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Sporty Hot Hatches

Audi S1

  • Renault Megane RS275 Trophy
  • Volkswagen Golf R

By D. DeGasperi

Hot-hatches have always had their “cultic” following and admirers alike, and that’s why it’s no shock that the segment is moving at exceptional pace across all price points, even the premium offerings that circle the US $40,000 range.

Five years ago the Renault Sport Megane was crowned the undisputed king of a segment that stuffs an energetic engine under the bonnet of a relatively small car. Its landmark achievement was finding a way to funnel lots of torque through the front wheels, while keeping its steering mostly uncorrupted, and also having a front limited-slip differential that channelled lots of its delivery to the planted inside wheel for very good cornering.

The reality back then was that you buy a Megane if you want real sports, and a Golf if you want the all-rounder; at the end of any test journalists and motor enthusiasts would all say they loved driving the Renault Sport but they would take home the Volkswagen any day.

It is important to note that the latest Golf R has actually grown up a lot actually. The sort of maturity that see it claim a 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.0 seconds for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

More importantly, the new Golf R has a Haldex drive system that actually distributes power from the front to rear wheels efficiently and effectively. So the question now is whether the ‘new AWD’ can show up even the trickiest of FWD set-ups.

The same question applies to our third contender, unmentioned so far and for good reason. The Audi S1 is the wild-card entry here, a full size smaller than the other cars, only a four seater and slower than its VW Group cousin, claiming 5.9sec 0-100km/h performance.

Audi has been a “bit silly” with this car; going ahead to shove the independent rear suspension of the Golf R/Audi S3 up the backside of the A1 fashion hatch, and dousing it in bright colours and retro quattro badging, and then charging about the same money as a Golf R for it. Talk about marketing misrepresentation.

In my opinion, a hot-hatch should be all about smaller size, lightness and agility, and here the S1 could excel over its fundamentally similar Golf R cousin.

Defending its title as the greatest properly sporting hot-hatchback is the Renault Sport Megane 275 Trophy. It is a 100-unit limited edition that takes power to 201kW where regular models make 195kW. It may claim a 6.0sec 0-100km/h sprint, but it has all the gear like an Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel and handbrake lever, Akrapovic titanium exhaust and big Brembo brakes that aims to ensure its driver’s-pick status remains.

The prices for this 2.0-litre turbocharged trio are similar – S1 manual $39,900, Megane RS275 Trophy $42,990 and Golf R $42,740 manual/$45,240 auto – as is the level of standard equipment, more of which we’ll get to later.

I have to agree that the Megane is in with a chance of winning this comparison test from the onset. The basic body shape may be five years old, but the combination of bright paint, black wheels, stickers down the sides and a silver lip with TROPHY plastered across it, turns heads.

Immediately the Megane RS275 Trophy feels right. Its clutch take up point is perfect, the ease and functionality of its gear lever likewise, and the steering is so natural and incisive that even short city runs are a solid delight. The Renault Sport may be stiff, but it is never harsh, an example of sophisticated dampers at work.

In the presence of these two other cars the Volkswagen really does become invisible after a while though.

However, with 380Nm of torque available between an astonishingly broad 1800rpm and 5100rpm, and 206kW of power taking over exactly from that latter revolutions per minute and holding strong until 6500rpm, it is a complete powerhouse.

In normal Drive mode, the automatic transmission behaves in a docile fashion, and in Comfort mode the adjustable suspension smothers any bumps with a calmness that means the Golf R remains an impeccably comfortable car. The steering is direct and consistent, but we wouldn’t bother with its heavier Sport modes because it just adds weight, not feedback. In any case, it can’t match the tactility of the Megane’s steering.

Swap to the S1 and the differences are fascinating.

Immediately you feel you’re sitting in a narrower, smaller car, but the seats lack the deep cushioning and side support of the Volkswagen. On the flipside, the dashboard design looks and feels premium (both in plastics quality and textures) in comparison to the Golf R that looks barely differentiated to a Golf 90TSI – particularly one with an optional R-Line sports pack.

The Audi manual is just a joy, and if its light and high clutch take-up isn’t as natural as that in the Renault, it soon becomes easy to acclimatise.

