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The best cars you can buy: hot hatches
Welcome to Top Gear magazine’s round up of The Best Cars In The World. That might seem a trite observation, but after much deliberation, haranguing and three bouts of raised voices, the vehicles we will present to you over the coming week represent the cars that TG magazine would happily recommend to family and best friends, without reservation.
Any of these cars - within their brief - are the best at what they do. They are the TG benchmarks, the class leaders.
There are three loose price points to scale our ambition: an attainable version, an aspiration and a dream.
So, allow us to guide you through the cars you should consider before all else. Today, it’s the turn of the hot hatches…
A good hot hatch is much like a comic-book superhero. Underneath the capes and exo-pants, they’re normal people with places to be and things to do. Sure, they spend their weekends deploying secret powers and flying around all over the place, but pop round on a Tuesday morning and they’ll be boiling an egg or shampooing the dog. It’s all part of the act. Because under the wings and beefy bodywork, a hot hatch leads a normal life like all the other runabouts in the country. Yes, it could trouble a supercar along a mucky lane, but it could also collect a few houseplants on the way home.
This has always been their appeal, and - for the carmakers - it’s an easy win. They’re already making the cars on which the hot versions are based, so it’s not too hard to make them go a bit faster and turn a bit harder. Which is far cheaper than developing a whole new car from nothing. Those cost savings are then passed to us, so not only are hot hatches relatively inexpensive to buy, but when you roll one into a cabbage field, the replacement parts are easy to find and fairly cheap. Just look at the Fiesta ST, which costs £17,250 in its basest form, yet corners more sweetly than some cars costing three or four times as much. We’re looking at you, Maserati Gran Turismo.
It’s just one of the reasons why it’s our real-world hot hatch of choice. Alright, so you could rightly argue that all hot hatches exist in the real world, because that’s the whole point of them. And while the rest of the groupings have a broad spread of prices, hot hatches have a narrower price window from the top of the market to the bottom. Just £15,000 or so, in the case of our chosen three: the ST, Audi S1 and Golf R. But in the real world, and to most of us, that’s an awful lot of money. Which is why the most affordable one matters very much.
But here’s the thing with the ST: you never feel like you’re choosing the budget option. The cabin layout could do with a refresh, but otherwise it’s nicely put together and feels reassuringly Fordy. It also says a lot about the standard Fiesta that it can handle a healthy increase in power without the need for a nuts ‘n’ bolts overhaul. It retains its torsion-beam rear suspension that lets it cock a wheel around hairpins. Obviously it’s a touch harder to reduce body roll and increase grip, but having a chassis that was magic to start with helped a lot. The 1.6-litre turbo is hearty, giving you a good splash of power whenever you need it. The brakes are strong, and allow you to brake deep into a corner while the back end happily plays along. It’s an arrow to the sweet spot of hot hatchery, this thing, and would make sense alongside any supercar in your dream garage.
Now, as they say in marketing-speak, let’s walk up the price points to the Audi S1: our aspirational choice. It’s the smallest quattro you can buy, and - in name, if not true bloodline - recalls the quick ‘n’ grippy Eighties rally car that blew others away with its four-wheel drive and big turbocharger. The idea is much the same here. The S1 might be dinky, but it makes room for a 2.0-litre turbo, a four-wheel-drive system with all the necessary shafts and diffs, plus independent rear suspension, for which Audi had to entirely rework the A1’s rear end in order for the new struts and springs to fit between its slim hips.
That’s a lot of engineering for your £24,900. And it’s not just making do with hand-me-downs from higher up the Audi food chain. Certainly the S1 benefits from all the R&D of the senior stuff - the RS4s and RS6s - but mostly it stands on its own feet. It’s a proper junior quattro, and the most fun an Audi’s felt for ages. And where most other S and RS cars use their 4WD to batter the road and flatter the driver, the A1’s Haldex system is there to lend a hand when you need it, to boost confidence on slippery surfaces. Proper manual ‘box, too.
To the Golf R then, our dreamy hot hatch of choice. Although at £31,970 for a three-door DSG without options it’s hardly a lottery-win fantasy. In fact, that’s within range of the plain old GTI, which for so long was the benchmark of this class. But after years of quietly working on its reputation and building a bit of a cult following, the R is now the go-to choice over its little brother.
This year, we’ve driven it on frozen lakes, on wintry roads, and on a scorching Spanish racetrack. Each time it demonstrated something a bit different. Firstly, the ability to hold comedy slides and dish out torque to the most appropriate wheel without pausing for thought. Secondly, an impressive amount of grip and go - the official figures say the R will do 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds: we timed it to 60mph in 4.5. Thirdly, the sort of character you might not expect from a straight-looking VW. In Race mode, the R even does a good impression of a muffled V8, thanks to a sound symposer that amplifies induction noise for the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine. An impressive repertoire, eh?
This is what makes it the finest hot hatch onsale right now. One of the finest ever. What about the Focus RS and Astra VXR and Megane RS, you say? As good as they were, they arguably turned the hot-hatch game into a silly sport by firing too much power at the front wheels. And their various scoops and wings probably took the superhero costumes a bit too far. The Golf R puts an end to that with more grown-up styling, and proves that - if we’re honest - 300bhp is best handled with a mild dose of 4WD.
You can take it to the garden centre too.
Words: Dan Read
Pictures: Rowan Horncastle
This feature was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine