Does the perfect hot hatch exist? Is your perfect hot hatch someone else's nightmare ride? The latter scenario is probably more likely, but to put the theory to the test, we’ve pitted the all-new Renault Megane RS280 against the reigning champs from our recent hot hatch mega test.
Here to form a welcoming committee for the new Frenchy stand our mega test runner-up, the Ford Focus RS, and the supreme champion from that bout, the Honda Civic Type R.
On looks alone, these three take conventional small hatchbacks and turn them into new and exciting performance machines in distinctly different ways.
Similarly, despite working towards the same goal (maximum grunt, that is), there’s a fair spread of difference in the mechanical department along with a slew of similarities, but I’ll delve into that a little deeper in a moment.
Editor's note: the video above focuses largely on the track prowess of these three cars, while this written review will stick to their performance on the road.
To kick things off, let's meet the new guy. In a move that’s sure to aggravate the hell out of hardcore Francophiles, the new Megane RS280 no longer comes in a three-door form, arriving instead as a more practical five-door only.
The previous generation came only with a three-door body, while the generation before that offered a choice of both. Buyers will have a choice of transmission for the first time at least, with a dual-clutch auto available alongside the regular six-speed manual, which brings us nicely to the car we’ve got on test.
The Renault Megane RS280 blends together a 205kW/390Nm 1.8-litre turbo four, segment-exclusive four-wheel steering, and an old-fashioned three-pedal set-up from $44,990 plus on-road costs.
Add Renault’s Cup package for $1490 and Brembo calipers, Torsen limited-slip differential, and firmer suspension also join the party. With Tonic Orange paint and Bose audio/LED headlights, it brings the tally for this particular car to $47,860 before on-road costs.
Carryover champion, the Honda Civic Type R, does its thing thanks to a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine tuned up to 228kW and 400Nm. Like the Megane, drive is sent to the front wheels only via a helical limited-slip diff and six-speed manual.
Honda’s only option is metallic paint, with everything else you see standard, meaning the buck starts and stops at $51,990 before on-roads for the solid Rally Red car pictured here.
The final entrant is something of a legacy carrier. Technically, there won’t be any more examples of the Ford Focus RS entering the country as production has already wrapped up overseas, but with over 100 examples of the RS Limited Edition showing on dealer lots, you can still buy into the legend.
And what a legend it is. More hyper hatch than hot hatch, the Focus RS LE smacks down leading outputs amongst this trio from its 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 257kW and 440Nm, and touts the advantage of all-wheel-drive traction to help turn that urge into get up and go.
While all-paw grip is standard for the Focus RS, the Limited Edition package adds a helical limited-slip front diff, forged 19-inch alloy wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, and detail changes like blue interior highlights applied to the Recaro seats, autonomous emergency braking, rear privacy glass, and Nitrous Blue paint with black spoiler and mirror accents.
Unfortunately, it’s no budget battler at $56,990 plus on-road costs, making it $6K over the ask of a ‘regular’ Focus RS, but it certainly pushes the specification envelope for non-prestige hot hatches.
Not to dwell on it, but should you like your hot hatch to look – well – hot, these three fit the bill in subtly different ways. Ford keeps its regular bodywork intact, but adds OTT bumpers at each end with an unmissable maw up front and a flicked-up RS spoiler at the rear.
Renault’s approach is far more subtle, but smoothly flared front and rear wheel arches (not tacked-on plastic parts) give a more integrated and menacing look. It's muscled up but free of boy-racerisms save for the ‘chequered flag’ LED driving lights up front.
Subtle is obviously not a word in Honda’s vocabulary, though. Fat front guards, rear over-fender extensions, a variety of real (and a lot more fake) vents front and rear, plus a pair of decklid spoilers, make for a very, very conspicuous style statement. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Right?
There’s no doubt aesthetic appeal plays a big part in conveying the hot hatch image, but regardless of how you interpret the styling of this trio, the real story lies in performance potential. And with the minimum output starting at a tick over 200kW and just shy of 400Nm, there are no slouches in the pack.
