Is there a more vibrant and diverse segment on the market right now than that labelled 'hot hatch'? In fact, is it technically a segment at all, but rather a broad net cast wide enough to include a $25K compact-sized Suzuki Swift Sport at one extreme and larger, circa-$80K Audi RS3s and Merc-AMG A45s at the other?
And that’s just hatchbacks. When cross-shopping pocket rockets, there are also sedan (Subaru WRX STI), coupe (BMW M2) and wagon (AMG CLA45 Shooting Brake) alternatives to consider as well.
The go-fast hatch goalposts are also perpetually moving: today’s ‘warm hatch’ is yesterday’s ‘hot’, the current ‘hot’ is the new ‘hyper’, and traditional hyper-hatch spearheads – gen-II Renault Megane RS, say – look to inevitably become overshadowed by ever-more potent and monstrous machinery. Buyers are just spoilt for choice in variety, size, style, price and even driven wheel type, with the playing field ever expanding as the new Fiesta ST, gen-three Megane RS and a trio of Benzes (A240, A35, A45), to name just a few, are set to lob in the near future.
But right now, the hot hatch Johnny-come-lately is the Hyundai i30 N, the Korean marque’s first serious salvo against the world’s fittest small go-getters. And despite having landed locally little more than five minutes ago, it’s been widely praised as something of a buck-banging giant-killer.
We’re keen to assess the merit in that consensus.
Enter our latest Hot Hatch Mega Test as our chosen forum. Of course, there are many and varied ways in which to test the i30 N’s mettle, most obviously against rival warm and hot-hatch claimants of similar pricing. But given that Hyundai’s N Performance debutant has already dispatched what’s long proven the cream of the circa-$40K crop, Volkswagen’s GTI, in CarAdvice twin-testing not once but twice, we decided to up the fiscal ceiling to try and up the challenge.
The spirit here isn’t, however, to throw the N to the mega-buck lions. We’ve set some boundaries and parameters to place Hyundai in the sphere of realistic hot hatch cross-shopping against viable alternatives and decided on non-premium competitors, thus keeping the murky issue of badge cachet’s effect on pricing and value out of discussion. This naturally defines a neat $60K cap that is, of course, still a 50 per cent premium over the tip-in point for the base i30 N ($39,990)…
Let’s get a couple of things clear. Firstly, this is no bang-for-your-buck contest that naturally rewards price and pace immaterial of the quality of driving experience. Nor is this simply a race to the flag, which naturally favours the pricier and logically more powerful machinery.
Instead, we’ll objectively pull their strings to measure relative pace. Then we’ll use a panel of judges – Paul Maric, Mandy Turner, Kez Casey, yours truly and Andrew Jones of Brad Jones Racing fame – to subjectively rank the field in terms of sheer driver enjoyment. A combination of performance and fun factor, then, each considered equally. A fair and reasonable winner will be the competitor with the highest average achievement in both.
The twist? Value will not factor into the final rankings. We’ll certainly weigh in with some opinion on the topic at the end of this narrative, but our purpose here is to arm the potential buyer on two of the biggest decision influencers in hot-hatch shopping with which to put through their own personal filters of preference, taste and budget. Nor will we delve much into their holistic goodness, their capabilities as cruisers or daily drivers, or bells and whistles outside of those intended on enhancing pace and fun factor.
The aim here was to select the absolute range-topping and most capable variant in each range’s armada. While simple in theory, this proved ever slightly trickier to nail down in practice.
We’re confident we’ve amassed the best of the breeds, though full disclosure is that there are some anomalies in pricing and trim, which we’ll cover off in due course.
The most affordable of the field, the Hyundai i30 Performance Luxury, lists for $42,990 as the high spec, plush-trim variant, outputting 202kW/353Nm from its 2.0-litre turbo four through a six-speed manual and driven through the front wheels.
Its list of go-fast equipment is truly impressive compared with any of its competitors and includes over-boosting (to 378Nm), an electro-mechanical LSD, continuously variable damping, launch control, rev-matching and a dizzying 1944 different setting combinations within its drive-mode selection.
Of course, opting for the non-Luxury base i30 N loses absolutely none of its arsenal of hardware/software goodies – call it 1509kg all up – but the three-grand saving ($39,990 list) removes mostly creature comfort items and conveniences. It wears a Korean badge, though the German-designed and developed i30 N is built in the Czech Republic.
At $45,990 list, the Peugeot 308 GTI 270 is a one-spec-fits-all affair. It has the lowest outputs in the field of 200kW/330Nm from the smallest-capacity engine, a 1.6-litre turbo four, if compensated for ultimate potential with its startlingly waify 1178kg kerb weight – a substantial 187kg less than the second-most lightweight competitor here, the (1365kg) Civic Type R.
New for 2018, thoroughly French through and through, and offered as a six-speed manual only, the front-driven GTI gets a wider front track, monstrous 380mm four-piston front brakes, a mechanical LSD and, like the i30 N, sits on 19-inch wheels.
Our third front-driver leaping up the fiscal ladder to $50,990 (list) is the Honda Civic Type R, which also arrived all-new this year.
From its controversial if fundamentally functional aerodynamic assault to its triple exhaust outlets, it’s unapologetically built for speed, plying 228kW/400Nm through a six-speed manual and a mechanical LSD-equipped front axle.
It’s the most potent 2.0-litre engine here, boasting more output than the 2.5-litre WRX STI boxer, mounted inside the only true wide-body-enhanced competitor on show, and is only (marginally) topped in heroic hardware by the i30 N, featuring Brembo brakes, adaptive suspension and re-matching smarts. Japanese? In badge perhaps, but the Type R is built in England.
Most affordable of the all-wheel-driven trio here is the Volkswagen Golf R, ours the only competitor featuring a quick-shifting dual-clutch automated manual that pegs it at $55,990 list, $2500 above a conventional manual version. Yes, this is not the tree-topping Wolfsburg Edition we’d pursued, which adds $2000 for trim and stickers but nothing in performance and dynamics.
And, yes, our ‘regular R’ is also a whopping five-grand pricier than the buck-banging R Grid ($49,990 with DSG list) that strips out niceties yet maintains all the performance and handling gear of pricier variants.
This updated for 2018 ‘7.5 gen’ version was boosted by seven kilowatts, though its 213kW/380Nm outputs rank in the bottom half of the field and, unlike every other rival here, there’s no ‘proper’ mechanical LSD, but instead an electronic ‘lock’ effect.
That said, the all-German ace (1450kg) boasts an ‘R for Race’ promise, including a Race drive mode not offered in little brother GTI, gets adaptive chassis control, and the DSG option, said to shave four-tenths off its 0–100km/h times, should also prove a handy pace-enhancer be it on-track or on-road.
If the regular ($50,990) Ford Focus RS launched in 2016 aimed to be the most hardcore hot hatch on the planet period, the trumped-up, new-for-2018 Focus RS Limited Edition flagship seems intent on removing any residual doubt. At $56,990 list, the LE treatment adds a torque-biasing mechanical front LSD, lightweight forged 19-inch rims and track-certified Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres to a package that boasts proper race-type Recaro seats, adjustable dampers, launch control, tricky torque vectoring and, infamously, switchable Drift Mode shenanigans.
There’s no mere two-litre here, either, but a Mustang-derived/shared 2.3-litre turbo four emphatically winning the field’s power (and torque) play with 257kW and 440Nm backed by a like-it-or-lump-it six-cog manual. German built, the Focus RS anchors its heavyweight credentials at the weighbridge, tipping the scales as the porkiest car on show (by nine kilograms to the WRX STI) at 1543kg.
The Subaru WRX STI Spec R is… A sedan. Our sole four-door ‘wildcard’ gets an inclusion here because its hatchback forebears revolutionised the turbo all-paw formula many of today’s five-door rocketships owe homage to, and which today’s sedan-only STI still adheres to. In hot small-car circles, it’s always been a frontrunner and viable cross-shopping prospect, door count notwithstanding.
It’s got the biggest price tag at $57,690 list and the largest engine of the field with its 2.5-litre boxer four, though the manual-only Spec R’s 221kW/407Nm can’t quite match the Focus RS’s output prowess. The Subaru’s industrial-strength driveline gets a driver-controllable centre differential, torque vectoring, humongous six-piston front Brembos and Spec R-specific big-bolster Recaro front seats. Like the i30 N and Golf R, you can shop lower in the WRX STI range and get undiluted performance breeding-as-spec for much less coin: the regular version, $6800 cheaper, ostensibly loses Vision Assist (front camera) and the Recaros.
Despite some similarities in the addenda, even a casual glance at the assembled field presents some expectation of variety in delivery of both the subjective driving experience and objective performance.
