2022 hot hatchback battle: hyper hatches

(Long read): Welcome to the first of three contests to find the greatest hot hatch on sale right now. Round 1 sees the new Mk8 Golf R take on the brilliant Civic Type R and ballistic AMG A45 S

What’s the best hot hatch currently on sale? We have a few firm favourites but recently we’ve driven some great newcomers, so we reckoned it was time to find out definitively. This is the first of a trio of group tests that will establish the best from each class before we bring the very finest together for a final, best of the best, winner-takes-all shoot-out. Will it be the new Hyundai i20 N or Toyota GR Yaris? The new Cupra Leon or BMW 128ti? Or will it be the new Volkswagen Golf R, which here takes on two of our current favourites, the formidable Honda Civic Type R and the ballistic Mercedes-AMG A45 S? There is an obvious omission in this little trio in the new Audi RS3, which has impressed us deeply so far, but at the time of writing this test was yet to arrive in the UK.

If you love driving you also love hire car lottery – the thrill of arriving at the airport rental car desk not knowing what you’re going to get. It’s a bit like that with an evo group test, except that when dep ed Adam Towler calls to say what’s being delivered to you for the start of the test, you’re a guaranteed winner. ‘Civic Type R,’ he said. Bingo! Get in! Mind, if he’d said AMG A45 S I’d have been just as happy. And, to be honest, as the writer of this test I probably should have started with the new Golf R but, hey, logistics. 

> 2022 hot hatchback battle: the middleweights

The Honda will do very nicely because it’s the pre-test favourite. Probably. It was mightily impressive at eCoty 2020, holding its own against many cars that were much more powerful and expensive. It’s a car of exceptional focus yet somehow not at the expense of everyday useability. It’s only ‘probably’ the pre-test favourite because we’ve never pitched it against the Mercedes-AMG A45 S. The AMG was great on eCoty 2019 and sets the bar for hot hatch performance, its 2-litre, turbocharged engine delivering a thrilling 415bhp, which it deploys effortlessly through all four wheels. It’s also a car you could use every day, perhaps even more easily than the Civic Type R thanks to its paddleshift dual-clutch transmission and even more cossetting ride. 

You can never underestimate a fast Volkswagen Golf, though. The new flagship Mk8 Golf R could be the absolute sweet spot, treading the perfect line between these two highly accomplished rivals by combining the potency of the Honda with the four-wheel-drive ability of the Mercedes, topped with lashings of traditional Golf strengths and understated flair. 

First, though, the Civic. From how it looks inside and out you might expect a raucous experience. In fact, while you feel hard-wired into the Civic through its incredibly precise, slack-free controls, it’s also comfortable, reasonably refined and rides remarkably well. 

The default drive mode is Sport and it’s fine for almost every situation, though there’s Comfort if you’d like the ride a little freer and ‘R’ if you want a sharper throttle and firmer ride. After a relaxing three hours heading north on the A1, Sport mode was also acceptable for the increasingly challenging road jinking cross-country to the rendezvous near Alston. 

This is where the Honda shines brightest. Terrific steering feel and response allows you to roll your wrists and clip every apex with pin-point accuracy, yet while the front end has seemingly limitless grip it doesn’t make the rear skittish. Superb damping gives it terrific poise and soaks up anything that comes its way, but what really tells you that this Civic has been obsessively honed is the brake pedal feel. It draws attention to itself simply by being outstandingly good: slack free, responsive and exceptionally easy to modulate. It’s as integral to the outstanding dynamic performance as the grip or damping. 

I find the Mercedes and Volkswagen in a car park high above the rolling, green hills of Weardale. Still buzzing from the drive, I hop out, look back and see again why the Type R has been a non-starter for so many. I totally get it. It’s a riot of go-faster ideas and dubious details. Having just added another brilliant drive to the many that have gone before, I’m long past caring how it looks, but for those still struggling, the new, wingless Sport Line version (see page 26) might be the solution.

Quick Golfs have long been the default choice of those who want to make good progress without attracting attention. The new Golf R gives you a 2-litre turbo engine with a Honda-matching 316bhp but here driving all four wheels and, optionally, with a rear-biased drift mode. There’s no manual gearbox option, though, and the entry price of the R is a shade over £39k, compared with around £34k for the base Civic and a little over £51k for the base AMG A45 S. 

The Golf’s extra drive modes come with the ‘R Performance Pack’ (£2k) that also adds a bigger rear spoiler and these handsome 19-inch alloys. Surprisingly, switchable damping is also an option – only £785, but still – while the other big-ticket extra fitted to this car is the Akrapovic titanium exhaust. This gives you four tasty tailpipes and a 7kg weight saving but costs an eye-watering £3100 and helps push the price of this Golf R to close to £48k. 

