Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale. Caterham R500 Superlight. Dodge Viper. Every single one of those cars is slower around the Nurburgring Nordschleife than the three hatchbacks seen here. Now comparing 'ring lap times may be about as exact a science as recording 0-60 one Mississippi at a time, but there's no doubting the stunning track performance of the latest Civic Type R, Golf GTI Clubsport S and Megane Trophy-R. Over the past few years we've driven them on various roads and tracks - with unsurprisingly effusive conclusions - and against multiple rivals - comparisons they've always won. It therefore seemed high time that the three hottest hatches on the Northern Loop were brought together.
Why? A few reasons. First and foremost is that these three cars prove unequivocally that Nurburgring development assists a road car destined for Great Britain. Look at what a car has to deal with on a lap there: bumps, yumps, imperfections, undulations and more. Now consider what so many of the UK's minor roads are characterised by: bumps, yumps, undula... you get the picture. For both, the car requires tight body control (but decent compliance, too), compact dimensions, and confidence coursing through the car. It's why the rally reps, cars from Delta Integrales to Lancer Evos, thrived in the UK, and why these latest hot hatches feel so at home as well. Rallying is tough, the Nurburgring is tough, our roads are tough; cars honed for the first two working on the third does make some sense.
It's why this test is very deliberately on the public highway, too, because despite these cars entering our consciousness through their numbers, their reputations stem from being involving, engaging, enthralling driver's cars. Whatever the speed, whatever the location. Our chosen photo spot is the A4069 and the roads around Brecon, because they encapsulate all we look for in testing road: tight and twisty in places, open and faster in others, imperfectly surfaced pretty much everywhere. They're as much of a challenge as any track, and ideal for hot hatches - anything much bigger just wouldn't be so easy to place.
A brief reminder of these three, then, in case you're not the sort of person who recites the numbers to help them sleep (it works). The Megane Trophy-R is the oldest but was the most expensive of the group, arriving in 2014 and requiring 30 UK buyers to stump up at least £36,430 to acquire in one. That bought you a 1,297kg Megane, though for full paddock kudos a £2k 'Nurburgring Package' was needed, taking kerbweight down to 1,280kg thanks to a lithium-ion battery and aluminium bells for the brake discs. Power and torque are rated at 275hp and 265lb ft, with a lap time of 7:54.3 set by Laurent Hurgon.
The Golf GTI Clubsport S stole both the limelight of the Megane and that of SEAT with a 7:49.2 lap in 2016, followed up by a 7:47.2 in better conditions, both with Benny Leuchter driving. (It should be noted, as well, that sportauto achieved a 7:56.9 with a fully representative road car). It cost 150 buyers in the UK £33,995, trimmed 15kg from a Clubsport kerbweight for a Megane-beating 1,285kg and produced (hopefully still does) 310hp and 280lb ft from its 2.0-litre EA888 turbo engine.
The Civic Type R is different for a couple of reasons; the first of course being that it's a five-door hatch that's still on sale, the second that it's not actually been around the Nurburgring. As with the previous model, the 7:43.80 'record lap' was achieved in a prototype car "technically representative of production specification." Honda will probably be content with the PR victory, though it's worth noting an actual production car hasn't been around - make of that what you will. In GT spec it's £32,995, toting 320hp and 295lb ft, with a kerbweight of 1,376kg.
Phew. Top Trumps over. Because what the numbers can never, ever convey is the real world driving experience, and there's nothing much more real world than the M4 westbound in torrential rain. Without a rear wiper (saving 1kg), without air-conditioning (saving 10kg) and without a radio (saving 1.4 bloody kilograms). Yep, life in the Megane is pretty miserable, windows steaming up, rear visibility patchy and mood sombre. Still, such austerity does at least force attention onto other aspects of the car; HY64 PRX has now travelled 12,500 (presumably hard) miles, yet feels beautifully worn in as a result, operating with the sort of oily, satisfying precision that very, very few cars do. The Megane driver feels like a properly vital part of the experience (harder to find in fast cars than you might think), the drive only as good as your inputs but the car providing all the tools to do it well - it's a close relationship, and not just because every stop requires peeling your t-shirt from the seat...
The steering would be fantastic by hydraulic standards, so to remind yourself of a system so faithful and immersive as EPAS makes it borderline extraordinary; the pedals are weighty, precise and well located, a reminder of how important that is and how frequently it's overlooked; the gearshift isn't the shortest, but again the sensation and involvement make it immensely satisfying.
Having endured the hours travelled west, it only seems fair to take the Megane on some more befitting roads upon arrival in Wales. Without wishing to sound too evangelical here, or indeed blow any more smoke up the derriere of Renaultsport, it's little short of magnificent. The Trophy-R is not a demanding car for the sake of it; rather it's a car in which the reward is entirely commensurate to the effort. As a driver you must put a lot in but by heck do you get it back out; the Renault as memorable as cars many times more expensive.
The thing just boasts such exquisite, indomitable poise, the combination of composite Allevard springs, hydraulic bump stops, Ohlins dampers and Cup 2 tyres delivering unprecedented ability and sharpness for a hot hatch. And a pretty unapologetic ride, sure, but whose list of all-time favourite cars features all-rounders? The Megane's genius is in combining that motorsport sense of resolve and focus with the expressiveness, effervescence and sheer fun of the very best pocket rockets. It can play fast and firm with the Civic but, unlike the Japanese adversary, gives you more options as a driver too, allowing its dynamic attitude to be minutely, precisely, addictively manipulated. Like the very best driver's cars, the Megane is a challenge that keeps you coming back for more, desperate to uncover something else about its ability and your driving, all the time consumed by its depth of talent, sense of purpose and all consuming involvement. It's a special car.
Truth be told, after the Megane the Civic initially feels about as exciting as a Honda Legend, festooned with buttons and equipment and technology. The steering is light, the clutch is too, and the engine sounds ordinary. Is the Type R really worth its place here?
Absolutely. Convenient for the story though this most probably sounds, it takes all of three gearchanges to realise - softer remit or otherwise - that the Civic belongs in this company. Not only is it the best hot hatch currently on sale by a margin, the FK8 is also good enough to qualify - by our measure, at least - as one of the Japanese fast car greats. It should be there with Skylines, Evos, Imprezas and the rest as a reminder of how jaw-droppingly good Jap metal can be.
The Type R's success lies, both in that anecdotal comparison and this one, in its frankly incredible array of talents. At one end it can be a tarmac shredding lunatic, the other a refined and comfortable Honda Civic. One doesn't come at the expense of the other, and nor does it fall into the Golf R trap of being so crushingly competent that it borders on the criminally uninteresting. So while the dynamic behaviour of the Civic is more serious and less exuberant than the Megane - think four-square touring car attitude, rather than flighty tarmac rally car - there's still a huge amount to admire on a British country road at British country road speeds.
It has the best brake feel here; up there with the best of any car on sale, in fact. The middle pedal is firm yet progressive, powerful yet manageable. The gearbox is significantly more enjoyable than both of the (very good) shifts in the other cars, to the point that you feel compelled to change gear just to experience it again. In addition the ratios are shorter than VW or Renault, so you're involved more of the time. Peak power is made 1,000rpm higher than the Megane and 700rpm beyond the Golf, so the driver is rewarded for eking out every last drop, too.
Combine that with sublime damping finesse regardless of mode, and the result is a car that's awe-inspiring down a challenging road. You brake harder and harder into bends then jump on the throttle sooner and sooner, submerged in the action and confident the car can relish the task as much as its driver. The muscle and character of that VTEC turbo means both lugging in a high gear and screaming through a low one feel valid approaches, that gearbox just gets better and better and all the time you're ensconced in probably the best driving position here. The modes might be a bit daft (Comfort spoils the throttle response; +R spoils the steering), but be in no doubt: 'regular' hot hatch though the Civic might be, it still has more than enough to mix competitively here.
Which leaves the Golf CS where, then? As you might have predicted, the GTI occupies the no man's land between mentalist Megane and civilised Civic. However rather than feeling lost or ill defined, the Golf offers up one of the great driving experiences precisely because it does tread the middle ground: rabidly fast and intensely exciting one moment, sufficiently relaxing and mature the next. This is still a Golf GTI, after all. Where that fairly strait-laced attitude can sometimes feel a limiting factor in a quick VW hatch, that sheen of usability here sits on top of a beguiling driver's car and simply makes it all the more damn desirable.
Like the Type R (which has three driving modes and only requires one), the Clubsport S also only ever needs one setting from the available five: Individual. Select and reset that and you have the Nordschleife drive mode, calibrated to make the most of the tweaks unique to this car: an aluminium front subframe and bespoke hub carriers to allow more negative camber, the revised engine, new steering geometry, more aero and, of course, the weight loss.
Thus configured the Golf is superb in Wales, even by the exalted standards of this test. Again it's the suspension work that shines through, the Nordschleife cheat mode retaining the comfort setting for the DCC dampers to deliver compliance, yet with the right stiffness to ensure agility and genuine aggression. Its achievement is perhaps more remarkable because of the GTI's fairly humdrum nature as a standard car (never something you could level at a normal Renaultsport Megane of this era, for example). Sure, they're nice up to a point, but beyond that rather scrappy, vague and unsatisfying - not here. The CS digs in and matches all you can throw at it, shrugging off even the very worst bumps, steering with more precision and feel than any other GTI and all the while enrapturing its driver - egging them on even, if VW would ever permit such a thing.
The engine deserves mention, too; while the EA888 is familiar now almost to the point of ubiquity, here it's more eager, more willing and more exciting than any other installation, ripping around the rev counter with abandon. Certainly it seems the quickest car here, a similar weight and 35hp up on the Megane, while also just 10hp behind the heavier Civic. Sounds wicked, too, the cracks and bangs of the new exhaust all the more audible without back seats.
In Wales the greatest compliment that can be paid to the Golf is that it doesn't feel like a GTI, so entertaining is its company. On the journey home the fact it clings on to just enough Golfness becomes its strongest asset, with only some more road noise echoing in the cavern behind to distract from the Apple CarPlay, air conditioning and pleasant materials.
In fact, the only thing that really let the Golf down during our time with it was a factor out of its control - tyres. For some reason it arrived on the Pirelli P Zero found on a regular GTI rather than the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 the car was designed for. As such it lacked the final few per cent of incisiveness, poise and traction the CS is known for, albeit not enough to detract from a stellar car. And while project head Karsten Schebstadt never saw a need for the Brembo brakes as used in the Leon Ultimate, they do from memory offer slightly better feel underfoot.
That's that, then. Three extraordinary cars, some truly spectacular roads and conclusive proof, if anymore were required, that that race track in a German forest can be of real relevance to road cars in the UK. These hot hatches are as thrilling and intoxicating as they are on the road because of the Nordschleife, not in spite of it. Though if you do ever have the opportunity to drive any of them on that hallowed tarmac, a good time is fairly guaranteed as well...
To name a winner seems almost a moot point, because all three have proven their worth beyond any further scrutiny, as well as offering up a triumvirate of quite different experiences. However, nobody would want to make it this far without a conclusion, so here goes. The Civic Type R is the most complete car here, an astonishing combination of huge driver appeal with genuine practicality and usability. It's the only one here with four seats, has a huge boot, and that multi-link rear axle has made the ride both more composed and more comfortable. It's very nearly all things to all drivers, yet retains a tangible streak of Japanese turbo nutter in everything it does - park your reservations over there, and get over its looks, because it's absolutely fantastic.
That said, it's the Megane and Golf that linger in the memory longest, as could be reasonably expected of two cars so unashamedly hardcore. The Civic is by far the best 'hot hatch', but these two have it as driving experiences. The lithe, limber, athletic Clubsport S should be remembered in Golf GTI history as a milestone as important as the Mk5's introduction and indeed as the very first car; some will continue to whinge about the validity of a two-seat Golf, but for being a VW performance car that delivers, rewards and excites at all speeds and all commitment levels it deserves considerable recognition - those who paid £34k got an absolute bargain.
However it's the Megane, perhaps unsurprisingly, that you want to ring everybody you know and rave about. Once you've stopped driving, of course, because there's no Bluetooth. General Megane obsession probably seems a little tedious by now, but the Trophy-R shares its most captivating quality with all those other greats that are harked on about - Caterhams, old 911s, Lotus Elises, Mitsubishi Evos and the like, specifically because it's a uniquely testing and endlessly engaging car to drive. In the same way as with a 964 RS, R500 or Evo VI Tommi Mak, the sense is you could own a Trophy-R for many years and still continue to learn more and more about it. That sort of slow-burn, deep seated, wholly captivating appeal doesn't come around all that often yet it's in abundance here, and that's what makes the Megane Renaultsport Trophy-R one of the all-time greats.
MEGANE RENAULTSPORT 275 TROPHY-R
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 265@3,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.8 sec
Top speed: 158mph
MPG: 37.7mpg (NEDC combined)
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI CLUBSPORT S
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,850-5,700rpm
Top speed: 164mph
Weight: 1,360kg (EU, including 75kg driver)
MPG: 38.2 (provisional NEDC combined figures)
CO2: 172g/km (provisional figures)
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R (FK8)
Engine: 1,996cc, turbocharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,500-4,500rpm
Top speed: 169mph
Weight: 1,451kg (with fluids and driver)
MPG: 36.7 (NEDC combined)
Price: £30,995 (£32,995 for GT version)