We kicked testing off with straight-line performance, with obligatory 0–100km/h acceleration testing counterbalanced with full-ABS ‘emergency’ 100–0km/h brake testing and both criteria carrying equal assessable weight. Why? Because in extracting thrills from hot hatches in the real world, each is of equal importance regardless of whatever ‘point to point’ journey you choose.
We’ve included the field’s 0–400m times, too, if omitting these times and terminal trap speed as they muddy the measure of science we’re out to achieve: determining a solid outright performance pecking order as a standalone result, plus using that very result to compare with the standings of the subsequent lap time testing, which will illustrate which handling and dynamics package is punching above its weight.
For the record, in-house hot shoe Paul cranked out all the performance times in warm, circa 27-degree Celsius temperatures on the Winton Raceway back straight, which is suitably grippy if not specially prepared with traction compound or the like that might otherwise favour ‘personal best’ times. We’re here for comparison, not for record-breaking.
With three all-wheel drivers and three bum-draggers splitting the field, it wouldn’t take a terribly clear crystal ball to guesstimate a rough pecking order with some degree of accuracy. The AWD gear and higher-torque generators should get a strong enough march out of the hole to impact the 0–100km/h standings. That said, the Golf R pulled an early trick that, frankly, almost beggared belief.
In a rival field full of conventional manuals, the Golf R’s self-shifting/paddle-shifting DSG should’ve aided its march to the horizon. Volkswagen reckons it drops the official claim from 5.2sec (manual) to 4.8sec in dual-clutch form, a formidable four-tenths advantage. So didn’t it raise some eyebrows when it scorched to a scintillating 4.52sec pass, nearly three-tenths quicker than its maker’s claim!
“Like fine wine, the Golf R seems to get better, and quicker, with age,” Paul says. It was no fluke either: we’ve pulled 4.6 from this same car on another day and venue. It was the only car to break into the 12s (12.83sec 0–400m) and, tellingly, its 171km/h trap speed was fastest in the field. “Foot on the brake, flat on throttle, lift the left foot and hold on. It's pretty straightforward to launch the Golf R,” he adds.
It’s an impressive feat given it only ranks fourth for both power and torque. Who knows what deficit a conventional manual gearbox might’ve presented, though it’d likely still be at the very sharpest end of the field in acceleration.
But while the Volkswagen scorched to 100km/h, the retardation from its slide-caliper brakes wasn’t as heroic against a field that, outside the Hyundai, is exclusively equipped with more prodigious multi-piston front stopping hardware. Call it 35.2m to stop, or equal fourth with the i30 N.
The Golf R’s 0–100km/h time was over half a second up on the next best showing, the Focus RS LE, which knocked out a 5.08sec pass on its way to 13.25sec (0–400m) and 167.5km/h at v-max. No big surprise then for the biggest swinging power and torque stick on show, with sticky traction and the close-ratio transmission aiding in the ease of its ballistic escape.
“After being gentle and slipping the clutch slightly on the first two runs, I thought there was more in it,” Paul says. “For the last run, I dumped the clutch from about 4500rpm, it spun the wheels a little then hooked up, sling-shooting its quickest time.”
The Ford’s 100–0km/h stopping distance of 34.9m was impressive, too, if a metre and a half off the best performance and third-best outright. Added together, that’s a decent second and third placing in ‘performance’ for a device clearly skewed towards heroics once corners are introduced into the testing regime.
Little surprise that the other AWD steed, the STI Spec R, rounded out the top three, if at 5.99sec and nearly a second and a half off the pace. Its 14.1sec and 162km/h trap speed is, frankly, workmanlike for the priciest car in the field. As a breed, STIs have long been tough to launch, demanding clutch-busting brutality to remain on boil and somewhat knife-edge in providing some accelerative sweet spot.
“It’s quite frustrating to launch,” Paul muses. “Not enough revs and it bogs down, too many revs and it flicks through to the end of first gear too quickly. Also, the shift to second is absolutely brutal. You throw mechanical sympathy out the window.”
But the real inhibitor in the Japanese car’s early showing was braking, as the device with the largest, pizza-platter-sized stoppers took, at 35.6m, the longest distance to pull up. Oh dear…
Almost on script, the priciest and pokiest front-driver, the Type R, clocked the fourth-quickest acceleration time, if at 6.05sec just six-hundredths shy of the all-paw Subaru. In fact, in a quarter-mile drag race, the Honda’s 14.108 (to be precise) would’ve shaved the STI’s 14.116 at the post. And at 163.3km/h, it was moving faster, too.
