OUR LIVES ARE defined by hero moments. Whether it’s to earn the respect of our mates, impress a total stranger or just to show off in front of the opposite sex, we do stupid things in our passage to adulthood. Sometimes they involve Jägermeister, other times the brave and foolish path will lead to a random tattoo parlour, or worse, a chintzy wedding chapel. But if you are anything like us and have petrol coursing through your veins, it will culminate in your first purchase of a hot hatch. Choose wisely because unlike a poor choice of spice on your Nandos chicken burger, hot can be a much more uncomfortable experience to live with than five minutes nursing a flaming tongue. With these three sizzling new performers, choosing just got a whole lot tougher.
SPICY HOT: Honda Civic Type-R Championship Edition
The Honda Civic Type-R is a true peri-peri performer. The Championship (white) Edition now benefits from a limited-slip differential (correcting a major faux pas on the 2008 model), helping elevate glue-like adhesion to completely unflappable levels. The ice white spray job, also new, is the pièce de résistance, bringing the hatch in line visually at last with its Type-R predecessors. Other upgrades include an MP3 player and iPod compatibility, but these are wasted because all you’ll ever want to hear from Honda’s hardcore hatch is that engine singing to the 8200rpm redline. And you can do it in virtually every gear with little effort, because the Type-R features a bulletproof K20 powerplant mated to Honda’s revvy i-VTEC camshaft system. It’s like this: in a normal double overhead camshaft setup you have a manifold cam and an intake cam responsible for controlling valve lift and duration. When the VTEC equipped engine is done with the torque-seeking phase up to 5200rpm, a high revving profile is engaged which casts a magical spell on the engine and makes the next 3000rpm pass by in a blur. Not the most technical of explanations, but it goes some way to describe the effervescent nature of the Type-R.
To experience it one really needs to clamber into those deep R-badged bucket seats where you’re rewarded with Honda’s futuristic racer-style cockpit, complete with multi-tiered dashboard and an assortment of groovy gizmos. Select your favourite driving position using manually operated levers and rails, nudge that weighty aluminium ball into the gate, pin the clutch and with your right foot build those revs to a meaty three or so thousand rpm … and release! The revs soar with superbike urgency, the exhaust note screams and an instant later you’ve crossed the VTEC threshold. At 5200rpm you’re slammed with a boost in acceleration as that sporty profile kicks in, and the pitch of the screaming four pot heads for super soprano. A shift up at 8200rpm is signalled via a set of LED lights on the dash, just in case you weren’t listening to the banshee under the bonnet. Honda do love their LEDs. They even have one to signal that you’re in ’TEC mode.
Meanwhile you’re slotting home the gears, each time with a resounding thud, your left hand never venturing too far from the lever as it requires constant stirring from the driver to keep the plot in the sweet spot.
The R features a torsion beam rear axle as opposed to the more complex double wishbone of its acclaimed predecessors, though this does nothing to hurt its handling prowess – certainly not on the twistier bits of the urban commute for which it is destined. Its normally aspirated lump manages a healthy 148kW but the torque figure of 193Nm is low compared to the turbo assisted rivals. Regardless, and thanks to our testing at coastal altitudes, we still managed to clock an impressive 6.9 second 0-100kph time. Overall the Type-R is the most engaging drive here – perfect for working up a sweat. Yes, it’s tiring, but only in a newly-wed sort of way.
THE MILD OPTION: VW Scirocco 2.0 TSI DSG
Let’s face it, the latest Golf, albeit brilliant, bears a tragically familiar face. Combine that with the fact that VWSA does not ship them in two-door guise and the Scirocco is suddenly a very attractive alternative to everyone’s beloved champion hatch. Smart move for Volkswagen, as it means still keeping bums in a VW. With those conically contorted 18 inch Interlagos alloys at each corner, set much further apart than on Golf, and resplendent in white, the Scirocco easily matches the Type-R for drama. Sure, it replaces samurai-slash bodywork with softer, exquisitely formed swoops and swellings, but with that blacked-out frontal visage the Scirocco manages to summon up an equal portion of aggression. It misses out on the iconic GTI badge, but boasts the same motor as the outgoing GTI, and derives big benefits from that wider track, lower stance and perhaps the sexiest profile to emerge from Wolfsburg since the brand’s inception. The DSG gearbox fitted on our test vehicle enabled us to post consistent 0-100kph times of 6.9secs, using every ounce of the 147kW and 280Nm at its disposal. In Sport mode the DSG is a perfect foil for hero moments and rapid paddle-actuated shifts. The rest of the time it can be set for normal cruising, a task at which it excels.
