Four super-fast compacts provide proof that some of the best driving experiences for our roads – and tracks – arrive in small packages.
HUGE horsepower. That’s obviously a key tie that binds the cars featured today.
Just 10 years ago small engines flexing this much muscle were restricted to motorsport, and generally built for a short time in the fast lane. Now? It’s not only an accepted practice that four pots are now all an engine needs to produce V8 levels of performance - provided the systems stoking up its fires include a turbocharger and direct fuel injection -but also a ‘safe’ one too. While brilliantly explosive, these are no longer hand grenades.
Down-sizing while pumping up is a brilliant idea for other reasons too. More agile handling and increased braking performance are hugely influential aspects that allow small powerful cars to run rings around the big brawlers on a fun road. And even though they are the biggest drinkers within their immediate families, these models are far more efficient than any larger, higher-cylinder count cars of similar kapow.
Another attraction: While these are clearly more advanced than the mainstream fare from which they derive, they’re not so loutish as to lose that everyday logic - conversion for extreme activity has more effect on performance and pricing than on their shopping circuit practicality.
So, anyway, we’ve taken the time to drive the four best offers of the moment. All are huge stars and, though one didn’t shine quite as brightly as we’d hoped, none could be called losers by any means. They are remarkable achievements.
Mercedes AMG 45
For: Feels like a pukka AMG, well-sorted and characterful.
Against: Divisive styling.
AMG’s main game is to jam increasingly powerful V8 and - with the advent of the ‘43’ line – V6 motors into luxury sedans and sports utilities, but this new sideline into the compact car sector provides a nice Plan B.
The basic remit of the A45 AMG - to present as a baby big bang Benz seeking to provide the same ballsy bravura as its bigger brothers – is taken very seriously indeed by Affalterbach.
Obviously, dimensional limitations – within the engine bay, yes, but really in respect to the car’s overall size – rules out anything larger than a four-cylinder engine; but it doesn’t prove any foil whatsoever to making that engine way bigger-hearted than it would normally have a right to be.
The original released three years ago certainly did that. It was such a massively wild ride for the time it seemed utterly valid to ask if this was as good as hot hatch could get.
Turns out it wasn’t. While maximum outputs of 265kW and 450Nm were truly heavyweight accomplishments from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, back then – given that, just three Christmases ago many a supercar could not match the high specific power of 133kW per litre – the actions of home turf competitors Audi and BMW have provoked Benz to find even more horsepower.
The perceived threat from the M2 and the updated RS3 means a car that already had more wallop than any fully-fledged World Rally Championship contender has ramped up to even more whopping, and again class-leading, 280kW, while torque climbs to 475Nm.
That makes it faster to 100kmh than the old car – and just a smidge quicker than the RS3 (the claim is 4.2 seconds versus 4.3). Top speed remains pinned to 250kmh, which is pretty quick for a car such as this any way.
But that doesn’t really matter: With the A45, it’s always been all about the thrusting rush of the thing. It offers the kind of heart-jolting accelerative excitement that normally only associates with roller coasters when they free-fall off the ride’s highest point.
And yet, here’s the cunning thing: While making it obviously wilder, it also imparts sensation of being a touch milder, through all sorts of clever tweaks. First thing you notice is the exhaust; it’s still barking, but that boisterous snap-crackle on over-run induces less frequently, unless you’re pushing.
There’s also greater revelation from the suspension and handling. The old model was so firm to be insufferable around town, so for the facelift the car has taken AMG Ride Control adaptive dampers. And whereas the previous Comfort setting was anything but, it not has an element of compliance; not to limo-like plushness, of course and the Sport settings remain firm, but prolonged exposure to even chunky road surfaces in the sport settings is no longer insufferable. Not that’s it’s gone soft. There’s a new extreme in a Race setting that really is very bold.
Beyond that the old favourite ingredients of a clever four-wheel-drive, a well-tuned direct shift transmission (despite what the badge suggests, 4Matic is NOT an slushbox), some very classy performance rubber and a lot of AMG-created special pieces, some under the bonnet, some (anti-roll bars, springs, dampers and steering knuckles) underpinning the car, all remain in situ.
