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Top Gear’s ultimate hot hatch test…

  1. A private test track to call our own. Good weather. Occasional food and water. No phone signal. And the best hot hatches on sale. And that’s it. No intrusions, distractions or anomalies (well, there was one…) - just a day to find out which of these four is the greatest hot hatch.

    Words: Ollie Marriage
    Pics: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature first appeared in the October issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. As cars to live with and enjoy, they have it all: power, speed, practicality, acceptable running costs, quality. You might already know which one you want, and that’s fine. You might have decided you like the Megane best because it jumps the highest, and that’s fine, too. All that matters is that you care about these cars and keep an open mind.

  3. I say this because the first car I want to talk about is the Vauxhall Astra GTC VXR. Now, the old one was a nightclub bouncer of a car, brash and charmless. But things have moved on since 2005, and we’re now in the realms of new Vauxhall - shapely Vauxhall. There isn’t a shapelier car here than the GTC VXR, nor one with a more comprehensively reworked set of underpinnings (a mechanical differential and the nifty HiPerStrut suspension).

  4. It’s entirely different and yet the same. You see, it weighs 1,475kg, and its 2.0-litre direct-injection turbo sports 276bhp. These are both big figures in a realm where bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. It also has a crass gearknob. These things matter. Nevertheless, it is closest in concept and execution to the Megane RS 265 - and that’s no bad thing, given how highly we rate France’s best export. Like the Astra, the Megane (here with £1,350 Cup Chassis pack) treads a tentative path towards coupedom.

  5. It’s sleek and has PerfoHub suspension to help it cope with the recently uprated 261bhp engine. These two contrast heavily with the Focus and Golf. I’ve no idea what Ford was thinking when it took the decision to offer the ST only as a five-door or estate, but I’m guessing the absence of a racier three-door is down to something prosaic, like money or sales forecasts. But it does have a stand-out selling point, and it’s not 247bhp. It’s £21,995. The Astra starts at £26,995, the Megane £26,040, and although you can pick up a Golf for £25,650, this one is a £27,895 Edition 35. So, buy the Focus and save yourself five grand. Job done.

  6. Of course, you don’t actually buy the 22k Focus, because you want some tasty bits. So what we have here, once trim levels have been selected, option packs added, satnav, Bluetooth and bigger wheel boxes ticked, is actually a £28,315 Focus. It’s also the only car here that costs less than 30 grand. Wonder at the £30,095 Astra! Marvel at the £30,415 Megane! Be unsurprised at the £31,795 Golf-that’s-not-an-R!

  7. And yet none of them is bad value. A hot hatch is not a vacuous purchase; these are cars that have to help you live your life and be fun to drive. That’s an important distinction. And the reason why we didn’t just come to a test track and stropfang around for a day while shutters clicked and video whirred. No, we also took each of these cars home, fed and watered them, inserted small people and big bags into them and covered many miles. Here’s what we learned…

  8. They all do 30mpg or thereabouts if you drive them like they demand to be driven. You can get 37mpg out of the Golf if you try hard, but not the Astra. They all have load bays big enough to take four people’s luggage. You can fit roof racks and tailgate bike racks (though I’d worry about tightening a strap over the VXR’s optional double-deck rear spoiler).

  9. The Astra also has a plastic sill spoiler under the nose that scrapes on speedhumps. The Golf, with its upright windows, is the easiest to see out of. The Megane suffers most from road noise, and is the most likely to get small children excited (this may have more to do with the red stripe on the wheels than anything else) plus it has the best keyless system of any car. The Focus has brilliant pop-out door protectors. These might just be the best £50 you ever spend on any car. You can’t beat them either, no matter how fast you slam the door.

  10. The Astra’s thickly padded front seats don’t tip far enough forward for easy access to the back, although, once you squeeze through the gap, there’s a deceptive amount of space. The Golf and Megane have the simplest, most readily understood switchgear lay-out. The Astra’s clumsy interior design jars horribly with the sculpted exterior, and its centre console is even more button heavy than the Focus’s - albeit marginally easier to get on with. Ford, no doubt your upgraded Sony system has many features, but the screen is too small and the controls entirely illogical. #Frustration.

