The hot-hatch genre may be moving at exceptional pace across all price points, but circa-$50,000 fast hatchbacks are also defying stereotypes that used to be a given.
Five years ago the Renault Sport Megane was crowned the undisputed king of a segment that stuffs an energetic engine under the bonnet of a relatively small car.
Its landmark achievement was funneling lots of torque through the front wheels, while keeping its steering mostly uncorrupted, and also having a front limited-slip differential that channelled lots of its delivery to the planted inside wheel for slingshot cornering exits.
Suddenly the jibes of those who loved rear-wheel drive and despised front-wheel drive for a) torque steer; and b) understeer, were silenced.
It was also about a half-decade ago that I became stuck in the snow in the Volkswagen Golf R that had just been released in Mk6 form.
It had all-wheel drive but as bystanders watched the front wheels spinning furiously and the rear boots only ticking over like a timepiece, it became apparent it should have been called two-and-a-quarter wheel drive. But it was still a pretty comfy steer (when it eventually shifted itself from the snow, that is).
So the pidgeonholing began – you buy a Megane if you want real sports, and a Golf if you want the all-rounder; at the end of a test journalists would all say they loved driving the Renault Sport but they would take home the Volkswagen.
Context is important here, because a mate of mine and owner of a Renault Megane R26, Andrew Cooper, is here to help adjudicate, and when we meet at 6am he tells me, “ you already know the winner here don’t you?”.
Well, no, actually.
You see the latest Golf R has actually grown some balls. Big ones. The sort of kahunas that see it claim a 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.0 seconds flat for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic tested here (a manual, sadly, as ever, wasn’t available).
A circa-$50,000 sticker for 5.0sec performance is about as good as it gets, and about a second and a half faster than before.
More importantly, the new Golf R has a Haldex drive system that actually distributes power from front to rear wheels efficiently and effectively. So the question now is whether ‘new AWD’ can show up even the trickiest of FWD set-ups.
Neither myself nor colleague Matt Campbell have any idea of an answer yet.
The same question applies to our third contender, unmentioned so far and for good reason. The Audi S1 is the wild-card entry here, a full size smaller than the other cars, only a four seater and slower than its VW Group cousin, claiming 5.9sec 0-100km/h performance.
Audi has been a bit silly with this car, shoving the independent rear suspension of the Golf R/Audi S3 up the jacksie of the A1 fashion hatch, and dousing it in bright colours and retro quattro badging, then charging about the same money as a Golf R for it.
But to my mind, a hot-hatch should be about smaller size, lightness and agility, and here the S1 could excel over its fundamentally similar Golf R cousin.
Defending its title as the greatest properly sporting hot-hatchback is the Renault Sport Megane 275 Trophy.
It is a 100-unit limited edition that takes power to 201kW where regular models make 195kW. It may claim a 6.0sec 0-100km/h sprint, but it has all the gear like an Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel and handbrake lever, Akrapovic titanium exhaust and big Brembo brakes that aims to ensure its driver’s-pick status remains.
The prices for this 2.0-litre turbocharged trio are similar – S1 manual $49,900, Megane RS275 Trophy $52,990 and Golf R $52,740 manual/$55,240 auto, all plus on-road costs – as is the level of standard equipment, more of which we’ll get to later.
“The Megane’s the winner,” snaps senior editor Campbell, only half jokingly, as we top up the fuel in each of the hot-hatchbacks on the outskirts of Sydney at the very start of this test.
Having collected the liquid yellow Renault from near Sydney airport the day before, and driven it straight into the city before parking on a busy road with a great donation to Sydney City Council, I have to agree it’s in with a chance.
The basic body shape may be five years old, but the combination of bright paint, black wheels, stickers down the sides and a silver lip with TROPHY plastered across it, turns heads.
Immediately the Megane RS275 Trophy feels right. Its clutch take up point is perfect, the snick-snick of its gearlever likewise, and the steering is so natural and incisive that even short city squirts are a tactile delight.
It is a hard bastard, but depending on your perspective (and probably age) it is either back-achingly tough or delivers racecar-like feedback to your backside. The Renault Sport may be taut, but it is never harsh, an example of sophisticated dampers at work.
“My R26 is so much softer,” tells Coop who drove the new 275 to the servo, causing me to question whether it being so hard is really necessary.
“MEGANE WINS,” adds Matt, usefully as ever.
We all groan as the Golf R rolls up alongside the yellow Megane and kermit-green S1. It’s white. A white Volkswagen even with big 19-inch wheels and LED tail-lights and quad exhausts can only elicit one response.
“BORING,” adds Matt, continuing to speak in caps lock before heading back to the Megane.
“Such a cool colour,” tells Coop, oddly, until I see him raising his arm and pointing it past the seemingly invisible Golf R towards the S1.
The Volkswagen really does become invisible soon after, though.
With 380Nm of torque available between an astonishingly broad 1800rpm and 5100rpm, and 206kW of power taking over exactly from that latter revolutions per minute and holding strong until 6500rpm, it is a complete powerhouse.
With a deep, rorty soundtrack – and to keep the testicular analogy going – it seems like the little, zingy VW Group four-cylinder’s balls have dropped.