Another option worth taking if you are going to play on a track is a mechanical front axle locking differential. This generally brings about a noticeable improvement in traction when you’re pressing on and accelerating hard out of bends, though ultimately the laws of physics still apply.
So it’s a little more refined. But still a total radical.
Though the drivetrain has enough flexibility to tolerate sub-3000rpm stop-start toodling and also supports an eco mode that apparently allows 6.9 litres per 100km parsimony (yeah, sure) - it’s clearly on a short, fast-burning fuse and will blaze at the slightest provocation. You give thanks to those who engineered in that massive grip and traction yet accept that, as good as the hardware is, it might become a tricky wee thing on low grip surfaces.
The interior has smartened, but just a bit. The fake carbon fibre is a jarring sight in a cabin otherwise trimmed in high quality leather, but everything is exquisitely-made and exuding AMG purity. And it is loaded: Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, adaptive headlights, a panoramic sunroof, satellite-navigation, internet access and a Harman Kardon premium sound system.
All in all, there’s a lot going for the only full-blood AMG that, at $98,200, sidesteps a six-figure pricetag.
For: Purest, most organic M model.
Against: Disappointing interior, AMG offers more for less.
IN bullish kerbside appearance and technical specification, this indirect successor to the short lived 1-Series M Coupe and, many would argue, the very first M3, represents a return to greatness. You’d be tempted to award perfect 10s.
And then … well, there are one or two issues. A car that holds the highest price point in this company does let itself down on several fronts, all of which converge on the ‘value for money’ issue. Biggest vexation: Would you really want to lash out $115k for an interior quite this unexciting? It’s remarkable that, even with all the special touches - manually-adjustable, leather, M-embossed sports seats, an Alcantara gear lever boot and Alcantara door inserts, a leather M gear knob, a chunky red- and blue-stitched M sports steering wheel, M-stamped kick plates and some carbon-fibre lashings on the door pulls, transmission tunnel, and passenger-side dash – it just lends less than special interior appeal. There are ergonomic issues, too, that blight more than in any other contender here and the coupe bodystyle will cruelly kybosh contemplation of the rear seats being used as anything more than bag carriers.
A shame about that, because, in terms of kerbside presence, the M2 pretty much nails it. Visual differentiation from lesser 2-Series coupe models results through implementation of prominent exterior design changes, among them a heavily structured front bumper which uses pronounced winglets to channel air to large engine cooling ducts, fenders that extend out an added 55mm at the front and 80mm at the rear, wider sills, a small boot lip spoiler and a prominent rear bumper housing an integral diffuser with BMW M division's signature quad exhaust treatment. Meaty-looking M-stamped cross-drilled brakes sit under black, 19-inch forged double-spoke light-alloy M wheels. M2 badges that locate on the grille, the front gaurds and the bum are hardly required. This isn’t just to be showy: Grip and braking performance is way better that standard and aerodynamic drag reduces by up to five percent and it has a 35 percent reduction in lift over the standard coupe.
One thing photos perhaps don’t provide clear impression of is its diminutive size; the M2 is clearly the smallest of all current BMW M division model yet I was surprised that even the A45 – which is no hulk - looked quite a bit bulkier when parked alongside the test car. With a length of 4468mm, width of 1854mm and height of 1410mm, the baby M is 202mm shorter, 21mm narrower and 10mm lower than the M3. It also uses a wheelbase that is 117mm shorter than its larger sibling at 2693mm.
But visual verve isn’t the top draw, of course. As always, it’s about the driving. Admittedly, that’s largely brilliant. The M recipe of matching a great engine with a brilliant chassis is faithfully applied here.
The heart of this machine is a heavily modified version of BMW's seven-year-old turbocharged N55 direct-injection petrol engine – as used in an earlier evolutionary form by the 1-series M coupe – churning out 272kW of power at 6500rpm and 465Nm of torque between 1400-5560rpm (and up to 500Nm between 1450-4750rpm thanks to an ‘overboost’ function).