  11. Vauxhall still hasn’t learned that steering wheels are better if they aren’t weighed down by fake chrome inserts that creak when gripped hard, nor Renault that a cupholder needs to be more than an inch deep to be of any use in its title role. Sorry, this is going on a bit, but these are the things you pick up on when you drive these cars every day and, due to the mountains and molehills principle, can make or break your enjoyment every bit as ably as the way they drive.

  12. Last one: the seats, because all have great seats (the Ford’s are the best) and fine driving positions (although it would be nice if the Megane’s steering wheel wasn’t tilted away at the top edge).

  13. Look at the bigger picture, and what’s clear is that they’re all very manageable and habitable. None has a miserably harsh ride, savage clutch or obnoxiously noisy exhaust. Instead, they’re pleasant, capable and, well, so they should be.

  14. After all, they stem from mainstream hatchbacks - the most conservative, carefully thought-out, thoroughly R&D’d and proven group of mass-market cars there is. No one in that class does well with a duffer, and the transformation wrought to turn them into hot hatches isn’t too invasive.

  15. So here we are at Millbrook, a test track with… possibilities. Those include a mile-long straight, a two-mile banked bowl, inclines, declines, cambers, curves and some country roads. With nothing coming the other way.

  16. Actually, this might work in our favour. I throw the Focus keys into the ST, and he stalks after them. The Ford also contains our test gear. It’s a match made in heaven. As far as I can deduce, Stig appears to be eyeing the little box lovingly - digital communication is clearly occurring. That’ll keep him from nibbling the Transit’s tyres. A moment later, there’s a roar, tyre smoke and a rapidly disappearing Tangerine Scream Focus. I momentarily feel sorry for it.

  17. But it’s not like any of these cars aren’t up for the fight. Take the Astra. Yes, with its brief bonnet and gorgeously crafted style lines you might think it’s now too pretty to be a hot hatch. The 20in wheels (included in the same £995 package as the additional bodykit bits) say otherwise. Just be warned that VXRs on lesser wheels do look rather anaemic.

  18. So, go for the big ones - your spine won’t mind because the Astra’s been to finishing school. It rides with dexterity, no matter which mode you choose (there are Sport and VXR buttons on the dash that sharpen suspension and throttle).

  19. The 245/30 tyres should kick up a fuss, but they don’t. Time to recall that it weighs 1,475kg, a good proportion of which must be sound deadening. That would explain why the 100kg-lighter Megane is that much noisier. Being so much lighter it’s also buffeted about a bit more, but this isn’t a distraction; it’s just that the ride is more positive.

  20. But RenaultSport knows more about setting up and honing a hot hatch than anyone, which is why the 265 is never uncomfortable, just informative. It’s this constant stream of feedback which distinguishes the Megane from the other cars here. Most notably the Golf, which tries hard to keep a lid on any surface unpleasantness. This is to be expected. The GTI is the everyman hot hatch - the leafy suburban side of performance motoring, socially acceptable and purposely pragmatic. Its brilliance comes from what happens when you go beyond a nominal 50 per cent, when you start to take an interest in the road ahead.

  21. Because then the Golf proves itself to have zingy throttle response and a set of road manners that belie the 1,401kg kerbweight and tall body. It reacts crisply to inputs - more so than the Focus, which has almost oversharp steering to go with its more compliant suspension, or the Astra, which has the opposite problem - super-direct chassis, springier steering.

  22. What I’m getting at is that, in some ways, the Golf GTI has better natural rhythm and is less artificially enhanced. And it’s capable of going fast - it’s only when really pushed to the limit that it starts to feel heavy and unresponsive. Plus, it has a gem of an engine, one that gets up and goes almost as eagerly as the Focus’s and has a broad spread of usable power. Only 232bhp? I’ll bet it’s not the slowest to 60mph, as it has a considerably quicker gearchange than either the RenaultSport or Vauxhall, both of which have shifts they should be ashamed of. That’s worth a few tenths, right there.

  23. Not that that has any real relevance. Let’s face it, no matter what numbers Stig presents us with on his return, we’re likely to be splitting hairs over which is the fastest. In reality, on the road, on your way to work, whatever, they’ll all be able to reach the same speed off such-and-such roundabout or do the same overtakes.

