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Subaru WRX v Volkswagen Golf GTI v Ford Focus ST v Renault Megane RS265 Sport

Can the new breed of hot hatches de-throne the WRX as the budget performance king?

PT13M0S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-39zxq 620 349

The Subaru WRX has set the pace for pocket-rocket performance for the last 20 years.

Its combination of turbocharged power and all-wheel-drive traction made it the default choice for enthusiasts on a budget, and its results on rally roads and racetracks around the globe have cemented it as a cult car icon.

But as customer demands have swung away from large cars and forced the automotive industry to concentrate on smaller, more efficient vehicles, the Rex has gained a suite of rivals aimed at overturning its reign as the king of the kids.

We compare four of the best hot hatches on the market: Subaru WRX v Volkswagen Golf GTi v Ford Focus ST v Renault Megane RS265. Click for more photos

Hot hatch comparison review

We compare four of the best hot hatches on the market: Subaru WRX v Volkswagen Golf GTi v Ford Focus ST v Renault Megane RS265.

With the new fourth-generation WRX landing in Australia recently, we’re keen to find out whether it is still the best way to spend 40-odd grand if you’re after something fast, fun and affordable.

So we’ve assembled the benchmark hot hatches on sale today – the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST and the limited-edition Renault Megane RS265 Sport – to see if a front-driver can overcome its all-wheel-drive advantage.

All four are powered by turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, produce similar power outputs, have six-speed manual gearboxes, cost around the same and are claimed to be as quick as each other in a straight line.

So, let the games begin …

Subaru WRX

Subaru may have tried to distance the WRX from its run-of-the-mill Impreza in this fourth-generation model (removing the Impreza name altogether), but the reality is it treads a fairly familiar path.

That still puts it in a unique position within this contest, as it is the only car here with four-wheel drive and now comes only as a conventional four-door sedan.

Behind its bold new face sits an all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged horizontally opposed four-cylinder that now features direct injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger for improved efficiency and a better spread of power across the rev range. Despite the reduction in capacity from the 2.5-litre engine in the previous WRX, the new motor has marginally greater outputs with 197kW and 350Nm (up from 195kW/343Nm) – making it the most powerful in this quartet.

It is, however, the thirstiest – by some margin – with a claimed average consumption of 9.2L/100km.

Other improvements to the WRX include a six-speed manual transmission (or an optional CVT auto), torque vectoring across its front axle (to apportion drive to the outside wheel in corners), stiffer suspension, electric power steering and more features within its larger cabin.

The end result is the WRX is easier to live with than ever before and, not surprisingly, the quickest of this quartet in terms of acceleration, with a best time of 6.5 seconds to 100km/h during our testing – well down on Subaru’s claim of 6.0 seconds and, despite the mechanical updates, significantly slower than the previous model.

Ignore the numbers though and the WRX still feels feisty underfoot. The new engine is not only smoother and quieter, it doesn’t suffer as much turbo lag as before, with good throttle response and more pulling power from lower in the rev range.

All up, it translates to a much more civilised car at both ends of the driving spectrum. On the road, the suspension is taut but doesn’t feel as crashy as before, the steering is sharp and responsive and the gearbox is more precise.

Those improvements also help on the track too, where the WRX’s torque-vectoring front-end helps reduce – but can’t eliminate – its tendency to push wide at the limit (or understeer) before using its all-paw traction to great effect and rocket out of corners better than its front-drive rivals.

As for the cabin, the WRX has the best all-round vision, there’s good storage and decent space across the rear bench. And while Subaru has made strides in elevating the quality of materials, it still feels – and looks – a generation older than its rivals.

Subaru WRX: Pricing and specifications

Price: $38,990 plus on-road and dealer costs

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo charged 4-cyl

Power: 197kW at 5600rpm

Torque: 350Nm at 2400-5200rpm

Transmission: 6-spd manual, 4WD

0-100km/h: 6.5 seconds

Fuel use: 9.2L/100km

Weight: 1424kg

Safety: Seven airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating

Wheels/tyres: 17-inch alloys, 235/45 tyres, space-saver spare

Renault Megane RS265 Sport

As a two-time winner of Drive’s Car of the Year for the best performance car under $60,000, the Renault Megane RS265 has set some lofty benchmarks when it comes to affordable fun.

