Audi RS 3 Sportback
We thought the last Audi RS 3 Sportback with 367PS was fast enough, but this latest 400PS version sets a fresh benchmark. Add in a talented chassis with a wider track and a clever all-wheel drive system and stand well back. This one's explosive.
Audi makes great play of the fact that this 400PS RS 3 Sportback has shaved some 26kg off the weight of its 367PS predecessor, which coupled with the power increase, significantly improves its power to weight ratio, making it better than cars like, say, the Lotus Exige S or a V8 BMW M5. More than a Porsche 911 Carrera or a Mercedes SLC 43 AMG too. Now you see quite what sort of company the RS 3 Sportback can mix it in. With the benefit of all-wheel drive, it'll scuttle to 62mph in just 4.1 seconds (0.2s quicker than before) and run onto a restricted maximum of 155mph, although this can be derestricted to 174mph if you pay extra for the 'dynamic package plus'.
A light multi-plate clutch mounted at the rear axle has the ability to transfer between 50 and 100 per cent of power to the rear wheels. Audi even reckons that on slippery surfaces, this thing will drift like a rear-driver. As for the engine, well it's much the same 2.5-litre five cylinder TFSI turbo unit that was used previously and is closely related to the powerplant found in the current TT RS. It puts out 480Nm of torque (15Nm more than before) and transmits it all to the tarmac via a seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch transmission and, of course, quattro all-wheel-drive. Maximum torque is readily available across a broad plateau, which means that you'll rarely be caught off boost. A widened track, bigger brakes and tyres, retuned ESP stability control and a sharpened suspension setup lowered by 25mm distinguish the RS 3 from a standard Sportback.
Subtle styling revisions based on the recent updates made across the A3 range lift this look of this ultimate variant. The Singleframe grille with its gloss black honeycomb mesh and the large air inlets and angular sill trims which flank it are now also complemented by a redesigned blade in the bumper which serves to make the car appear even more broad-shouldered. Those in the know will spot the aluminium mirror housings, side skirts, rear diffuser and the hunkered down stance. Yes, there are 19-inch alloy wheels and burbling exhausts but the RS 3 doesn't wear the sort of wings, monster wheel arch bulges and grille-pocked bonnets that appear on most fast hatchbacks. In that regard it's relatively low key. This time round, Ingolstadt is also offering the option of a saloon bodystyle too.
At the wheel, a flat-bottomed steering wheel looks suitably racy and makes getting in and out that little bit easier. Customers choose between black and grey colour schemes, and there are leather sports seats although the optional diamond-pattern 'S' seats will be popular. We suspect many buyers will go the whole hog and put the deep RS carbon-shelled bucket seats, saving themselves 7kg on each seat and lightening their bank accounts accordingly.
The standard Sportback is a good-looking platform to build from and the RS 3 looks resolved in a way that few range-topping sports variants manage. Like all Sportbacks, the RS 3 enjoys wide opening rear doors which mean easy accessibility into a cabin where space is reasonable - two adults can ride comfortably in the back - and there's a 340-litre boot, with a total of 1,185-litres of space when the rear seats are folded flat.
And in summary? Well, if there was one thing the original 2010-era Audi RS 3 Sportback demonstrated very vividly, it was that you didn't need an impractical shape, a huge thirst and iffy reliability to deliver supercar-style performance. It just delivered in an incredibly effective, no-nonsense way. Some liked this. Others tried it and thought the RS 3 made the act of going very fast rather aloof, requiring licence-losing numbers on the speedometer before it felt it was doing something other than going through the motions.
Audi has thought long and hard about this and wth the 367PS 2014-era model, set about delivering more soul, involvement and emotion for RS 3 buyers, a process continued with the introduction of this pokier 400PS version. Ingolstadt's finest have worked at delivering a stirring soundtrack and a playful chassis and haven't been able to resist turning the wick up still further on performance. Then there are the things that haven't changed; its all-weather ability, its everyday practicality and its relatively tasteful discretion. One thing is not up for debate. Audi will have zero problems selling every last car that its UK importers can get their hands on.Click here to find out more about our Audi RS 3 Sportback range
Honda Civic Type R
The Honda Civic Type R returns, this time with 320PS beneath the bonnet thanks to a revised version of the previous 2.0-litre turbo engine. Drive goes to the front wheels via a six-speed manual 'box, so no change there, but under the skin, this thing's rammed with trick bits. It looks the real deal.
The headline figures are undeniably impressive. Power comes courtesy of a direct-injected turbocharged 2.0 litre VTEC petrol engine, which really delivers a solid punch of both power and torque. Peak power output is slightly up on the previous generation model, up by 10PS to 320PS at 6,500rpm.
There are more significant changes too. The body itself has a longer wheelbase than the previous-generation version. Plus the relocation of the fuel tank from beneath the front seats to beneath the rears means that the driver sits 50mm lower than before. The centre of gravity is lower too. The body is 16kg lighter and (more significantly) 38% stiffer than the previous model's, but the most crucial mechanical change is that there's no longer a torsion beam rear axle. Instead, the latest Type-R gets a fully independent, multi-link rear set-up.
As before, there's a '+R' button that, when activated, heightens engine responsiveness and alters the torque-mapping to a more aggressive and performance-focused setting. That will have been activated when setting the Nurburgring Nordscliefe lap record this car now holds - set at 7min 43.8s, 7 seconds quicker than the previous generation car managed.
The Type R really amps up the already quite aggressive styling of the tenth-generation Civic. Honda's insistent that it's all functional and talks of the hours on the Nurburgring, being thrashed round the Takasu test track and forensic studies of the aerodynamics in the Sakura wind tunnel. An almost completely flat underside sucks the car onto the road and the rear wing, front splitter and deep side skirts are also demonstrably functional. Big grilles in the bumpers direct cooling air to the engine and brakes. The lightweight 20-inch alloy wheels look pretty mean too.
The cabin gets the trademark machined-alloy Type R gear lever. High-backed sports seats grip the front occupants with a suede-effect fabric offset by red double stitching. The red highlights continue across the leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearstick gaiter.
There's a lot of competition in this market sector. The Audi S3, Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS offer all-wheel drive grip and sledgehammer acceleration off the line, while the BMW M140i delivers rear-wheel drive handling beloved by purists. So where does that leave the front-wheel drive Civic Type R? It suddenly looks a bit conspicuous. Honda is a company that insists we judge on results rather than on engineering dogma. It has a point. Drive an old front-wheel drive Integra Type R against, say, a rear-wheel drive BMW E36 M3 from the same era and the Japanese car will always feel like the more exotic, exciting drive.
The latest Civic Type R makes a whole lot of impressive numbers but the acid test will come against its most talented European rivals. Something tells us that this British-built Honda will manage to inveigle itself into its own niche and feel quite unlike the rest of the field. Type Rs have always been something different, something very special and this one promises to be no different.Click here to find out more about our Honda Civic Type R range
Volkswagen Golf R
The Volkswagen Golf R is back, this time trying to face down some serious competition. It's come equipped though, packing all wheel drive and an uprated 310PS output that sees 62mph flash by in under 5 seconds. It'll also register better than 40mpg on the combined cycle. Your everyday supercar is right here. There's now even a desirable 'Performance Pack' option.
That 310PS power output is the headline number as far as the Golf R is concerned but delve a little deeper and you'll find some other facts that might stop you in your tracks. In manual form it gets to 62mph in just over 5 seconds, but unleash its potential with a DSG twin-clutch sequential transmission and you can expect a few tenths to be shaved from that benchmark. Power is delivered through a quick-reacting Haldex all-wheel drive system, which sends drive to the front wheels during modest throttle loads, but can then direct almost 100 per cent of drive to the rear axle if required. Top speed is limited to 155mph.
The ride height is 20mm lower than the standard Golf's and 5mm lower than the GTI's, while Adaptive Chassis Control (DCC) is an option. This offers a 'Race' mode, which increases damping, reducing body movements in the process. In conjunction with the 'Driver Profile' selector, 'Race' mode also further sharpens the throttle response and alters the shift pattern of the DSG gearbox.
On to design. Apart from that hoovered-to-the-tarmac ride height, the Golf R is distinguished by its revised front bumper assembly, indented with massive air inlets, a modified radiator grille with 'R' logo and daytime running lamps that are integrated into the now standard LED headlights, these part of a subtly re-styled front end. Move round to the side and you'll clock the aggressive body-colour sills and matt chrome-capped door mirrors. The R comes as standard with a tasty set of 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/40 tyres, but the optional 19-inch alloys are sure to be a popular fit. The brakes are ventilated discs all round, measuring 30mm by 340mm at the front and 22mm by 310mm at the back.
Go for the DSG version and your dealer will offer you the option of an extra cost 'Performance Pack'. This gives you larger 19-inch 'Spielberg' alloy wheels, an uprated 'R-Performance' braking system, a de-restriced top speed and, on the hatch version, an extra rear spoiler lip that adds a useful 20kg of downforce at high speeds. With all Golf R models, there's also the option of a bespoke sports titanium exhaust package that produces a rortier engine note. It'll add nearly £3,000 to the asking price though.
A big part of the Golf VII design process was a determined weight loss plan and the R benefits from this. Its kerb weight of just under 1.5-tonnes might seem quite hefty for a family hatch sized car but factor in the all-wheel drive transmission and it doesn't seem quite so bad. The interior features cloth sports seats with Alcantara bolsters, with leather upholstery available as an option, while the instrument dials are unique to the R and include some smart touches such as blue needles.
And in summary? Well, the Volkswagen Golf R might seem a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it's a four-wheel drive, 310PS, two-litre turbo road rocket; the sort of car that you thought had gone out of fashion with the demise of rally replicas like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. On the other, it's a wholly civilised, beautifully built family hatch that can better 40mpg and emits less carbon dioxide than VW's old Lupo GTI. That, more than its incredible performance figures, shows us how times have changed and how fast hatches have needed to rehabilitate themselves or die.
Offering a strong value proposition and no shortage of capability, it's hard to see how this latest Volkswagen Golf R can fail. Can it match the vivacity and excitement delivered by the BMW M140i? That will very much depend on how you like your sports hatches but one thing's for sure. You've never had it so good.Click here to find out more about our Volkswagen Golf R range