Tested: best hot hatches under $60K
MOLLY Taylor is one of the lucky few who can drive performance cars to their limit.
The 2016 Australian Rally Champion has been motor racing since her teens, honing her craft in a paddock before getting her road licence.
Today, Molly has put aside her allegiances to rally sponsor Subaru to test the best of the rest.
We're at Sydney Motorsport Park to put through their paces the recently revised Ford Focus RS LE, the hyped up Honda Civic Type R and the just released VW Golf R Grid Edition.
Here's how they compare on the road and track.
Ford Focus RS LE
Production of the Focus RS will end soon so Ford has released 500 limited editions.
There's no more power from the turbo 2.3-litre four cylinder but it has the most grunt among this trio.
The all-wheel-drive hardware has been boosted by a mechanical limited-slip front differential, stickier tyres, and forged-alloy wheels. Racing seats and black paint on the roof, side mirrors and rear spoiler are also part of the package.
All this adds a hefty $6000 to the price, to $62,000 drive-away, making it the most expensive here.
It's the car Molly is most keen to drive but first impressions aren't good. "The racing seat is really comfortable but it's mounted too high," she says.
With a crackle and pop from the exhaust she's off for the first of her hot laps, returning just a few laps later with brake trouble.
"The pedal went long, it feels like the brake fluid got too hot," she says.
That aside, she likes the car. "It sounds like a race car, and you can feel the extra torque of the engine down low in the rev range," she says.
"It feels heavier than the others, but it has good grip and claws out of corners."
The stiff suspension that gives the Focus poise on a track makes it a touch too taut on the road. Passengers prone to motion sickness would be well advised not to read a book.
In other regards, it delights the senses.
As the heaviest car here the Focus feels like a brash, American take on the hot hatch theme. Funny that.
Piling on the kilos also makes it the thirstiest, even by performance car standards. The Focus is the least likely to get near its rating label claim.
In the 0 to 100kmh dash using GPS timing equipment, the Focus is the fastest here, stopping the clocks in 5.3 seconds, shy of its 4.7-second claim.
The Focus briefly nudges 102kmh in second gear before the rev limiter brings the speed back to 97kmh. The other two cars need to grab third to hit 100.
Honda Civic Type R
Honda has finally returned to the hot hatch market with a car worthy of the coveted Type R badge, with a car that looks like it was inspired by Star Wars.
It has also been bold with the price. The $56,700 drive-away sticker puts it squarely in all-wheel-drive company even though the Honda powers only the front wheels.
Based on its credentials on paper, you could be forgiven for underestimating this car.
However, one lap was all it took for Molly to have respect for the hot Honda.
"It feels like a go-kart," she beams. "It definitely surprised me. Even though it's not all-wheel-drive you feel more confident because the suspension, steering and brakes are so precise, you can really take it to the limit and get the most out of it. The brakes are phenomenal. This is a real surprise package."
Dislikes? "Compared to the others it sounds almost silent even though it has three exhausts. The sound doesn't have much character, especially when you consider how bold Honda has been with the appearance".
On the road, despite riding on licorice-thin low-profile 20-inch tyres, it's remarkably comfortable over bumps, even in sport mode.
Molly didn't have a problem the highly strung engine on the track because she was able to keep the revs high; on the road there's a slight delay reaching its power band.
At least you can create the impression of driving like a professional; the Honda has rev-matching tech on down-changes.
In our 0 to 100kmh test we couldn't get near Honda's claim of 5.7 seconds, instead stopping the clocks in 6.2 seconds.
It runs out of second gear at 97km/h on the GPS and 102km/h on the speedometer. Perhaps Honda's claimed time is based on the speedo.
What it lacks in acceleration, however, it makes up for in braking, with the shortest stopping distances among this trio (33 metres versus 36 from 100km/h for the other pair, if you're curious). It's the car Molly would pick if she had to do the fastest lap time.
VW Golf R Grid Edition
While others have increased prices, hot hatch veteran Volkswagen has sharpened the pencil.
The $52,700 drive-away Grid Edition is $6000 less than the previous starting price of a Golf R, and the cheapest yet.
In round numbers, this makes it $10,000 cheaper than the Focus RS and $4000 cheaper than the Civic Type R, a compelling proposition.
The main items missing from the regular Golf R are the digital wide-screen dash display and leather upholstery - but you still get faux suede trim and sports seats.
The central touchscreen is 8 inches wide rather than 9.2, but comes with the benefit of volume dials.
To make this match fair we've grabbed the six-speed manual rather than the seven-speed twin clutch auto which stops the clocks at 100km/h in a legit 4.9 seconds.
Although the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder has had a power bump, the Golf R has the least amount of grunt in this company.
Instead, it relies on all-wheel-drive and an even spread of power to get the job done.
The six-speed manual is slower than we expected; the best we could get without killing the clutch was 5.9 seconds, well shy of the 5.2-second claim.
Once on the move, though, it feels as perky as the others.
"I really like the Golf R, it has very smooth power delivery but the suspension is a lot softer and it doesn't hold the lines as well because the tyres don't have enough grip," she says.
It's a bit like asking Usain Bolt to do a 100 metre sprint in a pair of thongs.
"Going into a turn you need to wait for the tyres to grip, which slows the car, and then you're no longer in the sweet spot of the engine. Better tyres would make a big difference overall."
On the road, the Golf R soaks up bumps better than the Ford and as good as the Honda.
It all turns a bit pear shaped, though, as soon as we arrive at some corners. On a smooth, winding mountain pass the tyres start to squeal, even when not being pushed particularly hard.
In this company it's best described as fast luxury car than a truly hot hatch.
The Focus RS LE delights the senses and is a fitting finale but its high price and lack of comfort as a daily driver weigh against it in this company.
The Golf R is a class act, the most refined and a compelling proposition at this price, but Volkswagen is giving away a massive advantage to rivals by not finishing the job and fitting decent tyres.
That leaves the Honda Civic Type R. Never before has a hot hatch been so precise on the track and yet so comfortable on the road. An amazing double act.
Ford Focus RS LE
PRICE $62,000 drive-away (expensive)
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 years/100,000km (average), 12 month/15,000km service intervals (good), $1125 over three years (cheap)
ENGINE Turbo 2.3-litre four-cylinder, 257kW/440Nm (plenty)
SAFETY Four airbags (below average), no safety rating
THIRST 8.1L/100km (misleading, thirstier than this), 95-98 premium
SPARE Inflator kit (not ideal)
BOOT 316L (good)
Honda Civic Type R
PRICE $56,700 drive-away (expensive)
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/unlimited km (excellent), 12 month/10,000km service intervals (distance below average), $1367 over three years (average)
ENGINE Turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 228kW/400Nm (plenty)
SAFETY Six airbags (average), no safety rating
THIRST 8.8L/100km (thirsty), 95 premium unleaded
SPARE Inflator kit (not ideal)
BOOT 414L (biggest here)
VW Golf R Grid
PRICE $52,700 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE Three years/unlimited km (average), 12 month/15,000km service intervals (average), $1573 over three years (expensive)
ENGINE Turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 213kW/380Nm (underdone in this company)
SAFETY Seven airbags (excellent), five star safety rating
THIRST 8.0L/100km (economical in this company), 98 premium unleaded
SPARE Space saver (better than an inflator kit)
BOOT 343L (good)
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling