Audi A1 Quattro vs Mini JCW GP, Ford Focus RS500 and Renault Megane R26.R - Audi A1 Quattro vs Mini JCW GP, Ford Focus RS500 and Renault Megane R26.R: On the road

Before we head to the track, these mega-hatches must prove themselves on road.

The scale of the challenge facing the Mini GP is apparent as soon as we arrive at Blyton. For there, parked in no particular order, are the magnificent Renaultsport Megane R26.R, the muscular, matt black Ford Focus RS500 and the pert new Audi A1 quattro. Together with the Mini GP, they represent the four rarest and most specialised hot hatches of recent years. It’s going to be quite a fight.

With the cars washed and Dean Smith’s shutter finger getting itchy, we head out onto the roads. Despite my general hatred of race harnesses in road cars I’m magnetically drawn to the Renault. Some cars have an aura about them and this is one of them; purposeful but not OTT, considered but not contrived, it has the same air of seriousness and purpose as a 911 GT3 RS. The same credibility too, thanks to its Renaultsport pedigree and front-drive Ring lap record (now beaten – by the Megane Trophy). It’s bizarre to think that Renault UK struggled to sell its allocation of R26.Rs, especially as they’re now appreciating in value.

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Once you drop into the carbon Sabelt seat and slam the door, the interior feels sparse but special. There’s a blanking plate where there once was a radio, but there is air conditioning, which always comes as a surprise to me. There’s more road noise and the exhaust resonates in that cavernous space behind the seats, but that big red roll-cage never fails to raise a smile when you look in the rear-view mirror. It’s an evocative driving environment, but it’s still the palpable lightness of the car when you’re moving that’s most impressive.

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The electric power steering feels a little dead and is too light for the first few miles, but improves once the lightly treaded Toyo 888 tyres come up to temperature. The brakes are sharp to your first input – I suspect that’s due to more aggressive pad material in this case – but the throttle response, clutch and gearshift are all sweetly uniform, so you gel with the controls without  having to really dial yourself in.

The ride is much more pliant than you’d expect, thanks to Renaultsport’s famous decision to soften the suspension a little to work in closer harmony with the R26.R’s reduced mass. That was a stroke of genius as it ensured  this clearly track-focused car works brilliantly on the road. The way it finds so much bite yet still feels fluid and light on its tyres is unique, as is its sparkling blend of agility and benign on-limit handling. You have to recalibrate your brain to just how much corner speed it can carry, but it feels involving and rewarding whether you’re at five-tenths or ten.

The engine is the least inspiring aspect, for it’s not very characterful or potent, but it has a workmanlike charm to the way it goes about its business, and the optional titanium exhaust adds a welcome full-throttle rip to the soundtrack. Besides, 227bhp and 229lb ft tend to feel more impressive when there’s just 1220kg (125kg less than the regular R26) to propel.

The flipside of this modest power and torque is tremendous traction and no torque steer, which means you never feel as though you’re squandering forward motion or fighting with the car. It’s totally in line with the R26.R’s purist approach and cements the feeling that it makes the absolute most of what it has. Far from diminishing its impact, time seems to have made this radical Renault even more special.

It now seems appropriate to switch into the other benchmark car to get a complete picture of what the new breed has to live up to. I was never quite sure about the RS500’s matt black wrap when it was new and I’m even less convinced now, but we shouldn’t let this fashion faux pas cloud our judgement on what remains one of the hardest hitting hot hatches ever made.

In concept and execution it’s the polar opposite of the R26.R, being immensely powerful but a bit of a lard-arse at the best part of 1500kg. Still, with 345bhp and 339lb ft to lob it down the road, the Ford comfortably eclipses the Renault’s power-to-weight ratio, with 239bhp per ton versus 189bhp per ton for the Megane. That’s enough to achieve a 12.7sec 0-100mph time and 165mph top speed: serious numbers for a hatchback.

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Like the exterior, the interior lacks the spartan chic of the Megane, but there’s a commensurate uplift in practicality, not least because it has rear seats and a contained luggage compartment. The driving position isn’t ideal as you sit high in the seat, and I’d forgotten the right-hand squab bolster’s ability to inflict eye-watering pain if you ‘straddle’ it as you drop into the seat!

If anything can turn your anguished frown upside down it’s the sound of the RS500’s 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine. Smooth and musical where the Renault’s is prosaic and humdrum, the Focus sings a rousing song full of snorts and warbles, with the odd pop or bang for good measure. The note hardens under load as if to amplify the sense of building boost and intensifying acceleration, followed by the inevitable vibrato of wheelspin as the front tyres submit to all that torque.

It sets the tone for what can only be described as good-natured rough and tumble between you, the RS500 and whatever piece of road you’re on. For all its brute force and F-117 war paint (or should that be war vinyl?), the Focus feels playful. It takes a while to get your head around how to best exploit the handling balance, but once you understand that the reactive initial turn-in can soon become a bit understeery, you learn to bring the tail into play early as a neutralising influence. With confidence you can get bolder with your corner entry, sliding the tail then getting back on the throttle to pull the car straight. You really need to turn the ESP off to make the most of the RS500’s expressive handling, but it’s far from inert with the electronic safety net in place. 

Compared to the Megane’s, the RS500’s brakes are initially more progressive, but you do feel the extra mass when charging into a tight corner. The steering lacks the linearity of the Renault’s, and there’s a very real sense that Ford has tried hard to create steering and suspension geometry that can somehow absorb the torque steer. It succeeds to a degree, but hard acceleration always sends the nose meandering from left to right. It’s not violent, but it always feels like you’re correcting the deflective forces of a constantly changing crosswind. After a while it becomes second nature, but it remains a mild irritation.

The mk2 Focus RS holds huge appeal, but it also feels like it places the simple thrills of accelerative fireworks ahead of the cerebral satisfaction of precisely dissecting a challenging road. That makes it exciting, especially with the RS500’s extra 45bhp, but how much long-term satisfaction you derive from its mild waywardness depends on whether you like a car that dances to your tune or its own.For sheer curiosity value alone, the A1 quattro is impossible to resist. Until now the A1 has been the designer handbag of the Audi range, at least in the eyes of performance-focused people like us. But when Audi’s engineers indulged themselves with a game of ‘What if…’, the result was a limited-edition, left-hand-drive-only flight of fancy with all-wheel drive and a 253bhp 2-litre turbo engine packed into Ingolstadt’s Mini rival.

Just 333 of these intriguing machines have been built, with only 19 coming to the UK. At a list price of £41,020 it’s a crazy proposition on every rational level, yet when you see it sitting before you like some latter-day Delta Integrale, man maths begins to kick-in. In typical Audi fashion it’s a brilliantly sharp-looking and cohesively designed machine, with just enough muscle to hint at what lies beneath, yet not so much that it could be accused of being try-hard. And those wheels are just perfect.

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Inside it feels worth every one of those £41,020, with lots of soft, supple black leather and the usual soft-touch Audi plastics. For some reason I wasn’t expecting a gearstick (shows how much attention I paid to those early pre-production drive reports!) and I’m not sure whether I’m pleased or disappointed. At 1420kg the A1 quattro isn’t exactly light in this company, but it does highlight the extra weight the 47kg-heavier Focus is carrying. Perhaps that’s why Ford went with front drive and not the all-wheel drive rumoured back in the day.

Things get off to an infuriating start thanks to the A1’s stupid key, which has nowhere to live other than in your pocket or the cupholder. One day someone will invent a small slot in the steering column, into which you push the key and twist to start the engine. Wouldn’t that be amazing? But I digress. In typical Audi four-cylinder fashion the engine is as vocal as a Trappist monk, with not so much as a burble on tickover. Given the specialised nature of the car, that’s a bit disappointing.

So my first impressions are of a premium, high-quality hot hatch, but one that falls some way short of being extreme, at least in the mould of the other three cars in this test. That’s a real shame, for you’d have thought, or at least hoped, that given the pricing and low production numbers Audi could have created something really rather wild, and still sold them ten times over.

Nevertheless, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is a rare Audi indeed; not simply by dint of the ultra-exclusive production run, but because it’s a high-performance Audi that has pliancy, subtlety and cohesion to its damping, steering and general demeanour. Because it’s so compact, the fact you’re sitting on the ‘wrong’ side is less of an issue than you might expect. If anything it only serves to reinforce the sense that this is a 21st-century Integrale.

