► Petrol vs electric hot hatch battle
► MG 4 XPower takes on VW’s long-standing Golf R
► Can an EV really keep up?
Deep extra cover. Gully. Long off. Short third man. The words wash into the Golf R’s gorgeous cockpit like soft waves on a sandy beach, obtuse, inexplicable and comforting like the shipping forecast. Cromarty, Dogger.
England are living a rapturous day over at Old Trafford, spanking the Dukes ball to all corners with languid ease as the VW and I leave the motorway and begin the climb into the moors. Just as cricket was forced to mash together words to cover every conceivable fielding position on the pitch, so hot hatches need to do the same, so spectacularly has the breed fragmented. The umbrella term, once used to a cover a pretty specific species of hot-rodded hatch pioneered most notably by the likes of VW and Peugeot, is no longer enough.
The 205 and Golf GTIs, Ford’s XR2i, fast Clios – they all used the same playbook: familiar bodyshell made enthusiast-ready via the anarchic installation of more go, more stop and a little more grip. But we’ve since had rally-ready road cars like the Lancia Delta Integrale and Toyota’s GR Yaris. And while we’ve had the straightforwardly excellent Ford Fiesta ST, we’ve also had the raging, steroidal Audi RS3 and AMG A45 S: Nissan GT-R-inspired all-wheel-drive missiles with interiors that feel like they belong in a car of the GT-R’s price (and in the case of the AMG, the price is right up there). The term no longer means the same thing to all people.
But until we’ve established a suitable classification, VW invites you to escape the chaos with a drive in its triumph of evolution, the Golf R. On a chart defined by two axes, indexed affordable to not and raw to refined, the R has long occupied a very successful bit of real estate up in the top right-hand corner – backward short leg, if you will. Expensive, yes, and about as raw as slow-roasted belly pork, the Golf R feels as distant from the analogue urgency of a Mk1 Golf GTI as does an F-35 from the original Wright Flyer. Where the Japanese in particular have pursued outright performance and driving purity with the same zeal with which Adrian Newey stamps out aerodynamic drag and any chance of his cars not winning, the R has long since established a more grown-up remit – fast without the furious.
At speed, the powertrain somnambulant in Comfort, this test car’s optional Akrapovic is muted and the level of whisper-quiet cabin refinement quite spectacular. My old Peugeot 205 XS would blaze at 5000rpm in top at 70mph. Broaching 90mph felt as edgy as atmospheric re-entry in a portaloo with a broken door latch. By contrast the R would cruise at 120mph were such things permitted, and were you in Manchester and suddenly tasked with delivering it to Marrakesh you’d go without a second thought.
And by the time you reached Morocco you may even have made peace with the VW’s infotainment system. Bits of it are quite clever, like the multi-tile screen that presents a number of handy shortcuts. Or the shortcut to lane-keep deactivation, achieved via a push of a button on the end of the indicator stalk and a confirmatory push of ‘OK’ on the wheel. But the touch buttons along the bottom of the touchscreen frustrate given that’s where you naturally rest your hand when you make inputs, meaning you inevitably turn down the volume accidentally. They simply don’t work as well as a twirly knob or a pair of arrows on buttons, up and down (the more intuitive MG approach). You swipe and prod until you’re close to your ideal, then you give up because half an hour’s elapsed and you should probably look at the road.
The menus too are baffling in their unsuitability to life on the move. The various assists are toggled on and off not via a list (the more intuitive MG approach) but on a screen that presents a cute isometric drawing of the Golf on a street scene. Nothing’s labelled, so it’s up to you to work out which bits of this diagram are interactive, and what they actually control. All while you’re moving through a world of immovable objects and squashy, fragile organic forms at a rate of 30 metres per second or more. Oh, and dialling back the level of stability control support is under ‘Brakes’. Obviously.