In normal Drive mode, the automatic transmission behaves in a docile fashion, and in Comfort mode the adjustable suspension smothers any bumps with a nonchalance that means the Golf R remains an impeccably comfortable car.
The steering is direct and consistent, but we wouldn’t bother with its heavier Sport modes because it just adds weight, not feedback. In any case, it can’t match the tactility of the Megane’s steering.
Swap to the S1 and the differences are fascinating.
Immediately you feel you’re sitting in a narrower, smaller car, but the seats lack the deep cushioning and side support of the Volkswagen. On the flipside, the dashboard design looks and feels more premium both in plastics quality and textures than the Golf R that looks barely differentiated to a Golf 90TSI – particularly one with an optional R-Line sports pack.
The Audi manual is just honeyful, and if its light and high clutch take-up isn’t as natural as that in the Renault, it soon becomes easy to acclimatise.
“AND IT RIDES!” continues Matt, bursting from the driver’s door of the green machine with an enthusiasm that was previously lacking for the smallest car here.
Unlike the Golf R – which has Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Race modes for its suspension – the S1 has just two settings for its standard S Sport suspension. You choose either Auto or Dynamic, and in either case you have a tiny car that rides beautifully, and for the better with greater nuance than the Volkswagen’s more varied modes.
The steering is quicker than the Golf R’s, which suits its smaller size, and is indeed the second most impressive electro-mechnical system here after the Renault’s.
While the S1 essentially uses the same engine as the Golf R, it has been detuned. Although 170kW at 6000rpm seems a fair way off the VW’s 206kW, its 370Nm is only 10Nm adrift, though produced between a narrower 1600rpm and 3000rpm.
Because it’s smaller, however, the S1 weighs 1415kg, or 20kg less than the DSG-equipped Golf R (though manuals are identical, which would be curious if it weren’t for the fact the VW sits on a newer, lighter platform). That said, it never has the rush of the bigger hatch, and lacks the deep soundtrack of its German sibling, too.
But the Audi’s lighter, fruitier note suits its appearance – it’s that guy at the gym who is toned but not trying to bulk-up like the Golf R that is almost trying too hard to compensate for its predecessor’s thin bones.
The S1 lacks the rush of the Megane, too. Renault’s 2.0-litre turbo engine feels better than ever, with a gravelly, nuggety, yet whooshy soundtrack that is now overlaid with pops and crackles from the brilliant Akrapovic exhaust.
The mid-range delivery transcends its slowest-here performance time, pulling with the sort of punch that will keep it on the tail of the Golf R.
But introducing corners into the equation, will the Megane RS275 Trophy actually nudge the bum of a Golf R? Well, yes and no.
In most corners you seem to be pulling 20km/h higher speed going into and through the bend in the Renault compared with the other two. You simply don’t realise how fast you’re going until you glance down at the speedometer, because a lack of bodyroll and the slingshot delivery from the engine through to the front wheels and limited slip differential are just about perfect.
Matt’s words about its placing are ringing in my head…
All three contenders use Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres – 18-inch for S1, 19-inch for the others – and it is a cracking choice that levels the playing field considerably.
The Golf R doesn’t feel as immediately stiff, alert and agile as the Megane RS275 Trophy, but it isn’t far off. In the suspension’s Race mode it sits flat and grips superbly, cutting through successive corners with a point and shoot pace that belies its humble appearance.
Then it plays its drawcard.
In the tightest of 90-degree corners the Megane RS275 Trophy will struggle to put its power down when the inside front wheel is loaded up.
Even with its tricky differential, ultimate patience is required or the electronic stability control – even in its equivalent RS Sport mode – will flare up and curb power delivery.
In the Golf R you simply throw it into a corner, then plant your right foot, and the all-wheel-drive system will do its thing amazingly quickly to help find neutrality, sharing its outputs around its four contact patches for maximum effect.
So where does this leave the S1? Nothing like the other two, actually.
In its Dynamic mode the Audi is noticeably softer and rolls more than the others. Yet the narrower the road gets the more you feel like you’re driving a go-kart that is small and frisky, rather than a hatchback that is faster and tighter, but bulkier.
Every driver emerged from the S1 saying it is the most fun here. During back-to-back dynamic testing, it was the only one to leave me giggling, and Coop as my passenger saying something that vaguely rhymes with “fresh air”.
Chuck the Audi into a corner and it immediately darts and sniffs out an apex.
Throw it in a bit faster and it soon wants to roll and slide. Wind off steering lock and apply throttle pressure and it squirms between understeer and power oversteer, the all-wheel drive system working as effectively as it does in a Golf R, but in a tinier car with less grip.
Even switching the Golf R to a softer suspension mode can’t produce the same involvement and fun as that provided by the S1. What both of the Germans can also provide with their multiple suspension settings is grace and composure on rough winding roads that thump and shake the Frenchie.
And so begin the discussions.
“I’m coming around to the S1,” tells Coop, who perhaps wrote it off into third place before we began. “It has been the biggest surprise here.”
Then, the bombshell.
