Whenever new sheet metal arrives for testing at the topCar offices there is always a buzz of excitement. More often than not it’s a moment punctuated by much squabbling and haggling among the editorial ranks as to who gets first pick, but this time it’s been a strangely less competitive key-wrestling exercise. This is because our garage is laden with four of the most sought after hot hatches currently available: the much-revered Citroën DS3 Racing, Volkswagen Golf GTI Edition 35, Volvo C30 R-Design Polestar and Renault Mégane RS Cup. All four cars are front-wheel drive with turbocharged engines and manual transmissions, but differ somewhat in engine displacement and power output. However, before I touch on the technical bits, let’s meet the contenders.
All four cars are – to a certain extent – special editions. As the name suggests, the Golf GTI Edition 35 celebrates the 35th anniversary of the original GTI; the Citroën DS3 Racing is a tribute to the marque’s WRC success over the last six years, and the Volvo C30 R-Design Polestar is the most powerful C30 in the range, featuring bespoke engine management software. That leaves the Mégane RS Cup, which differs from the standard RS by virtue of 19-inch wheels, a Cup chassis and a mechanical limited-slip differential. It’s been a firm favourite at topCar, winning its category in our Best Buys awards for the last two years running – no hot hatch shootout is complete without it.
Our comparison takes the form of a testing drive: 400 kilometres of snaking mountain roads, coastal passes, undulating rural tarmac and pristine freeways – an ideal setting for determining which of the four hatches best represents its pedigree.
With the icy 10 degree morning air feeding the hearts of our boosted chariots, we leave Cape Town’s CBD northbound for our meeting point at the Engen 1-Stop on the N2 highway just outside Somerset West.
The four cars are parked alongside each other at the petrol pumps waiting for their tanks to be filled. It’s not long before their presence causes a rubber-necking frenzy among the petrol attendants who scurry across the forecourt like the start of the old Le Mans 24-Hour race. I can see the delight in the eyes of one attendant as he fills the tank of the Mégane RS Cup. ‘Is it a V6?’ he asks confidently. ‘Nope, but it’s turbocharged,’ I reply. ‘Yoh! It looks so fast and angry,’ he replies. The aggressive attitude of the Mégane is hard to deny – each body panel is stretched tightly across its frame so as to accentuate its muscular and assertive stance. Our test unit is black – not the best colour for showing off its hunkered proportions, but nonetheless still looks good. There’s no doubting that the RS is a proper hot hatch. The cherry-red six-pot Brembo-emblazoned brake calipers peering from behind the black-and-silver 19-inch wheels are a harbinger of the performance that lurks beneath the rounded bonnet.
The GTI Edition 35 polarises opinion among the team and is criticised for looking too much like the regular GTI. Apart from the altered front bumper, 35 badging on the front fenders, gloss-black side mirrors and 18-inch Watkins Glen alloy wheels there’s nothing new to see here. As the morning unfolds I find myself standing up more for the GTI than anything else – perhaps it’s the pragmatic five-door configuration? What I like about the GTI is theunderstated design language. Yes it’s got the least dynamic visual augmentation, but there’s something very satisfying about pulling up at a traffic light in stealth mode and obliterating the competition.
The Volvo C30’s styling cues are the least generic of the lot. Draped in white with an R-Design body kit, it stands out prodigiously among its darker-coloured competitors. But that’s about all it does, I’m afraid. There are no Polestar badges or special decals; instead it looks like an ordinary C30 T5 R-Design.
Despite being the smallest car here, it’s the Citroën DS3 Racing’s citrus and liquorice-flavoured colour scheme that’s garnering the most attention from bystanders. Some say it’s too much of a boy-racer-mobile to be taken seriously, but I beg to differ. Look again – carefully. Yip, those are genuine four-pot Brembo calipers behind the orange, lightweight 18-inch alloys. The carbon fibre on the side blades, wheelarches, front splitter and rear diffuser are all real, too. Absorb the details, take in the military-style decals, appreciate the wide stance and you’ll see there’s nothing junior about this car. Even the B-pillars have the Citroën Racing logo etched into them.
The DS3 R is much the same on the inside. Climb aboard and you’re greeted by a minimalist and quirky cabin that’s peppered with carbon fibre panelling and gloss-orange trim. There’s even a ‘World Rally Champions’ plaque mounted on the roof lining to further vindicate its modus operandi. And then there are the Citroën Racing-embossed sports seats, which are enormously comfortable and provide substantial lateral support for enthusiastic cornering. The biggest draw card however, is the limited aspect of the car – only 1000 units are available worldwide, of which SA has been allocated ten.
