Sep 17, 2018
We compare the four class-leading hot hatchbacks in a four-way shootout
If you've decided to buy a new hot hatch, congratulations — you'll soon be driving a car that's virtually guaranteed to put a smile on your face. However, before you can take your seat behind the wheel, there comes the difficult task of choosing which one.
When choosing a car as emotionally charged as a hot hatchback or sports car, it might not be enough to go purely by the star ratings given by online reviews. A review will tell you exactly how good a car is, objectively, when measured for performance, fuel economy, practicality, safety and numerous other factors, but individual buyers aren't likely to place equal importance on all of these categories — especially since many hot-hatch buyers will value fun above all else.
The Volkswagen Golf R, Audi RS3, Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R are all fantastic cars, but are sufficiently different in the way they do things to make it unlikely that a buyer will like all of them equally. In this four-way comparison, we describe exactly what each of these fire-breathing family cars is really like, to help you make an informed decision.
Hot-hatch shootout — what are they like to drive?
The Volkswagen Golf R is arguably the car that started the super-hatchback craze. It has its roots in the famous Golf GTI, but ups the ante with four-wheel drive and extra power from its four-cylinder, turbocharged engine. One of the greatest elements of its appeal is that, like its little GTI sister, the Golf R makes going quickly very easy indeed.
It feels barely any more intimidating than any other Golf and its breathtaking acceleration comes without any fuss or drama. There's massive grip from the big wheels and wide tyres, and four-wheel drive makes sure that its 306bhp is effectively deployed when powering out of loose-surfaced corners, while electronics are there to keep you out of trouble if you come close to overstepping the limits. But while everybody will appreciate the way the Golf R makes it so easy to access its performance, some feel that it's a little on the 'safe' side.
The Audi RS3 feels quite like the Golf R, but is even faster thanks to its 395bhp, 2.5-litre turbocharged engine. With five cylinders, the RS3 has arguably the most charismatic engine in our quartet, with a distinctive exhaust note that'll be enough on its own for some to make a buying decision. Like the Golf, though, the RS3 really does let you make use of all its power, with clever electronics to keep drivers out of trouble, while allowing a little bit of wheelspin and slide at the very limits of cornering grip. Some, though, find RS3 almost too controlled, and reckon the more wayward BMW M2 coupe is more rewarding to drive fast.
The Ford Focus RS sits between the Golf R and Audi RS3 for power, with 345bhp from a 2.3-litre, four cylinder engine. It, too, is four-wheel-drive, but Ford's system — which can apportion up to 70% of engine power to the rear wheels — offers a bit more leeway for practised drivers to take the car beyond its limit of grip. On a clear road or race track, it's easier to provoke the Ford into a controlled drift or slide than either the VW or the Audi, and arguably easier to have fun at lower speeds.
All three come as a contrast to the front-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type R, which is sharp and fast enough on a circuit to make you wonder if four-wheel drive is really necessary. Its 316bhp is a lot for the front wheels to handle on their own, but the Type R still has fantastically sharp, responsive steering. There's a mischievous 'drift' mode, too, that allows a bit of rear-wheel slide when you lift off the accelerator. Around a track, or on a country road, it's hard not to think of the Type R as the most race-car-like of these four hot hatches.
Hot-hatch shootout — running costs and safety
Hot hatchbacks are designed to live a very challenging double life. Of course, they need to be fast and fun to drive, but they should also be less expensive to run than an out-and-out sports car. The great news is that all four of our hot-hatch favourites compare well to a similarly fast two-seater like the Porsche 718 Cayman where overall costs are concerned.
On paper, the Volkswagen Golf R wins for fuel economy, with over 40mpg possible if you opt for the dual-clutch DSG automatic gearbox. Choose the six-speed manual, though, and this figure drops to 37.7mpg, slightly ahead of the 36.7mpg claimed by the Ford and Honda, but markedly beating the bigger-engined Audi's 34mpg. However, these figures become academic if you make regular use of all the power that any of these cars can produce.
Unfortunately, you'll pay for having fun in any of these hot hatches, not just in fuel but in wear and tear. Replacements for their big, wide tyres will be costly, as will renewing worn brake components — especially if you order the Audi's optional carbon-ceramic brakes. Routine servicing should be little more expensive than for other hatchbacks from each brand, though, and while the Golf R's group 29 rating should make it the least expensive of the four to insure, actual policy costs will vary dramatically depending on your individual circumstances. Meanwhile, all are are available with up-to-date safety kit (but autonomous emergency braking is strictly optional on the Focus RS).
Hot hatch shootout — interior and practicality
Practicality is where hot hatches really come into their own, being able to perform as circuit toys one minute and family cars the next. When it comes to boot space, the Honda is the clear leader, with room for 370 litres of luggage. As in its rivals, you can drop the rear seats to extend the load area if necessary, but the Honda's long, steeply raked hatchback means it's perhaps not so well suited to fitting the pushchairs and prams of everyday life.
That means the more upright VW and Audi are a bit more versatile, despite being less commodious, offering around 335 litres of luggage space with all five seats in play. The Audi is the only one of the four that can be chosen as a hatchback or saloon, but the smaller boot of the latter, combined with a narrow boot opening, mean it isn't as versatile as five-doors. Meanwhile you can also choose the Golf as an estate, which has a mammoth 605 litre load bay.
Five reasonably spacious seats is one thing that all four of our hot hatches boast. The Golf, which is the only model available in three-door form, has a little more rear-seat space than the Focus RS, which also has the smallest boot of the bunch. The Honda leads for rear legroom, though, while the estate-like Audi RS3 has the most generous rear headroom of our quartet.
Up front, there's little to choose between these hot hatchbacks on space or standard equipment, but each has a very different dashboard design. The Audi RS3 is the least 'family car', with a red-highlighted dashboard that recalls the Audi TT sports car. It takes the top spot for quality, too, with materials that even beat the Volkswagen Golf R for tactile appeal. The Golf has a far more restrained, ordered look inside, too.
The Civic Type R is no less well put together, but the materials are more robust and fit-for-purpose than they are pleasing to the touch. Its dashboard is quite driver-focused, though, wrapping around slightly so you feel a part of the action. In contrast, there's little wrong with the Focus RS' cockpit, but it looks and feels more 'hatchback' than high-performance.
It's worth remembering that the Honda Civic Type R is by far the newest of our four hot-hatch heroes, while the Ford Focus RS is actually no longer produced — a high-performance version of the latest Focus is reportedly in the pipeline, but enthusiastic Ford buyers will have to wait or make do with the outgoing car.
Despite its age, though, the Focus RS can hold its head high in this company. Many would argue its forgiving chassis and four-wheel-drive system give it more scope for having fun than its three rivals. But that all depends on your definition of 'fun'. It's unquestionable that the Audi RS3 is the fastest, the Honda Civic Type R is the sharpest and most responsive, while the Golf R makes it simple to just get in and drive quickly.
Factor in its decent boot, respectable fuel economy and choice of three or five-door body-styles, and it's tempting to nominate the Golf R as the winner. However, as we've shown above, there's no 'one-size-fits-all' hot hatchback — not everybody wants an all-rounder. Fortunately, these four contenders are so individual that one of them is bound to be right for you.