There is a genuine difference in feel, though – a result of divergent approaches to everything from ride and handling to grip and steering. You didn’t think this was going to be one-dimensional, did you?
We may as well start with the biggest sledgehammer of the lot then, the Ford Focus RS LE. Peak power at 6000rpm gives a nice wide rev range and torque at its fattest spans from 1600 to 5000rpm, which would wreak nothing but havoc were it not for the surety of all-wheel drive.
This is no ‘hot hatches for dummies’ measure, though. Skill needs to be applied, particularly given the ability of the Focus to bite back. Plenty of initial grip is wonderful, but the signs of approaching the limits can be harder to pick up on.
Still, with a grunting, barking, baritone exhaust note, the Focus RS screams bad boy from the top of its lungs.
Not only that, but despite being the porkiest of this field (with a kerb weight of 1575kg), the Focus RS manages to feel beautifully light on its feet. Agile steering with dependable heft and startling accuracy make throwing down a set of corners a genuine thrill.
Less thrilling, however, is the gearshift, which can’t match the sense of urgency the rest of the car is capable of, coupled with an over-sprung clutch that almost throws your foot off it until you get used to the strength of its return.
If you’re shopping for a hot hatch that can double as a respectable weekday commuter car, it's also worth mentioning that the Focus’s Recaro seats grip like a baseball mitt, but once you’re locked in that’s where you stay. The seat base also feels lofty in a car that should be low-slung. Blame Ford’s rally heritage for that decision.
Step into the Civic Type R and nail the skinny pedal and the results are no less dramatic; however, they are a touch less aggressive. Instead of being scooped from standstill to V-max without thinking about it like the Focus, the Civic requires more judicial throttle application to counter its easily accessible wheel spin.
Up front, the 2.0-litre engine hits its 228kW at 6500rpm, giving it a touch more bandwidth to play in. And by means of maintaining some civility, the Civic’s 400Nm starts from 2500rpm and trails off by 4500rpm.
Don’t expect a torque gulf early on, though, as the Type R delivers a fantastically scalable tractability. For best results, it’s worth building a touch of speed before hammering the throttle. Rolling response shoves hard, but standing starts can’t match the off-the-mark urgency of Ford’s hero.
The Civic certainly rains all over Ford’s parade when it comes to driver engagement, most obviously thanks to a gearshift that buries deep into Honda’s storied Type R history and comes back with a crisp, accurate feel that slides through the gate with a perceptiveness few other modern cars can match.
During the Civic’s time in the CarAdvice garage, Scott Collie returned from a drive and boldly proclaimed the Type R’s shift quality was “like a well-oiled hot knife through a rifle”, which I assume can only be a good thing. Clearly, it’s precise enough to cause some kind of brain-melting metaphor-mixing impairment.
The Civic surprises in a variety of other ways. Despite being the only car wearing 20-inch wheels, with barely there 30-profile sidewalls (245/30ZR20 Continental ContiSportContact 6 if you’re playing at home), the ride isn’t as brittle as that of the Focus.
Both feature adjustable dampers, but whereas the Ford starts at ‘rock hard’ in its normal setting and only gets firmer from there, Honda’s ride, while still obviously firm, does a better job of shrugging off sharp imperfections.
With the lightest weighbridge ticket of the trio, the 1393kg kerb weight of the Civic also no doubt contributes to its on-road dynamism and overall alertness.
Honda also snares the title of quietest braker, with the Focus and Megane both requiring a decent amount of heat in the rotors to quell the otherwise whiny brakes at low speed. Welcome to the world of high-performance motoring and its sometimes unflattering side effects.
What about the new kid on the block then? With the smallest engine at 1.8 litres and the most modest outputs, has Renault already relegated itself to the back of the hot hatch queue?
Like the Focus, peak power arrives at 6000rpm, but max torque follows the Civic’s lead by arriving a little later (2400rpm in fact), and despite an engine that’s down on cubic capacity, the Megane RS refuses to relent on effusive enthusiasm.
Although it’s not as alert as the other two low in the rev range (and easier on the front hoops than the Civic as a result), the robust mid-range is a genuine enticement to keep the RS280 singing in its sweet spot.
