► CAR's 2020 hot hatch megatest
► Toyota's GR Yaris takes on all comers
► Ten contenders, only one rises to the top
ID.3, new M3 – 2020's given us some big new cars. But the really high achievers are a class of outstanding new hot hatches. Ten precocious talents, one winner...
Meet the hot hatch heroes
The benchmarks: VW Golf GTI, Hyundai i30N and Ford Focus ST
Conventional, yes, but ordinary? Hardly. Every new Golf GTI matters, but few have mattered more than this one, the eighth generation of Wolfsburg's fast, affordable and fun original. Myriad rivals have muscled in on its premium turf, and if this generation of Golf is to go down in history as one of the greats, its GTI needs to do the business at the keen end of the market.
Threatening the evolution-on-the-outside, jury's-out-digital-revolution-on-the-inside VW are Ford's evergreen Focus ST, still a startling lesson in handling fluidity and accessible performance, and the just-tweaked i30N, an evolution of the 2017 original, a car that was both the very first N car and the first Hyundai we desired rather than just admired.
VW Golf GTI
Powertrain 1984cc turbo four-cylinder, six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 242bhp, 1390kg, 6.4sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Price £33,000 (est)
Powertrain 1998cc turbo four-cylinder, eight-speed DCT, front-wheel drive
Performance 276bhp, 1429kg, 5.9sec 0-62mph (est), 155mph
Ford Focus ST
Powertrain 2261cc turbo four-cylinder, six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 276bhp, 1508kg, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
The elite: M135i, AMG A45S and S3
Audi's always loved a full complement of driveshafts, but an M-badged BMW and an AMG with transverse engines and all-wheel drive? Truly these are unprecedented times.
The BMW and AMG have already clashed on these pages, and the win went to Affalterbach. Lairier, livelier and blood-curdlingly quick, how could it not? But the M135i is a low-key lesson in high achievement, and perhaps its quiet brilliance will shine brighter second time around. Audi's brand new S3 is more M135i than A45 S on price (thank heavens), power (shame) and character. But Audi's been in this game the longest – hell, Toyota even shipped over an S1 for dissection when developing the GR Yaris. Surely experience counts for something?
Powertrain 1998cc turbo four-cylinder, eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Performance 302bhp, 1525kg, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph
AMG A45 S
Powertrain 1991cc turbo four-cylinder, eight-speed DCT, all-wheel drive
Performance 415bhp, 1635kg, 3.9sec 0-62mph, 168mph
Powertrain 1984cc turbo four-cylinder, seven-speed DCT, all-wheel drive
Performance 306bhp, 1500kg, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph
The wild ones: Mini GP and Civic Type R Limited Edition
How the Civic Type R remains the benchmark hot hatch four years into its existence is one of the perennial questions of this universe. It is not quite business as usual for 2021, however. Honda's buffed its multiple title winner and taken the opportunity to turn out a Limited Edition. Very, very limited (100 for Europe, 20 for the UK) and, on paper at least, appalling value for money. For a fiver under £40k the LE brings Sunlight Yellow paint, forged wheels (part of a 47kg weight reduction) and fairly serious Cup 2 Michelins. Less refined and more focused, it's a Type R Type R.
The Honda also makes the third-gen Mini GP (575 coming to the UK, and already a five-star superstar in our book) look like a bargain.
Powertrain 1998cc 16v turbo four-cylinder, eight-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Performance 302bhp, 1255kg, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 164mph
Civic Type R Limited Edition
Powertrain 1996cc 16v turbo four-cylinder, six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 316bhp, 1333kg, 5.8sec 0-62mph, 169mph
The freaks: Cupra Leon PHEV and GR Yaris
The doodles on my A-Level exercise books had a recurring theme; a series of sketched blueprints for a Peugeot 205 only a little bit like the Peugeot 205 I owned at the time (a red XS). The creation I drew again and again was mid-engined and four-wheel drive, like the T16, but with a BMW straight-six mounted longitudinally behind the front seats. It was far-fetched, but the Yaris GR is only slightly less far-fetched. All-wheel drive and with a bespoke 1.6 turbo triple, the Toyota's been created to boost the brand, inspire its hybrid-weary engineers and form the basis of a WRC contender. Sound promising? Oh yes.