“The Megane disappointed me the most,” he continued, as I choked on an arancini ball over lunch at Wollombi café, in the NSW Hunter Valley. But he then clarified that it was only in the context of the other two's brilliance more than the Renault's lack of ability, and that it would be the only one here to take to a track day.
“It’s a one trick pony,” he says, referring to the limited slip differential. “But what a trick to have!”
Matt, meanwhile, also shelves his love for the Megane RS275 Trophy for a moment and instead proposes that the Audi S1 simply can’t win this test.
Above: Volkswagen Golf R.
He argues that the Golf R is bigger, roomier, just as pleasant riding, even more dynamic and faster, for similar money. All of which is true. But in a sense what you gain in space, you lose in other areas.
The Golf R is the only car here with full cloth seats, and it’s agreed it’s not a very nice trim either. Yet leather trim is a costly $3000 option.
Overseas models get a big, bright 8.0-inch colour touchscreen that also nestles at home in Australia’s Skoda Octavia RS that is $15K cheaper – yet local Golf R gets the same low resolution 5.8-inch touchscreen as in the $21,990 Golf Trendline.
Above: Audi S1.
While its plastics and design may shine for half the price or less, it pales against the Audi at this price point. It doesn’t feel special; it feels generic.
The S1 cabin too shares its design with cheaper A1 models, but it’s starting from a higher base. Even the clicks of its knurled silver climate control knobs are much nicer than the plasticky units in the Volkswagen. The S1 feels classy yet refreshingly simple inside.
The Audi MMI infotainment system is superb, and the 6.5-inch colour screen has benchmark graphics and resolution. Disappointingly a reverse-view camera is a $600 option, though the S1 still remains cheaper than a Golf R and it exclusively adds standard leather and LED headlights.
Above: Audi S1.
On the flipside, if you’re tall like Coop or more staunch like Matt you’ll never find the comfort levels of the Golf R or even Megane RS275 Trophy in this tight cabin; though my 178cm-tall frame fits ideally.
Also, if you need to seat three in the back, bad luck – this is an ultra-tight four seater, and one with a 270 litre boot that pales alongside the Renault (344L) and Volkswagen (380L).
The Megane RS275 Trophy interior feels dated, with below average ergonomics from the R-Link colour touchscreen and its accompanying console toggle switch that aims to mimic BMW’s iDrive but ends up appearing like an Atari joystick.
Above: Renault Megane RS275 Trophy.
It also has the least impressive rear vision, and only two wide front doors, though the rear seat and boot could be seen as a halfway comfort compromise between the S1 and Golf R.
However, from the ability to insert an SD card and record lap times, to fiddling with throttle response and seeing power and torque outputs on screen, all the way to the Recaros and Alcantara steering wheel, the Renault feels special in a stripped out, racecar-like way.
With standard keyless auto entry, a reverse-view camera, leather trim and dual-zone climate control, it’s also the surprise value buy in terms of standard equipment. Then there’s the standard five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty compared with the others’ three-year cover.
We headed back to the office for more discussion, topping up the tanks after a hard 400km drive and noting that the S1 had used 12.1 litres per 100 kilometres, the Golf R 13.2L/100km and the Megane RS275 14.8L/100km.
CarAdvice founder Tony reckons he couldn’t live with the Renault’s hard ride day to day, but for someone who wants the ultimate hot-hatch, they perhaps could. Coop, a Megane owner, has the final call: “I could, but wouldn’t want to given what the others offer”.
Conversely, Matt and I think that the sublime steering, throttle and gearshift/clutch response of the Megane RS275 Trophy would be a delight every day … but then you could get all that in the $42,640 Megane RS265 Trophy.
The reason you buy the RS275 Trophy is for its pace, its exclusivity, its feel, and if you’re caught up at a desk for your day job, because it would be the best on track. It is the Porsche 911 GT3 of front-drive hot-hatchbacks.
Of the three, I would only buy the Audi S1, but then equally I can understand why you wouldn’t.
Quite simply, I couldn’t buy the Golf R knowing that a smaller, lighter, more fun and premium option was available for similar money. It is bursting with character that is, well, uncharacteristic for the brand, and has a depth of talent that belies its size.
But Matt has now stopped chanting for the Megane RS275, and when the scores are tallied, we concur that the Volkswagen Golf R is the winner.
As plain as it is to look at, being fastest, roomiest, and with technically the broadest level of ride and handling talent, it simply can’t be ignored. It is a fantastic car in its own right, but it doesn’t have to be the only choice.
In fact, if you’re buying the DSG, it’s worth remembering that for $4700 more (or just $1700 if you tick optional leather on the VW) you could buy an Audi S3 that has a no-cost-option automatic, and blends the S1’s class with dynamics identical to the Golf R.
While giving these three cars the same score may be seen as sitting on the fence, finding needless reasons to chop marks off any of them would be even more contrived. Depending on your needs, each do a fantastic job of nailing different briefs – and there is plenty to celebrate about that.
What this test also proved is that summarising the Megane as just the driver’s pick and the Golf R as merely the all-rounder is no longer that simple. While a front-wheel-drive revolution may have taken centre stage in hot-hatchback land over the last decade, all-wheel drive is back and is now a more valid choice than ever.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.