Whatever. A 1976 Golf GTI is likely a better example of human-centric design than this 2023-spec R in more ways than is really acceptable. But a 1976 Golf GTI never went over these wild roads like the R can, their slopes, bends, bumps and ripples monstered by this thing’s jaw-slackening combination of grace, pace and very welcome margin for error.
So very different is the driving experience when you switch modes that it’s worth investing some time in getting familiar with them. Fortunately that infotainment team – now presumably living out its days in a Wolfsburg basement for which even the notion of a key has been lost – excelled itself here, so long as you’ve chosen the R Performance package. Just hit Special, the ’Ring-ready setting. It brings the powertrain out of its coma with no lasting ill effects while keeping the dampers pliant, the better to deal with white-knuckle German toll roads. And lumpy British tarmac. ESC to Sport or Off – never has that decision come with so little anxiety – and you’re good to go.
So deftly calibrated is the all-wheel drive that squirting 316bhp and 310lb ft of turbocharged torque to the road is a complete non-event, even when the Yorkshire rain comes on like a Bornean afternoon storm. Performance and response are dull and inconsequential below 3000rpm. But as the crank and turbine gather speed your rate of acceleration soars, from benign to ballistic. So linear and perfectly manicured are the VW’s thrust curves there’s never any sense of the engine coming on boost, just a seamless transition from not much acceleration to plenty.
And fast though the R is, it feels like it could be so much faster. The chassis and powertrain are so across things that 450bhp likely wouldn’t bother it, let alone the MG 4 XPower’s 429bhp. Start to fly across these lumpy, yumpy all-action moorland roads and the Golf presents no argument for not simply flying faster. The damping and roll bars work with oily perfection to maintain a surreal level of body control while also soaking up hits with impudence. The brakes – a vast pair of floating, ventilated and cross-drilled front discs leading the charge – are sublime, with power, progression and feel enough to shed speed like our portaloo-based lunar module splashing down in the cool waters of the Pacific.
Layer in faintly ludicrous levels of grip, a powertrain that, once properly set up, never threatens to power the front axle to understeer, and a balance so sweet and well communicated that it makes all of this limit-nudging kinetic drama feel about as risky as making a pot of tea without a tea cosy. You simply can’t drive the R in anger and remain unimpressed. Yes it’s expensive by any reasonable measure of these things (my reference points, likely like yours, are horribly outdated), and yes the (even more expensive – told you) Civic Type R is more exciting. But if making the difficult easy is a measure of greatness, truly the R is great.
Right now it’s also invisible. This place’s wild serenity has just been shattered by the arrival, with a blood-curdling squeal of very hot brakes, by a coach full of Dutch tourists. They dismount in a heartbeat and are instantly everywhere. But mostly they’re around the MG 4 XPower, resplendent in Dynamic Red under a suddenly clear blue sky.
‘We have the magic bus,’ one woman grins. ‘It rains while we’re driving and when we stop, sunshine!’ One chap pulls a phone from his pocket and scrolls through for a picture of his MG: a B, in red with delicate chrome. ‘It took me six years to find a good one. This looks wonderful but maybe don’t lean on it too hard – you might break it!’
Cynics might suggest the seven-year warranty (three years/60,000 miles on the VW) is as much a reflection of the depth of SAIC Motor’s pockets as its faith in the 4’s longevity, but there’s nothing (bar the flimsy caliper covers, fitted to make them look special) to suggest the MG 4 XPower is in any way fragile. There’s also little to suggest that this really is the new XPower version of the much-loved 4. You remember the 4 – the rear-drive electric hatch that, upon arrival, felt like a Ford Focus-esque moment in time – an unlikely but welcome confluence of affordability and driving enjoyment. It sits oddly high on 18-inch wheels, presenting heavily treaded and EV-optimised Bridgestone Turanzas to the tarmac and giving no clue as to its potency.