The engine has that typical VAG four-cylinder turbo trait of delivering a big slug of response early in the throttle’s travel, as if to suggest there’s more poke than there actually is. But instead of fading with revs, the little A1’s motor sings to 7000rpm. The gearshift isn’t the most mechanical in feel, but it’ll snap through the gate as quickly as you can move your arm. The brakes are a bit too keen to bite, which is annoying, but you can drive round it if you make a conscious effort.

If there’s a growing sense that this car is too civilised and mainstream in its behaviour to be regarded as a truly extreme hot hatch, the way it covers ground goes a long way to make up for its lack of edge. For the first time in a long time (recent R8 Plus not included) Audi has created a drivers’ car that delivers, albeit in a mature, mainstream fashion. There’s depth to the damping, and measured wheel and body control that’s been sorely missing in the RS Audis for far too long. It would be nice if the A1 quattro could be teased into some more interesting shapes through second- or third-gear corners, but it’s still a very satisfying and extremely rapid cross-country machine.

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If you’re looking for an antidote to the Audi’s relentlessly sensible delivery, then the two-seater Mini GP is the shot in the arm you need. As I discovered on first acquaintance, it’s a loopy little thing. The specification is very serious indeed, with every key area of the car enhanced over the regular JCW. Central to these changes is the suspension, which employs adjustable coilovers that drop the car by 20mm at the front (where there is also increased negative camber) and 15mm at the rear. Six-piston calipers grip bigger 330mm front brake discs and the wheels (half an inch wider) are wrapped with special Kumho Ecsta tyres. And at the back, the diffuser is said to reduce rear lift by 90 per cent!

The 1.6-litre turbocharged engine has had a slight ECU tweak to liberate another 7bhp, lifting peak power to 215bhp, with 206lb ft of torque. The Mini GP continues with the JCW’s electronic limited-slip differential, but this now has a new intermediate mode, dubbed ‘GP’, which doesn’t limit power quite so aggressively, giving you more freedom. At £28,790 it’s a chunky £6k more than the regular JCW, but on the evidence of the spec sheet alone, this limited-edition model (2000 cars worldwide) is the closest thing to the R26.R any other brand has had the balls to create.

It is possible to drive the GP slowly, but it’ll take Herculean levels of self-control to do so. Its super-responsive controls egg you on relentlessly, while the firm, fidgety ride is pretty uncompromising. The engine is sharp and vocal, impressively punchy too, with a strong delivery and an addictive top-end rush. The gearshift sounds a bit clunky, but actually feels quick and accurate in use. The big brakes, meanwhile, are a little too responsive to initial light pedal pressure.

The big question mark hangs over the steering. For starters, the rim of the wheel itself is too fat, which makes you feel a bit ham-fisted before you’ve even begun. Like all Minis, the response is ultra-alert, but in the GP everything has been ramped all the way up to 11. Combined with aggressive torque steer and a startling sensitivity to anything that might deflect the wheels from your chosen course, it has the car equivalent of ADHD. Cambers, ruts, white lines, ley lines, you name it: the Mini GP will want to have a sniff of it.

The result is a car that’s very keen to tug you this way and that, be it under power or on the brakes. Because there’s no sneeze factor in the steering you can easily exacerbate things with excessive inputs, even though you only feel like you’re twitching your wrists. As ever, the Sport button only makes things more intense, firing a jolt of amphetamines through an already wired system. On the plus side the traction and stability controls are less intrusive and more effective, maintaining some sense of order without calling in the fun police at the first sign of wheelspin or oversteer. Disable it and all I’ll say is you’d better be on your mettle.

It all makes for a wild ride at times, but if you can force yourself to calm your inputs down, even as you find yourself in the midst of the Mini’s dynamic maelstrom, you can extract a truly thrilling driving experience. Where the Audi makes grown-up progress, the Mini kicks and punches like a toddler’s temper tantrum on wheels. Most of the time I’d hate this kind of delivery, but there are moments when the GP is just about the most exciting front-drive car you can imagine, angry and urgent like a wasp in a tin. In the context of this test, that scores highly.

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