Sure, it’s no Civic, but the Mk8 is not a great-looking Golf. It looks chunky in the cabin section and adding bigger alloys and a bulkier tailgate spoiler doesn’t sort it. The Mercedes, then? Nope. Our test car’s bland maroon paint makes the shape look as old as it is, and going for the ‘Plus’ model (over £57k) gets you forged alloys, a bolt-on Richard Grant tailgate spoiler (ask your grandad) and front wing ‘canards’. The non-Plus A45 S is much less fussy but then also looks for all the world like an AMG Line A180 costing £20k less. 

The Golf looks sharp from the inside and feels good, the steering wheel a little more sculpted than the Civic’s but not to the detriment of feel, while the driver’s seat has good shape and support. It doesn’t take long for the switchgear and the HMI in general to get irritating, though. First off, why is the start button silver, square in shape and integrated into the centre console ahead of the stumpy gear selector (which works well)? Towler sees me looking puzzled and, having driven the Golf a couple of times, wanders over to show me an important  bit of set-up – finding the touchscreen slider for the adjustable damping. I’m grateful because it would have eluded me and I’ll be needing it. 

The engine fires up with a promising, slightly fruity four-cylinder note. As in the Honda, the default mode is Sport but the feedback is more like Comfort; the steering lacks weight and feel, the engine is muted and throttle response is dull with a surprising amount of dead travel, so it feels like you’re chasing the power rather than it being given up freely. 

The fast track to livening things up is the illuminated blue ‘R’ button on the steering wheel. Instantly you have the crisp throttle you expected and there’s more engine noise too, but not from those four big-bore, satin-finish tailpipes. Instead, it’s piped in through the cabin speakers and it sounds like a Porsche… but not a good-sounding one. In fact it sounds just like a 718 Cayman flat-four, with a Beetle-ish, off-beat thrum at idle, and even the quite random overrun pops are unconvincing, not so much rolling thunder as slamming cupboards. Apart from that weight loss I’ve honestly no idea what the pricey Akrapovic system contributes. 

Right from the off there are suggestions that the chassis doesn’t have the sort of control you’d expect of a fast hatch, and as the pace picks up those suggestions become uncomfortable realities. I’m following Towler in the Honda along the stretch of road I arrived on earlier and I can see the increasing confidence with which the Civic is being driven, as my confidence in the Golf diminishes. The surface gets busier and the Golf becomes less settled, bobbling over bumps that don’t trouble the Type R. 

Even when I’ve wound the damping almost all the way up, the Golf still doesn’t feel composed or comfortable and, as the pace picks up a bit more, it’s really struggling, not just dynamically but in performance too. It’s got more gears than the manual Honda and uses them snappily, but its extra weight tells against it on the straights as well as in the corners; both the Volkswagen and Mercedes weigh 1550kg to the Honda’s 1380kg. 

Towler is really in the groove now; I’m seeing less of the Civic’s brake lights. The Golf is now out of its comfort zone and I’m just bullying it to keep up. The steering wasn’t connected or sharp at modest speeds and with a lack of bite and grip from the Bridgestones it has become comically approximate. I’m turning in yards before I should and the nose is scrubbing wide like I’m driving in the wet. It feels as though the front end is heavy with mass, like the old VR6-engined R32, especially as it thuds into bumps in a way that suggests there’s insufficient suspension travel. 

By the time we pull up at the photo location my hands are hot and sweaty. Not because I’ve been out of my own comfort zone but because somewhere along the way I managed to hit the heated steering wheel button. It could be worse; on this road this morning Towler managed to hit the R button, setting the suspension back to Comfort… He’s all smiles now, though. ‘Earlier the Golf crumbled here but just now the Civic… the Civic blossomed. The depth of polish to the way it’s been engineered is awesome.’

On this showing, the Golf R appears to have received a very light touch from Volkswagen’s chassis engineers. I was hoping for more agility courtesy of its four-wheel drive, given that it can send power to the back end for its ‘drift’ mode. There are plenty of hoops to go through to engage this mode and after what I’ve just felt I’m not sure why you’d bother going through the rigmarole. 

‘This example doesn’t feel as well resolved as the non-Performance Pack car we first tested,’ muses Towler. ‘Maybe this one has had a particularly hard life, but at times I wondered whether it was broken. I really dislike the steering, which has no feel at all and a bizarre dead zone around the straight-ahead, and there appears to be very little influence from the rear axle to aid turn-in, so it often feels very nose-led and stodgy when asked to change direction. What’s more, the journey up showed that there’s little joy in simply gliding along swiftly at six or seven tenths, either.’

After the cloth comfort of the Honda and Volkswagen’s driver’s seats, slipping into the leather embrace of the Mercedes feels initially like dropping into a wingback Chesterfield armchair. The surroundings aren’t exactly gentleman’s club but are, as ever, interesting. The overall feeling in the Golf is tidy if a touch sombre, the Civic is a riot of red and black like an ’80s hot hatch, and the A45 is an unexpected and strikingly chintz blend of satin‑finish metal and piano black. 