The Cupra is just as freaky; a hot hatch with more than 30 miles of e-only range and puddle lights like tribal tattoos. The future?
Powertrain 1395cc turbo four-cylinder plus e-motor, six-speed DCT, front-wheel drive
Performance 242bhp, 1596kg, 6.7sec 0-62mph, 140mph
Toyota GR Yaris
Powertrain 1618cc turbo three-cylinder, six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Performance 257bhp, 1280kg, 5.5sec 0-62mph, 143mph
The hot hatch megatest
Think you know hot hatches? Time to think again.
'Junction improvement' isn't the most poetic pair of words in this extraordinarily beautiful language of ours, but recently my nearest junction of the A1(M) was transformed so completely as to be as close to poetic as a stretch of tarmac can reasonably be expected to get.
Braking off the motorway you're into a flat, medium-speed left-hander that then swings the other way before curling uphill and arcing 180° to soar over the dual carriageway you just exited. The AMG A45 S changes direction with an almost shocking agility and neutrality (helped along by selective brake-tweaking and the car's ability to punt torque to the outside-rear wheel) and then you're into the meat of the corner. Fully loaded mid-corner (in the A45 S, with its decadent rubber footprint, that's not dawdling) you decide to play with the throttle – of course you do; you're all-wheel-drive curious. For decades one fact has remained constant: that should you elect to climb clumsily back on a hot hatch's throttle mid-corner, one thing it will never, ever do is squirm from the back. Sod; entropy; diminishing returns – these laws are immutable.
But as you play wah-wah on the Mercedes' equally decadent turbocharged four, that's precisely what happens. The car's carrying just about as much corner speed as it can stomach and, now that you're trying to pour more power into the mix, the AMG's four-wheel-drive system, relaxed Sport ESC setting and over-achieving engine (415bhp from 1991cc!) are working to smear its hard-working rear axle benignly, usefully and thrillingly out of line. In an A-Class!
Instinctively you open the steering, relishing both the potency of the forces at play and the delicacy and cohesion with which the car's systems – mechanical and electronic – have been integrated and rendered intuitive. Foot to the floor now, the A45 S piles on so much speed so quickly (at 1635kg it may be heavier than some Pacific islands but it's also so powerful that, at 254bhp per tonne, its power-to-weight ratio is ahead of stripped-out, 'lightweight' rivals like the 241bhp-per-tonne Mini) that your guts heave with a transient weightlessness. (You'd need a CS version of the outgoing M3 to match the A45 S's 3.9sec 0-62mph ferocity.) The driving experience is by turns all-consuming, awe-inspiring and – appropriately given it's an AMG – more than a little intimidating.
Certainly there's no point running to this Yaris for a comforting hug of normality. Like the AMG, the GR Yaris is all-wheel drive and uses an engine – a turbocharged 1.6-litre triple – with a faintly outrageous specific output (some 159bhp per litre, to the AMG's 208). But in execution the two couldn't be more different. One is a complicated, endlessly adjustable and rather portly premium warhead; the other a motorsport-bred freak of a thing that delights in toying with your preconceived ideas of what it is, how it might drive and the appeal of the concept of Yaris ownership.
Three years in the making and championed within Toyota from the top, by Akio Toyoda, you can well imagine how the GR (for Gazoo Racing, Toyota's motorsport arm, now with just the three consecutive overall Le Mans wins to its name) came to pass. All day long Akio, a car guy to his core, is in meetings discussing the industrial giant's like-handbrake-turning-an-oil-tanker transition from car maker to 'mobility provider'; its seismic shift from engines to EVs, and from all that Akio holds dear to fuel-cell buses. It's the right thing to do: of course it is.
