What's the best hot hatch on sale right now? The final three battle it out Nowadays, it’s called the Applecross Pass, but the proper Scottish Gaelic name, the old name, is Bealach na Bà – the Pass of the Cattle. You can guess why – the little squiggle that carves through the mountains of the Applecross Peninsula in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands used to be a driver’s road. A road that connected the outskirts of Tornapress on the eastern side to the village of Applecross on the coast, just across the water from the Isle of Raasay, itself sandwiched between the mainland and the Isle of Skye.
It’s famously not an easy place. The weather is eyeblink-changeable, generated as it is by coastal fronts and mountainous altitudes, and the road is medieval narrow and defiantly single-track. So pinched that there are passing places every few hundred metres, and on several sections, a decently wide car will be brushing the white lines that mark the margins on both sides at once. Room for mistakes is virtually non-existent: drop a wheel off the side of the bumpy, subsiding tarmac, and you’ll find either granite or fresh air. Or a nightmare combination of both.
The Applecross is, however, a proper test. A supercar would be all but useless here – there’s no place to deploy huge power, no room to gather a slide. There’s no space for excess, both literally and figuratively. Be too wide, or unwieldy, fearsome or uncontrolled, and you’ll get three corners in, hit a decent bump and crash. Which is not to say that it’s focused nature reduces its tendency towards the epic.
Physically, it resembles a European mountain pass, littered with hairpins that soar to 20 per cent gradient and strangely cambered corners. It’s also got the biggest ascent of any road climb in the UK, thumping skywards for 2,054ft from Applecross (at sea level) to the top. When you get there, if the weather has subsided, you’ll get views that set fire to your blood and make your heart hurt. Scotland. Raw.
Inevitably, the first time we ascend the Pass from the Lochcarron side, it’s raining hard enough to bounce, and the cloud has settled around the top of the mountains like a dirty halo. But we are in possession of the three finest hot hatches on sale in the UK, and it’s impossible not to have fun no matter the weather. It’s just a bit more… challenging.
But challenges are what cars like these live for. Did you pick the top three? Honda Civic Type R, Ford Fiesta ST and VW Golf R. Three cars that demonstrate the complicated genealogy of the modern hot hatch. Different engineering solutions, sizes, characters. All of them exceptional. You’d think the Fiesta, mustering just 212bhp even with the Mountune pack would be left emasculated by the 296bhp, AWD Golf and 306bhp Honda. But here, with the environment levelling the playing field, the ST proves what a mighty little car it really is.
The Ford’s main strengths lie in its balance and regularity of reaction. And in the fact that it just seems to revel in everything. Here on the Applecross, the ST’s physically small dimensions count for much – there is room for a correction, a choice of road placement. In the Golf and Civic, you’re stuck with one line – the width of the road. The Fiesta is small enough to carve itself some space.
You also don’t have to worry about metering the power, or wrestling the steering, and even though if you lift early the tail gives every indication of lift-off oversteer – especially when turning into a downhill hairpin – the ST never translates the feeling into anything malicious. So it teaches you about how to handle front-wheel-drive quirks without actually forcing you to have an accident first.
It’s also soft enough to deal with the inadequacies of the Pass’s surfacing and the big lumps that cause under-damped or over-sprung cars to falter. In fact, with both the Golf and Type R in their hardest settings, neither has the ability to progress with as much fluidity as the ST. The Civic’s rear torsion bar pings around and bounces after the front end, and the Golf seems pathologically unable to keep its tyres on the floor in any meaningful way, and resorts to default – and in this case worrying – understeer. Even the Fiesta’s brakes are well judged: not grabby or indistinct, with great progression and lots of feel as to how hard you can push before activating the ABS. It’s a package of a car – no huge highlight, and no significant chink either.
The Fiesta’s only real problem is that once you’ve mastered it, you might go hunting more power, more speed and possibly something a bit more risky. Or a more expensive-feeling cabin. Right now and for the price, this car is unbeatable for driving pleasure on a UK B-road. But it’s an introduction to the hot-hatch story, rather than a zeitgeisty apogee. It isn’t going to win.
The result is a final face-off between the two white cars. Both around 300bhp, both four-cylinder turbo. The Golf has Haldex gen-V all-wheel drive; the Civic, a refined front suspension more than capable of delivering what is a daft amount of power through only the front wheels. The Civic is a bit lighter; the Golf has the traction. The Honda is the easiest to dislike visually. I’m all for aggressive styling, but the Civic’s arches look stuck on, and the rear wing just appears like it manages the square root of sod all, even if it does.