Interestingly, though, it seems rather than go balls to the wall with a laser-focussed performance machine, Renault has instead decided to follow the lead of class benchmark, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, in terms of attitude and refinement.
Unfortunately, that means the raw edges of the previous RS have been sanitised somewhat. Purists may not love the idea of a more accessible Megane, but it should suit average buyers to know that the clutch action has become more civil.
It’s doubtful anyone is likely to sing the praises of a gearshift that’s heavy and notchy, longer in its throw and less accurate than either Ford's or Honda’s, along with a high-set clutch pedal that sits at odds with the rest of the Megane's pedals. It’s also a pretty safe bet that the majority of Australian buyers will bypass it entirely and head straight for the available automatic instead.
Renault really stamps its authority in the agility department thanks to 4Control, Renault’s take on four-wheel steering. Like the less powerful Megane GT, the RS280 utilises a system that can turn the rear wheels opposite to the front at low speeds for tighter turns, or with the front at high speeds to create a more stable feel.
Across stretches of twisty tarmac, the experience at first feels odd. Not artificial or overdone, but having the yaw rate move in such a way that the rear axle doesn’t simply follow the lead from the front, but becomes an active part of the Megane’s turn-in, takes a moment to recalibrate to. Once you’ve worked it out, though, the Megane RS becomes a cornering master, tipping in with a vivaciousness that becomes massively addictive.
Unfortunately, the Megane’s tendency to axle tramp out of low-speed bends is much less addictive. Limited-slip diff or not, the Megane doesn’t manage to do as good a job of getting its grunt to the pavement as the Civic in dry conditions.
That’s not to say the Civic isn’t a healthy wheel-slipper itself, it’s just less aggressive when it does so. All the while, the Focus will simply show the other two a clean set of heels as they regain their composure.
Of the three, the Megane is also the only one to offer a choice of suspension set-up. The ‘Cup Chassis’ not only adds a limited-slip diff – and it would be an exercise in futility to go without it – but also brings firmer suspension.
There’s no doubt the Megane is firm, making no false statement about its sporting intent in the process, but even though the urban ride is busy, it isn’t brittle. Hit the open road and the Megane is the easiest of the trio to live with. Meanwhile, the Focus will prompt you to check your health insurance for dental cover, lest you rattle a filling loose on the way to work.
If sporting intent is half the fun of these three brats, the interiors must surely match the tone, too, to deliver on the other half of the equation. That’s certainly the case, though it might be more obvious in some than others.
As mentioned before, the Focus RS and its Limited Edition treatment brings blue highlights to some of the firmest-gripping seats this side of a supercar, but around the rest of the interior you might be left wondering what makes Ford’s hot hatch so special.
Equipment is unchanged from the regular Focus RS, and is by no means stingy, with keyless start, dual-zone climate, Alcantara seat trim, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with navigation and CarPlay/Android Auto. Unfortunately, the Focus shows its age with a less than contemporary design.
In terms of space, the Focus also trails the pack with a dash design that gives the impression of encroaching on front seat space, and a rear seat lacking in leg room thanks in part to the bulky plastic-backed Recaros up front.
If you like it loud, the Civic Type R is perfect for you thanks to howling red front seats that are sure to split opinion. Alcantara trimmed and a touch more generously proportioned than those of the Focus, the Civic makes for a better cruising companion, yet gives away little in terms of lateral grip. Better still, the Type R’s seats are mounted low and give it a properly sporty feel.
Honda’s dash design, while still busy, works more cohesively than Ford’s, with a nicer mix of finishes and materials giving the flagship Civic a point of difference compared to its mainstream rivals. The Civic also boasts a comprehensive digital instrument cluster with a range of display options giving it extra high-tech points.
Better still for family users, the Civic delivers one of the roomiest rear seats in the small car segment, and despite low-roofed styling there’s plenty of stretching space in the Civic’s rear seat.
Honda’s 7.0-inch touchscreen is the smallest of the three, but still includes smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android devices but no built-in navigation. Standard features also include LED headlights, keyless entry and start, DAB+ digital radio, and a HDMI input to connect entertainment devices to the central screen.