Cylinder count is the point of difference here: It’s a six, which might seem to be breaking the rules given that we have been talking about fours. But we figure the M2 still rates mention because it’s a four-cylinder-sized car. Anyway, that seemed good enough excuse to drive it.
Given it has two more cylinders and more capacity than any other engine here, you’d think the output advantage would be greater. But, assuredly, it doesn’t need to be. The M2 only has 45kW less than the M3 and, in combination with a claimed kerb weight of 1495kg, it handily has the same 5.5kg per kW weight to power ratio as the 1555kg A45.
BMW’s promise of 0-100kmh in 4.5 seconds with the six-speed manual, dropping to 4.3s with the direct shift transmission we drove with (because it has launch control in play) seemed to be bang on the money; even though the state of the car’s tyres spoke heaps about it having a hard life to date, the engine still felt impressively fresh. Top speed, for the record, is 250kmh.
This engine is less complex than the S55 designated engine found in the M3, insofar as the latter uses two separate turbochargers whereas the M2’s unit relies on a single turbocharger with a twin scroll process to bolster induction, but that’s no particular drawback. If anything, the simpler approach allows for more character; it feeds in power more brutally, yes, and requires more revs to get up to full song, but those traits simply enhance the feeling of ‘oneness’ and involvement that, let’s face it, this kind of car demands.
Anyway, this is hardly an engine that has been dusted off for one last role: It has the same pistons, crankshaft bearing shells, elements of its exhaust system variable valve control and variable camshaft control systems as the M3 powerplant.
M division is keen to talk up the torque qualities of its new engine, citing how having all that muscle makes it more manageable around town. That’s definitely true; it’s tractable enough to happily saunter in sixth gear at 50kmh. But really the plus factor is at the other end of its talent spread, with the overboost function, activated during kickdown. Experience this and the reason why the rear tyres will quickly get bedraggled is very obvious.
The seven-speed dual clutch transmission is an option I might personally prefer to sidestep; yes, it makes around-town driving far easier, but it’s clunky and, anyway, the manual is surely in keeping with the car’s persona. The DCT offers the choice of manual and automatic modes, three distinct driving modes (Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus) as well as launch control and a so-called Smoky Burnout function.
Regardless of which M2 you choose to buy, you also won’t get the handy ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ driver preference ‘shortcut’ buttons seen on the steering wheel of other M cars, nor these cars’ adaptive suspension systems; so it’s firm always. It is, however, paired to an electronically controlled active M rear differential, which BMW says can apply a locking effect of between 0-100 percent, and allow for some “controlled drifting” when M Dynamic mode is selected.
Of all the cars here, the M2 feels most immediately circuit-prepped, mainly because it is just so direct and so rigid. There’s good in this – the steering feel is stunning – but you do need to accept that it is unremitting in its rawness. The rigidity of the structure, the dispensation of rear bushings – so the rear axle sub-frame is bolted directly to the body – and those finger-width 245/35 and 265/35 profile Michelin Pilot super Sport tyres all add up to utterly minimal ride compliance. But there should be no surprise about that: It’s a performance car and, as result of that, provides a dynamically exceptional experience, one that focuses on the purity and essence of the M brand.
All the same, it just doesn’t feel as complete as the other cars here, in part because – while costing the most – it has the least generous spec: Absent, without good excuse, are a head-up display, blind-spot monitoring, front parking sensors, and dual-zone climate control.
VW Golf GTi 40th anniversary
For: A better version of a brill Golf
Against: They’ve all gone
FORTY years ago, when VW produced its first Golf GTI, I was still at school but already working part-time.
To think: If I’d saved up all those dollars and cents instead of blowing them on records, supposedly cool clothes (hey, there WAS a time where corduroy was chic), and acne remedies, then perhaps by now I would have enough stored away to have sorted out a nice GTI collection. Actually, on second thought, no I wouldn’t … because other subsequent factors (marriage, home ownership, desire to travel) kinda nailed that concept.
Anyway, I have in adulthood owned some hot hatches, but never the one that started this whole good-kind-of-crazy trend. And never have I wanted more badly to alter that history than now. All Golf GTIs are great, but the 40th anniversary car on test here – the so-called Edition 40 - is simply exceptional.
Knowing that it was a machine I definitely cannot have new because it only came out as a limited count and every one of the 40 examples sent to NZ has already been nabbed hardly lessened the emotional stress of saying goodbye. What hurt all the more was hearing my wife, who very rarely agrees on anything I say about cars, express out of the blue that this one was perfectly suited to her tastes, too. WTF!
But, then, the $63,990 Edition 40 does seem to be the kind of car that makes friends easily. Potentially moreso that the other Golf that VW built for itself to celebrate four decades of GTI fun. That car, the Clubsport, is even more fiery than the one we get, and proved its spurs by resetting the Nurburgring lap record for front-drive four-cylinder production hatchbacks.
But the Clubsport was not available to this part of the world – ironically, in part because VW didn’t want to have a stoush with Holden Special Vehicles, which has dibs on that name - and probably wouldn’t have been in such hot demand, since it was a manual three-door with no back seat. I mean, I wouldn’t have minded, but perhaps family buyers might have been troubled.
I guess part of the beauty of the Edition 40 is that, as a five-door with a direct shift box and a reasonable kit content, it basically ticks all the boxes for the whole ‘weekday work run and weekend circuit fun’ remit that works well for the mainstream GTI and, at the same token, lifts the bar where it counts most, for a modest $7000 increase in sticker price.
The premium over the standard car evidences visually in the usual way: With a more pronounced – but not the point of being utterly overt – body kit, which introduces black strakes along the front bumper that line up with the black side-decals, new skirts, a rear diffuser, two-piece roof spoiler, black side-mirror caps.
There are also special 19-inch Ruby (well, what else could they called?) alloy wheels, behind which reside the larger brake rotors initially developed for the Golf GTI Performance. It also adds bi-xenon lamps with cornering function of such intensity as to utterly bedazzle the resident possums on our local country roads. Also added in are Volkswagen’s – deep breath now - Vorderachsquersperre (electronically-clutched) locking diff, sport-mode stability control, and DCC adaptive suspension and pushbutton driving mode that would add $2000 to the standard car’s sticker.
For good measure, there are also some additional stickers. Though not the big ones besmirching the flanks of the test car. Those were added locally because the car started local market life on display at the Fieldays and, regrettably, were not removed afterward.
The interior also tarts up a bit, mainly with some nice sports seats, curiously not in the usual trademark tartan, not that I’m complaining: The honeycomb cloth and Alcantara combination upholstery looked pretty swish and matched nicely with the Alcantara-coated, thick-rimmed steering wheel.
The true birthday treat is the mechanical rework. The major focus is under the bonnet, with a significant performance boost to the 2.0-litre turbo four.
True, it’s not as extreme as occurred with the Clubsport; that model offers 228kW/380Nm while the tune here makes 195kW/350Nm, though 213kW/380Nm is available in overboost for periods of up to 10 seconds. The difference does show against the stopwatch – the claimed 0-100kmh time of 6.3 seconds is a good 0.5s slower than ‘Ring special achieves and just 0.3s sharper than the standard GTI – but you tend to forget about that when hitting the road, because the 40th immediately feels and sounds more feral than the mainstream model. GThe exhaust note is so impressively rorty in Sport mode that, frankly, it becomes the default setting for driving.
Are there times when this much grunt is too much for the front wheels? Yes. But you learn to live with an occasional aberrance, mostly expressed through too much exuberance at take-off but occasionally, also, when there’s any moisture. It’s just the usual thing: Work out the how and when to modulate the throttle and go from there. And ‘going’ is what it does really well; there’s tons of mid-range thrust and not a lot of torque steer, thanks to that differential and, perhaps, the XDS electronic traction control.
What’s great about this car is that, when you decided to press on hard, it simply squats down and works pretty much to your bidding. There’s no squirm, no tramp. The electronically-controlled mechanical diff simultaneously permits steering adjustment and decent drive, making it easier to maintain the right line and punch harder out of corners. It’s not so grippy as to make the Golf R feel redundant, but is certainly more fun and more predictable than the all-wheel-drive flagship.
All in all, this the GTI as it should be: Fiesty, fun and flirtatious and a wholly agreeable send-off for a model line that starts a whole new chapter in less than 12 months from now.
Ford Focus RS
For: Stunning performance, best value in this bunch
Against: High-set seat, fussy everyday ride
FIRST, some bad news hot off the internet presses: The long-anticipated super-performance version of this car is potentially not going to be built: Apparently the business case is looking so weak – mainly because of concern out of America about how it might hurt sales of the super-pumped Mustangs – that, according to Britain’s Autocar magazine, there’s now just a 30 percent chance of it making production.
That’s sad news about the Franken-focus, obviously. The concept of a four-wheel-drive hatch with close to 290kW and styling and handling that is especially track-focussed is clearly tasty but not going to that extreme as a factory-ware is really not too tragic, because the standard RS here now is far from being a disappointment.
That’s not to suggest this most fiery and flamboyant member of the Focus family is not without foibles or flaws – this package does deliver both – but there’s nothing so off-putting that it cannot be owner-accommodated. Certainly, too, this model utterly deflates the theory of getting cheap when you buy that way. If anything, on a kapow per kilogram basis, this car unquestionably has to be the performance bargain of the year.
A day’s driveway sharing with the AMG A45 reinforced the trade-offs and savings; the German way delivers smarter, more precise detailing and finishing, a stronger spec and perception that, overall, you’re buying into a totally quality experience.
Ford’s approach is more laidback. If the AMG is Michael Schumacher, the Focus is more your Nigel Mansell – not as cultured, but just as much a hero.
The performance enhancements are so plentiful, from a big wing and Brembo brakes to those Recaro shells and extra dials in the cabin, and most patently applied that there’s no chance of identifying this as being anything but a very special product, yet for all that plus the lurid decals, the blue stitching and – hardly least of all, the Nitrous Blue paintwork that would look naff on any lesser Ford but seems so ‘right’ for this one … it’s still … well, a Focus and thus a car designed for a more mainstream audience. One that includes a patronage the A-Class probably sidesteps - company reps, renters and basically budget buyers.
It can’t be helped. The Focus is what it is and, truth be told, the easiest way to fend off the issues of class distinction that might crop up should this car be compared with the more elite crowd here is that (A) it still has almost all the usual Focus practicalities (if not the comforts) with five doors and a reasonably-dimensioned boot and (B) will also still be up to take them on in any straight line, winding road or outright track test.
Speed and off-the-wall agility is largely what this is all about. It’s easy to zip across the features implemented for general all-occupant pleasure because there are so few of them: The bent for going fast at bargain price allows for air con, electric windows and a doof-doof Sony stereo with incorporated sat nav and Bluetooth, but not a lot more. There are no electric seats, forget about a sunroof and it lacks the lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control meted the cheaper ‘luxury’ Titanium model. Indeed, even the infotainment is a step behind, being the Sync 2 edition that is now outmoded.
The transmission is a touch old-school, too, being a manual – one of the few I’ve driven this year and implemented, Ford says, because it’s always been part of the RS persona.
Doubtless an automated shift gearbox would win more friends, because certainly Ford’s preference does demand an authoritative approach. Even though the clutch is not as heavy as the previous car’s, it still has a white pointer bite and asserting clean engagement with the short-throw box can be challenging, not least when the engine is cold.
Yet the RS would be less characterful without a manual and it’s an ingredient that defines the edgy backstreet ‘pitbull on a short lease’ persona that might seem daunting to start with but quickly shows up as one of the main delights of the driving experience, simply because you feel so immediately and deeply connected to what’s going on.
So much has been said about this generation car’s new feature of an advanced four-wheel-drive and torque vectoring that it probably does not deserve any in-depth dissection. Basically, it boils down not only maximum of 70 percent of drive torque being available diversion to the rear wheels at any one time but also up to 100 percent of available torque at the rear axle being sent to either rear wheel.
That rally star Ken ‘Hoonigan’ Block provided input to the development programme lends huge street cred, I suppose. The inclusion of a mode that, in theory, allows you to four-wheel-drift is truly something special, too – and our dissection of just that unique tyre-wailing ingredient is the subject of the video here today.
The pros and cons of allowing a ‘Drift’ mode on a road car can be debated until you’re as blue as the Ford flag, but Ford makes clear it is a track-pure function and in the right hands in those circumstances it’s certainly an enlivening and entertaining function, even if – as our tame drift expert, Gavin Halls, found – the idea of being able to perform a flawless powerslide at the push of a button doesn’t quite execute as easily as the box suggests. Watch the video …
There’s a lot more to the RS than skidding sideways at the flick of a switch. It’s equally as impressive putting its four feet forward. Zero to 100kmh in 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 266kmh are captivating ingredients from a 2.3-litre four-cylinder that, while shared with the EcoBoost Mustang, is tailored to deliver extra explosiveness. A new twin-scroll turbocharger, a larger intercooler, a less restrictive intake design and bi-modal exhaust system are the ‘good stuff’ enhancements that raise the maximum rev limit to 6800rpm and the outputs to 257kW and 440Nm (up 470Nm with a transient overboost).
It’s faster out of the blocks than the factory-sanctioned Roush supercharged V8 Mustang and the now defunct, out-of-Aussie supercharged V8 Falcon XR8, which notch 100kmh in 4.8 seconds and about 5.0 seconds respectively. It also out-performs the more relevant like-price fare in the Audi S3, Subaru WRX STi and Volkswagen Golf R. Though the cold hard stopwatch assessment shows the A45 to have its measure by half a second, the RS nonetheless feels just as quick, not least when the launch control is employed, a good option unless you’re out to kill a clutch.
The blast-off can be breath-taking but more exhilarating is how it shows utterly no fear in cornering. Even though the notable feel of rear-drive to its character is evident in the public domain, Ford’s assertion that the AWD system has been tuned to deliver exceptional grip – with lateral acceleration exceeding 1g – and class-leading cornering speed and acceleration out of a bend, seems almost understatement.
This car simply hangs on with superglue tenacity and, when adhesion from those sticky 19-inch Michelins is exhausted, it still maintains incredibly balanced and adjustable limit handling. It says much about the genius of this car’s chassis that we managed to force the electronic stability to intervene once during road driving, and then only when attempting a bend at what was, in hindsight, utterly stupid speed (don’t worry, it all ended well).
What also impresses is that, while the car could hardly be called civilised when running really hard (on a track, of course), it’s not lending impression of being just millimetres away from total psycho frenzy. Even when the engine and exhaust sound incredibly savage – with delightful over-run pops and crackles - the car as a whole has an impressive coolness to it. I love it for that.
All the same, it does seek to constantly run fast – the engine is so immediately reactive that, even in top gear on the open road, 100kmh to jail time is just a mis-timed blink away – and hard. Especially the latter. The suspension tuning is stiff even at its softest setting and any remnant yield has disappeared with the selection of the ‘standard’ mode (which is good enough for circuit work) while cushioning for the deeply bucketed Recaro seats seems to be an option Ford didn’t bother with.
To be fair, the greater discomfort comes from the seats lacking adjustment for either height or tilt, which left me feeling positioned a little high in the cabin. On the plus side, they’re beautifully sculpted and keep you where you need to be when the scenery that is normally viewed through the windscreen is instead being seen via the side glass.
The bump-thump suspension might be a short-cut to a chiropractor but is forgivable, given the car’s intent, plus the fact there’s trade-off with beautifully weighted steering and a massively communicative chassis.
The RS is not the most polished of the cars here, nor the most powerful, but its provide the best bang for buck by far, not just against other rival hatches, coupes and sedans in its price range but also in today’s company. Indeed, that the RS stands up so well in comparison to those much more elite and expensive Euro fighters is a testament to just how much above its weight the new RS is punching.