War has been declared on the Korean peninsula. Sick of the pomp and bluster of its ancient foe, South Korea has ditched diplomacy and unleashed firepower. No, Seoul’s military hasn’t aimed a nuke at harmless tubster/Psy impersonator Kim Jong-Un. This is far bigger: Kia has at last manned up to bully-boy Volkswagen and its all-conquering Golf GTI, and responded with a hot hatch of its own. This could be a defining moment in 21st-century politics. Proof, at last, that the automotive world’s latest superpower has had enough of playing honest, unglamorous Baldrick to VW’s Lord Flashheart. The Pro_Cee’d GT is here, and all hell will be unleashed. At least, it will be if the Pro_Cee’d is any good.
To find out, TG has engaged the two sides in combat on the neutral, expendable wasteland of… south Wales. A day of whanging around the empty, sunny Brecon Beacons, and we can say this much for sure: the Pro_Cee’d is gunning for the GTI on the GTI’s own turf. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, VW’s cheeks must be burning red, for the Pro_Cee’d follows the Golf’s established hot-hatch template with slavish devotion. Both pack a four-cylinder turbo - the Kia’s 1.6 making 201bhp; the Golf’s 2.0-litre, 217bhp - and both send their power to the front wheels through a six-speed manual as standard, though our test Golf gets the optional six-speed DSG. Both ride politely, absorbing Britain’s uniquely disfigured roads with a fluency unimaginable to the bruising Megane RenaultSport or Vauxhall Astra VXR. If we’re being picky, the Golf is sprung a margin harder than the Kia, but is damped with a touch more sophistication. Truly, there’s not much in it.
If cars were dogs, not only would Crufts be far more entertaining, but both these would be more golden retriever than Doberman: predictable, approachable, no chance of either taking a nip at your heels. But that’s OK: if you want rampant torque steer and to rapidly develop a morbid fear of potholes, have an Astra VXR. On-the-throttle adjustability with a controllable dose of oversteer? Ford Fiesta ST for you, sir. Both the Golf and Kia are hot hatches for the mundane everyday as well as the wild Welsh weekend. They’re sober on the inside, too. The Golf’s cabin, as ever, is achingly professional: the tartan seats are lovely (though mounted a touch higher and a little less supportive than the Kia’s Recaros), the dial clusters ape the face of a posh diving watch, the touchscreen infotainment as good as it gets short of a top-end BMW. The Pro_Cee’d’s cockpit is similarly understated - save for the excellent turbo and torque meters on its TFT central display - but isn’t executed with quite the same annoying excellence. Again, not much in it.
But, dig a little deeper, drive a little harder and differences start to wheedle their way through the cars’ controls. The Golf steers a mite sweeter than the Kia, and stops sharper, too. The brakes are the Kia’s weakest suit, the pedal travel a trifle long and soft. In the VW, every control is in neat harmony, with plenty of confidence-inspiring initial bite to the brakes. Forget the sausage-waving 250bhp-plus outputs of Astra VXR and Megane RS, both Kia and Golf prove 200-odd horsepower is enough for Britain. Both engines are lag-free and pull hard, but again it’s the GTI that nudges its nose in front. You barely notice its extra horsepower - hell, what’s eight per cent between friends? - but you do notice its broader, freer spread of torque. Most of all, you notice how much better disposed the VW is to rev up and back, loose and light where the Kia’s engine feels sticky, as if coated in jam.
However. That optional DSG undoes much of the good work of the Golf’s powertrain. Not that the waggly-paddle double-clutcher is anything other than a fine technical achievement, flipping gears in the blink of an especially fast, blinky eye, melding anonymously into the scenery when you want it to play auto. But even in sportiest, fastest-shifting, cling-to-the-highest-gear-for-as-long-as-possible mode, the DSG still isolates you from the car’s mechanical workings, puts a subtle yet unmistakable barrier between driver and oily bits. The Pro_Cee’d’s straightforward stick-shift is infinitely more satisfying, as is the Golf’s standard manual.
While we’re on the subject of unnecessary technology, an honorable mention to the Golf’s electronic handbrake, which is frankly unforgivable. Why do we need this innovation in any car, let alone a fast one? Have you ever, riding in a car with a proper handbrake, thought, “If only this lever weren’t here, I’d have much more room for my dozen Krunchy Kholesterol Donuts”? E-handbrakes are rubbish for handbrake turns, and if you can’t do handbrake turns, what is one supposed to do with a hot hatch in an empty gravel car park? Park?
