Volkswagen Golf GTI
The Volkswagen Golf GTI has upped its game in the face of increasing competition and offers up to 245PS, plus there are smarter looks, a classier cabin and improved media connectivity. Though little of the original GTI DNA remains, it's a very complete hot hatch indeed.
The big news for enthusiasts is that this GTI continues to be available in two different power outputs. Before, the standard car offered 220PS and there was a 230PS GTI Performance model. Now, Volkswagen has upped these outputs, so the normal version gets 230PS and the GTI Performance model features 245PS. Expect that to be enough to get you from rest to 62mph in only a fraction over 6s. As before, the GTI Performance variant also gets bigger brakes and an electronically controlled mechanical front axle differential lock for improved cornering.
Both cars get a 'progressive steering' system which means low effort at parking speeds but a smooth, natural feel when moving from small steering angles to larger ones at speed, something that has often escaped designers of modern electrically-assisted steering systems. A six-speed gearbox is fitted as standard to both cars, with the option of a six-gear DSG twin-clutch transmission for those who don't fancy a clutch pedal. If you like the GTI look but want to optimise frugality, a GTD diesel variant using a 2.0 TDI 184PS powerplant continues to be offered.
The first thing you'll notice about this revised Golf GTI is probably its slightly sleeker front end. There are full-LED headlamps and the air intakes at either corner of the front bumper have been restyled too. Jewel-like LED tail lamps are now standard too, with smart animated flowing indicators too. Otherwise, things are much as before - which means that there's a choice between three or five-door hatch body styles, both of which sit on the Volkswagen Group's light, stiff and very sophisticated MQB chassis.
There's no doubt that this is a seriously good-looking car these days. Some of the detailing is quite exquisite. Red, black and white production paint finishes hark back to the Eighties heyday of the Golf GTI, while the big roof spoiler is neatly integrated to the roof line and door pillars.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel is a delight, with a circular hub and a deep dish with audio, telephone and cruise control buttons mounted on two of its three spokes. The dash is finished in an interesting capping which at first looks a little like carbon fibre but is in fact a technical finish that manages to escape the essential cheesiness of fake carbon. There's also a set of drilled pedals and a big alloy foot rest.
This current Volkswagen Golf GTI is a different car to the original. It has grown up, become more refined, smarter and, yes, better in virtually every regard. It doesn't need to constantly remind its customers of its roots. Time has moved on and it is what it is. And what it is, is the go-to car if you want a quality hot hatch. Yes, it now campaigns in the upper echelons pricewise but the value proposition nevertheless looks good, with this improved Mk 7 model promising some really strong residual values that take the edge off the cost of ownership.
Volkswagen hasn't forgotten about driving enjoyment as the Golf enters middle age. This one's still got the chops to entertain with its clever front axle diff lock signalling that this isn't just for people who merely want the most expensive Golf. There are some formidable vehicles in the hot hatch division, but the Golf GTI almost campaigns in its own sub niche. It's all about authenticity, something true hot hatch buyers don't need unsubtle history lessons to understand.Click here to find out more about our Volkswagen Golf GTI range
The latest Audi S3 offers a small but significant package of improvements that include extra power, classy interior tweaks and a more involving 4WD system. The latest Audi S3 offers 310PS, 10PS more than before. This, when coupled with the quattro all-wheel drive chassis, results in a performance car that could have been designed for the iffy British climate. It's not cheap but it's nevertheless capable of nearly 45mpg. Amazing.
Of course, the S3 needs to respect its place in the hierarchy. There is, after all, an RS3 model that's even quicker, but ask yourself whether you really need a vehicle that'll get to 62mph quicker than the 4.6 seconds the S3 will detain you for. Customers can choose between a standard six-speed manual or an optional seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox. That auto transmission is new, a replacement for the previous six-speed S tronic. Its added ratio allows Audi to fit a lower first gear - which accounts as much as the increased power for the 0.3s improvement in the 0-62mph sprint time.
Changes to the software controlling the Haldex multi-plate-clutch four-wheel drive system now allow it to send up to 100% of drive to the front or rear wheels, depending on the traction available. Audi claims to have programmed the system to provide a greater percentage of drive to the rear wheels during spirited driving. The idea is that this will provide the S3 with more neutral on-the-limit handling traits, with less of a tendency towards understeer and a more tail-happy character than previous model.
As before, Audi drive select is standard. It allows you to tweak the characteristics of the electronic accelerator, the boost of the progressive steering and the shift points of the optional S tronic gearbox. The user determines with the push of a button whether these systems operate in comfort, auto, dynamic, efficiency or individual mode. In individual mode, drivers can compose their own preferred profile within certain limits.
As before, there's a choice of four S3 body styles - 3-door hatch, 5-door Sportback, 2-door cabriolet and 4-door saloon - but whichever you go for, this sporting variant doesn't tread a lot of new ground from an exterior design perspective. Subtle styling changes made to this revised model include revised bumpers, redesigned headlamps with optional matrix LED operation, a wider grille and more heavily structured LED tail-lamps. Otherwise, things are much as before. When viewed from the side, the aluminium-look mirror casings and the pronounced side sills still catch the eye. A platinum grey diffuser houses the exhaust system's four oval tailpipes, which feature chrome tips. A large roof spoiler is said to generate downforce onto the rear axle. It certainly does look good.
The interior is typically jewel-like, with beautiful detailing but a pared-back feel. The 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this car as an option. This displays the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as before, with classy materials and strong build quality. The hatch most will want with three or five doors has a 365-litre boot - and there's still the option of saloon or Cabriolet body styles if you want them.
The Audi S3's formula of a compact hatch that's beautifully finished, effortlessly rapid and backed up by the all-weather security of four-wheel drive is one that really works in this country. It's a lovely piece of product conception and there's really nothing quite like it from any rival manufacturer. Pace, four-wheel drive and that sort of quality? It's just not happening anywhere else other than at your Audi dealer and that's what makes the S3 quite such a desirable item.
This latest version might feature a heck of a lot of new engineering and we take our hat off to its improvement in efficiency, but in reality, not a whole lot has changed. The car is quicker and more economical, and the technology is even more impressive, but the buyer proposition remains much the same. When you've hit on a winning formula, you mess with it at your peril.Click here to find out more about our Audi S3 range
Ford Focus ST
Ford's Focus ST hot hatch is back, with a styling update, improvements to the chassis and the option of a diesel model. It was already one of our favourites, and making it better to drive, improving the looks and the perceived quality, adding a diesel engine and fettling the efficiency a bit has done it no harm at all. If you were about to choose a Golf GTI/GTD, here's one alternative that's going to be worth serious consideration.
So, about those engines. The 250PS 2.0-litre Ecoboost remains the mainstay of the range, getting the ST to 62mph in 6.5 seconds. Peak power is available at 5,500 rpm, 360 Nm of torque is available from 2,000-4,500 rpm, and maximum speed is 154 mph. The diesel is an interesting addition. This takes the existing 2.0 TDCi seen in 150PS guise elsewhere in the Focus range and beefs power up to 185PS, achieved by electronic calibration, a revised air intake system and a sports exhaust. Peak power is developed at 3,500 rpm and there is 400 Nm of torque available from 2,000-2,750 rpm. The car gets to 62 in 8.1 seconds and runs on to a top speed of 135 mph.
Both engines use a six-speed manual transmission with a performance-oriented, short-throw shift. The gear ratios - exclusive to ST and matched individually to each engine - are designed to deliver rapid acceleration in lower gears and comfortable cruising at speed. Other refinements include a Torque Steer Compensation (TSC) system to take the wriggle out of the steering under hard acceleration. There's also a three-mode stability control system that can be switched all the way off should you want to acquaint yourself with mid-corner yaw gain on track. Reworked power steering, a torque vectoring system and more focused springs, shock absorbers and bushings complete the dynamic overhaul.
One area where the third generation Focus ST clearly regressed was stance. Ask any petrol head and they'll tell you that the way a car sits on its wheels is a pretty fundamental part of its visual appeal. Some cars look squat, muscular and purposeful. The third generation ST never really managed that. There was just too much air under its wheel arches and the front end looked high and gawky. Remedial work has very much been conducted with this latest model. The body kit gives it a lower, wider stance, the bonnet is more aggressively sculpted, there are slimmer headlamps and beady rectangular fog lamps. Other details include twin-hexagonal centre tailpipes, black lamp bezels, ST badging and there's the option of 19-inch ST Design alloy wheels. A dark grey exterior paint colour called Stealth is introduced exclusively to the ST that's part of a colour palette that also includes Deep Impact Blue, Frozen White, Panther Black, Race Red and signature colour Tangerine Scream.
The cabin is well trimmed with a great set of Recaro sports seats with cushion tilt and length adjustment. The dash is now more intuitive, with significantly fewer buttons in the cabin. An ST perennial is the bank of three gauges for boost pressure, oil temperature and oil pressure mounted atop the instrument binnacle. You'll also get a flat-base leather-trimmed sports steering wheel, ST pedals and a satin chrome-topped gear lever. This satin finish carries across to the door grab handles, plus there are illuminated aluminium scuff plates on the door sills.
This is much more than the usual grille, lights and bumpers refresh. The latest Ford Focus ST is better finished and, yes, it looks a whole lot meaner. The addition of a diesel engine is the big news, but don't overlook the changes to the steering and suspension that go to improve what was already an excellent car.
It's worth reminding ourselves how successful the Focus ST has been. Since 2002, it has sold more than 140,000 ST models in 40 countries worldwide. This is no mere halo model designed to showcase what the Focus is capable of. It's a serious contributor to the bottom line of the Focus range and therefore Ford couldn't afford to get it wrong. First impressions suggest they've aced it.Click here to find out more about our Ford Focus ST range