Hop into the leathery confines of the cabin, which borrows heavily from EOS, and the differences in approach between the German and Japanese marques is starkly apparent. Where Honda has gone for a whole new menu, the Veedub exudes class with sporty overtones. Instantly familiar ergonomics are a great help during acclimatising. It’s a fantastic place to sit, here in the grips of the Recaro buckets and clasping what is essentially last year’s GTI steering wheel. Engage S for Sport via the DSG wand and simply pull away; effortlessly and tidily each time. The chassis is engaging, though not as communicative or as pointy as the Type-R. The electronic buffers seem to take a back seat, reigning you in only when you’ve managed to make a royal mess of things. Measure steering and throttle inputs and you’ll flow from corner to corner with the fluidity of a circuit car. Wait for the road to open up and the DSG will drop a cog or two and upload its power reserves – running out of steam at 233kph, says VW. Keep the throttle nailed home on the upshift and the overrun rewards you with a bark from the exhaust. Change down snappily and the electronics supply a similarly heroic rev-matching blip. It’s addictive, if not particularly environmentally friendly, and nor will this behaviour help you achieve the claimed 7.6ℓ/100km consumption figure. What it does indicate is that you’re on the limit – a state you’ll find yourself in, quite a lot. However, unlike the Honda experience, in the sporty VW you won’t feel compelled to push it every second you’re in the driver’s perch. Rather, the Scirocco offers a great compromise between comfort and performance. Backing off is an option. In the Type-R it is surrender.
LEMON AND HERB: VW Mk6 Golf GTI
I despise complacency, which is why I initially (and wrongfully) billed the Mk6 GTI as a lazy attempt to stay ‘in the game’. This is not the case, as we discovered on Kyalami circuit last month where the car proved to be more than a tweaked Mk5 – though you might still accuse it of being a GTI perfected. The engine is an evolution of the outgoing 1984cc turbocharged unit doing duty in the Scirocco 2.0 TSI, with power increasing marginally from 147 to 155kW. Curiously top speed remains the same, as do the 0-100kph figures. We achieved a 7.1sec run with our six-speed manual test unit, getting close to but not quite on the pace of the edgy Type-R.
More significant is the debut of XDS, VW’s trick new electronic differential. It’s linked to the EPS system and cleverly uses the vehicle’s braking system to redirect power to different wheels in order to enhance overall grip and add to the appeal of what was an already accomplished chassis. Visually the new GTI shares an outline with its predecessor, using more sharply faceted headlamps and tail clusters to signal the new generation. And yes, they’ve recycled the 18 inch ‘Detroit’ alloys, a feature we loved on the original but which should have stayed with the original. Surely VW, it’s high time for something else? Apart from the roof, every body panel is new. Too bad the cleaner lines are only apparent when you park up alongside a Mk5 GTI – an opportunity you’ll definitely have considering how many are on our roads.
Inside, it’s a different story. Ergonomics might be similar, but the quality of materials and overall design has been markedly improved. The effect is to take once humble Golf to new levels of premium on par with the peers from Ingolstadt. Twist the engine to life via a traditional key (no start button nonsense here) and the GTI purrs on idle. Hey, it sounds familiar too. Prod the throttle and it sounds hauntingly similar to the Scirocco. Clutch in, slot first gear home on that precise gate, squeeze the throttle and with just a chirrup of wheelspin the GTI begins its attack on the horizon. The exhaust note is refined, almost soothing, and manual shifting means you’re not being treated to the sound of the four-pot clearing its throat at the upper reaches of the rev range. Instead you’re served silky smooth performance – a far cry from the manic Honda drama. The GTI is marvellously composed when the ribbon of tar turns tricky, lulling you into a rhythmic pendulum effect as you exit one turn, enter the next and repeat. The electronic diff brakes in the absence of your better judgement, and even on particularly tight bends, after climbing on the brakes and hauling the car out of shape, it stayed remarkably flat with bags of traction on hand to pull it back into line. Dynamically the GTI continues to punch above its weight, yet with its four doors and ultra safe manners, it contrives to be practical in ways similarly capable machinery can only dream of.
The term ‘hot hatch’ has become a bit of a misnomer in recent times. Manufacturers, and buyers, have shifted the focus from the ‘hot’ aspect towards everyday practicalities. If performance is your passion, then the Civic Type-R pips both Volkswagens with a real race-car experience. It offers up scalpel-like precision for carving up apexes and a sound that screams ‘race me’, even when you’re parked at the petrol pumps. And you’ll be there often. Drive the Type-R in the manner that it relishes and it’s a thirsty beast. But as much as I love it, the R is just not a practical animal. It’s a seriously compromised machine that’ll compact the spine of lesser drivers and shake passengers to jelly – especially those unfortunate enough to occupy the rear.
The Wolfsburg duo match the Honda on paper in terms of performance (despite its quicker 0-100kph time, the Type-R was half a second slower around Killarney circuit), while still offering a good dose of luxury. The Golf’s four doors are a plus, because unless you’re a bachelor or bachelorette, or just very selfish, you will need them. But scooch on closer and I’ll let you in on a little secret. The GTI badge is no longer an indicator of VW’s hottest performers. Instead, racing models will take the ‘R’ moniker as previewed by the VR6 badge and cultivated on the R32. That ‘R’ might echo the red one on the Civic, but don’t expect threadbare interiors. VW will be affixing this badge to a FWD Scirocco and an AWD Golf in the not too distant future, along with seriously hiked power outputs, tweaked chasses and a price premium to match.
But that’s then, and this is now. If supersonic performance is not a prerequisite, and you enjoy the feedback of a well put together sports hatch, you’d get your thrills from any one of these three cars. But if you want to be a hero, take the Honda