Then 6 o'clock rolls around ( ...you just finished wipin' your car down... sorry, I lost you for a moment there – Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's Summertime) and Toyoda clears his diary, locks the door behind his last guests for the day and pours a round or two of liquid refreshment, Mad Men-style. The subject of the meeting? A skunkworks, homologation-special Yaris with four-wheel drive, a manual gearbox, a one-off 1.6-litre turbo triple making more power than the Golf GTI's 2.0-litre four and a bodyshell so distantly related to that of the standard Yaris Charles Darwin would insist on classifying it as another species. And Akio is happy again.
Climb into the Toyota and you'll be happy, too. Clues that you're in something special run to – but don't end at – the stubby, purposeful action to the six-speed 'box, a rotary drive-mode controller incongruously pinched from Lexus and a heartfelt plea from the driver's display to go easy on the engine until it's warm; the latter suggesting a powerplant of tight tolerances, immaculate breeding and high performance.
The contrast between the overwhelming mundanity of much of the cabin and the very special oily bits beneath is unsettling, like climbing into an Apollo command module to be greeted with the controls from a Cessna. But if, with its swathes of cheap black plastic and its bum-basic displays, the GR feels a world apart from the slick, wide-screened tech-luxury opulence of the AMG, rest assured the Toyota is also nothing like as expensive. The Toyota costs £33,495 with the must-have Circuit Pack, which brings front and rear Torsen limited-slip diffs, a more purposeful suspension tune and Pilot Sport rubber on diddy lightweight forged BBSs.
Crank the seat down, run out of downward travel about four inches early and, just as you're about to register disappointment, remember that you're in a Yaris, not an engineered-from-scratch sports car. First mile and the steering's entirely slack-free, the pedals nicely weighted and the gearbox a simple but sublime pleasure. The car is also, clearly, tiny, which makes it lighter (relative to the other machines here there's less of it, which in part explains how Toyota's managed to engineer-in four-wheel drive and still be close to the mostly empty Mini on weight) and faster cross-country, given you're both less worried about what might be coming the other way and able to drive your own lines within your side of the road.
First few corners and the spring, damping and anti-roll bar rates all feel at least twice as relaxed as the AMG's, a reflection of the facts that the two cars are both some 400kg apart and very different in the way in which they go about their business. Free now on Lincolnshire's tangled, yump-strewn B-roads, the Yaris's engine finally warm, we're able to make compelling progress on a 1000rpm slug of midrange between 3000rpm and 4000rpm. Torque – or, more specifically, the combination of torque and low weight – helps make the Toyota feel as weightless as the brittle orange leaves cartwheeling by on the breeze, and as you work the engine harder the noise becomes increasingly fabulous, the deep low-rev warble going full bandsawn-sheet-alloy shriek as you head to the redline with increasing frequency and fervour.
Now the Yaris GR experience goes full immersion. On warm Michelins turn-in is effortless. The brakes – while not quite as outright race-car tight as the Honda's – aren't far behind, and you work your way up and down the equally sensual gearbox with quick, deliberate movements. Push harder, launch the Toyota at corners like you're on a special stage and use the powertrain to do with the car what you wish. A little throttle steadies it up mid-corner as consistently as a kick of the same tucks the nose and conjures a helpful slip angle. And all the time you're aware you're working not so much with electronics – with cold lines of code and with sensors – as with mechanical systems, the analogue immediacy and predictability of that interplay sending your confidence through the roof.
Doing the same is the suspension, its supple set-up bringing with it a wealth of advantages, from an ability to soak up big hits and corrugated tarmac with equal disdain through generous ground clearance (you need never slow down, regardless of how fierce the crests and dips ahead) to a miraculous talent for finding grip. The Michelin Pilot 4s' gum-like ability to stick is matched only by the predictability of their surrender to slide. And if 257bhp sounds thin, know that in a 1280kg car this compact it feels anything but. As unlikely and as amazing as the fact that the GR Yaris exists in the first place is just how fast and fabulous it is to drive.
Peaks and peak hot hatches
Overnight we trade the Cadwell curves of Lincolnshire for the Peak District, complete with toboggan descents, vicious unsighted turns and power-sapping climbs. Overnight we also charge the Cupra. Yep, charge it.
Are we convinced, yet, of plug-in hybridisation's place in performance-car engineering? Some PHEVs are fast – very fast – and a couple are very good (mostly the Porsche Panamera), but every single one still leaves you wishing you could try the car without the weight of its battery pack. And generally the smaller the car, the less sense a plug-in hybrid powertrain makes. When, recently, I asked a BMW M engineer why the brand new M3 wasn't hybridised, his answer was pretty matter-of-fact: 'The technology is not at the level we need it to be at right now. Just imagine the car having another 100kg that you must pull through the corners – it's not worth it yet.'
Clearly, Cupra thinks differently. The numbers are promising if you're looking for a quick, handsome family car (a 36-mile electric range); less so if you're looking for a properly fast and involving hot hatch (148bhp 1.4-litre engine, 113bhp e-motor, a combined 242bhp and 295lb ft, and 0-62mph in 6.7sec, though a 1596kg kerbweight pegs the power-to-weight ratio back to 152bhp per tonne).
Ahead, the treacherous Woodhead road snakes upward like a hillclimb course. Behind us, the grey, shimmering reservoir; ahead, the bleak Holme transmitting station high on the ridge. Foot hard on the synth – sorry, throttle – pedal (the fake noise, like an old V8 played through a vocoder, is very odd), the hybrid powertrain's potent enough to send the dash twinkling and the tyres shimmying with wheelspin. The e-range indicator plummets but the Cupra – combined electric and turbo torque masking the car's weight – feels anything but slow.
The chassis has its strengths, too, with the suspension travel and compliance to brush off lumpen roads like this one. But the car rides curiously high on its wheels, giving a sense of disconnect and forcing you to drive numb, working the decent steering and strong grip levels to cover ground at speed. As with the last-gen Golf GTE that 'd' word – disconnect – applies to the Cupra's powertrain too, its machinations meaning that you and the car are rarely on the same page, and sometimes barely in the same library. Even in the sharpest Cupra mode downshifts can take up to a second to arrive, effectively ruling out the option of dropping a gear to pull you into a tightening corner, frustrating your attempts to gel with the car. One day soon, I'm sure, the idea of a hybrid hot hatch won't be oxymoronic. But we're not there yet.
Did someone say moronic?
Pass me the yellow Type R, then. Honda's wrought a number of detail changes to its benchmark hot hatch for 2021, many of them the kind of thing Porsche and BMW do to create more focused versions of their mainstream cars; faster-acting adaptive dampers, increased negative camber, low-friction ball-joint coatings, stiffer rear bushes for better control under duress and reduced unsprung weight thanks to lighter two-piece brakes. These changes apply to the full line-up but Honda's also created this, the Limited Edition. It will remove £39,995 from your joint account and in return bless you with a 47kg lighter Type R mounting Cup 2 Michelins on forged BBS wheels handily stamped FORGED so you don't forget. Just buy a normal Civic Type R and fit the Michelins, you say? Well, indeed.
Like the best sports motorcycles, the Type R drives with a spooky and speed-breeding dichotomy, its powertrain rabid and all-action while its steering and chassis move in a kind of waking dream of calm control. The Honda's seats and driving position are perfect. The gearbox is perfect. The engine is pretty much perfect and – AMG aside – the strongest here. The steering – good on the standard car – is sensational here, thanks to the geometry changes, the alcantara wheel rim (yummy) and the more serious rubber. The brakes are perfect simply because there are no words that imply greater brilliance. Get the idea?
Take the time to warm the tyres – and to settle on intermediate Sport mode (Type R+ is a firecracker but sets the dampers to full concrete; how we wish you could mix and match) – put your brain in a little jar to be looked after by a friend while you're gone, and go. Unerringly stable yet surreally agile, the Honda cooks up a powerful high of grip, tactility, poise and unrelenting performance. As exciting and as physical as the AMG, as involving as the Mini and as accessible and as forgiving as the Golf, the Type R Limited Edition is a bewilderingly brilliant car.