None of these rivals can match the GTI for build quality – it’s a finely pieced together machine with Audi-rivalling furnishings. Unlike the exterior, the cabin of the GTI plays up the 35th anniversary celebration with aplomb. Bona fide Volksie pundits will appreciate the value in the subtle styling adaptions that not only reference the exterior but pay respect to past models, too. These include beautifully crafted sports seats with honeycomb alcantara centres, piano-black honeycomb-covered facia trim, a Golf 1-style golf ball gear knob, red pin-striped seat belts and Edition 35-embellished sills.
Things are more simplistic inside the Mégane with the focus more on functionality than opulence. The comfort levels are on par with the other three hatches, but the Recaro racing bucket seats can get a little unpleasant after a lengthy spell behind the wheel. The cabin is clearly aimed at driver interaction, a bright yellow rev counter and matching yellow-stitched steering wheel underscoring its intent.
By contrast, the C30’s cockpit is an extremely boring place to spend time in. The two-tone treatment of the leather seats do lift the banality of the cabin to a certain degree, but the awkwardly positioned and hefty steering wheel let it down overall.
Three hours into the shoot and the ambient temperature has more than doubled. With the angle of the sun causing problems for our lens man, Marc Bow, we decide to stretch the legs of our hatches with a burn up the Franschhoek Pass. About 100 metres is all you need to know that the Mégane RS Cup is a veritable performance machine. Bury the loud pedal and the 2.0-litre motor growls ominously, building up decibels as full boost kicks in at 3000rpm. The sound is mesmerising – like a Stars Wars Tie fighter – getting louder the more you approach the red line. Producing 184kW and 340Nm, it’s the second most powerful car here after the Volvo C30, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the strongest. The power is delivered ferociously – through the steering wheel you can feel the LSD fighting to maintain equilibrium. Torque is also phenomenal, helping to catapult the RS Cup from zero to 100kph in 6.68 seconds and pulling it around Killarney in just 1min 29.8secs.
The C30’s 2.5-litre five-pot turbocharged engine is the biggest here. In standard spec it produces a staggering 169kW and 320Nm but this specific edition has had its ECU flashed with something called Polestar software. Upgraded software, when mapped correctly, is like spinach for your engine, tweaking things like turbo boost pressure and ignition timing to bump up the power and torque outputs. As a result, Polestar power is 184kW with 350Nm of torque. If judged solely by the figures, the C30 should be a blast to drive but dynamically it’s the worst in this group. It doesn’t adequately put down all of its power onto the road – much of which is attributed to the long-ratio six-speed gearbox. Sure, there is decent in-gear shove, but when looking at the tractability figures from our test data you’ll notice that the Polestar is the least impressive of the lot. The Killarney lap and 0-100kph times of 1min33.2secs and 7.68 seconds, respectively, reflect our sentiments.
Yip, even the smaller DS3 R out-performs the C30. The Citroën is one cylinder and almost 1000cc down on the C30 yet it reels in the 100kph marker in just 6.98 seconds. Its tiny 1.6-litre mill differs somewhat to the one found in the standard DS3. A bigger turbocharger, a remapped ECU and free-flowing exhaust system see a power increase of almost 30% over the standard unit, crediting it with 152kW and 275Nm of twist – most of which is available from very low down the rev range. The small-engined DS3 R does however, run out of puff once maximum torque is reached, and as a result of turbo lag struggles to carry momentum when changing up. Still, for a super-mini, the DS3 R punches well above its weight, trouncing both the C30 and GTI in mid-range acceleration (see data). The only disappointment is the subdued exhaust note. That said, you can hear the turbo spooling up as you feed in power and a low-pitched flutter when you come off throttle mid gear.
The GTI 35 Edition uses a detuned version of the unit found in the Golf R and Audi S3. Power is 173kW and torque 300Nm at 0.9 bar boost pressure, but due to the GTI weighing 128kg less than the Haldex-laden R the performance figures are similar. In fact, the GTI has a better power-to-weight ratio: 124kW/tonne vs. 123kW/tonne. Tested, we managed a 0-100kph assault of 6.9 seconds and a lap time of 1min31.5secs. It’s a helluva lot faster than what some of the team members originally expected.
After grabbing a spot of lunch in Kleinmond, all four hatches headed towards Gordon’s Bay via Rooi Els for the final stop of the photo shoot. This pass may be one of the most picturesque stretches of road in the Western Cape, but it’s also one of the most challenging with elevations and descents, blind corners and tightly cambered hairpins forming the terrain. Calvin Fisher thunders ahead in the C30 – he seems to be enjoying it. I must admit, it does make quite an astonishing noise, like an anaconda hissing through a didgeridoo. Still, the more time I am behind the wheel of Volvo, the more I try to avoid it. It corners surprisingly flat but comes undone by a horrendous braking performance and inadequate steering feel. The first 80% of brake travel is utterly useless, the calipers only biting once the pedal is almost fully depressed. This means you’re on the brakes much earlier than in the other three cars and, as a result, slower on exit from the corners. The steering is vague, almost ship-like – think Volvo Ocean Race. You find yourself continually making corrections just to keep the C30 in the intended direction of travel. This is highlighted by our Killarney time where the C30 managed a best lap of only 1min33.4secs.
The DS3 R, on the other hand, has the handling qualities of a kart. Tuned by Citroën’s Motorsport division, the chassis and suspension geometry are a work of art. The ride height is 15mm lower and the track 30mm wider than the standard DS3, meaning overall ride quality is compromised, but the upshot is unparalleled roadholding. Steering however, could be better. The dialogue between the road and wheel is interrupted by too much aid from the steering’s electric assistance. Turn-in is accurate but lacks the progressive feedback you get from, say, a Renault Clio Sport. Stopping power is brilliant. It‘s possible to brake much later than in the GTI and C30, the fleet-footed DS3 R cutting through corners with unequivocal precision. This showed in its 1min32.2 secs lap of Killarney – outstanding for a super-mini.
The RS Cup exudes confidence in spades. It’s by far the most comfortable of the four in the twisty bits, seemingly incapable of losing its footing no matter how hard you turn in to a corner or how quickly you’re on the power coming out. It’s this gecko-like adhesion that gives the driver an enormous sense of confidence when tackling a race track or mountain pass. Much of its lateral grip can be attributed to the mechanical limited-slip differential that helps limit tyre slip and squeal but it’s the perfectly-balanced Cup chassis that makes this an extremely difficult car to unsettle. Steering is sublime, probably as close to a pukka sports car feel that I’ve come across in a front-wheel drive hot hatch. The feedback is tactile and precise – almost as if you’re gliding your finger-tips over the surface of the road.
The Edition 35 is equipped with a sport chassis but lacks the dynamism and poise of the Mégane. Traction however, is superb. The ESP system is also very lenient and lets you play a bit before it intervenes. The damper rate can be adjusted by selecting one of three settings on the Adaptive Chassis Control system – comfort, normal and sport – but the difference in settings is negligible. The electro-mechanical steering provides substantial feedback and is far more progressive and meatier than we expected. The car manages to smear most of its power down to the road thanks to the XDS electronic differential lock, which also minimises torque steer. Stopping power isn’t as poor as the C30’s, but after completing just three laps of Killarney the anchors were smouldering.
We came into this shootout with the belief that each of this quartet of hatches had an equal chance of taking the spoils, but that turned out to not be the case. Out of the four, the Volvo C30 is dynamically the worst. We expected so much from the Polestar moniker but got nothing but disappointment in return. The five-and-a-half-year-old chassis is clearly out of its depth when compared with the Mégane, GTI and DS3 R – the disconnection between driver and car validates this notion. The biggest surprise was the little DS3 R. For a super-mini, it performed admirably, scaring some of bigger hatches through the twisty mountain passes thanks to its unbelievably efficient Brembo stoppers and petite proportions. It’s a real fighter, and even though lacking the lustre of the Mégane and GTI, it takes third place overall. The GTI Edition 35 is a good effort from Wolfsburg. It does the nameplate justice with exemplary dynamics and a beautifully sculpted and well-built cabin, but errs on the side of predictability – at R370900, it’s ultimately an expensive GTI with fancy badges and new wheels.
The Renault Mégane RS Cup is the winner, then. In terms of pedigree, value for money, performance and overall sharpness, nothing else here comes close. It’s a mechanical marvel, a future classic – and the only car from this ensemble I’d park in my driveway.