“During the first launch I was able to get it off the line cleanly for our recorded time, but each time thereafter it would bog down,” Paul says. “For some reason I couldn't hold the revs up above 3000rpm.”
Burying the picks, the Honda pulled a dominant braking figure of 33.4m. A performance that would undoubtedly serve the Civic handsomely once the final standings eventually shake out, if one only proving fractionally superior to the impressive 33.5m returned by the lightweight, big-braked French hatchback.
Having the smallest engine with easily the lowest torque output in the field did put the 308 GTI in its place, which was fifth quickest to the 100km/h mark in an otherwise respectable 6.2sec neat. Run to 400m, its long legs proved competitive against the STI and Type R, its 14.248sec and 162.2km/h a literal blink off the Japanese-branded pair’s marks. In the mid-field, then, it was bloody close.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Paul explains. “The gearshift is sloppy and I found it impossible to see the rev gauge hidden behind the steering wheel. There’s also no redline in Sport mode, which meant a lot of guesswork on upshifts to figure out where the fuel cut activated before we reached the fastest time.”
The main gripe wasn’t a lack of traction, which was decent, but that the tacho is obscured by the steering wheel, so it’s easy to miss the upshifts.
Judged as one of the easiest cars to get off the line, if certifiably slowest on the march, was the i30 N with a 6.37sec 0–100km/h time, a 14.5 neat at the 400m mark with a lowly 156.6km/h terminal speed. A respectable showing, if hardly giant killing.
“While the i30 N is fitted with launch control, it's just a system that holds RPM (around 3000rpm),” Paul says. “I found it quicker simply switching off all traction aids and walking it off the line.”
Add the aforementioned equal fourth (35.2m) braking performance and the Korean hero enters the next round of testing well and truly on its back tyres…
Armed with the field’s performance rankings, we hit the Winton Raceway circuit, a place our hot-lap tester, racing veteran and ex-Supercars driver Andrew Jones knows intimately. The science? Jones would extract a representative best from each hatch and we’d rank the field fastest to slowest. By comparing lap time rankings with the performance rankings, it should be reasonably easy to judge dynamic prowess, to see which competitors better leverage handling and grip relative to the acceleration and braking prowess on show.
Touted as a track-centric specialist, few were surprised that the Focus RS rose to the occasion, cranking out a 1:39.76, just scraping in as the field’s only ‘thirty-something’, if an emphatic 1.3sec of dominance over the next-quickest competitor.
“The amount of grip this car generates inspires you to lift off the brakes earlier (in the corner) and turn the steering wheel and lean into the car harder,” Jones gushes. Despite easily topping the power and torque stakes, Andrew concedes that the Ford “could do with a bit more power to balance out the amount of grip it generates” to perhaps easily liberate even more pace.
Pole-vaulting up from fourth in performance to second quickest on track was the Civic Type R with a 1:41.09 time. Clearly the front-drive format that slightly hamstrung its 0–100km/h capabilities paid a smaller penalty on a move on a hot lap blinder, its stunning braking power reaping larger reward for what’s clearly another circuit specialist with formidable cornering talent.
“I was skeptical about this car, but it exceeded all my expectations,” Jones admits. “The engine pulls hard – it’s awesome – and in getting the car to the apex, there’s a lot of feeling with what the wheels are doing on the road. Honda’s done an immaculate job!”
Meanwhile, with a 1:41.74, the Golf R was close enough that you could throw a blanket over it and the Honda at the finish line. Despite its workmanlike performance in 100–0km/h testing, Jones praised the consistency and power of Volkswagen’s stoppers on the track.
“The Golf R made its pace up in the braking [on track],” he says. “The DSG is good, seamless and has a sharp upshift, too.”
The 308 GTI, with its 1:42.50, might’ve been three-quarters of a second further adrift on pace, but its fourth-quickest time established one very interesting scenario: unlike performance testing, the field was not becoming separated by the count of driven wheels. That the all- and front-drivers were neatly dovetailing in the lap time standings was a real eye-opener.
“The engine feels really nice and it’s easy to get it to the apex,” Jones explains. “It has that distinct front-wheel-drive understeer, but it’s also got a really good balance: you can get the rear to come around.”
The biggest drop from performance standings (third) to lap time (fifth) was the STI Spec R, and a bit of a head-scratcher given Subaru’s harder-core breed is the most seasoned – and should therefore be the most well-developed – corner carver on show. Remember, this is the second-most powerful and priciest car here on test. Understeer was its enemy, “particularly at the sweeper,” Jones says.