The Honda oozes with the kind of right stuff the M135i so conspicuously lacks. It doesn't look like a purposeful BMW and neither does it feel like one. The seats lack the Honda's low-set positional perfection or their deadly serious lateral support. This exacerbates the sense that you and the BMW bob about too far above the action to feel in any way immersed in it, and the body's occasionally unchecked movements do nothing to banish that sensation. With the drive modes dialled up there's a degree more compliance than the Type R's dampers in Sport but nothing like the meaty reassurance of the Honda's steering, the kick of its power or the sublime satisfaction of its sense of connection. Dumbly effective xDrive means there's nothing rewarding about feeding in the power – just clog it. Contrast that with the Honda, on its Cup 2s, where wet traction is something to be carefully sniffed out with hoarded tyre temp and a millennial-sensitive right foot.
Wet conditions flatter the BMW generally, its all-wheel-drive traction and sheer ease of use working well in these low-mu conditions. Knock back the DSC, push harder and... absolutely nothing happens. The M135i's pig-headed, almost Paxmanic refusal to get out of shape is deeply impressive, if a little disappointing if you loved the exuberant oversteer of the larger than life rear-drive M140i.
Undeniably fast and effective, is this BMW fun? Rewarding, even? Not really. The experience is as synthetic as the engine noise, and soon you long to be back in something more alive, more rewarding.
Something like the i30N or the Focus, for example. Brothers from different mothers, the Hyundai and Ford have so much in common you'd swear they share DNA (they don't). Price and power are comparable (the revised i30N makes an identical 276bhp; there's also a meeker version, but the UK won't bother), and the view from the driver's seat spookily similar; chunky steering wheels with multi-function spokes, stuck-on infotainment screens, supportive and heavily padded sports seats, burbly turbo fours that do a good job of sounding like something exotic and motorsport-bred.
I don't get the i30N first time around. In full-bore N mode there's an abruptness to the suspension – an almost painful lack of give – that threatens to undo the car. A shame, since the i30N's arsenal of strengths is compelling: huge grip, strong straight-line speed and an unwavering front axle almost feverishly keen to respond to your inputs. Indeed, fail to warm the rears sufficiently and the lift-off oversteer is as spectacular as it is intuitive to catch.
The Ford's very similar, though more pliant and with cleaner steering, if less outright grip, certainly in the wet. The Focus also scores highly for its beautiful clutch and gearbox (you can have your i30N with a manual; ours has the perfectly serviceable DCT).
I'm about to give the Ford a nod when I discover two things in the i30N: 'Sounds of nature, Lively forest', a blissfully chilled audio option that contrasts hilariously with the Hyundai's exhaust explosions on the overrun; and the screen that lets you customise your N drive mode using a spider chart of multiple parameters – diff, steering, suspension, powertrain. Knocking the steering back two notches, and the suspension back one, transforms the car. Now, the steering freed of its cloying weight and distracting inconsistency, and the suspension given a new lease of life, the i30N's every inch the tool it looks like in stealth battleship grey.
Want to make a Mk8 Golf GTI feel ordinary? Hop into it straight from the Mini. This test's only two-seater is a fickle, highly specialised diva of a car. Cutting cross-country on claustrophobic and bumpy lanes, their surface still shimmering from the last downpour, the GP's almost undrivable; hesitant gearbox, non-existent traction and the kind of clonks from the suspension that have you worried parts of the car might be falling off.
Then, moments later, on a faster, smoother and rapidly-drying sequence of uphill sweepers, the Mini's absolutely sensational; body control to die for, hardwired car-to-driver comms, direct steering, serious power.
Sitting oddly upright – wheel in your chest, senses jangling on high alert – you and the rapid rack work to keep this torque-steering projectile on the straight and narrow, giddy on the car's conspicuous lack of mass and giggling with glee every time you get things right: a corner exit nailed right on the cusp of rampant wheelspin; a particularly devilish uphill right-hander dispatched with an arcing line, huge speed and a smidge of lift-off rotation to set you up for the exit. Oh yes.
And the Golf? It'd be bothering the podium were we looking for the most all-round-capable hot hatch. But we're not. Down on power (and with an effective but ultimately unexciting flat torque curve) and 'blessed' with the least slick manual gearbox here (awkward knob; long-throw shift), the VW is simply too refined for its own good, with a layer of insulation between you and everything it does that dulls the fun. Fingers crossed the imminent Clubsport is the car we're waiting for.
