16 Dec 2014

The Curious Case Of The Exceedingly Hot Hatchbacks

Today's cars are not only driven by market forces but by legislation. European emissions rules have meant that our cars are lighter, cleaner, more efficient and produce more power per cc than ever before. The advance of technology, and some very clever engineering, has meant some niche cars are becoming ever more powerful. Enter the super hatch.

2015 Audi RS3
2015 Audi RS3

Not that long ago a hot hatch struggled to produce 100bhp from a 1.8 litre naturally aspirated engine. Turbocharging added a few more bhp but the hatchbacks on which the hot versions were based got heavier and relative performance hardly advanced.

In 2002 the Focus RS was launched - it produced 212bhp from a 2.0 turbocharged engine. In 2004 the Mk5 Golf GTi turned the clock back for VW, it was lighter and more powerful than the Mk4. The Mk2 Focus RS was launched in 2009 and produced 301bhp from a 2.5 turbocharged engine. The Golf GTi Mk7 has 198bhp from a 2.0 turbocharged engine - no more than its Mk5 predecessor.

The Golf GTi has never produced the most power of any hot hatch of its era but it's always had the most balanced chassis. The Focus RS was a torque steering monster, the Mk5 Golf GTi a beautifully supple performance car that could cock an inside rear wheel.

What's really moved things along has been the advent of four wheel drive and advanced turbocharging. Whereas 100bhp per litre used to be the peak of performance we're now on the verge of a production 2.0 engine that produces 400bhp.

A 2-litre engine, albeit one festooned with turbos and superchargers, will fit in a family hatchback replete with comfortable seating for five and a decent boot for the dog. And because the car on which it is based is a mass produced model the price is reasonable.

This is great news.

Right now about the most outrageous hot hatch on the market is the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, in which AMG extracts a humungous 355bhp from a 2-litre engine. It'll do 0-60 in 4.3 seconds yet sips fuel at a rate of 40.9mpg. The price for all this hot hatchery is £38k so you do pay through the nose for it.

The A45 AMG behaves just like a sports car and handles better than a 20 year old supercar, although its engine displays signs of being stretched right to the limit - turbo lag is particularly noticeable from the off - and the brakes are grabby.
Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG
Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG

However five years ago those stats, including the price, would have been thought impossible by the man in the street who was looking to buy his next car. Whilst the world moves on, the car world is moving at a faster rate.

The Golf R produces a more reasonable 296bhp but is packaged such that it's an everyday useable hot hatch that happens to accelerate to 62mph in 4.9 seconds. In my review of the Golf R I said, "The Golf R is the most sensible, competent, grown up, fast, hot hatch that anyone would want. You could buy one and keep it forever, never wanting another car again. It's that good."

The difference between the Merc and the VW is that the A45 AMG sells itself as a performance car whereas the Golf takes everything in its stride. It's a calm, relaxing car that very nearly outperforms a Ferrari 360 but costs only £31k.

It's such a hit, and such a car of the people, that the waiting list is 8 months long. I would have bought one myself but am too impatient.

In 2016 Volkswagen will launch the Golf R400. Using the same 2-litre engine in the R it'll produce an astonishing 396bhp and put that power down with the latest Haldex four wheel drive system. 0-60 will be under 4 seconds, which means it really will outperform a Ferrari 360.
Volkswagen Golf R400
Volkswagen Golf R400

The newest entrant in the super hatch market is the latest Audi RS3. Available to order in March 2015 and in dealers in the summer the RS3 produces 362bhp from a 2.5-litre engine. It'll do 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds and has a top speed of 174mph.

174mph in a fancy Audi A3, which in itself is a fancy Golf, is so outrageous its a wonder some bureaucrat in Brussels isn't working out how to outlaw it.

You see, the best thing about these modern super hatches is that they are socially acceptable. The 80s hot hatches were frowned upon by 'decent' society, and stolen by so many proto-chavs that insurance premiums rose to such levels no-one could afford to run one. And because their power units have been developed at least partially as a result of increased efficiency they sip fuel.

In the not too distant future Mercedes is planning to hike the A45 AMG's power to 400bhp.

Take away four wheel drive and the competition in the front wheel drive hot hatch market is even more frenzied. The next Honda Civic Type R has 300bhp and has generated Hollywood levels of hype. The Peugeot 308 R will use the 1.6 litre 270bhp engine from the RCZ R. The next Focus RS will get 330bhp. Vauxhall, who's current Astra VXR produces 270bhp, will have a new, more powerful version out in 2016.

We live in an age where power is easier to access than at any time before. A normal family can have a 300bhp, 1400kg, sensible and sensibly priced hatchback in the drive and they won't be outed as scum by society. And it won't cost a great deal to tax, fuel and insure.

Supercars are for the rich, hot hatches and super hatches are for us ordinary folk who earn ordinary salaries. These are good times. Enjoy them. The internal combustion engine is nearing the end of its useful life.

One day we will look back on this era and think, wow they made amazing cars back in the mid-2010s.
Volkswagen Golf R

By Matt Hubbard