“It’s got so much history that I expected a lot getting into it. The steering is really quite heavy and there’s a bit of a delay in steering response. The gearbox is nice, with a short shift. It’s not bad, but not as ‘race spec’ as I’d expected.”
Rounding out the field, as it did in performance testing, was the i30 N, its 1:43.74 respectable and far from languishing, if still playing tail-gunner amongst faster steeds. But unlike the negative feedback from the Subaru, Jones had high praise for the fledgling Hyundai and most affordable car of the assembled pack.
“It sits very flat on the road and feels really solid, even over mid-corner bumps, and there’s plenty of grip and composure, which is really important,” he admits. “It feels like a lot of time and love have gone into making this car feel racy on the track. Its [slow] lap time is a surprise because it felt much quicker than the stopwatch suggests.”
For out and out combined capability against the stopwatch and the measuring tape, regardless of pricing or driven wheel count, it proved a close race between the front-running Focus RS, the runner-up Civic Type R and third-placed Golf R, with just one ranking point of separation between the standings. Interestingly, none of this trio dominated more than one testing discipline – they all won one test apiece – but it was only the Ford that achieved a top-three finish across the board.
The spread between the 308 GTI, the STI Spec R and i30 N – fourth through sixth – was wider and therefore more decisive. A slightly better or worse effort in any one criterion wasn’t going to shuffle the overall pecking order.
Needless to say, we were extremely curious to see how the pecking order would change, if at all, once we wiped the slate clean, put away the stopwatches, and judged the field purely subjectively: on fun factor, on thrill quotient and on sheer driving enjoyment, both on and off the street.
Rate on-track fun factor however you like, but it’s more likely hot-hatch owners will hit the circuit for untimed drive days than they would for timed sprints or outright racing. For a great many petrolheads, how much love they feed back to the driver rules over how much they ‘impress’ the stopwatch or scale the time sheets.
As the fun-and-thrill factor is highly subjective, we tasked four judges – Paul, Mandy, Kez, yours truly – to rank the field first through to sixth for fun and thrills, all done in secrecy without consultation with one another. Then we simply tallied all the judges’ rankings together, banking a result on the track, then repeating the same process along some of the Victorian high country’s finest twisty roads.
Adding that all together would provide a more complete, seat-of-the-pants pecking order.
The Focus RS not only proved the quickest device on the circuit, three of four judges ranked it first for driving enjoyment (Kez ranked it second outright). And praise centred around three main attributes: it’s the most thrilling, most agile and most responsive hatch on show.
Yes, those R-spec tyres generate field-topping cornering adhesion, but sheer grip is only part of the satisfaction. They return a heightened level of accuracy of the driver’s steering inputs – there’s an incredible amount of front-end point – and in warm, dry conditions offer a huge amount of confidence not just leaning into the grip, but in how they recover lateral adhesion after you’ve pitched the chassis into a slide. Its flat stance and firm ride conspire to a sharper ‘edge’ that’s fun to use and not frightening while you explore.
Fiery and frisky, the RS’s ‘absolute weapon’ vibe feels most at home on the track and, as Kez puts it, “Ford has clearly taken a holistic approach to making the steering, braking, stability and handling all work together”.
The Civic Type R ranked second on every judges' score sheet bar Kez, who give it first place thanks to the “fine adjustability, incredible steering, hands-down best gearshift and strong brakes” of a hatch with “serious race car DNA baked in”.
While not as lively as the Focus RS, the Honda’s key descriptor was “confidence inspiring”. It’s supremely planted, co-operative, has excellent point and stability, but can be coerced into more friendly, tail-happy theatrics that are sublimely joyful if, like much of the all-round package, working harmoniously together to generate engaging and satisfying pace.
It was also considered to have a superior workplace for the driver beyond gearbox shift action: better seats and seating position, clearer sonics from the engine, nicer controls all round. The synergy in execution – of how its elements come together as one – is the real highlight of this test’s front-driven leading light.
Given its lowly form in objective, it might come as a surprise that the i30 N rockets up to third place – unanimously across our judging panel – for fun factor and driving enjoyment.
While lacking the sheer heat of the Ford or Honda, the hot Hyundai is perhaps the most sweetly balanced hatch of the entire field, more playful than the planted Type R, and more evenly tempered than the Ford. The weighting of the controls is superb, its rich soundtrack and signature ‘crack’ on lift-off addictive, and it rewards the harder you dig in… Up to a point. If there is one area of mediocrity, it’s that the talent of the chassis can overwhelm those tyres once the red mist really descends on the track.
“Everything feels really alert,” Kez says, isolating the surprisingly unflappable brakes, the tactile steering and the N-mode suspension tune. “If in doubt, power out. More throttle fixes everything in this car.”
The Peugeot 308 GTI copped fourth from every judge bar Paul, who give the French machine fifth, with a consensus of generally favorable praise tempered by a handful of strong gripes. Chief among them is the terrible steering wheel-to-dash relationship – quirk for quirk’s sake – and the awkward pedal stagger and left-skewed offset, ergonomic shortcomings that anchor the Pug’s potential.
The 1.6-litre engine is tremendously potent for its size but it lacks flexibility, focusing its energy in the low-to-mid RPM range, which is handy for corner-exit drive short of the kind of puff the Type R or i30 N generates in the top end.
Sharp, reactive steering and assertive chassis aside, its soft-edged nature and near-flaccid gearshift rob some key satisfaction from the hot-lapping experience.
The bottom two hatches, both boasting ‘R for race’ in their namesakes, didn’t feel at home marrying the union between driver and tarmac on the circuit. While Paul ranked the Golf R fourth, Kez and I pegged it down a notch to fifth, while Mandy, our resident Volkswagen tragic, saw fit to demote the hatch from Wolfsburg to stone motherless last.
One criticism was a patent lack of feel-good fire: “It’s less a hot hatch and more a luxury car that goes fast,” Kez says. The quick-upshifting DSG also gets baulked downshifting and even annoyingly self-shifts in manual mode, the ESP cuts in excessively and the steering goes from light and aloof to stunningly heavy depending on lateral load across the front axle.
It feels decent up until about 8.5-tenths, but the harder you push beyond, the more the Golf trips over its own toes, running out of bite and tyre grip, losing composure, with some unpredictable torque-shuffling between the axles in the mid-corner. It’s not happy on fire, and this translates directly to the enjoyment factor from behind the wheel. Worse yet, the brakes smoked like chimneys after just a handful of hard laps.
“It has about as much edge as a bowling ball,” I wrote in my notebook.
The STI Spec R copped last in everyone’s ranking bar Mandy, who gave it fifth, and to say disappointment permeated throughout the judging rank and file is an understatement.
The Subaru has a ton of squirt but little throttle modulation: more than one-third throttle in the mid-corner and the tyres were already howling, such is the chassis's incapacity to harness roadholding from the rubber. It’s also tough to balance using your right foot. Nor are those Recaros, representing a good chunk of the Spec R’s premium price, much chop when it comes to lateral body support during hard cornering.
Its heavy, ponderous nature compounded with (hydraulic) steering too light at the straight ahead and too heavy and lifeless tucking into corners, where the onset of understeer arrives way too early and any track imperfection would shudder the steering alarmingly in rack rattle. At least the huge anchors, which were merely adequate in 100–0km/h testing, would prove strong and dependable allies in the braking zones.
Overall, there were few surprises at the increasingly consolidated pointy end, where the Focus RS and Civic Type R continue to lead the pack. But there was a big shake-up in the middle, with the i30 N leaping upwards in the overall reckoning, and the Golf R taking a punishing tumble. That, on average, the front-drivers proved more fun on the track than the AWD gear was certainly not lost on the Mega Test crew.
While the circuit afforded some leg-stretching high velocity and big cornering loads and speeds, we selected a particularly tight and lumpy section of back road south of the Snowy Mountains, an ideal venue on which to assess fun factor back-to-back and in public.
Why tight? For one, to keep road speeds legal while extracting each competitor’s finest, and secondly, it’s a better assessment for agility, corner-exit drive and composure than smoother, gentler routes.
And it’s right here that the Civic Type R got a firm grip on the Mega Test crown. All judges ranked it a dominating first except Mandy, who pegged the Honda down in third.
Consummately talented on the track, few judges were prepared for how well those talents translate to the road. The precise steering, superb point and “phenomenally communicative front end” as Kez puts it, combines with an extremely planted and stable forum that begs you to dig in and responds with heady pace when you do. And while not the torquiest engine on show, the howl of the turbo four between 4000–7000rpm is utterly intoxicating.