Until then the Mk8 remains one of the standout Golf GTIs, and a deeply talented hot hatch. The e-diff conjures remarkable traction and the DCC chassis control slider gives the car a bandwidth – from plush GT to taut corner-carver – that beggars belief. But in the course of these two days it's routinely ignored in favour of more exciting machines.
If it's a Golf you want, you should try Audi's. Just as BMW decides to make a fast hatch entirely unlike any it's made before, Audi has stuck to its time-honoured template and delivered a corker. Yes, this is still a very Audi kind of fast car, with easy-to-access performance and through-the-roof feelgood factor. But it is not some numb and aloof isolation chamber in which to understeer your way around the place.
Climb in and gasp at the sensational cockpit. A low autumn sun is now bathing the moorland in a rich amber light, and as it floods into the S3 it plays across a space of stark, geometric Apple-design-meets-Death-Star cool. Beautiful finishes vie with ultra-crisp displays for your attention, and you can't help but love the crank-me-low driver's seat, purposeful flat-bottomed wheel and sweet little Porsche-esque drive toggle.
Effortlessly carving downhill, the Audi serves up plenty of easy speed, big smiles and admiration. Ultimately it's nothing like as adjustable as the Yaris or the A45 S, preferring instead dogged neutrality, towering grip and a sweetly judged passive suspension set-up (you'll need the Vorsprung version for adaptive dampers) that combines endlessly reassuring body control with a ride quality that soaks up almost everything.
Think you know hot hatches? A hugely enjoyable all-wheel-drive Audi is further proof it's time to think again.
We three kings: the verdict
Given its £56,570 price it'd be easy to dismiss the Mercedes-AMG as an irrelevance. But to do so would be an act of unforgivable ignorance given the towering achievement the A45 S represents. The engine is the most obvious facet of its appeal, but really the ultra-fit turbo four is only the beginning. Yes, the Merc is Porsche money, but there's so many layers to it – so much to get to know, to work with and to learn to exploit – that it represents an almost uniquely appealing long-term proposition in this company.
The interior is so many cuts above the other cars here (Audi excepted) it's like having a Bentley in a group test of vans. Much has been written about its complex and fiddly infotainment, but the truth is there's so much going on here, from track timers to almost infinite set-up options, that it was never going to be simple – and if you can work a smartphone, you'll get your head round the AMG within the hour.
Then there's learning to get the most out of the thing; configuring the car, trying different techniques, analysing its behaviour – and all while having the kind of high-performance fun nothing else here has the power to match. It has to bag the bronze medal.
Silver goes to the Honda, though weep not that the Limited Edition is all sold out. The 'normal' Type R remains the front-drive hot hatch at its very best, and you'll be able to bolt on a set of the LE's Cup 2 Michelins for a lot less than the yellow peril's price premium.
So, the Toyota grabs gold. Don't get me wrong – the GR Yaris won't be for everyone. It's a Yaris, for one. At £33k its cabin quality sticks in the throat like a planet-sized furball, and the high-set seats are a real shame. But helping you get over both is the truth that this is one of the most exciting hot hatches in years, a laudably oddball creation so rich in driver appeal you'll be sneaking out for Sunday-morning drives like you haven't for decades.
Essentially – and unexpectedly, it has to be said – the GR is everything this magazine celebrates. It's compact, relatively lightweight, gratifyingly mechanical, delightfully accessible and endlessly satisfying – and you change gears with an actual manual gearbox.
Weirdly, in the way it drives the Toyota calls to mind Lotus, to whom it still supplies engines. The GR Yaris moves like a Lotus; with a beguiling lack of mass and a bright sheen of compliance and control to make it a weapon on hairy B-roads.
The Toyota's punchy, characterful engine and fabulously intuitive, exploitable all-wheel-drive system just add further weight to the argument that this is one of Japan's truly great performance cars, and the pre-eminent modern hot hatch.
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