Renault’s trick new Mégane RS is out to steal its crown back from Honda’s Civic Type R, but could Volkswagen’s Golf R actually be the hottest hatch of all? The rigours of an evo Supertest will provide the answers.
It probably goes without saying that the rivalries we are about to witness on the roads that rock and roll across the Pennines will clash with extreme prejudice. Forget McLaren’s supercar tussles with Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche – the quest to build the ultimate hot hatch appears to be far more serious than that. ‘Needle match’ is too blunt a description.
Despite a persistent obsession to nut things out against the clock on Germany’s Nordschleife, the contest is no mere grab for power and speed. The beauty of this apex gathering is diversity: a conspicuous absence of ‘me too‑ism’, rock-solid conviction in the respective approaches and tech, and an honest, boldly defined pitch for your £30k or so. Apart from the things required to be called a car, all the Volkswagen Golf R and Honda Civic Type R share is a letter of the alphabet. Attitudinally and aesthetically, they’re matter/anti-matter opposites – high-functioning sleeper-level stealth plays whatever message you care to infer from Honda’s decision to glue the entire history of hot hatch, supercar and touring car iconography to the Civic’s already ‘out there’ unadorned shape. It’s a tad busy.
Between the two extremes there’s an ocean of space for a third way that steers much closer to the seminal hot hatch blueprint. It’s called the third-generation Renault Mégane RS. The Volcanic Orange example we have here comes with the Cup chassis option, which combines a limited-slip diff with beefed-up springs, dampers and anti-roll bar. Even if you don’t go Cup, the Mégane’s hydraulic bump stops promise to soften the blow if you hit a big compression at speed and use up all the suspension travel.
Arguably, the Renault is the closest thing we have to meticulously evolved hot hatch royalty, with a lineage that reaches back 15 years and features occasional stays atop the Ring lap time league table plus some of the most glorious fast hatch B-road moments ever behind the wheel of the extraordinary, skinned-back R26.R.
Some still call that car the genre’s high watermark but, technically, the game has moved on almost beyond recognition. The R26.R’s line-tightening front diff looked pretty trick back in the day and its modern replacement in the RS Cup is said to be an even keener apex hugger. But that’s almost incidental. Sophisticated four-wheel steering is how Renault’s most talented front-drive chassis rolls in 2018. Up to 37mph in Neutral mode, or 62mph in Race, the system turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts, making the tail feel freer and turn-in sharper and more tenacious. Above these speeds, rears and front turn in the same direction, enhancing stability. It’s a step change not just for the Mégane but a potential game-changer for the sector. As for gearchanges, it’s a choice between six-speed paddleshift auto or, as deliberately chosen here, a six-speed manual.
Having a tuned edition of the 1.8-litre turbo four that powers the Alpine A110 under the bonnet is a nice thing to drop into conversation, too, though its 205kW is the spec-sheet door stop in this company, the opposition posting over 223kW in each case. Nor does the Mégane’s 390Nm of torque or 1430kg claimed kerb weight improve its on-paper standing much but, as we find time and again, stats never tell the whole story. And, of course, never judge a hot hatch by its styling. But let’s not mess about. To our eyes, this is an easy early win for the subtly muscular and seamlessly integrated surfaces of the French car, which are far more likely to spike the pulse rate than the familiar angles of the archly demure Golf and vastly more cohesive than the Honda’s borderline anarchic wing-scoop-and-spoiler offensive.
Thing is, the Civic Type R does have the minerals to back up its rampant visual braggadocio: a high-revving VTEC 2-litre turbocharged four peaking at 236kW but delivering its 400Nm at just 2500rpm, a claimed top speed a hair shy of 170mph (the Mégane and Golf are electronically pegged to 155mph), a relatively trim 1380kg claimed weight, arguably the peachiest gearchange in Christendom, front-diff tech that seems to defy the laws of physics, adaptive dampers that work, and, not least, the good fortune to hit a more rounded and polished peak this time, and thus install itself as the hot hatch to beat, just as the Mégane RS was having an inter-generational hiatus. This is the better-equipped GT version that adds dual-zone climate control, Garmin satnav, parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring for an extra £2000. And for something so eagerly ‘hardcore’ it has a roomy cabin and huge boot.
As it has done for the past four years, the Golf R continues to poke fun at its more earnest adversaries by sidelining pumped and loaded histrionics for softly spoken, big-stick-wielding understatement. This involves a stonking yet smooth and refined 2-litre turbocharged four with 228kW (soon to be pegged back to 220kW to meet WLTP efficiency regulations) and 380Nm of torque. Ensuring that very little of this goes to waste are the applied efficiencies of four-wheel drive, torque vectoring by braking and a seven-speed DSG transmission (currently optional and fitted here, but soon to become the only choice). These combine with launch control to deliver a claimed 0-62mph time of 4.6sec, a whopping 1.2sec quicker than the best efforts of the closely matched front-drivers. Fold in the clearest instruments, best control ergonomics, classiest build and finish and a rep for effortlessly rapid cross-country pace and the popular appeal is easy to understand. It may want for aces, but the Golf plays a granite-strong hand.
The Pennines are a fair schlep from where I live on the north Kent coast – 405 kilometres to the most interesting section of the B2675, a few kilometres from Brough. Worth it, though. The blue-sky battalions of tourists towing caravans we might reasonably have expected to encounter simply haven’t materialised. Not much in the way of itinerant sheep or Spandex-sweaty Tour de France fantasists, either. What we do have here, though, is just the right gauge and smooth-to-scarred quality of twisting, swooping and soaring tarmac, into which the trim size of these cars fits perfectly. Best of all is the mile after mile of clear sight lines, allowing speed to be carried and moves strung together in one seamless, never-ending, memory-searing rush. For this test with these cars, it’s the Goldilocks zone.
I’ve arrived in the Golf R, if not exactly fizzing on an adrenaline high then none the worse for the multitude of kilometres that have passed rather briskly and, for the most part, comfortably under the VW’s unfailingly grippy Bridgestone Potenzas. I don’t hear any dissent from road test editor James Disdale or staff writer Will Beaumont when I propose that the Golf is the obvious weapon of choice to drive to and away from this tin-top showdown, especially if the weather happened to be mucky, which it plainly isn’t today.
Apart from the security blanket of all-wheel drive, it’s simply that much more, well, couth than the others, with a satnav that’s actually easy to use and which you can rely on. This might sound trivial, but it’s just a function of how sussed and grown-up the endlessly honed and fine-tooth combed Golf is. All well and good. But can it still convince against its more assertively combative rivals when the brief is maximum-effort entertainment on roads that make you smile when simply observed from a sun-scorched verge? I’m eager to know.
So, resisting the urge to run across to the Civic Type R and chuck my torso between the insanely huge side bolsters of its low-slung bucket seat, I stick with Captain Sensible for the next half hour. I know what you’re thinking – that’s just an everyman disguise and bubbling beneath the surface is a wild spirit with blazing coat tails and a demonic cackle. Nice try.
When asked to light the afterburners, the Golf delivers brilliantly and in a blink. But while the G-forces swell impressively and the scenery blurs then streaks, the dynamic precedence of flow, traction and grip over snap, response and agility is largely unchanged and, to be honest, doesn’t require much of an input upgrade from the bloke behind the wheel. On this initial and, for me, exploratory foray down the long and winding road, without the others in tow, it soon becomes clear that the Golf R has a remarkably elastic comfort zone.
I’m trying pretty hard but can’t avoid the impression that what might/should turn into runaway enthusiasm is being tempered by a higher intelligence. It’s almost as if the Golf is whispering – oddly, in a southern Californian accent – ‘Chill, buddy, I’ve got this.’ I suspect we’ll find out exactly what the Golf has got later when we head, in convoy, for our overnight hotel along a road that photographer Aston Parrott assures me is simply spectacular. Until then, I have a hunch there’s talent as yet untapped nestling behind the layers of Teutonic efficiency, but being an impatient sort, I need a more explicit fix right now.
With photography under way, the class-hero Honda is already the subject of ‘detail’ shots which, for obvious reasons, could take some time. But that’s OK because, for sheer contrast, I think the Mégane probably takes it. Some of the racy Renault’s signature quirks are familiar: the plastic card instead of a key that also enables the proximity locking/unlocking so, like the living or demised state of Schrödinger’s cat, you’re never quite sure if the Mégane is secure; the inexplicably slightly-too-high seat, made still stranger by the extreme, Sébastien Ogier WRC driving position left by James (though the seat itself is deeply contoured and locates as firmly as the Honda’s) and, well, just the cabin’s overarching vive la difference ambience, cranked up this time round with a vaguely melodic yet amusingly bombastic battle cry played through the audio system when you get in that makes Audi’s puh-dum, puh-dum seem distinctly half-hearted.
The reams of red stitching, drilled metal pedals, top-dead-centre steering wheel marker and smattering of ‘RS’ badges are all predictable, less so the large portrait-orientated infotainment touchscreen that comes with TomTom Live services and looks a bit McLaren and a bit Tesla but, James has warned me, is trickier to navigate than the Venetian canal network.
Such concerns don’t linger. In fact, I’m struggling to recall a car I have driven before that engages as swiftly, urgently and startlingly as this one. It isn’t so much the engine, which is as feisty and un-laggy as you could wish for, but chassis dynamics that grab like a meat hook and, to begin with, are far from a lovely thing – at least not when confronted with the welter of quickly changing surfaces and corrupted cambers up here. The key alerts lighting up my frontal lobes are ride and steering – the former unyielding, the latter busy with camber sensitivity and more than a sniff of torque-steer.
It all seems a bit old school, like dumping the icy digital perfections of the Golf for a warped vinyl LP on a highly strung high-end turntable. My reflexive response is to fight it, to tighten my grip on the fat steering wheel rim and try to muscle the Mégane to my will. Wrong. After a few exciting but scrappy kilometres it becomes clear that’s a no-win. Relaxing helps a lot. And understanding that, like a puppy desperate to please, the Renault just wants to play and involve you. Give in to that, loosen up, wind on some pace and the initial tensions and doubts simply fall away.
The combined agencies of a trick slippy diff and four-wheel steering may define the lively feel of the chassis, but phenomenal grip and agility are key to its speed across the ground. It must be said, though, that until you get used to the Mégane’s all-action way of doing things, the car’s extraordinary limits aren’t intuitively easy to access. Initially, it’s a leap-of-faith deal but, as the kilometres pile on, so trust grows and the Renault’s on-paper shortfall of gee gees flutters away in its slipstream. Bottom line, the Mégane RS is savagely quick point-to-point. A little speed works wonders for the ride, too, which although still prone to fidget over small irregularities has a real depth of tautly controlled pliancy when the chips are down.
I return to base somewhat later than promised, a jot perplexed but mile-weariness in the much-travelled Golf gone and mood significantly improved. No time to swap notes: we’re off to the next location and, boy, I’ve been looking forward to this, my first go in the Civic Type R. Whatever (possibly fretful) thoughts cross your mind as you walk towards the much addended Honda – mine revolve around how the sheer quantity of stuff attached to the aft part of the car somehow shrinks what should be the magnificent presence of 20-inch rims in the rear arches – there’s salvation on the inside. Yeah, it’s über-racy with loads of red piping and one of those instrument displays dominated by a huge crescent of rev counter, not to mention the red binnacle skirt lighting that comes on when you select the sportier chassis/throttle map modes with the switch on the centre console. But wriggling down into the low, huggy seat, all the control relationships and weightings feel precise, solid and spot on – something you can’t say in the Renault or even the Golf.
With a judicious spray of car park gravel, I slot in behind Will in the Mégane, assured that on days like these, he only has one speed, and it isn’t Slow. With James and the Golf tucked in behind we’re on it almost straight away and, apart from anything else, it’s illuminating to watch the Mégane dancing, ducking and diving up ahead and, just occasionally, as Groove Armada once put it, shakin’ that ass. Curiously, because I wasn’t expecting this, it doesn’t feel that much of a stretch for the Honda to keep up. I’m in Sport rather than +R mode, and apart from the need sometimes to use full throttle to close the gap when Will and the Renault have combined forces to carry seemingly impossible pace through a compound corner with indeterminate apexes, it all seems a bit too easy and immaculately executed.
Bafflingly, there is no torque-steer, no telegraphed camber caressing – no tugging at the rim at all. After the Renault, this feels spooky and, despite its four-wheel drive, nor is the Golf’s lighter steering quite as stainless and artefact-free. The ride is remarkably flat and calm, too; amazingly so for a car wearing watch-strap 30-section rubber. You’d certainly never guess it was that extreme from the way the steering behaves. Whatever the front wheels and grip-scavenging diff are doing – and their ability to sling the Civic through an angle, however tight, isn’t found wanting in this company – the information fed back through the helm isn’t nearly as busy and alive about the straight-ahead as it is in the Renault. On lock there’s weight and accuracy and seemingly limitless bite, but it all feels quite heavily damped with nothing in the way of core-writhe or edge-nibble.
Admittedly, this contributes to a sense of composure and control at the pointy end that bests even the Golf’s robust refusal to be ruffled. It’s also the antithesis of the Renault’s nerve-endy approach and, for better or worse, immediately inspires massive confidence. With prolonged exposure, it’s so good and consistent it can usher in feelings of invincibility which may well be a first for a hot hatch. At this stage, I’d go as far as to say the Civic Type R feels more like a pocket-sized supercar than a Samurai-sharp hot hatch but, for me, it hasn’t spiked my pulse rate and fascination like the Mégane has. Oh, and team James-Golf stayed glued to the Civic’s bumper. Most of the time.
The sun is shedding heat and mellowing as it begins its final drift behind feathery clouds towards the horizon, so it’s time to check out Aston’s ‘excessively entertaining’ route to our overnight stopover at the Nent Hall Country House Hotel near Alston. It is, indeed, a humdinger of a road, unprecedented for as long as I can remember in being completely traffic-free. So entertaining and empty, in fact, I can’t divulge the exact parameters of our more breathless moments, save to say that, in terms of raw pace, you couldn’t slide a Rizla roll-up paper between the three cars. When it comes to freestyle expression for the amusement of the driver, however, radically distinct differences crystallise our thoughts.
Over an evening of hydration-restoring beers and health-giving carbohydrates, there’s a broad consensus about the talents the Golf R has brought on the day’s proceedings – and they aren’t at all shabby. Less collegiately, there seems to be an ideological rift when it comes to Mégane versus Civic. I think the Renault, despite having a gearchange that exhibits a bit of stiction between third and fourth, a blot-on-the-dashboard infotainment display, and palpably less, though far from enfeebling, power and torque than the others, counters with a properly transparent, three-dimensional dynamic personality that needs some learning but will be a constantly engaging and rewarding companion in the long run. For me, and for all its hot hatch transcending superpowers, the Civic Type R is too immediately and easily gratifying, holding few hidden depths to explore over time, and with the best will in the world, it looks like a tasting menu at Crufts. James and Will disagree – not with the Crufts bit – but both are slightly spooked by the Renault’s unevenness and frustrated by the Golf’s largely prescriptive modus operandi that shuts down genuine excitement at the limit.
Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, final assessments will land and lock before the necessarily more mundane bits-and-bobs photography wrap and slog back down the A1. But before we get to the verdict, let’s take a look at how our trio performed when pushed to their absolute limits against the clock and on track…
There are good times to be had in the Golf R, but it’s the first of our hatches to step onto the podium. Will Beaumont nails exactly why: ‘There are moments in the VW where you witness its genius. It enters a corner on its nose, all skittish and lively, then, as you get on the throttle, you feel the rear tyres driving the back end round. But these moments aren’t that frequent, and, even more frustratingly, they aren’t repeatable – you see a corner approaching that you think it’s going to come alive around, but instead it just turns and grips, dispatching the bend with ruthless efficiency.
‘Yes, driven aggressively, it comes alive more often, but it’s difficult to maintain such levels of commitment on the road. As fast as it is, you aren’t gratified all that often with some proper excitement.’
I’ve advanced my defence for the Mégane and James seems largely to agree, but there are caveats. ‘It drives well, but you’ve got to be prepared to relearn the way you approach corners,’ he says. ‘It’s all down to that four-wheel-steer system, which has the ability to generate outrageous grip and agility. It feels eerie at first, with the rear sashaying around just a fraction of a second behind your instructions to the steering. But start to go faster and it begins to make sense.’
Certainly does. But James isn’t wholly convinced: ‘It’s a shame that Race mode adds a horrible droning bassiness to proceedings. The engine responds crisply enough, mind, with a gutsy mid-range and enough bite at the top end to make visits to the red line worthwhile. I just wish the gearbox was as good. There’s a pleasingly mechanical feel to changes, but our test car suffered from a baulky third to fourth shift that required repeated exposure and patience to bypass.’
I could live with that. Not sure James could. The Mégane is runner-up, then. A split-team decision, maybe, but then the Civic Type R is, all told, too extraordinary to be denied. I admired it, felt flattered by it, but didn’t love it. My fellow testers are less equivocal, Will being perhaps the most enthusiastic advocate.
‘There’s a feeling in the Civic that its tyres are some kind of qualifying specials. Not only do they grip as though the rubber is fusing with the tarmac but they absorb most of the road’s roughness, too – even though you’re acutely aware of their scarily low profile. The Honda’s engine may not be that refined and its steering may not be as pleasant as the others, but its gearchange and brake pedal feel so much tighter and firmer respectively that they certainly make up for it.
‘And then there’s the incredible sophistication to the chassis, its ability to ride with that much comfort while generating that much traction and keeping the body supremely controlled is a trick that can’t be matched by any other sub-$100k car you can currently buy.’ Fair enough. But I’m already counting down the days till the Type R has to square up to the forthcoming Mégane Trophy.