TRACK AND FEEL
RALLY CHAMP MOLLY TAYLOR RATES THE HOT HATCHES
Molly Taylor is one of the lucky few who can drive performance cars to their limit. The 2016 Australian Rally Champion has been motor racing since her teens, honing her craft in a paddock before getting her road licence. Today at Sydney Motorsport Park, Taylor has paarked her allegiances to rally sponsor Subaru to put through their paces the recently revised Ford Focus RS LE, hyped up Honda Civic Type R and just released VW Golf R Grid Edition.
Here’s how the hot hatches compare on the road and track.
FORD FOCUS RS LE
Production of the Focus RS will end soon so Ford has released 500 limited edition examples.
There’s no more power from the 2.3-litre turbo but it has the most grunt among this trio.
Boosting the all-wheel drive hardware are a mechanical limited-slip front differential, stickier tyres and forged-alloy wheels. Racing seats and black painted roof, side mirrors and rear spoiler are part of the package that adds a hefty $6000 to the price, to $62,000 drive-away, making it the most expensive here.
It’s the car Taylor is most keen to drive but first impressions aren’t good. “The racing seat is really comfortable but it’s mounted too high,” she says.
With a crackle and pop from the exhaust she’s off, returning just a few hot laps later with brake trouble. “The pedal went long. It feels like the brake fluid got too hot,” she says.
Still, she likes the car. “It sounds like a race car and you can feel the extra torque of the engine down low in the rev range,” she says.
“It feels heavier than the others but it has good grip and claws out of corners.”
The stiff suspension that gives the Focus poise on a track makes it a touch too taut on the road. Passengers prone to motion sickness would be well advised not to read a book. In other regards, it delights the senses.
As the heaviest car here the Focus feels like a brash, American take on the hot hatch theme. Funny that. The extra kilos also make it the thirstiest, even by performance car standards, and the Focus is the least likely to get near its rating label claim. In the 0-100km/h dash using GPS timing gear, the Focus is the fastest here at 5.3 seconds, shy of its 4.7-second claim.
The Focus briefly nudges 102km/h in second gear before the rev limiter brings the speed back to 97km/h. The other two need to grab third to hit 100.
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R
Honda has finally returned to the hot hatch market with a car worthy of the coveted Type R badge, with a car that looks like a Star Wars fighter.
It has been bold with the price, too. The $56,700 drive-away sticker puts it squarely in all-wheel drive company even though the Honda powers only the front wheels.
On paper, it would be easy to underestimate. On track, it takes just one lap to earn Taylor’s respect.
“It feels like a go-kart,” she says. “It definitely surprised me. Even though it’s not all-wheel
drive you feel more confident because the suspension, steering and brakes are so precise.
“You can really take it to the limit and get the most out of it. The brakes are phenomenal. This is a real surprise package.”
Dislikes? “Compared to the others it sounds almost silent even though it has three exhausts. The sound doesn’t have much character, especially when you consider how bold Honda has been with the appearance.”
On the road, despite the 20-inch wheels being shod with licorice-thin low-profile tyres, it’s remarkably comfortable over bumps, even in sport mode.
Taylor keeps the highly strung engine at high revs on track but on the road there’s a slight delay getting to its power band. Any owner, though, can create the impression of driving like a professional as the Honda has revmatching tech on down-changes.
In our 0-100km/h runs, the Type R can’t get near Honda’s claim of 5.7 seconds, instead stopping the clock at 6.2 seconds. It runs out of second gear at 97km/h on the GPS and 102km/h on the speedometer. Perhaps Honda’s claimed time is based on the speedo.
What it lacks in acceleration, however, it makes up for in braking, with the shortest stopping distances among this trio (33 metres versus 36 from 100km/h for the other pair).
It’s the car Taylor would pick to set the fastest lap time.
VW GOLF R GRID
As rivals increased prices, hot hatch veteran Volkswagen has sharpened the pencil. The $52,700 drive-away Grid Edition is $6000 less than the previous starting price of a Golf R, and the cheapest yet.
The main items missing from the regular Golf R are the digital widescreen dash display and leather upholstery — but you still get faux suede trim and sports seats.
The central touchscreen measures eight inches (rather than 9.2) but comes with the benefit of volume dials.
To make this match fair we’ve got the sixspeed manual — rather than the seven-speed twin clutch auto, which stops the clocks at 100km/h in a legit 4.9 seconds. Slower than expected, it clocks 5.9 seconds, well shy of the 5.2-second claim.
Its 2.0-litre turbo has had a power bump but the Golf R has the least amount of grunt in this company and relies on all-wheel drive and an even spread of power to get the job done. Once on the move, though, it feels as perky as the competitors.
“I really like the Golf R,” Taylor says. “It has very smooth power delivery but the suspension is a lot softer and it doesn’t hold the lines as well because the tyres don’t have enough grip.”
It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to do the 100m in a pair of thongs.
“Going into a turn you need to wait for the tyres to grip, which slows the car, and then you’re no longer in the sweet spot of the engine. Better tyres would make a big difference overall.”
On the road, the Golf R soaks up bumps better than the Ford and as well as the Honda.
It all turns a bit pear-shaped, though, as soon as we arrive at some corners. On a smooth, winding mountain pass the tyres start to squeal, even when not being pushed particularly hard.
In this company it’s best described as a fast luxury car than a truly hot hatch.
Pictures: Mark Bean