The Honda’s on-road satisfaction isn’t centred on playfulness, but rather real purpose in progress that oozes through its controls. “It’s focused and finely finessed,” Kez adds, “like some sort of racing simulator.” Better yet, despite sitting so flat in the corners, there’s real compliance in the suspension that, at once, soothes the ride and affords maximum tyre-to-hot-mix grip. If there’s only one markdown, it’s that tyre roar can get quite hellacious on coarse surfaces.
Coming in a close second for on-road fun, just one point behind the Type R, was… The i30 N! Yep, the Hyundai was best on-road for Mandy’s money, and runner-up for all other judges.
Out gushed the plaudits: “Incredibly sophisticated on the road,” said one judge; “beautifully balanced and responsive,” said another. The lack of outright firepower trades for superbly useable, torquey flexibility on-road, while the slightly rounded nature that robbed its edge on the track rewards on public twisties with a deft blend of compliance, poise and grip that’s both satisfying to use and wickedly quick point to point.
“It’s such a satisfying yet unfatiguing car to punt hard,” I wrote in my notes. A car where its full-noise N mode is completely useable on even a lumpy road, where its bold and crackling soundtrack never fails to put a smile on your face, and corner exit drive from that tricky front diff is astounding. If you nitpicked, you could say N mode’s steering calibration is a touch heavy, or the engine could do with more low-end torque, but just how resolved and satisfying the Hyundai is let loose on the road is quite remarkable.
The Golf R made amends for its underwhelming track showing with an utter transformation on the road, where it’s clearly much more at home; a commendable third place once the judges’ rankings – a second, a third, two fourths – were tallied up.
Its less frenetic nature, highly compliant suspension and more measured dynamic approach conspire to create perhaps the most comfortable, quietest and calmest character in our hot-hatch field, yet one impressively swift from A to B. The DSG, too, adds mid-corner cog-swapping convenience and steering is much more co-operative and responsive at a brisk clip, though the transmission hesitation, iron-clad ESP and inherent understeer – “It can’t shake that heavy front end,” Kez says – maintain a character that’s not terribly lively nor responds all that favourably to manhandling (and, for that matter, Mandy-handling).
By stark contrast, the Focus RS is utterly hyperactive, strung out and wired on-road, to a level that didn’t find favour with the judges. Paul and I ranked it third, Kez fifth and Mandy a lowly sixth.
In a nutshell, the flat, stiff and edgy chassis that returns so many dynamic favours on the track leaves the firebrand Ford utterly nervous on the road, its nose jinking with every lump in the road so much so that you fight to keep the RS straight. The rigid suspension compromises adhesion and composure over bumps, and when cold those R-spec tyres unhinge themselves quite violently.
“The more you punish it, the greater the return,” Kez admits, though the return is more sheer thrill factor than downright enjoyment. At once, the Focus RS is a pulse-racer and also utterly fatiguing and unsettling if you really yank its chain hard on the confines of a twisty public road.
Unlike the Ford, the 308 GTI’s positives and negatives on-road largely mirror those on the track. It has an assertive front end, ample grip and is lithe in feel, which is no doubt greatly facilitated by its light weight. Better still, that ‘little’ engine’s low-to-mid-range wallop works more effectively punching out of tight corners than it does strung out on a racetrack.
But its ergonomic failings – that steering wheel, the blind instruments and reverse tacho, the sloppy gearchange and awkward pedal arrangement – were real buzzkills for the judges. Two ranked the French hatch with a pair of fourths, a fifth and a sixth. And by measure of present company, it’s also a little tardy in dynamic alertness, notably with its slight lag in steering response and casual LSD locking effect when attempting to fire out of our road loop’s tricky uphill hairpin.
We’d quietly hoped the STI Spec R could turn a trick or two on-road to help change its fortunes in this Mega Test. But it was not to be. Two fifths and two sixths were handed down by the judges’ seat of the pants reckoning, almost mirroring the lowly subjective appraisal of the Subaru on-track. Oh dear...
The 2.5-litre boxer’s peaky, non-linear nature means it’s constantly caught off-boil, and the lack of on-demand torque negates much benefit of the trick AWD system. “It’s just a really laggy engine,” Kez says. Further, its rigid ride made even the Focus RS seem tempered, so it felt skittish in corners and fails to drill adequate roadholding purchase through its tyres.
Steering? Vague and inert, and that alarming on-track rack rattle is intensified. The interface between the driver and car is numb, its responses to inputs lackadaisical, and while amusing at seven-tenths, it becomes uncooperative and demanding once you push on – all while the seats refuse to hold your body upright. It’s neither much fun nor even that quick in the search for thrills.
