Welcome to the hatchback portion, where almost all contenders have a hatchback. Of course, we could have employed a strict door policy, but then the BMW M235i came along. Clearly, it’s a coupe, yet it’s based on the M135i - one of our favourite hatches - and therefore qualifies for this group. Besides, with modern platforms and whatnot, the basic hot-hatch layout can be squished or stretched, so what was once a stout five-door could now be a curvy coupe. Being a BMW, it’s also rear-wheel drive, which mixes things up a bit more. And why not? After all, it joins a front-wheel-drive Seat Leon Cupra and the four-wheel-drive VW Golf R and Audi S1. The Golf, Audi and Seat use the same - or near as dammit - 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo. The BMW has a 3.0-litre, straight-six turbo.
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Speed Week: The Hot Hatches
We’ll begin in the Beemer. It might have ditched the upright rear for a swoopy roof - and it’s notably longer, lower and wider than the 1-Series Coupe it replaces - but that seems to have been lost in the translation from sketchbook to metal. It’s just a bit… pudgy, don’t you think? Alright, so it’s not supposed to be a pumped-up M car, but it could do with turning some of that visual weight into muscle. Maybe a bigger set of wheels might help. Inside, the perceived plumpness is exaggerated by a fat steering wheel, which - like everything else in the cabin - is swaddled in leather. All of this adds up to a kerbweight of 1,530kg, and although that hardly makes it lardy, it’s still the heaviest of this foursome.
Good job it has that meaty straight-six up front, because once this thing gets going, you forget the fat talk. The combination of the turbo and six cylinders gives the M235i a thick spread of power, without feeling too boosty in the middle. Rather, you feel as if the turbo is there to lend a hand, not to grab all the attention. Then, where other - typically four-cylinder - turbos run out of puff, this one finds an extra pair of lungs. So you can keep going and going until it’s really growling and hungry for another gear from the ever-so-slightly gristly manual ‘box.
Nothing to be scared of when it comes to corners, though. With the power coming in such broad strokes, it rarely threatens to overwhelm the rear tyres. And although it’s a touch stiffer than the M135i on which it’s based - more so with the adaptive dampers set to Sport - it still takes a moment to ease itself into the appropriate posture. There’s plenty of grip, and despite the rear-wheel drive and limited-slip diff, it’s not a wilful drifter. Sure, it’ll go sideways if you want it to, but you’ll have to work for it. So, instead of showing off like you might in its big-brother M4, it’s more satisfying to settle into a tidy rhythm.
While you’re doing that, look out for the Leon. In the hands of The Stig, it lapped Castellolí 1.2 seconds faster than the BMW… and when you consider it has 46bhp less than the 235i, this seems like a rather respectable achievement. Not only is it Seat’s fastest-ever road car, it also holds the record for the fastest front-wheel-drive time around the Nürburgring. Alright, so there’s a new and often arbitrary ‘Ring record every week or two, but from a Seat? We’ve not seen that before. Looks good, too. Almost as pointy as the Leon touring car parked a bit further down the pitlane.
Once upon a time, the Cupra was forced to make do with the Golf GTI’s old underpants. But thanks to the economics of modern carmaking, it now shares all the shiny new stuff with Volkswagen. So it’s built on the same MQB architecture as the new Golf and has the same 2.0-litre turbo, in this case turned up to 276bhp. This pulls it away from the GTI and places it much closer to the Golf R with which it competes here. Yet to make sure it doesn’t embarrass its corporate superior, it sticks with front-wheel drive, rather than four, though it does get a mechanical limited-slip diff. Good.
Off we go, in Cupra mode for sharper steering, a more alert throttle and a marginally meaner engine note (still a fairly dull sound compared with the other three). Around a few corners, a little squirt of power. Feels neat and balanced, if a touch non-theatrical. So far… so Golfy. But then you turn off the traction control, which lets the front wheels off the leash and gives the diff something to do. And that’s when it really earns its keep.
Because even if you’re dead clumsy, giving it lots of lock and too much throttle, it somehow turns this into useful traction. Meanwhile it manages to feed all this information to your hands, so you can feel what’s what. The messages are clear enough to decide how much grip you have, which tyre is responsible for it, and therefore how much more power you can add. The throttle is sharp rather than spiky, which helps you to make little adjustments. Judge it just right, and you’ll do 0-60mph in 5.7secs. And that’s our time, not Seat’s claimed.
The little Audi S1 will get there even faster. In 5.5secs, to be precise. As we may have mentioned already, it has the same engine as the Seat - making 227bhp here - though we suspect it took a little longer to cram it into the Audi’s cosy engine bay. Perhaps an even bigger headache was the job of swapping the standard A1’s torsion beam rear suspension for an independent set-up, which required a whole new bootfloor. So this isn’t just a lightly microwaved A1. It’s had a proper nuking.