Unlike the Golf R – which has Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Race modes for its suspension – the S1 has just two settings for its standard S Sport suspension. You choose either Auto or Dynamic, and in either case you have a tiny car that rides beautifully, and for the better with greater distinction than the Volkswagen’s more varied modes.

The steering is quicker than the Golf R’s, which suits its smaller size, and is indeed the second most impressive electro-mechanical system here after the Renault’s.

While the S1 essentially uses the same engine as the Golf R, it has been detuned. Although 170kW at 6000rpm seems a fair way off the VW’s 206kW, its 370Nm is only 10Nm adrift, though produced between a narrower 1600rpm and 3000rpm.

Because it’s smaller, however, the S1 weighs 1415kg, or 20kg less than the DSG-equipped Golf R. That said, it never has the rush of the bigger hatch, and lacks the deep soundtrack of its German sibling, too.

But the Audi’s lighter, fruitier note suits its appearance – it’s that guy at the gym who is toned but not trying to bulk-up like the Golf R that is almost trying too hard to compensate for its predecessor’s thin bones.

The S1 lacks the rush of the Megane, too. Renault’s 2.0-litre turbo engine feels better than ever, with a great raspy soundtrack that is now overlaid with pops and crackles from the brilliant Akrapovic exhaust. The mid-range delivery transcends its slowest-here performance time, pulling with the sort of punch that will keep it on the tail of the Golf R.

When we introduce corners into the equation, will the Megane RS275 Trophy actually keep up with the Golf R? Well, yes and no.

In most corners you seem to be pulling 20km/h higher speed going into and through the bend in the Renault compared with the other two. You simply don’t realise how fast you’re going until you glance down at the speedometer, because a lack of body-roll and the slingshot delivery from the engine through to the front wheels and limited slip differential are just about perfect.

All three contenders use Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres – 18-inch for S1, 19-inch for the others – and it is a cracking choice that levels the playing field considerably.

The VW doesn’t feel as immediately stiff, alert and agile as the Renault, but it isn’t far off. In the suspension’s Race mode it sits flat and grips superbly, cutting through successive corners with a point and shoot pace that belies its humble appearance. In the tightest of 90-degree corners the Renault will struggle to put its power down when the inside front wheel is loaded up.

Even with its tricky differential, ultimate patience is required or the electronic stability control will flare up and curb power delivery.

In the Golf R you simply throw it into a corner, plant your right foot, and the all-wheel-drive system will do its thing amazingly quickly to help find neutrality, sharing its outputs around its four contact patches for maximum effect.

So where does this leave the S1? Nowhere near, actually.

In its Dynamic mode the Audi is noticeably softer and rolls more than the others. Yet the narrower the road gets the more you feel like you’re driving a go-kart that is small and frisky, rather than a hatchback that is faster and tighter, but bulkier.

Every driver emerged from the S1 saying it is the most fun of the three to drive here. During back-to-back dynamic testing, it was the only one to leave me giggling, and having the “breath of fresh air” feeling. Ease the Audi into a corner and it immediately darts and sniffs out of an apex like a nippy go kart on a mission.

Throw it in a bit faster and it soon wants to roll and slide. Wind off steering lock and apply throttle pressure and it squirms between understeer and power oversteer, the all-wheel drive system working as effectively as it does in a Golf R, but in a tinier car with less grip.

Even switching the VW to a softer suspension mode can’t produce the same involvement and fun as that provided by the Audi. What both of the Germans can also provide with their multiple suspension settings is grace and composure on rough winding roads that thump and shake the French vehicle.

I’m coming around to the appreciating the S1, which perhaps I had written off into third place before the comparison test had even began. It has certainly been the biggest surprise here.

The Megane disappointed me the most, in the context of the other two’s brilliance more than the Renault’s lack of ability. It’s no jack of all trades but a master of one, in reference to the limited slip differential. What a master it is though!

Shelving my love for the Renault for a moment, I can’t see how the Audi S1 can’t win this test, despite its strong points. The Golf R is bigger, roomier, has a just as pleasant ride, it is even more dynamic and faster, for similar money.

All of which is true. But in a sense what you gain in space, you lose in other areas. The Golf R is the only car here with full cloth seats, and it’s agreed it’s not a very nice trim either. Yet leather trim is a costly $2000 option. A major downside if you ask me.