Drive the Mercedes for five minutes and you’d say that the 415bhp A45 is more like the Golf than the Civic. Its steering is light on feel and so lacks the direct, connected sense of the Honda, while the ride is free and soft-edged in the key-on, default setting. But the longer you spend at the wheel and the more roads you tackle, the more the AMG A45 shifts to the right, closer to the Civic. 

It can feel all of its 1550kg straight after the Honda. Through a scenic, difficult sequence of dips and cresting corners where even the Type R feels under pressure, the AMG feels floaty and heavy. Not unlike the Golf, then, but after a couple of passes you realise the key difference is that the nose of the A45 hooks up and the car is eager to turn. Crank up the damping to tie everything down (and save your preferences to the easy-access Individual mode via the mode switch hanging off the steering wheel) and it’s better. It’s never going to cut and thrust like the rapier-sharp Type R but it has other tricks up its sleeve.

The irony of the Mercedes product strategy is that when you upgrade to the ‘Plus’ version of the A45 S, as well as getting all the aero addenda and lighter, forged alloys, you also get a full-length glass sunroof. All that weight, up high, just where you don’t want it. If this had been presented as a non-negotiable by the Honda marketing department, I suspect that Kakinuma-san, the engineer who heads up Civic Type R development, would have tendered his resignation. 

So here’s the thing. Despite the sunroof, in the right mode the A45 is very effective down a demanding road, and – listen out for the irony claxon – partly because it feels as though most of the weight is slung low between the axles. While steering feel and feedback aren’t great compared with the Civic, after a few miles you realise that its turn-in is every bit as willing and its resistance to understeer as complete, as much because the chassis is set up to turn as it is a consequence of outstanding mechanical grip. 

You quickly learn to trust the A45 S, to believe that its front Michelins will grip and the rear will willingly pitch in to help make the apex, so it soon feels natural and consistent and brilliant. Fully embrace it and you’ll discover that in the right corners, when you keep the power on, the tail will eventually edge out into a progressive oversteer slide. Armed with this experience you can then set about using the Merc’s significant 100bhp advantage to lock onto and hunt down that lairy Japanese hatchback. 

Feeling the kick of the A45’s ludicrously potent in-line four and hearing it howl to the red line highlights another opportunity that the Golf completely fails to take: an enthusiastic delivery and engine note. The sound of the Civic’s in-line four working hard and peaking (prompting an upshift) is integral to the experience, and the Mercedes’ engine is also thrillingly raucous hauling hard, with succinct pops when you upshift early on full throttle. 

Towler describes the Mercedes engine as a force of nature, but reckons the Honda almost has the measure of it. Certainly, despite different dynamic styles, this pair can cover the ground at a similar pace. ‘The concept of a rear-wheel-drive hot hatch is an alien one for most of us, but that’s how the A45 feels,’ says Towler. ‘There’s not much steering feel but I like the light, oily action of the rack, yet it’s the sense of balance and how the car pivots around that tells you the most about what the A45 is doing. Once you’re comfortable with this it’s hugely exploitable; you can get on the power so early in a corner it’s unbelievable…’

In the company of this pair, the Golf R doesn’t feel finished, dynamically. It lacks grip, thuds into bumps and is easily deflected from what is already an approximate line. On great driving roads it’s all at sea. The Honda takes apart a great road with exquisite precision and makes you feel good. In the Golf R you feel like you’re trying to beat the road into submission with an inflatable hammer. 

Thing is, if you simply liked the idea of having the fastest Golf and only used its full performance in a straight line every now and then, it would still fall short. Not because it doesn’t feel as fast as its rivals, or sound fast, or even because there’s so little feel or engagement, but because the whole time you’d have to put up with the most awful HMI. There’s so much wrong with it there isn’t the space here: clusters of switches with ambiguous markings, cheap-feeling haptic steering-wheel switches… but probably the one detail that sums it up is that the touchscreen ‘home’ button isn’t the universally adopted symbol of a house, it’s just a square. It feels like a system designed by someone sitting idly at a desk who has never driven a car. 

An easy win for the Honda, then? In many ways, yes. It’s fast, involving – its six-speed gearbox is a joy to use – and it rises to and conquers every challenge with aplomb thanks to a remarkable dynamic reach that includes everyday and long-distance comfort. It’s an amazing driver’s car at an astonishingly good price. It’s just a shame that, to some, it looks so cheap. 

The Mercedes is impressive too, once you’ve dialled into it. ‘The A45 was the slow burner in this test,’ says Towler. ‘Aesthetically it’s a hard car to love. I’d rather be associated with the Type R’s image because at least that feels more authentic somehow.’ At first you wonder how the A45 is going to exploit over 400 turbocharged horsepower. It feels soft and heavy and you think it won’t see which way the Civic went, but it exploits the agility and traction of its four-wheel drive to superb effect. It’s a special thing, and if there’s room in the hot hatch final for a best of the rest, it’s in with a strong shout. 

> 2022 hot hatchback battle: the final

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