The unusual all-season suspects | Buy Hard

There's only one Golf R. But more than one car does what a Golf R does – and for much, much less…

By PH Staff / Saturday, March 6, 2021 / Loading comments

We’ve driven the new Golf R recently. We like it. It’s better than before, and it was already very agreeable indeed. Rest assured it’ll do everything the last one did – and more besides. It’ll fit into your life like Gore-Tex trainers. You might end up wondering how you muddled through without it. 

But it’s not the only dog and pony show in town. And without getting into the various benefits of leasing or financing or borrowing, it’s not especially cheap from a total asking price perspective. In fact it’s not cheap at all: it starts at £39,270 and that’s before you factor in the £2k Performance Pack that you’re probably going to want. A Porsche 718 Cayman starts at £44,790. 

Now we’re not suggesting you buy a new Cayman instead (although maybe don’t completely dismiss it out of hand) but there are plenty of other hatchbacks which replicate its all-weather, no-fuss attitude – and with depreciation holding its finger on the scale, they weigh in for plenty less than £40k. Half as much, in fact, as this week’s Buy Hard will prove…

Audi S1, 2018, 28.6k, £20,000

We recently championed the S1 in our Audi Sport rundown – despite the fact that it wasn’t build by Audi Sport. We allowed it for one good reason: it was too good to leave out. Not brilliant, perhaps – or revelatory or unspeakably thrilling; but the Golf R is none of these things either. And the S1 has one thing in its favour beyond the advantages of affordability. It was fun. 

I’m not going to apologise for its comparative small size either, because that is very much at the heart of the fun. Much like the GR Yaris, the S1 used its lane-shaming scale to maximum effect. With no cheek sucking, will-we-make-it-past moments on spindly B roads, and adhesiveness and torque up the wazoo, there really seemed to be no pressing need to slow down at all. Certainly there was no anti-social element to proceedings. Who gets angry at a supermini? 

So you can forget about comparative performance figures. The S1’s 231hp was plenty – not least because it was mated to a six-speed manual, which only added to the give-it-death vibe. For £20k you get one from the last year of production with a trifling 29k on the clock. Sure, there isn’t as much room in the back and fewer doors to access it, but if you’ve got kids you’re going to be buying a Tiguan R anyway. Think bigger – go small. NC

Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type UK, 2011, 66k, £14,250

It seems funny, really, that the first car to package 300hp and four-wheel drive into a compact hatchback body was also the first to meet its maker. And then succeeded by a saloon. Given it feels like VW sold more Golf Rs than TDIs, it seems surprising that the STI hatch didn’t enjoy a longer innings. 

Except, of course, it isn't when you think about it, because cars – even performance cars – are bought as much for image as anything else. And compared to the Golf’s Nespresso machine on four wheels vibe, the Impreza was just too rough and ready for people with the money to spend on a really hot hatch. Then, on the other side, those who loved the saloons found it a bit too meek – it couldn’t win.  

Still, I always did love an underdog, and the Impreza hatch has renewed appeal after a few years off sale. So many of the latest all-wheel drive road rockets are frustratingly synthetic, to which the mechanical feel of a Subaru would be the perfect tonic. There’s feel coursing through them in a way that isn’t often replicated today, from managing a bit of turbo lag to a brake pedal with actual resistance.  

To really show the other two what’s what, I would've preferred a Spec C hatch, one of the Japanese import specials with the 2.0-litre engine and doused in old Impreza attitude. Sadly, they’re out of budget, so a UK-spec car with the 2.5 will have to do. Some of the add-ons here I could do without, but then it is thousands less than either alternative. Which can be spent on making it go even faster… MB

Mercedes A45 AMG, 2015, 71K, £19,950

If it’s effortless performance you want from an all-wheel drive hot hatch, things don’t get much more effortless than an A45 AMG, do they? The tuning division's first hot hatch effectively reset expectations when it landed back in 2013, establishing the super-breed that’s since thrust its way past 400hp mark. I've always been impressed by Affalterbach’s four-pot, although I’ll admit to not fully loving the first-gen model anymore, largely because its image to me has been tainted undertaking yoofs on the A406. It’s for this reason that my favourite A45s come dressed as discreetly as possible.

In less garish trim, the A45 remains technically superb. The car was so ahead of its time that the M133 2.0-litre, even in its earliest 360hp guise, outpunches the Mk8 Golf R by 40hp, a car that’s seven years its junior. And while there’s no doubt in my mind (having recently driven the Golf) that the new R’s all-wheel drive system is the more entertaining one, the AMG’s setup has never wanted for ability. Even if it’s a little on the firm side.

In a year or two, this choice might seem even more compelling because the facelifted 380hp first-gen A45s will surely have snuck under the £20k mark. For now, this late pre-update car looks best suited to the requirements, especially because it was clearly specced by someone who appreciated Q cars. In silver and with no badges on the boot, to the casual onlooker, this is nothing more than an A250. That’s about as Golf R as things can get. SS

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