A45 AMG vs Golf R

Meet the new VW Golf R. It has a vertical tailgate signalling its membership of the shopping class. It also has the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine de rigueur for any hot hatch worth its pedigree. And it comes with that rallying essential, four-wheel drive.

Lined up next to it is its most direct rival, the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. Ditto on all counts.

They’re not created completely equal, of course. The Golf develops 221kW and 380Nm all the way from 1,800 to 5,500rpm; the A45 boasts a thunderous 265kW and 450Nm available anywhere between 2,250 and 5,000rpm. The Golf is 60kg lighter. Both have double-clutch gearboxes, the Merc’s seven speeds outstripping the VW’s by one.

While the AMG can only send a maximum of 50 per cent of torque rearwards, the R’s fifth-generation Haldex system can send everything to the back.

Truth be told, the Golf R rides pretty firmly. You don’t notice it too much because it does everything else so professionally. The action of the throttle, gearbox and steering are sharp and accurate; everything you interact with is delightfully predictable – it’s a car that places no demands on you whatsoever and is good enough in many areas to distract you from its weaknesses. But the ride is sharp.

The Golf, as expected, is the tidy sock drawer type. It’s efficient, ordered and incredibly rapid. It has less turbo lag, and works its chassis very evenly. The Merc has a looser grip on itself. There’s a bit more slack around the straight-ahead of the steering, a hint of torque-steer, a gearbox that hands out downshifts only when it’s good and ready. Drive it at 6/10ths, and it’s not really too bothered. Heap a couple more tenths on, and it’s suddenly all there.

Lessons learnt: don’t leave the Merc’s gearbox in Comfort (it’s too sleepy), don’t meander around at low revs (the turbo takes an age to get going) and don’t guide it gently into corners (it’ll feel dull and nosey).

Highlights so far? The A45’s thumping engine (plus its associated noises) and the Golf’s security and handling balance. VW is winning the efficiency war so far, with 9.5L/100km playing 10.3L/100km.

The Golf is the sharper, more responsive car. It seems to bring the rear axle into play sooner, has delightfully even-handed, well-managed traction and faster engine response, allowing it to pull out the hard yards from tight corners before the Merc’s hefty turbo spools up. It’s deft and neat, has sharper, more wristy steering and a pointy front end. You can really hustle it, and it’ll stay poised and eager.

The Merc requires more trust because it’s less instantly reactive. Here, it’s all about controlling the nose, keeping the weight on under braking, getting on the power early (both really relish a bit of left-foot braking, right-foot throttle if you’re up for it – the Merc’s stoppers are less grabby, too), surfing the wave of torque. The Merc’s nose is more supple – there’s a bit of roll there, a hint of softness and delay, which is great for absorbency on bumpy roads, but means it doesn’t pick out a line as cleanly as the R or dive into corners with quite the same alacrity.

But the A45 also has brilliant seats to go with that coupe driving environment and, perhaps more fundamentally, a naughtier vibe about it. While the Golf is Peter Perfect, the A45 is Taz the Tasmanian Devil, a roaring, yelping, spinning nutjob that you hang on to, knowing you’re going to have a good time.

Put it this way: when we wanted to do a jump shot, we choose the Golf because we knew it wouldn’t do anything nasty, but driving home that night, I was in the A45.

It’s the car that more accurately channels the legacy of that earlier generation of 4WD heroes, the Evos and Imprezas. It’s a car that wants you to stay on the gas all the time, and only really comes alive when you do, engine chomping at cold air above 5,000rpm, rear axle finally getting involved.

Special mention for the stability control systems in both cars (which have barely ever needed to get involved) and another, more perplexed nod for the Merc’s standard tyre pressures, which are a whopping 10psi higher at the front than the back. Strange. Today’s fuel results don’t go the Merc’s way, either, the A45 AMG having averaged a frankly distressing 13.9L/100km to the R’s 12.1L/100km.

Best car? You could pull that one both ways. In the end, although I enjoyed the Mercedes more in extremis, I’m giving the nod to the Golf, not least because it’s twenty grand cheaper and just as fast across country.

Read our review of the Golf R here.

Read our review of the A45 AMG here.