    I’m not so sure about the Astra, though. Its engine has a big turbo to produce all that power, but a big turbo has more inertia. The result is that the Astra is slow to respond. Hit the gas in any of the others, and they’re gone (brief pause to gather itself from the Megane, almost none in the other pair), but the Astra takes its time. Although, once it does, you’re quite often startled to find how fast you’re travelling…

  24. But, even then, the performance is two-dimensional. The gathering hit of acceleration is just one big puff (admittedly accompanied by the addictive hollow blare of exhaust gases), neither note nor force changing much as the needles whip upwards. Compare that to the Megane, which is more like a naturally aspirated car in its delivery, surging for the 6,500rpm red line, rather than backing off, knackered, at 6,000rpm.

    All in all, the VXR’s engine isn’t as good to use as it should be, although partial blame can be laid with the daft gearing. Who needs a car that’s capable of 100mph in third gear? Better, surely, to be a sprinter like the Focus.

  25. What I admire about the ST is that no matter what it’s just been put through, it’s clearly had a whale of a time. The brakes are smoking and the engine is pinging as Stig exits and stalks towards the cowering Golf, and yet there’s something of the Mo Farah about the new ST. It has energy and vitality.

    It’s also blissfully easy to drive with a light clutch and superb low-speed manners, so you then tread on it, and it snaps to attention in an instant. Heads up, boys, here I come. It’s a simple car, this Focus, and delivers simple pleasures.

  26. This is just as well, because when you start to analyse it, a few things come to light. Chiefly a lack of traction and abundance of torque-steer. The ST has neither the limited-slip differential or clever front suspension design of the Megane and Astra. Both were fitted to the old Focus RS, but they’ve been ditched here for cost reasons.

    So you punch the power, and the steering wheel wriggles and shrugs, and the ST wanders off line. It’s actually sort of charming, and at least you know the car is busily working away. You have to live with it in the wet, but, in the dry, you can get round it by being smooth and progressive. However, while that’s what the GTI and Astra respond best to, the Focus is that bit more scrap-happy. Sounds awesome, too, all toothy induction note. It really loves corners and rewards you for having a proper go at them. That sharp steering pitches the soft-yet-controlled body in hard, to the extent that it’s often the rear wheels that give way first. The ST is easily the most tail-happy of these four and is, in fact, the
    only one that really enjoys a bit of lift-off oversteer.

  27. The Megane is too professional for such time-wasting showboating. It’s the one car here that feels track sharp from the moment you open one of the long, light doors to when you bring it to a halt using the firm, hard brakes. Ooh, it’s so good, this Cup version. It won’t be for everyone, it doesn’t have the rounded persona of the Golf or Focus, but if your hot-hatch-buying criteria list starts with driving purity, then this is the car for you. It has the best steering, the most responsive chassis and delivers more feel through more places than the others. The RS is tight and sharp - as much serious sports car as hot hatch.

    The Astra mimics it in places, because, despite its flaws, it knows how to get round a corner. Nothing here has more grip (but, then, nothing has wider tyres) and the chassis’ ability is beyond doubt. It’ll dig deeper than either the Golf or Focus can manage and acquit itself well in the process. The problem is that this polished, capable, composed chassis isn’t a good communicator. There’s less seat-of-the-pants feel than in the Renault, and the steering is, well, unsatisfying.

  28. Don’t get us wrong - the new Astra VXR is a very fine car. It’s a Vauxhall that you’d like to be seen in, one with a deft, lithe chassis and a real turn of pace. It has talent this car, but also a few weaknesses and seems to take itself a little seriously. In this company, that’s enough for us to have it last. Bronze goes to the Golf GTI. This is a car that - unlike the VXR - scores consistently high marks across the board. It might well be the best to live with day in, day out, but it’s not a proper bobby-dazzler. In truth, it’s barely a step up from the old MkV GTI.

  29. RenaultSport knows its audience. Has done for years. This experience means no hot hatch drives better - it’s a blast from start to finish, a hardcore charger that’s refined enough to live with. And has yellow seatbelts. Then there’s the Focus: such value (easy on the spec), such everyday ability, so good-natured. But the ST’s secret, the reason it wins this test, is about fun. It’s not as naturally talented as the Megane, but it’s the best at getting the party started. And that’s what matters.

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