Where did 2019’s affordable hot hatches go?
Hot hatchbacks normally arrive at Speed Week as the underdogs. The worthy ones with the big boots where we keep the melted chocolate bars. This year, the shopping trolleys are out for blood. A £35k fast Ford, a Mercedes A-Class that’s more powerful and expensive than a used Ferrari 360, and a Renault Megane without satnav, holes instead of foglights and priced to fight a Porsche Cayman GT4.
Sure, the last A45 was a record-breaking nutter, and Renault’s no stranger to emptying out a Megane, but this feels like the moment when hot hatches really got gentrified. These cars take themselves seriously. So shall we. No getting bogged down in monthly payments or sweet spot semantics here. Which is the most heart-zappingly exciting hatch, period.
Words: Ollie Kew
Photography: John Wycherley
The Focus ST is better than the last one in almost every way. The ride no longer gives your brain tinnitus, it doesn’t piss away three quarters of its power through untidy wheelspin and use what’s left over to torque-steer the wheel clean out of your hands.
This is the first fast Focus ever that hasn’t borrowed an old Transit’s seat mounts, so the big, bolstered seats don’t require their own oxygen supply. The dashboard’s from a pound shop, but you sit correctly and the wheel and gearknob feel pleasingly chunky. Meanwhile, Ford was so busy bolting in a new electronic front diff, a satisfyingly snickety gearbox and coding loadsamodes that it totally forgot to do anything special with the bodywork, so the result looks identical to a Focus ST-line diesel. No fake exhausts, though, and you can still have it in orange.
Ford proudly admits that the mission objective for this new Focus ST was to create a car with the egg-you-on, stag-do sense of humour of the spectacular Fiesta ST, in a bigger, more comfortable shell. It has brilliantly succeeded. The steering is hyper-quick, the nose is nailed to your trajectory and the rear is mobile, agile and wants to play around at mini-roundabout speeds. It sounds fruity inside, but sociable outside. Stick it in Sport mode with a jab at the steering-wheel button and away you go. It’s all very well judged.
Problem is, Portimão is a grown-up circuit, and it’s hot enough to sear a steak on the bonnet. After a few laps chasing the hardest-cored hatchbacks Germany and France can forge, the ST’s legs start to go. The bespoke tyres, which offer a perfect blend of grip and giggles on the road, start to smear wide. The brake pedal retreats toward the carpet. It gets scrappy.
Ford always said its ST models were supposed to have the personality of a dolphin and the RS was more of a shark. This new ST is fabulous – it’s the car of the entire Speed Week group I’d sprint for if the flight home was cancelled. But, against these two, it’s not so much a dolphin as a Jack Russell in a piranha tank. And £35k with special paint, a head-up display and a glass roof – to give a real-time demo of the power of the greenhouse effect – really stings, even with the heaps of standard equipment. Which brings us tidily to the Renault Megane RS Trophy R.
These carbon-ceramic stoppers are hilariously overspecified. It practically does an endo when you mash the middle pedal
You know the drill here: no back seats, a roll bar you’ll hope never to test, bucket seats with harness belts, JD Sports stickers and sticky rubber. Previous stripped ’n’ ripped Meganes have been as fabulous to drive as they are painfully nerdy to explain. But the new one takes the mickey. Ever wondered what would happen if a gang of engineers locked the marketing team and all the accountants in a store cupboard and set off to build a fantasy hatch? The Megane Trophy R Nürburgring Record Pack is the answer.
You can scoff at tweaks like the 1.8-litre engine’s F1-inspired ceramic turbo bearings, or the smaller touchscreen that saves a laughable 250 grammes. But there’s no arguing with the intent of ceramic brakes that barely squeeze inside the carbon wheels: a twin-pack of optional extras that saves 18kg and costs £20,000. On top of a £50k base car.
That price is nigh-on unforgivable, so just imagine how good this car is to stand a chance of rising above mere numbers. It succeeds by swamping your brain with an information overload. This car deluges you with the good stuff immediately. The lightness, the stiffness, then the exceptional turn-in. Actually, that comes after you’ve had about three stabs at the braking point. These carbon-ceramic stoppers are hilariously overspecified. It practically does an endo when you mash the middle pedal. You’ll shout at yourself to brake later, but chicken out before the car every time.
Fair play to Renault for realising four-wheel steering was a stupid idea that spoils the normal RS Megane and binning it here. The car’s much more trustworthy now. Not to mention 40kg lighter.
Most of the great hot hatchbacks, besides Golfs, prey on your deep-buried yearning to be immature and cock around. The Trophy R does that by, bizarrely, being a very serious piece of kit. You have to forget about the horrid stickers, bonkers price and the silliness of using a five-door shell to create a two-seater. Admire the heat-haze dancing out of the carbon bonnet. Watch the whole panel flex as you grab a load of kerb. The exhaust pings like shrapnel in a gunslinging shootout. I can’t wait to hear about these things arriving on track days to a pit lane of Pistas and Performantes. It’ll be a massacre.
You approach the Megane frowning, “There’s literally no way this can be worth £72,000”. Once you stagger back out of it to retrieve the fragments of your recently blown mind, you think: “Holy heck, that was sensational. But it bloody well should be.” Later on, Chris Harris will clamber out muttering that it’s a “little rally car”.
The words he offers having vacated the Mercedes-AMG A45S aren’t printable on a family website. In fact, most of the day, swearing emanates from the Benz’s spangly cabin as driver after hapless driver grapples with its screens, touchpads, modes and settings. This car has two rev-counters, for goodness’ sake. And that complication is what irks. You don’t just get in this car – the world’s most powerful hot hatch – and go for a fang. You tweak and you fiddle and if it doesn’t then do exactly what you want on the exit of the next bend (basically, a naughty little slide in Drift Mode), it’s extremely annoying.
Most of the day, swearing emanates from the Benz’s spangly cabin
I like the A45S. I like that its highly strung engine has lots of turbo lag and its torque-thwack builds gently. I like that when you take it out of Drift Mode and just drive it rapidly, it feels more neutral and playful than an Audi RS3. It’s easier to muck about in than the old Drift-Mode Focus RS because the driving position is better and it’s an auto, so both hands stay on the wheel. It’s better at settling down and just being an A-Class than the old A45 too.
It could be a winner to live with, especially once you’ve spent a weekend holed up in the IMAX cockpit armed with the instruction manual and a playlist of YouTube tutorials. In the heat of the day, it feels heavy (it is heavy) and over-synthesised after the Megane, but during a cooler evening thrap it’s accurate and devastatingly fast. It bends you to its will, forces you to drive it how the ingenious rear clutches, energetic gearbox and boosty motor want to be driven.
You can impose yourself on the simpler Focus and Megane, but the A45S has its own techno-missile appeal. It’s just not the fourth-gear powerslide hero the marketing tweets insist it is.
The Focus is the best-value car here – another stellar fast Ford. The AMG is a wacky piece of electrical programming rowing with some very clever engineering. But the Megane is one of the all-time great track-spec road cars, and if you want a version with all the carbon, you’re too late. Only the £50k base Trophy Rs remain up for grabs. It makes no sense, it’s totally over-the-top, and it’s unjustifiable. The perfect underdog for our time.
FORD FOCUS ST
Engine: 2.3T, 4cyl, 276bhp, 310lb ft, FWD
Performance: 0–62mph in 5.7secs, 155mph
Power to weight: 183bhp/tonne
MERCEDES-AMG A45 S
Engine: 2.0T, 4cyl, 415bhp, 369lb ft, AWD
Performance: 0–62mph in 3.9secs, 167mph
Power to weight: 268bhp/tonne
RENAULT MEGANE RS TROPHY-R
Price: £72,140 (£51,140 minus Carbon Pack)
Engine: 1.8T, 4cyl, 296bhp, 265lb ft, FWD
Performance: 0–62mph in 5.4secs, 163mph
Power to weight: 227bhp/tonne