And yet, to drive, this car is something properly special. Quite how Honda has managed to get 306bhp to play so nicely is genius. On the smoother sections of the Applecross, the way the Civic ripped around a corner without torque-steer was revelatory. The engine may not have the VTEC step-change-scream of the old 2.0 n/a, but it still charges hard at the top and gives enough mid-range thump to satisfy. It’s less mid-range boosty than the Golf, more linear, and working it through the six-speed manual is a joy. In fact, the gearbox and seats are two reasons why you might fall in love with this car on their own. If you have to live with something day-to-day, those two touchpoints are phenomenally important.
It’s also fast. Proper fast. With accurate steering and immense grip. It’s a racy, exciting, proper hot hatch. And it made me feel a bit old-mannish for moaning about the bodykit.
The Golf is visually almost the opposite of the outré Type R. Sober-suited and purposeful, with very little to give away the potential. The interior is perfectly ergonomic, with none of the character of the Honda, but none of the foibles, either. And for a while, it just seemed a bit too genial and edgeless.
Of course it’s got grip. Of course its got security, and an engine that gives you real-world thrust out of every corner, even if you’ve picked the wrong gear. Of course the brakes are strong and four-square and the steering accurate. But at medium pace, it also understeers a bit, feels a bit numb. All that stuff that makes it imperious on the commute also shears the nerves when you want to play.
So I start to fiddle with the various settings on both cars. And the Golf reacts. When you put everything into full-attack (steering, throttle, response and damping), the VW changes character. Suddenly there’s proper anger. It’s like the car has woken up, been goaded by the Type R into full red mist.
The throttle sharpens, the engine snarls and pops and there’s a definite playfulness to the way the four-wheel drive helps you around a corner. I suddenly remember just how good this car is, how much fun it can be. But it also bounces far too much. Activates its ABS on the way into corners, gets kicked around by the Bealach bumps. So I just prod the adaptive damping system down a peg or two, leave the rest in Sport and find a car that can cover ground, this ground, like nothing else.
Back in the Honda, and things have started to go less well. Once in full R mode, you can’t separate the dynamic changes, so it’s full hard or nothing. Which means that it’s either too aggressive or too softly-softly. Quite why you can’t manage modes as in the Golf is a mystery, but it’s proving an important one – I want throttle and engine maps to full noise, but the suspension drives itself into the ground, and I need something more compliant here.
Brake over real bumps in R mode, and the rear seems underbraked and skippy because it’s not in contact with the floor – something that erodes confidence quickly. On the right bits of road it’s more fun than the Golf R, but we aren’t finding many of the “right bits of road”. The Golf is getting it right more regularly, albeit with less amusement.
Which returns to our starting point of this adventure. Just what do we mean by ‘hot hatch’? The Civic is a shouty, front-wheel-drive monster, exciting, interesting and polarising, but doesn’t pause for breath. The Golf is just as much fun in the right circumstances, but more usable, and slightly less mouthy. One last run of the Applecross Pass will decide it. Place your bets, please…
Yes, the best hot hatch on sale in the UK is the Volkswagen Golf R. It’s been a long journey, and after a week of testing including drag racing, circuit work, dreary motorway commutes, an overdose of breathtaking B-roads and a final charge more suited to pace notes, wide eyes and gritted teeth, the Golf has emerged victorious.
It’s not a particularly complicated set of reasons as to why. The Golf R smashes the averages and shines nova-bright in the right circumstances. The practical stuff is dispatched with imperious ease, meaning that space, ergonomics, reliability, quality and general drudge are all things the Golf excels at. It’s no harder to digest than chicken soup. It’s also easy on the eye, subtle yet purposeful.
But when you start to play with this extraordinary little car, it reveals a depth of talent that’s hard to argue with. The 2.0-litre, 296bhp turbo engine is powerful in all the right places, vocal when required and subdued and tractable when it needs to be. We’d have a manual for perfection spec, but the DSG is one of the best for daily use. The AWD provides surety on slippy schoolruns, yet has the ability to entertain on a track. It’s fast and composed and playful and engaging. Other cars excel at specifics. But not a single one of them is so comprehensive.
It’s not a points win. It’s a knockout. And that’s why this car is TopGear magazine’s Hot Hatch of the Year. The car that matches – and surpasses – the brief. The VW Golf R. Life without compromise. The winner.