If you’ve been asleep since the Reagan administration, you may have missed the automotive and cultural phenomenon known as the hot hatch. To be sure, it’s a more pronounced phenom in Europe than it is stateside; there, VWs, Fords, Opels-and-even-Peugeots fight for consumer affection and, uh, Euros. The recipe is simple enough: take a 2-box hatch, tweak the suspension and give it roughly double the horsepower of the civilian version; with that, you have yourself a more reliable route to happiness than medical marijuana. And if Volkswagen has been an ongoing player in the evolution of the hot hatch, know that the product wizards in Wolfsburg are playing an equally significant role in the evolution of the hyper hatch. You want proof? It’s pronounced Volkswagen Golf R…
Volkswagen has been building a hyper variant of its GTI for some time, and while the US has rarely been a beneficiary of same, when it does happen the True Enthusiasts get slightly weak-kneed and, once behind the wheel, are given to premature ‘excitement’. With the launch of the Golf’s seventh generation in ’15, logic – such as it is – dictated the reintroduction of the hallowed ‘R’, bringing to VW showrooms 292 horsepower (some 40% healthier than that of the cooking GTI), and boasting 280 lb-ft of torque at an easily-accessible 1800 rpm. Connected to VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system through VW’s most-excellent dual clutch automatic, it takes but one touch of the accelerator for you to know: this is the power of German engineering!
That this macadam mauler is clothed within the relatively benign confines of a 4-door hatch makes it – in my mind – especially attractive. Obviously, anyone behind the wheel of a Boxster or 370Z fully expects top-level performance; they’ve sacrificed interior space and accessibility to get it. In the Golf R there is no sacrifice – you and a companion in front, a child seat and groceries in back, and an Obama/Biden sticker on the rear hatch. And if those groceries include ice cream, know that you can get from zip to 60 in under five seconds. If your grocery store is near Laguna Seca (lucky you!), you’ll hit 155 before the Haagen (insert umlaut) Dazs melts.
It is that melding of virtues – performance and practicality – that makes the hyper hatch so attractive; rather like knowing the relatively plain girl next door is actually Marilyn Chambers… behind a green door (check her out). And in looking to produce a performance halo for their own lineups, the crazy people building the Golf R will soon be joined by equally crazy people building Fords (Focus RS) and Hondas (Civic Type R). All of which begs the oft-asked query: Who’d have thunk?
Ford, of course, was doing inexpensive performance long before VW could claim an honest 25 horsepower. Hank established his performance reputation at the turn of the last century with his 999 racer, while Ford’s flathead V8 brought democracy to performance motoring just as FDR was expanding the role of democracy in Depression-era D.C. More recently, Ford Motor Company has offered performance derivatives of both its smallish Fiesta and compact Focus. In Europe the hot hatch audience has enjoyed both ST (hot) and RS (hyper-hot) variants of the Focus; here in these United States we’ve had, until now, only the ST; happily, Ford’s Focus RS is just around the corner. And a glance at the specs suggests it’ll be worth your wait.
While our current ST ‘makes do’ with a 2.0 liter EcoBoost four producing 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque (neither figure is one we’d sneeze at – the Focus ST is huge fun) driving through the front wheels, the Focus RS, due in U.S. showrooms within the next year, will reported produce something around 345(!) horsepower from its 2.3 liters of EcoBoost four. Connected to a 6-speed manual and a performance-oriented all-wheel drive powertrain, the end result should be something like a personal plane, capable of very high speeds at very low altitudes. And while the cosmetic tweaks are – thankfully – modest when compared to both the ST and civilian variants, the Focus is far more aggressive visually than the Golf R. Its pricing remains TBD, but educated guesses put it at $35K and up, roughly 30% more dear than the U.S.-spec ST.
Even more of an outlier relative to its production stablemate is Honda’s Civic Type R, a mainstay in both Honda’s home market and Europe, but never available (officially) in the U.S. Shown in concept form at this year’s New York Auto Show, the Type R available stateside will be based on an all-new (and extremely Euro-centric) Civic. Although Volkswagen may have been first to embrace the hot hatch concept, it was Honda – almost in spite of itself – that grew it in popularity. The Civic Si and, to a lesser degree, Acura’s Integra were neither fast nor furious when first introduced, but they spawned an entire aftermarket (and supporting multimedia) in the thirty years since their initial launch.
What we get here is largely conjecture, but if we use a recent test of the Type R by Britain’s Car magazine as a guide, we will eventually enjoy 300+ horsepower and almost 300 lb-ft of torque, all of which will be driving the front wheels via a 6-speed manual and a mechanical limited slip. You, of course, bring the courage. In British spec the Type R arrives at 62 miles per hour in 5.7 seconds, and goes on – if you dare – to a top speed of 167. And all of that, in Car’s testing, was achieved on the wrong side of the road.
As long-time fans of the Civic Si, we expect the Type R to be eminently ‘finished’ in its drive and composure, despite its wild and woolly exterior mods. Rather like Subaru’s WRX STI (which would be referenced here at greater length if it came with a hatch – it did, but doesn’t now), the Type R won’t be for the visually faint of heart; if you don’t like attention, it’s best to stay in the Volkswagen (or perhaps Buick) showroom.
Of course, for an investment of between thirty-five and forty large any number of performance coupes and roadsters – especially in low-mileage, late-model form – is available. But why look like the old guy entering (or exiting) a midlife crisis when you can look like a young hipster, still trying to figure out life…at a very high rate of speed.