The performance compact genre is as nuanced and multidimensional as a Tarantino movie. At the top of the hierarchy you have supercar-slayers that astound with their violent deliveries and fearsome outputs. They can beat pricier offerings with bigger displacements to a pulp.
Indeed, offerings such as the Ford Focus RS, Mercedes-AMG A45, BMW M2 are not to be scoffed at. Then you have those at the middle rungs of the ladder. Evergreen choices such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST. These heroes prove that genuine speed, competent dynamics and decent versatility can be had in the same package at a palatable price. Of course, the juniors of the genre cannot be forgotten. Tykes like the Volkswagen Polo GTI, Peugeot 208 GTi, Ford Fiesta ST and Renault Clio RS inveigle young professionals with their mix of street credibility and spritely personas.
A hop below that tier, you will find the likes of the Suzuki Swift Sport, Opel Corsa Sport and Chevrolet Sonic RS: lukewarm, aspirational products that deliver some go, but more show.
Certainly, it seems as though there is something for all tastes and budgets. But the category we are investigating here is even more specialised. The trio pictured below are the most focused, sharpened iterations of the front-wheel drive hot hatchback arena.
In the middle we have the R469 900 Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy; which might raise an eyebrow considering it is rather long in the tooth. Why the inclusion? Well, the fiery Frenchman pioneered the class — and therefore deserved to be part of the parade as a point of reference. From pragmatic, objective viewpoints there is no way it could be the winner of this comparison. But the fact that it is still considered a benchmark in the purist, front-driving hot hatchback league speaks volumes to the foresight engineers had when they built it.
On the left we have the R541 200 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. It panders to enthusiasts who feel the regular Golf GTI is a tad tame. The Clubsport manages this by way of more power, a smart electro-mechanical differential as well as the obligatory go-faster styling bits that are a hit among us all — from Chatsworth to Brakpan.
And to the extreme right (appropriately) we have the radical winged-wonder from Japan. Yes, Honda took their sweet time in releasing the R615 900 Civic Type R. But reports since its launch in February attest that the wait was not in vain. As the first turbocharged performance car from the brand, great expectations were thrust upon its aggressive haunches. Local and international motoring press penned sweet eulogies about its scythe-like cornering abilities, high-revving, boosted engine and sublime transmission.
For this battle we settled on the challenging, characterful Midvaal circuit in Meyerton, Gauteng. Perhaps characterful is more of a euphemism: the track could do with some love. Nevertheless, with a mix of fast sweeps, tight hooks and a lengthy straight, it proved a tough proving ground for the trio. Their tyres bore testament following our rigorous testing session. Sorry, manufacturers, but in our tireless quest for incisive comparisons this squandering of rubber and mechanical antipathy will have to be excused.
Let us begin with the veteran. The Mégane has an output of 201kW and 360Nm, while Renault claims it can sprint to 100km/h in six seconds flat. This makes it marginally slower than the other two. But this car is about more than robot-to-robot prowess.
If a visceral character is what you want, then this makes the most convincing argument. Blasting around the track, the RS feels raw, erring on the feral side, though it is blessed with the virtue of a limited-slip differential. The steering brings textured, plugged-in precision. The soundtrack is a cacophony of induction noises and hearty pops, amplified by an Akrapovic exhaust system. Driver and passenger are held in tightly by hard, sculpted Recaro buckets and the entire sensation of piloting the Mégane is frenetic and fun.
In the real world, this hardcore personality brings a few shortcomings. Your back will suffer as a result of the firm suspension. The infotainment system and cabin atmosphere feels its age now. And being a two-door, it is the least practical of the lot. But purists will scoff at this notion — who cares about the pragmatic stuff anyway?
Well, the Honda offers a similarly untamed temperament albeit with the benefit of four doors, a reasonable boot and a more modern ambience. Its mannerisms are better polished: that French contender instils a bit of fear in its helmsman, while this brings a greater sense of point-and-squirt friendliness to the mix.
It too is endowed with a mechanical limited-slip differential. And that six-speed gearbox is worth praising, so slick and precise in operation. With 228kW and 400Nm, it is the most powerful offering here. The quickest on paper too, dispatching the all-important dash in 5.7 seconds. With the +R mode engaged, it relishes rough treatment, complying with the whims of an aggressive driver rather happily. Downsides? Well, those boy-racer looks are not for everyone. And only authentic Honda fans are going to be able to justify the price with a straight face. But, it certainly strikes a nice balance between the three here: neither as rabid as the Renault, nor as subdued as the Volkswagen.
Yes, the Volkswagen: this GTI is billed as a more engaging version of the best-selling hot hatchback in the country. It is the most powerful Golf ever made — but only for 10 seconds at a time. This is thanks to an overboost function, taking power up to 213kW and 380Nm. The rest of the time it produces 195kW and 350Nm. The sprint is performed in 5.9 seconds, says the manufacturer. And unlike the other two, it foregoes a manual gearbox in favour of a dual-clutch transmission, which is pretty much faultless in the way it swaps cogs.
For the average driver, the is possibly the easiest car to exploit here, without retribution. It makes driving hard and fast a cinch, with its predictable dynamics and pliant, adjustable constitution. We suppose that this can also be described as… inert. Indeed, the Golf strives to be all things to all people: plush, engaging and fast.
It ticks all the boxes, really, but frankly it does not tickle the receptors as well as the other two. But the status as the Jill of all Trades in this category is undoubtedly the reason it will sell in greater volumes. – Brenwin Naidu