Here’s a mark of how very competent the Pro_Cee’d is: faced with an empty, twisting road across, say, the Brecon Beacons on a sunny summer’s day, we’d be as happy to be thrown the keys to the Kia as the Golf. It grips hard, feels neatly balanced, changes direction with light-footed ease.
As does the VW. Drive them anywhere short of reckless stupidity, and it’s tough to squeeze a cigarette paper between the two hot hatches: only when you chuck the Kia into a blind hairpin at silly speeds do you discover a mite of understeer and roll as grip gently fades from the front wheels. It’s very predictable and far from terminal, and only really highlighted by the Golf’s almost freakish ability to keep finding purchase, no matter how much speed you pile in with, no matter how sharply the corner tightens. That’s thanks, at least in part, to the Golf’s XDS+ electronic faux-differential, which pinches the inside front wheel almost imperceptibly to keep the front end nosing in. The first wave of electronic diffs could be clunky at times, but this is as delicate and unintrusive as they come. Spend £980 on the GTI’s Performance Pack upgrade, and you’ll get not only an extra 10bhp, but also a mechanical front diff. I’m not sure you’d notice the former, while the latter seems unnecessary unless you’re planning on spending a lot of time on track with your Golf GTI, and how many Golf GTI owners are really planning to spend a lot of time on track? On the road, the standard e-diff is more than enough.
So. Optional flappy paddles and daft electronic handbrake excepted, the Golf has the subtlest sheen more polish in every department. But that tub of polish doesn’t come cheap: the VW starts just short of £26,000, while the Kia - smart alloys, Recaros and all - costs six grand less. Which is a lot. The VW badge on the nose accounts for a chunk of that difference. TopGear does not wish to idly reinforce stereotypes or ill-held prejudices, but we must face reality: when your friends ask exactly which hot hatch you ended up purchasing, you’re going to get a more appreciative reaction from “Golf GTI” than “Pro-underscore-cee-apostrophe-dee-space-gee-tee”. Six grand of cachet? Good question.
And, you know what, the Pro_Cee’d’s relative lack of posh, its hint of lean in the corners, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After a couple of days in the Golf, it dawns what it reminds me of: the McLaren 12C. This may, I realise, sound daft, what with the Golf having three more seats but four fewer cylinders and some 400 fewer horsepowers. But both share imperious engines that seem somehow exempt from the traditional custom of exploding hydrocarbons and churning pistons, that appear to convert fuel into forward motion without any of that messy suck-squeeze-bang-blow nonsense. And, moreover, both do an astonishing job at insulating you, in the driver’s seat, from the dirty, complicated science involved in getting a lump of metal down a road and round corners at great speed. But such insulation, such steely professionalism, comes at the cost of plugging you right into the driving experience: in both Golf and 12C, you’re always aware that you’re the most fallible, weakest component in a pitilessly unblemished set-up.
No, the Pro_Cee’d GT isn’t quite Ferrari 458 to the Golf’s 12C, but still, there’s fun to be extracted from the Kia’s slight imperfections, satisfaction to be gained from adapting to its foibles. This is a tricky line of logic, for if you wholeheartedly adopt the worse-is-better philosophy, eventually you will end up declaring a rusty 1.0-litre Daihatsu Charade a finer car than a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Which, even through TG’s warped spectacles, is a tough view to defend. But, specifically in the world of hot hatches rather than, say, luxury saloons, isn’t the odd rough edge sometimes a good thing?
VW, I suspect, would not regard its car’s lack of rough edges as bad. The GTI has never claimed to be anything other than a consummate all-rounder, never wanted to get its mitts dirty mixing it with the oikish Astra VXRs of this world. And, more than ever before, the Golf’s awesome range of abilities make it a strong contender for best all-rounder on the planet.
Eventually, it comes down to what you want from your hot hatch. If you want fast, serene progress, the Golf remains the hot hatch of choice, arguably the car of choice for Britain. But if you want a well-judged, not-quite-flawless fast hatch - and, importantly, 6,000 one-pound coins in your back pocket - the Pro_Cee’d is a mighty compelling substitute. VW has had seven generations and nearly 40 years to perfect its GTI formula: from a standing start, the Pro_Cee’d gets damn close. Given South Korea’s capacity for relentless improvement, imagine how good Kia’s next hot hatch will be. VW might have won the battle, but this is just the start of the war.
Pictures: Joe Windsor-Williams
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine