Ultimate shootout: Britain’s best driver’s car

Ultimate shootout: Britain’s best driver’s car
Ultimate shootout: Britain’s best driver’s car

Which is the best affordable driver’s car? The Honda Civic Type R, Mercedes-AMG A45, Peugeot 308 GTi and Volkswagen Golf R search for answers

Four hot hatches, with a variety of ways of trying to power their way to the title of ‘Britain’s best affordable driver’s car’. They’ve been tested on road and track, and now it’s time to head to South Wales with its challenging and twisty roads to find out who deserves the big win.

Mercedes-AMG A45 

Price: £41,875
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 376bhp
Torque: 350lb ft
Gearbox: Seven-speed dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight: 1555kg
0-62mph: 4.2sec (claimed)
Top speed: 
155mph
Economy: 40.9mpg
CO2/tax band: 
162g/km, 31%

This test is more about the driver than the car, which is why you can realistically have a £29k Peugeot 308 GTi with 266bhp up against a £42k Mercedes-AMG A45 with 376bhp. Power and money don’t necessarily equate to the best driving experience, so it’s all to play for.

The only really new model here is the Honda Civic Type R, although the Peugeot gets some recently introduced exterior tweaks, the Golf R gains a bit more power and torque and the Merc-AMG also gets an angrier exterior.

Quite a few testers would say that a hot hatch has to be compact, packing in the thrills. Well, that would knock out the Honda. The latest Civic Type R actually feels reasonably small on the track thanks to amazing body control, grip and handling, but put it on smaller Welsh roads and you wonder how long it will be before you scrape one of those stone walls that line the roads.

Volkswagen Golf R 

Price £32,710
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 306bhp
Torque: 280lb ft
Gearbox: Seven-speed dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight: 1483kg
0-62mph: 4.6sec (claimed)
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: 37.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 160g/km, 31%

But when you’re not worrying you’ll be amazed at what this car can do. It’s ‘just’ a turbocharged four-pot variant of a family car with some ridiculously overblown bodywork, but it’s really so much more than that. The controls feel perfect to the touch, the gearlever set high beside you the most, and everything just feels so right. That bodywork is very aerodynamic too, adding a lot of downforce.

That engine is fabulous, delivering vaguely alarming levels of thrust on small roads but never threatening to absolutely overwhelm you. The handling is comfortably within its zone at all times, and you’re left wondering how the others can match this. Then you try the Mercedes-AMG A45.

It’s got 60bhp more than the Honda, and that’s quite a margin. It feels it too, producing so much power that at first it’s thrilling but if you keep at it you feel tension rising fast. There is so much power and torque that even the exceptional chassis struggles to cope, but not as much as the driver.

Peugeot 308 GTi 

Price: £29,405
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 266bhp
Torque: 243lb ft
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1205kg
0-62mph: 
6.0sec (claimed)
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: 
47.0mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 139g/km, 26%

The Peugeot delivers its 266bhp in a really zesty, lively way which is hugely enjoyable and would be more than enough for most people, but that’s not the point of this test. It needs a bit more in this company. The Golf R’s engine doesn’t suffer from that problem, it has plenty of power, just 10bhp less than the Honda, but while it’s very efficient and enjoyable, there’s a lack of outright charisma there that somehow the Honda engineers have introduced.

The steering underlines these traits. On the Peugeot there’s a bit too much assistance for the too-small wheel. On the Golf the steering is good but light so feedback is limited. On the Merc-AMG the steering is a bit heavier and delivers more feedback. On the Honda it’s heavier still and provides oodles of feedback.

Honda Civic Type R

Price
: £32,995
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Power: 316bhp
Torque: 295lb ft
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1380kg
0-62mph: 
5.7sec (claimed)
Top speed: 
169mph
Economy: 36.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 176g/km, 34%

On bumpy Welsh roads, though, the Golf R makes a comeback thanks to the superb compliance of the adaptive suspension. It rides better than the others, but these cars need a brilliant handling package, and here the Golf R took a step back. It’s good, but it’s not quite stellar. And the stellar car in this regard is the Honda Civic Type R.

Show it a road and you’re off, tightening lines, getting on the power earlier, reveling in the ‘just right’ feeling of the controls and the high levels of communication between car and driver. That’s what a driver’s car is.

All the testers agreed. The Honda Civic Type R is not only the most improved hot hatch of this year, it’s also the best driver’s car for sensible money. True, the Peugeot 308 GTi is cheaper, the Merc-AMG A45 faster and the Golf R probably the most complete and rounded car here, but none of that bothered the Honda Civic Type R. Just one thing though.

Was it the best looking? Well, beauty is subjective, and very much in the eye of the beholder.

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