With an updated Megane just around the corner, Renault Australia has recently dropped the entry price for the RS265 below $40k for the first time with this limited edition Sport model.

It misses out on some key performance features, such as the mechanical limited slip diff, and comes with a softer Sport suspension set-up. It also loses some conveniences too, with conventional halogen headlights (rather than bi-xenon), manual air-conditioning, no reversing camera or sat-nav, and a tyre inflation kit in place of a space-saver spare.

But it still has most of the good go-fast stuff, with 18-inch alloy wheels, four-piston Brembo front brakes, and race-style Recarobucket seats, and is powered by the same grunty 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder that produces 195kW and 360Nm. The limited edition is the first – and only – Megane RS with a stop-start system, which Renault claims reduces its average fuel consumption from 8.2L/100km to 7.5L/100km.

The French brand also claims it can match the WRX in acceleration, and in our testing it wasn’t far off; surprisingly, it equalled the all-paw Subaru off the mark to 60km/h but was a fraction slower to triple figures with a best run of 6.9 seconds.

In most situations, the RS265 Sport drives and handles just as well as the regular models, with sharp steering, a nice mechanical feel to its gearbox and strong brakes. The ride, however, is the harshest of this bunch, vision and practicality are heavily compromised by its three-door coupe-style body, and the cabin is starting to show its age, with fussy controls for functions like the audio system and cruise control.

The Recaro seats don’t have great lumbar support for long journeys, but are snug in all the right places for enthusiastic driving.

On a quick back-country blast, the RS265 Sport offers prodigious grip and the 2.0-litre engine feels stronger than its rivals, with a bigger surge of mid-range pulling power. But to access the full 195kW you have to first lower the threshold of the stability control system, which isn't ideal; in its normal mode there's a still-healthy 184kW/340Nm to play with.

And push towards its limits on a track, and the engine quickly overcomes the front tyres as it will scramble for grip under heavy acceleration out of the corners. It’s only here, above eight-tenths, that the regular model’s limited-slip differential is notably absent.

Otherwise, for those who don’t partake in the occasional track-day outing, the RS265 Sport offers massive bang-for-your-bucks, and the fact it is the cheapest car in this test by a considerable margin, at $37,990 drive-away, cannot be ignored.

Renault Megane RS265: Pricing and specifications

Price: $37,990 drive away

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo-charged 4-cyl

Power: 195kW at 5500rpm

Torque: 360Nm at 3000rpm

Transmission: 6-spd manual, FWD

0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds

Fuel use: 7.5L/100km

Weight: 1411kg

Safety: Six airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating

Wheels/tyres: 18-inch alloys, 235/35 tyre, inflation kit for punctures

Ford Focus ST

Like the Megane, a fresh-faced Focus will arrive in showrooms later this year. Ford has yet to offer run-out deals on the ST version but its $38,290 (plus on-road costs) starting price makes it the second-most affordable hot hatch in this contest.

For that, you get a decent spread of equipment, including keyless entry and push-button start, bi-xenon headlamps, dual-zone air-conditioning, rear parking sensors and a five-inch colour display with integrated sat nav and Ford’s voice-activated Sync system for calls and text messages.

For all of that, though, the dashboard is busy with myriad buttons and its garish body-colour-matched highlights (in our case bright yellow) may limit its appeal.

The Focus’s Recaro seats, however, are among the best in the business, offering generous support and comfort at the same time, and match nicely to the sporty driving position with its low seat height and raised gear lever.

On the road, the Focus, even though it doesn’t have adjustable suspension like the Golf GTI, has a sublimely balanced suspension set-up that soaks up irregularities better than any other hot hatch. The steering is also a benchmark for feedback and has the most natural feel to its weighting.

Under the bonnet, the 2.0-litre turbo four might only produce 184kW but matches the Megane RS for maximum pulling, with a temporary overboost function eliciting 360Nm across a broader rev range. It doesn’t have a stop-start system like the Megane, but does have more-modern direct-injection cylinder heads to lower fuel consumption to a claimed average of 7.4L/100km.

Ford does not provide a claimed acceleration figure for the Focus ST, but it was the slowest to 100km/h in our testing, with a best run of 7.6 seconds.

