and you can work the rear axle at the entry phase to a corner to get the nose tucked in. It’s the most playful and adjustable car here. Exiting corners, you can just about feel the rear axle taking the strain – enough that you can open the steering wheel a little earlier – and it certainly has more point-to-point pace than its rivals on a road like this one.

‘I think the RS is actually better on the road on the standard Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres,’ says Henry, ‘because it’s easier to get the car into that playful window.’ He’s a fan of the RS and I sense it’s a bind for him to rank it behind the Clubsport S, but that’s exactly what he does.

I do the same. In fact, with the Honda in last position, the SEAT in third and the Ford in second, we’ve arrived at exactly the same finishing order. It’s a close-run thing between the RS and the Clubsport S for both of us, but we agree that the VW feels more special more of the time, and it doesn’t demand you remove your brain before it starts to engage and entertain.
It begins the instant you fire the car up, actually, because after the initial burst of revs, you hear a loud report from the exhaust tips. Then there’s the lovely suede steering wheel, the low-slung seating position and, if you look over your shoulder, the theatre of a strut brace where your kids should be sitting.

The Golf’s steering is at its best in its heaviest mode, where it marries perfectly to the natural agility and balance in the chassis. This feels a high-quality machine within moments. There’s the same polished, well-oiled precision to all the major controls and the same sophisticated way of combining body control and ride that you find in Porsche’s GT cars, which should be no real surprise given that Karsten Schebsdat, formally of Porsche Motorsport, led the Clubsport S project.

It feels seriously quick in a straight line and the engine sounds raw and aggressive – from outside the car, at least. Its differential also works more effectively than the one fitted to the SEAT, which means it rips from tighter corners at almost the same rate as the all-wheel-drive Focus RS. There’s a useful degree of adjustability in the chassis, meanwhile, and you can feel the car being propped up by its outside rear corner on the way into a bend, keeping the front end on a tight line.

Whereas the Type R leaves you hoping the front tyres will bite on turn-in, the Clubsport S floods you with confidence. You can place the car right on the limit of grip corner after corner, mile after mile. With its lick of rear wing and subtly aggressive styling, I reckon it’s the best-looking car here, too.

‘The feel through the wheel sets the Golf apart,’ adds Henry. ‘The damping is also fantastic. Several of us mentioned Porsche in the same breath as the Golf and I can see why.’

The Clubsport S is a uniquely brilliant hot hatch, then, but with just two seats, is it better defined as a sports car? The non-S GTI Clubsport, which has rear seats and can be specified with Cup 2 tyres, will tick more boxes for most buyers, although it doesn’t get the same suspension setup.

Nonetheless, the Golf GTI Clubsport S has earned itself an audience with the mighty Mégane 275 Trophy-R. Before that, though, all four cars must head to Bruntingthorpe and then to the Bedford Autodrome. We know the VW is the most enjoyable car to drive on the road, but is it the fastest against the clock, too?

Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbo
Power 306bhp @ 5800-6500rpm  
Torque 280lb ft @ 1850-5700rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Wheels 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 ZR19 front and rear
Weight 1285kg (1320kg as tested)
Power-to-weight 242bhp/ton (claimed)
0-62mph 5.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 165mph (claimed)
Basic price £33,995
On sale Now
evo rating: ★★★★

SEAT Leon Cupra 290
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbo
Power 286bhp @ 5900-6400rpm  
Torque 258lb ft @ 1700-5800rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Wheels 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 ZR19 front and rear
Weight 1300kg (1346kg as tested)
Power-to-weight 224bhp/ton (claimed)
0-62mph 5.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Basic price £28,380
On sale Now
evo rating: ★★★★

Ford Focus RS
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2261cc, turbo
Power 345bhp @ 6000rpm  
Torque 347lb ft @ 2000-4500rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, torque-vectoring
Wheels 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 ZR19 front and rear
Weight 1524kg (1567kg as tested)
Power-to-weight 230bhp/ton (claimed)
0-62mph 4.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 165mph (claimed)
Basic price £31,000
On sale Now
evo rating: ★★★★

Honda Civic Type R
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1996cc, turbo
Power 306bhp @ 6500rpm  
Torque 295lb ft @ 2500-4500rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Wheels 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 ZR19 front and rear
Weight 1378kg (1406kg as tested)
Power-to-weight 226bhp/ton (claimed)
0-62mph 5.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 167mph (claimed)
Basic price £30,000
On sale Now
evo rating: ★★★★

‘out here a well-driven hot hatch will keep pace with just about anything’

‘The ford is a car that needs to be driven hard before it starts to make sense’

‘the hot hatch sector has never been stronger than it is now’