The XPower adds a second electric motor for all-wheel drive and, in the now familiar EV style, sends performance skyrocketing: 429bhp and 443lb ft of torque are numbers virtually incompatible with the slightly dumpy monobox hatchback that sits before you, as is 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds. Another astonishing number for you – from £36,495. That’s less expensive than VW’s most basic ID.3, less expensive than the (bigger) Tesla Model 3 and less expensive even than Abarth’s electric 500, which is some 280bhp down on the MG and can summon barely a third of its twist.
Like a gorgeous Tokyo speakeasy with a perfectly innocent looking door up on the street, the XPower is much nicer within than it is without. Nothing about the exterior design hangs together for me, least of all the XPower-specific performance signifiers. But climb in and the news just keeps getting better. It’s refined at speed (except for a rumble like a 300,000-mile taxi, almost certainly a foible of this particular car rather than an XPower issue generally) and the infotainment system is infinitely more intuitive than the Golf’s (though it becomes noticeably laggier during our time with the car – can screens get screen fatigue?). I can get comfortable in the 4, too, which both 6ft 2in Jake and 6ft me struggle with in the R. In the Golf I can sit right or see the driver’s instruments, not both, and Jake is forced to choose which pair of limbs to make comfortable.
Just as the Golf’s modes engineer a huge amount of versatility into one car, so the 4’s sliders let you adjust the XPower to better suit your needs. In Energy Saving and Eco you can cruise at 3.4 miles per kWh on A-roads and high 2s on the motorway. Driven thus the raging performance is entirely hidden from view, the numbers to annihilate a 360 Modena hidden in the belly of a metallic red Trojan horse.
But right now we’ve range to burn and a Honda Jazz – nature’s safety car – holding us up. Ramp up the modes and the MG 4 XPower’s accelerative bombast is quite something. We round a curve, revealing a short straight. The moment my brain makes a decision we’re past; past like we’ve manipulated spacetime, and with only the mildest tug of torque steer. Later, on the drive home, we’ll come up behind gaggles of commuter cars and groaning trucks on. And the 4 will leapfrog them all like Alonso on new supersofts and an offset strategy.
And when you have the road to itself? You’ll monster it, sure – the XPower’s raw speed and decent enough grip will ensure that. But this is no Golf R. The brakes have none of the VW’s fidelity or power, the body bobs, heaves and rolls with far less control and there’s both less outright grip and less nuance to the way in which the MG cedes that grip. In the R you smear about the place, digging into its power from deep within each corner to come firing out, squirting and squirming and whooping and hollering. The MG is less keen to overlap braking and turning, or turning and accelerating, and ultimately less able to cling on, the nose washing into understeer where the base 4’s rear-driven balance is infinitely more rewarding.
Is the era of the electric hot hatch upon us? On this evidence it is not; yet. Think of the XPower not as an MG 4 R but as a tidily priced power upgrade; £37k might be £10k up on the base car but it’s only a £5k premium over the Trophy Long Range 4, the car that bowled us over a year ago. Just be sure that it’s power you want. Because as with BMW’s i4s, the rear-drive 40 and the all-wheel-drive M50, ‘upgrading’ to the faster, all-wheel-drive version means more money for less range (the XPower’s rated at 239 miles WLTP versus 270 for the Trophy Long Range), compromised efficiency (3.27 miles per kWh officially versus 3.7 for the rear-drive car) and a chunk less driving fun.
And all of this was before MG announced the 4 Extended Range. Basically the same price as the XPower, but with a claimed range of 323 miles.
Given the XPower isn’t even a great MG 4, let alone a great hot hatch, it’ll come as no surprise to learn it can’t lay a glove on the R. Wildly powerful it may be but the XPower is comprehensively outclassed as a driving machine. And classy though the R is, in some ways it’s something of a soft target – the all-wheel-drive Golf isn’t the last word in tactility, and a Civic Type R, GR Yaris or Fiesta ST would throw the MG’s fuzziness into even sharper relief. So, there’s work to do. The truly great electric hot hatch will surely come (Hyundai looks closer than most), just as MG might some day find the compelling performance car buried deep within the 4. But for now the XPower isn’t that car.