Inside is a handbrake operated by an actual hand, and a gearstick connected to a six-speed ‘box. The steering is electrically assisted rather than hydraulic, but there’s no speed-sensitive nonsense. In other words, this is about as analogue as Audis get these days, and that’s a very good thing indeed. Start the engine, and it settles into a fairly mechanical idle, with its new quad exhausts throbbing away. It’s bursting with energy, this thing, and delivers its torque in a big dollop between 1,600 and 3,000rpm. You’ll need to work through the ‘box fairly briskly to make the most of it, shifting up before it runs softly into the limiter. It might be punchy, but it’s not overly revvy.
With such a short wheelbase, you only have to suggest a bit of cornering before it darts towards the apex. That independent rear suspension keeps the back end nice and tidy, and where some cars of this size - most of which have a torsion beam - might skip around or cock a wheel, the Audi behaves itself. It’ll even grab an inside brake here and there, helping to tug you into a bend. Of all the cars gathered here at Castellolí - including the really exotic stuff - the S1 feels the most cheeky and chuckable, and maybe even channels a bit of the old Quattro spirit. It’s been a while since we’ve said that about an Audi.
You feel the 4WD pushing and pulling in all the right places, and the quick-witted diffs work hard. It’s constantly searching for grip, but it does so with a smile on its face, unlike other Audis that joylessly batter the road. Perhaps that’s what makes it so likeable, and a contender for outright victory - not just among the hatchbacks but among all the cars at Speed Week. Which is why it was a slight shame when, after a brisk-ish lap in the hands of editor-in-chief Charlie Turner, it returned to the pits slightly on fire…
Conspiracy theorists may say this was a ploy to kill off the Audi and make room for his beloved, definitely-not-shonky Caterham in the final five. But he’s the boss, so obviously nobody would suggest such a thing. Besides, prime suspects were the tiny brakes, which do a good enough job of stopping you, however, on more than one occasion became smoky. But no… it turns out - after the car was collected and examined by Audi - that an incorrectly installed hose had interfered with a heat shield near the catalyst. Extinguisher duty fell to Fireman Sam Philip. Complete meltdown averted, but still game over for the S1. It was in with a good shout, too. (Audi is currently examining all RHD S1s and replacing the hose and shield where necessary, before deliveries commence).
That leaves us with the Golf R, which - in principle - has much in common with the S1: four-wheel drive, 2.0-litre turbo (yes, that one, albeit with a few mods) and VW Group genes. But obviously it’s bigger, and uses the new MQB platform and latest generation of Haldex 4WD system. This year, we’ve already driven it on a frozen lake, through a wintry German forest and across the breadth of Britain. Each time, we’ve been rather impressed, not only with its excellent chassis but also with its sheer speed. Officially, it does the 0-62mph sprint in 4.9 seconds, but if you knock off 2mph and go for the good old 0-60mph metric, it’ll get there in 4.5 seconds. Or so said our timing kit anyway.
That makes it the fastest Golf ever, and - frankly - a proper bargain at under £30,000 for the basest version. In other words, it’s just as fast as a Porsche Cayman GTS, for £25k less. So it’s extremely rapid, yet utterly flattering at the same time. It goes where you point it and stays there. Some might say that such unfaltering obedience makes for a dumbed-down driving experience, that its performance is a little too businesslike. But when you’re hanging onto the tail of a Porsche 911 Turbo on a greasy country lane, you probably won’t feel that way.
Should you feel really adventurous, you could disengage the traction control completely, which is a first for any Golf. Fine. But you’ll likely be more interested in the new Hero mode, otherwise known as ESC Sport. If it thinks you’re in control, it leaves you alone and allows a bit of slip and slide… then when you misjudge your angles or get too excited with the throttle, it’ll brake a wheel or power an appropriate one to coax you back into shape. It works off-throttle too, helping to cure lift-off oversteer.
The Haldex diff makes dependable decisions, sending up to 100 per cent of power to whichever end needs it most. And where some diffs can be aggressive, this one’s not. It’s happy to let the front tyres do the initial hard work, then if it detects a little understeer, the rear is awakened after the briefest of thoughts. On hot, dry tarmac this is a fairly subtle process.
With 296bhp, it’s the healthiest of the 2.0-litre turbos. But the extra shove isn’t gained merely from a tweak of boost. The cylinder head, valves, valve springs and pistons have all been beefed up, allowing it to rev higher and harder than the S1 and Leon. Sounds good, too. At low revs, only the inner two exhaust pipes are played. At around 2,500rpm, the outer pair add a little more bass. All the while, an induction amplifier - not an artificial synth - adds a sort of gurgle effect before doing a surprisingly decent V8 impression as the revs pile on. For a four-cylinder engine, it has bags of character.
Perhaps most telling of all is the amount of miles the Golf R did over our time at Castellolí. You can install all the timing gear you like, but ultimately you could rank these cars by the amount of time they spent on track and by the amount of squabbling over the keys. By this deeply unscientific (yet trustworthy) measure, the S1 and Golf are clear winners, with the Leon not far behind. The BMW, despite its charms, spent the most time parked in the pits. If it weren’t for the fact that the S1 spontaneously combusted, it might have gone through to the final showdown. But it did, and therefore it can’t. So the Golf R it is, then. Time to see what’s next on the track…