Over multiple generations, there have been VW Golf GTI versus Honda Civic Type R versus Renaultsport Megane triple tests for something like 15 years now; seldom has the winner been easy to pick - the VW often ahead on desirability, Honda on powertrain and Renault on chassis - and while each has been recently updated to some extent, those preconceived notions remain. As do our expectations.
That's because even the Golf, as a brand new Mk8 GTI, represents an evolution of the old Mk7 rather than a clean sheet design. It even produces the same 245hp and 273lb ft as the previous Performance - which, given the success of the old car, sounds like a sensible move, it having nailed the GTI brief about as emphatically as it's ever been done. As for the Civic and Megane, they are modest updates of household names; the 320hp Type R is notable for being blue and having CarPlay, the 300hp Trophy now easier to identify with its new LED lights. Possibly that sells those two short a tad, but you get the point - they should be familiar. There's nothing out of the ordinary about any of the trio, nothing unexpected - but that isn't to say proceedings stuck entirely to the script.
Given the Civic's standing as the class leader, the hot hatch which has vanquished all others since 2017, logic decrees it the sensible place to start. And it takes all of about 50 metres to remind all your faculties why the car is so fondly regarded. Perhaps the detail tweaks would shine brighter in a direct comparison with its predecessor, though from here the Civic feels much how it always has. Which is to say formidably, preternaturally good. There's not an ounce of slack in anything it does but, perhaps more crucially, the Type R remains such a satisfying car to drive. It's seldom in any fast car, leave alone a fairly humble hot hatch, that all the controls operate with such precise cohesion, meaning that even the most ordinary journeys are brightened by Honda's obsession with the important stuff. Sometimes you'll drive without any music (even with CarPlay now to distract you from Honda's infotainment) because distractions would spoil the joy of just using it.
The brakes and gearshift were exemplary pre-facelift; now, with new discs and pads (plus a shorter pedal travel) for the former and counterweight for the latter, they're even more gratifying. Because every time they're in use, you as the driver enjoy being part of it. Grabby brakes can spoil a drive as much as a long-winded manual; the Honda remains a fine reminder of how much they can contribute to the overall experience.
And they're both so in sync with the rest of the package - assuming +R mode, with its Ridge Racer soundtrack and unwelcome steering resistance, is left alone. The driver never has to make allowances for anything or compromise one jot because every dynamic facet exists in almost perfect harmony with everything else. Steering weight and speed is just about so, the damping effortlessly combines comfort and control, and the vast performance generated by the VTEC turbo is appropriate for the level of traction on offer. And when it is too much, the assists intervene subtly and decisively. The Honda is spookily, unflappably good; somehow better than it was, too, a shade less busy on the motorway perhaps and with its steering also improved. Though that might just be the Alcantara. Moreover, and crucially, the Civic is fun. Its gear ratios collaborate in the engine's fondness for 7,000rpm, and the driving position places you right at the centre of the action. It remains a class act.
However, if handling entertainment is your number one buying criteria, the Megane still rises head and shoulders above the rest. Anyone of the belief that old school hot hatches no longer exist, that the days of lairy, frisky, slightly intimidating front-drivers have passed, should try the current Trophy. Specifically on a cold and bumpy road. Because if you want a challenge, the Megane most certainly offers it.
Not that it's bad, no sirree, rather it demands all of your attention - all of the time. Truth be told this Trophy feels very similar to the pre-facelift car, which means it's far from the most authentic or natural hot hatch to drive fast - but one that, once you're accustomed to it, is brilliant fun. In this DCT-equipped example (now the only gearbox on offer, and no bad thing), you drive the Megane like a tarmac rally car, always busy despite your hands never leaving 9 and 3. The four-wheel steer ensures it still darts this way and that, including with the unsettling dead zone on turn in, and the focus of a Trophy set up means it can tramline and torque steer with the road's imperfections. Which sounds like a recipe for disaster - and it is undeniably busy - but it eventually becomes second nature to relax your inputs a bit, change up earlier to limit the wheelspin, and work with the car rather than trying to fight it. Embrace what is, in other words, a very good chassis.
And certainly a firm one, too. But don't expect it to ever run out of travel thanks to those hydraulic bump stops. There's also understeer, but it's easily, instantly quelled with a lift; heck, it'll even go really old school and be agitated on the brakes if you're so inclined. The Trophy is a proper hoot of a hot hatch, in a very tightly wound, unerringly focused Renaultsport way - perhaps too much given the manufacturer's overarching desire to make the Megane a more mature (i.e. better Golf-rivalling) product. But you won't forget it in a hurry.
More so even than the Civic, the Megane has been improved by its update: the interior feels of higher quality and makes more sense, while a recalibration of the assists gives the driver extra freedom in Sport before you go it alone in Race mode. The gearbox is still not a class-leading dual-clutch but the engine punches hard for just 1.8-litres. Of the three, it is easy to accuse the Megane 300 Trophy of not being to everyone's taste. But give it a long, lonely B-road and it raises more smiles more often than anything else in attendance.
The subject of the nation's collective taste buds are always front of mind when you're presented with the newest version of the Golf GTI. If nothing else it has made the concept of an everyman hot hatch, the car to cover all of the bases, its own. With the current Type R looking as it does and the Megane still contentious for its boisterous drive, the Golf ought to deliver the obvious third way: nice to drive, nice to look at, nice to use. Just, well, nice - right?
Journalists are often accused of throwing stones from their glass houses when it comes to style; quite rightly so, in most instances. Nonetheless, it seems worth pointing out that, to these eyes, the Mk8 doesn't possess the same effortless, classy yet classless style as the old GTI. It's fussy at the front, big-booted and underwheeled with the standard 18-inch rim. It's a similar story inside: there are giveaway GTI details - seats, badges and so on - but the infotainment menus are complicated, and interface gimmicks seemingly prioritised over ease of use. It doesn't really feel like a Golf, to be honest. Although neither of its rivals here are ergonomic paragons (not least because they borrowed liberally from the VW Group playbook) they do represent progress over previous iterations - it's less easy to be impressed with the Mk8's update.
On the road, it is also unlike any other Golf GTI - but for many more positive reasons. If previous cars had trodden the middle ground dynamically, then this one feels decisively more eager to be driven hard. The springs are plainly firmer, the rear axle has been revised, and the steering is ever so slightly quicker; it all points to a sharper Golf GTI, and that's exactly how it behaves on the road. Where the Megane might have been caught out the Golf just keeps on trucking, poise, traction and composure unfazed by precious little a B-road can throw at it. For what will be the junior model of the fast Golf range it's awesomely capable, devouring a route in a way that the old GTI would hardly recognise.
Cornering speed is up, as is grip and outright body control. At its very stiffest, the DCC adaptive damping is startlingly brusque for a GTI, even though smooth sections show its worth. An Individual setting somewhere a few notches down - once it's been deciphered - makes a more agreeable compromise. Whatever the new Vehicle Dynamics Manager is doing, something is working wonders; any concerns about a power deficit making this Golf feel slower than the other two are swiftly allayed by just how remarkably efficient the chassis is at deploying it.
So, what's the problem? The problem is just how detached you are from everything the Golf does. Obviously it shouldn't fizz and fidget like a Megane, but it almost feels like a conscious effort has been made from VW to distance the keen driver from their relationship with the road. The pedals offer little meaningful resistance, the gearshift paddles are the size of postage stamps, the steering wheel feels too big and the feedback certainly a bit synthetic. The dynamic acumen is genuinely extraordinary for a GTI, yet the interactive part feels like a letdown. From tragically haphazard lane keep assist (technology integrated in the Civic far more seamlessly) to suggestions to lift off the throttle, the GTI drives like a car only half aware that it has been endowed with a great chassis, and adamant that the driver be isolated from it regardless.
There could be a solution on the way, though. The new Clubsport model, introduced with breakneck speed, will follow on very soon. Additional negative camber, lighter wheels and Cup 2 tyres should bring some life to the steering, and different pads and calipers could do the same for the brakes. A retuned suspension might help the driver feel a little more connected, as well. Though hopefully, of course, without entirely sacrificing the agreeable usability that's survived intact. It's a tough ask, but given these are the same engineers who created the Clubsport S and have got the Mk8 to where it is already, our hopes are high.
As it is, though, the Golf can't hope to triumph over its more powerful rivals here. The Civic proves that ability and interactivity are not mutually exclusive traits, while the Megane's edge makes the driver carefully consider every input - with the commensurate reward that that brings. The GTI, while demonstrably improved, proves that the best driver's cars - and the best hot hatches - are about more than just outright capability. Granted, these one-day tests never favour the more sensible, stoic offerings, but the trouble is that the Golf manifestly isn't one of those cars anymore. It's a GTI with a likably more serious edge - yet without the interactivity to make the most of it.
The Megane nabs second, not just for its ability to turn a B-road into a Monte Carlo special stage, but because it has improved in vital areas over its predecessor. It now feels a higher quality item befitting its price, less frustrating in everyday driving if still unrelentingly firm. That is still looks as good as it does, a point brought into starker focus around these two, must also count in its favour.
Somewhat predictably, though, the Civic emerges from this comparison victorious. It doesn't boast the Golf's relative ease of use or the Megane's wild side, sure; on the other hand, it delivers on every sort of assessment so comprehensively that a verdict any other way would be downright unfair. Forgoing an automatic option still seems bizarre, and the looks remain a hurdle too high for some - the Sport Line is coming soon, don't forget - but it still nails the important hot hatch stuff better than anything else out there. Better than the original hot hatch, in fact. That Clubsport can't come soon enough.
SPECIFICATION | HONDA CIVIC TYPE R GT
Engine: 1,996cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,500-4,500rpm
Top speed: 169mph
Weight: 1,405kg (Honda kerbweight)
MPG: 33.2 (WLTP)
Price: £36,320 (as standard; price as tested £37,160 comprised of Bolt Blue paint for £850)
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT SPORT MEGANE 300 TROPHY
Engine: 1,798cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,400rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 162mph
Weight: 1,494kg (to EU, with 75kg driver)
MPG: 33.6 (WLTP)
CO2: 190g/km (WLTP)
Price: £36,995 (as standard; price as tested £39,995 comprised of £1,400 for Liquid Yellow paint and £1,600 for Recaro seats
SPECIFICATION | VW GOLF GTI (MK8)
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245@5,000-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273@1,600-4,300rpm
0-62mph: 6.2 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,448kg (to EU, with 75kg driver)
MPG: 37.2-38.2 (WLTP)
CO2: 168-174g/km (WLTP
Price: £34,960 (DSG as standard; price as tested £38,694 comprised of Dynamic Chassic Control for £785, Oryx White premium paint for £1,040, Rear view camera for £300, Head-up display for £625, Winter pack (heated front seats, heated windscreen washer jets and low washer fluid warning light) for £270, Digital key for £215 and Meta Trak S5-VTS GPS Tracker with one year subscription (dealer fit) for £499
Image credit | Harry Rudd
1 / 35