European and American models get a big, bright 8.0-inch colour touchscreen yet local Golf R’s will get the same low resolution 5.8-inch touchscreen as in the $11,990 Golf Trendline.

While its plastics and design may shine for half the price or less, it pales against the Audi at this price point. It doesn’t feel special; it feels generic.

The Audi cabin too shares its design with cheaper A1 models, but it’s starting from a higher base. Even the clicks of its knurled silver climate control knobs are much nicer than the plastic units in the Volkswagen. The S1 feels classy yet refreshingly simple inside.

The Audi MMI infotainment system is superb, and the 6.5-inch colour screen has benchmark graphics and resolution. Disappointingly a reverse-view camera is a $400 option, though the S1 still remains cheaper than a Golf R and it exclusively adds standard leather and LED headlights.

On the flipside, if you’re tall or more robust you’ll never find the comfort levels of the Golf R or even Megane RS275 Trophy in this tight cabin; though my 178cm-tall frame fits ideally.

Also, if you need to seat three in the back, bad luck – this is an ultra-tight four seater, and one with a 270 litre boot that pales alongside the Renault (344L) and Volkswagen (380L).

The Megane RS275 Trophy interior feels dated, with below average ergonomics from the R-Link colour touchscreen and its accompanying console toggle switch that aims to mimic BMW’s iDrive but ends up appearing like an Atari joystick.

It also has the least impressive rear vision, and only two wide front doors, though the rear seat and boot could be seen as a halfway comfort compromise between the S1 and Golf R.

However, from the ability to insert an SD card and record lap times, to fiddling with throttle response and seeing power and torque outputs on screen, all the way to the Recaro seats and Alcantara steering wheel, the Renault feels special in a stripped out, racecar-like way.

With standard keyless auto entry, a reverse-view camera, leather trim and dual-zone climate control, it’s also the surprise value buy in terms of standard equipment. Then there’s the standard five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty compared with the others’ three-year cover.

After a hard 400km drive, we noted that the Audi had used 12.1 litres per 100 kilometres, the VW 13.2L/100km and the Renault 14.8L/100km.

The reason you buy the Renault is for its pace, its exclusivity, its feel, and if you’re caught up at a desk for your day job, because it would be the best fun you’ll have at the end of a boring work week. Of the three, I would only buy the Audi S1, but then equally I can understand why you wouldn’t.

Quite simply, I couldn’t buy the Golf R knowing that a smaller, lighter, more fun and premium option was available for similar money. It is bursting with character that is, well, uncharacteristic for the brand, and has a depth of talent that belies its size.

However, when the scores are tallied, we concur that the Volkswagen Golf R is the winner. As plain as it is to look at, being fastest, roomiest, and with technically the broadest level of ride and handling talent, it simply can’t be ignored. It is a fantastic car in its own right, but it doesn’t have to be the only choice.

In fact, if you’re buying the VW, it’s worth remembering that for $3700 more  you could buy a brand new Audi S3 that has a no-cost-option automatic, and blends the S1’s class with dynamics identical to the Golf R.

While giving these three cars the same score may be seen as sitting on the fence, finding needless reasons to chop marks off any of them would be even more false. Depending on your needs, each does a fantastic job of nailing different briefs – and there is plenty to celebrate about that.

What this test also proved is that summarising the Megane as just the driver’s pick and the Golf R as merely the all-rounder is no longer that simple. While a front-wheel-drive revolution may have taken centre stage in hot-hatchback land over the last decade, all-wheel drive is back and is now a more valid choice than ever.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

  • Renault Kenya is the official and sole distributor of all new Renault vehicles in Kenya. They are located on ICD Road, off Mombasa Road.
  • DT Dobie is the official and sole distributor of all new Volkswagen (VW) vehicles in Kenya. They are located off the roundabout joining Lusaka Road and Enterprise Road.
  • Both companies offer after sales service as well as comprehensive warranties for all their vehicles. Check out their official websites or visit their showrooms for more information.
  • Unfortunately, Audi does not have an exclusive, official or sole distributor in Kenya; however, there are a number of local dealers who bring in individual models by themselves or on request. An example is Subru Motors; who are located on James Gichuru Road, as well as Windsor Motors; who are located on Kiambu Road