That’s surprising because, on the track, the engine feels every bit as strong as the Megane in a straight line and its torque vectoring front-end offers better control under heavy acceleration, helping pull the car strongly out of corners. 

It is also the most playful car of this bunch at the limit, something we explored on the track; its tail is prone to hang out on the entry to corners when the stability control is fully deactivated. It might not be the fastest way to get around, but it has a fun factor the others can’t match.

Ford Focus RS: Pricing and specifications

Price: $38,290 plus on-road and dealer costs

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo-charged 4-cyl

Power: 184kW at 5500rpm

Torque: 360Nm at 2400-5200rpm

Transmission: 6-spd manual, FWD

0-100km/h: 7.6 seconds

Fuel use: 7.4L/100km

Weight: 1454kg

Safety: 6 airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating

Wheels/tyres: 18-inch alloys, 235/40 tyres, space-saver spare

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen lays claim to inventing the hot hatch with its original Golf GTI, and the latest seventh-generation model is the perfect example to showcase the evolution of the entire species.

At $41,490 plus on-road costs, the base Golf GTI is the most expensive of this bunch, but it comes loaded with some modern technologies that can’t even be ticked on the order form of its rivals.

That includes nine airbags, a driver-fatigue detection system, adaptive suspension and options such as radar cruise control with automated city braking and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Even in standard trim, the Golf is extremely well-equipped, with LED ambient lighting inside, dual-zone climate control, reverse camera and front-rear parking sensors and a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen and a multi-mode function that changes the characteristics of the suspension, throttle map and steering feel between Comfort, Normal and Sport.

While the cabin looks and feels thoroughly modern and classy, with high-quality materials, good space and faultless ergonomics, it still carries some retro throwbacks such as the traditional tartan seat trim and golfball gear shifter on the six-speed manual.

All of it is encapsulated in a five-door body  that tips the scales at 1324kg (the lightest car here by almost 100kg) and is powered by an updated version of the previous GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. While it generates the lowest peak power output of 162kW, it trumps its rivals on pulling power, with its 350Nm available from as low as 1500rpm.

The combination of the engine’s dual fuel-injection system (direct at low engine speeds and multi-point at higher revs) and the Golf’s lighter body culminates in a claimed fuel consumption average of 6.2L/100km – the best in this contest – but also a sprint time to 100km/h of 6.0 seconds that puts it on par with its rivals. In our testing, though, the Golf GTI could only muster a best run of 7.1 seconds to come in third.

As for how it drives, the GTI lacks some of the flair and fizz that make its rivals more fun to drive on the track – particularly considering its stability control cannot be fully de-activated – but it is so polished in every aspect, with decent grip, a balanced ride, crisp steering and its efficiency, that you can’t look past it as an outstanding all-rounder.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: Pricing and specifications

Price: $41,490 plus on-road and costs

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo-charged 4-cyl

Power: 162kW at 4500-6200rpm

Torque: 350Nm at 1500-4400rpm

Transmission: 6-spd manual, FWD

0-100km/h: 7.1 seconds

Fuel use: 6.2L/100km

Weight: 1324kg

Safety: 9 airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating

Wheels/tyres: 18-inch alloys, 225/40 tyres, space-saver spare

Verdict

Each of these cars lives up to the promise of providing affordable performance, and each has key strengths and weaknesses.

The Megane RS remains one of the benchmark hot hatches for enthusiasts, and the Sport limited edition offers the same level of thrills as the regular model most of the time, thanks to its grunty turbo engine and lively handling. As the cheapest in this contest, it offers mega bang for your bucks but the limited edition misses out on some important features, most notably the limited-slip diff when driving hard.

The Focus ST is just as quick, playful and rewarding at the limit, and jumps onto the podium by virtue of its better ride quality and more practical five-door body style. But, like the Megane, it can’t be had with an automatic and its fussy, brash interior will polarise buyers.

Separating the final two is a hard task. The WRX has never been better – it’s more powerful yet more comfortable and cheaper but with more equipment than any of its predecessors – and is still the pick of the bunch for grip and acceleration.
But it’s hard to argue against the Golf GTI. It’s not the quickest, or the most fun on the track, but it is easier to live with everyday, has more features, is classier inside, more efficient and, all in all, feels a full generation newer than its rivals.