As with on-track fun factor, our road assessment tasked judges with ranking the field in secrecy, after which the four rankings were tallied together for a result. In the process of both criteria, a grace period was introduced to allow some reassessment, but in both cases no judge altered any rankings originally submitted.
On the road, the split between first and second placing was even closer than it was on the track. But while the field-topping Type R remained Mister Consistency for high achievement, the real star on the road was the buck-banging i30 N trailing behind the Honda by a single point of judgement.
The biggest improvement in driving satisfaction was the Golf R, leaping up the rankings from a lowly fifth position on the track to third place on the road, though it didn’t come anywhere close to knocking the Hyundai off second place.
There was an even spread in the point scoring, and despite the disagreement about the Focus RS’s on-road prowess – whether its dynamite thrills did or didn’t make for enjoyable fun – the point spread meant that the Ford wasn’t close to sneaking up or dropping down from its fourth place.
With performance testing and lap times covering the objective half of testing, and on-track and on-road appraisal representing the other subjective half, all four criteria come together to decide our final verdict and pecking order.
This is also where pricing and value enter the narrative, though, importantly, neither contribute in any way to the final result. Why? These competitors vary enormously in talent, virtues and appeal to different buyers' tastes irrespective of price, and value in an extra spend will differ from one hot-hatch shopper to another. For instance, some buyers might consider the $14,700 premium the Focus RS commands over the i30 N good value in return for lopping four seconds off a Winton lap time, whereas others surely won't.
In fact, this Mega Test best serves to demonstrate relativity between popular hot-hatch nameplates to provide wide-ranging assessment and advice to aid the process of deciding which pocket rocket is the best fit for you. This final verdict serves to rank achievement – be it over- or underachievement – in the broadest method we could devise in measuring pace and fun.
The Honda Civic Type R romped to victory in our King of the Hot Hatch Mega Test, as not only the second-best performer, but also crucially ranking first place as the most enjoyable device on the road or track.
Honda's hot one topped two criteria, and the only time the front-driver ever dropped below a top-two ranking or result in any of the six tests was its fourth-place 0–100km/h time… Naturally, perhaps, behind all the all-wheel drives.
That the Civic's $50,990 ask is right on the field's median price point ($50,340) bodes impressively for our winner's overall value pitch.
The Ford Focus RS LE also dominated two criteria, but also dropped as low as fourth in just one test, and fell perilously short of the Honda in the overall result with a slightly tardier average in what was an incredibly close fight.
As the quickest device on show and with giant-killing (or matching) capabilities, its $56,990 looks a bargain if pace is a prerogative. But if you're not chasing outright track pace, the cheaper non-LE version, at $50,990, is worth a good hard look.
In the mid-pack, an awful lot separated the Volkswagen Golf R and Hyundai i30 N in unique talents and individual merits, but you could barely split the pair in the overall standings. Eventually, the German hatch nabbed third overall through consistency, while the low-performing Korean made up massive ground for being such a hoot to drive.
There's a huge $12,500 difference between the R ($55,490) and the N ($42,990), but the pricier Volkswagen does offer quicker pace, more badge heritage and, in range, a choice of manual or dual-clutch transmission. But that both are exceptional back-road bombers really bodes favourably towards the buck-banging Hyundai. Also, the price gap reduces once you start cross-shopping cheaper stablemates in the base i30 N ($39,990) and the Golf R Grid ($47,990 manual, $49,990 DSG), neither of which lose anything in go-fast gear compared with our Mega Test contenders.
Which leaves the likeable if flawed Peugeot 308 GTI 270, which only managed one top-three criterion showing (100–0km/h braking), but consistently beat out the frankly disappointing Subaru WRX STI Spec R, which at least (brutally) leveraged its all-paw traction to nab a third place in acceleration testing.
Despite its flaws, it's worth a shout-out that the Pug was quicker than the i30 N everywhere – if not quite as nicely resolved – and at $45,990 is not only three-grand pricier, but also sharply priced for a serious hot-hatch prospect.
At $57,690 list and the most expensive car on test, the flagship Spec R's lowly result on merit is only compounded by iffy value. If you really love the cut of the WRX STI's jib – as many do – we strongly recommend dropping much further down the range to the regular STI at a far more enticing $50,890 list for a no-less-potent package.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Above: If this was all just too much to take in, or you can't get enough, or you really like Adam Morris, check out out 2018 Hot Hatch Mega Test track video!
UPDATE: Part 2 of the video chapter is now live, taking in the road component. Get it here.