Renault has gone for a more upmarket ambience inside the Megane, however. It's something that’s apparent across the entire range, with a mix of formal design and quality textures across the dash and doors, but oddly, cloth-trimmed seats instead of Alcantara.
Renault at least counters that with plenty of LED ambient illumination (which changes with the selected drive mode), heated front seats, and a 8.7-inch infotainment screen, plus the typical dual-zone climate, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.
At face value, Ford still holds the title of most user-friendly infotainment, and offers the clearest speedometer increments for urban usage. Both Honda’s and Renault’s native infotainment systems become frustrating to navigate through, but can be thankfully avoided thanks to smartphone mirroring… Rotten shame, then, that Renault letterboxes your iPhone into its tall screen like it does.
That’s not really the point, though. Not at all. In fact, not even close. Turn the bloody radio off, dial up the nastiest driving mode and hammer through your favourite winding, hilly ribbon of tarmac.
You’ll soon discover some of the following: the Civic sounds a bit like a vacuum cleaner no matter what you do with it; the Focus struggles to live up to the presentation expected of a price tag north of $55K; and the Megane narrowly escapes those kinds of criticisms.
Here’s the thing, though. In the pursuit of a more polished product, the Megane has lost some of its edge. It doesn’t feel obnoxious or outrageous in any way. Yes, it’s swift, and has some of the most finely balanced turn-in of anything in the hot hatch class, but lacks rawness.
Ford does the exact opposite and throws refinement out the window, instead delivering a ready-to-rally package that’s a racing number and a rollcage short of being a competition machine.
Massive speed in either a straight line or through a set of bends, a comically large amount of pop and crackle from the exhaust, and the looming threat that this next-level hot hatch could sweep you wildly into the roadside – should you forget yourself for a moment and expect the Focus RS to manage all the driving skill for you.
That’s all thrilling stuff, but the Focus is no all-rounder. Its urban approach can’t match the civility and relative comfort delivered by the Type R or RS 280, its gearshift doesn’t entice, and as a family rig – even a part-timer with the tight interior – the tightly packed low-rent interior fails to delight.
Honda, meanwhile, treads a much finer line. The Type R is still refined, but between wonderfully lively steering, a gearshift that defines precision, and split-second responsiveness from the engine, the Civic doesn’t just bond with its driver – it feels like it could be hardwired to your adrenal glands.
Part of that clarity comes from Honda’s decision to keep the Type R a front-driver, and while that means standing starts aren’t as brutal as those of the Focus, the light and agile feel, excellent feedback, and masses of rolling grip hardly count against it.
All of this comes together to form an incredible, tightly packed podium.
There has to be a third-place holder, and in this instance the bronze medal goes around the neck of the Ford Focus RS. There are only shades of separation between the three, but the high-level performance Focus, at the expense of all-round versatility, means Ford misses out on glory this time.
Were this a test purely based on performance metrics, those results would be very different – and you can check out our (very wet) Winton track test video above, with these three cars, to learn more about that.
The battle between first and second place is closer still, and as a classic battle of front-wheel-drive hot hatches, that’s exciting to see.
While it delivers a big dose of refinement, both on the road and visually, there’s just a layer of connection missing from the Renault Megane RS280. Lively handling from the four-wheel steering system helps address the issue, but feel through the wheel itself isn’t as strong as it could be.
It also takes a big swing in the engine department and lands a solid punch, albeit not solid enough in this instance to topple Honda’s best work. And speaking of best work, Honda’s balance of clutch and gear shift working together is a true thing of beauty.
That’s why the Honda Civic Type R snatches the crown yet again.
Though it may only be a narrow win, the Type R still provides a lesson for competitors on how to thrill drivers.
Not only is it quick and competent, but even at lower speeds the engagement doesn’t fade away, making even a quick dash to the shops a fulfilling experience. It’s the immediacy of reaction to driver inputs, coupled with a cracking engine and a faithful and accurate front end, which combine to make the Type R a certified winner.