Hot hatches have always been the choice of the discerning driver.
Runabout by day but able to show some supercars a thing or two on a twisty road, the hot hatch is almost all things to all men.
If you’re a bit of a slave to fashion though, there are only two hot hatches that fit the bill. Volkswagen’s timeless – and classless – Golf GTI will fit into any company, with undeniable cool credentials, but BMW’s modern interpretation of the Mini is one of the most fashionable cars on sale today. With the Cooper S you also get one of today’s great driver’s cars.
However, the two sit in different categories. The Mini in the smaller supermini sector and the Volkswagen in the family car bracket – so do you pay more for the bigger car, or live with less space for less money? We’re looking at both cars in detail to find out.
It’s fair to say that both cars are hampered in the looks department somewhat by brand identity, but in markedly different ways.
The Golf has been in production for forty years now and really all that remains from the original in this latest GTI is the red pinstripe around the car – and the fact that it’s still a hatchback. If all seven generations are lined up alongside each other, you can certainly see a continuity of design, but the Volkswagen isn’t a slave to the look of the original.
This is good and bad in equal measures. It frees Volkswagen of design constraints but it also robs the car of a little identity – with the brand face grafted on, it can be difficult to spot a Golf from a Polo, Jetta or Passat. It is, dare we say it, a little dull.
With 55 years on the board, the Mini brand makes the Golf look like a newcomer, but there’s a different problem at Mini. With almost no shame about it, the entire car is designed to mimic the original BMC Mini as much as possible on a modern hatchback. It’s pretty polarising, with as many people thinking it’s cute or a great piece of design as those who detest the forced retro and implied ties to the old car.
Face aside, it’s a pretty strong piece of design, with the bonnet scoop at the front and twin centre exhausts really setting the car off. There’s certainly no dullness about it – though as we’re now on the third generation of Mini hatchback, there may be a sense that it’s getting tired, but it looks far more like an 80s hot hatch than the straight-laced Golf.
As with the difference in classes, there’s a disparity in the internal space between the cars. The Golf seats five, the Mini just four – and two need to be kids. The Golf holds 380 litres of luggage (1,270 with the rear seats down), the Mini holds 211 litres (731 with the rear seats down). There’s a brighter spot for the Mini though, because it’s now available as the Cooper S in five door and five seat format – boot space swells to 278/941 litres.
The Mini’s capabilities might be slightly more versatile, with an underfloor storage space holding handy cargo nets to prevent little things sloshing about when you’re getting giddy, but it’s night and day when it comes to roominess. The Golf wins.
When it comes to what’s packed into the car, the distinction isn’t so clear. Both are immaculately put together, as you’d expect from two of the German powerhouses. Though the Golf has the edge on materials, the Mini again takes the style points despite being toned down a little.
The Cooper S’s interior is dominated by circles and, like previous generations, a huge disc fills the centre console. Thankfully this no longer houses the speedo – it’s been moved to the more conventional location in front of the driver, while its old space is filled with the infotainment and sat-nav
It’s quite a bit more staid inside the GTI and less of an occasion than a range topping hot hatch should be. Aside from the tartan seats and golfball-dimpled gear stick – the Volkswagen’s only real nod to its heritage – it’s largely plain but it’s pretty classy. It’s also at the head of its class when it comes to refinement, making the Cooper S rather raucous and wearing by comparison.
A hot hatch is practically defined by how it drives – an everyday car that just happens to go like stink when you want it to – and it’s fair to say that each car excels at one aspect but falls short on the other.
It’s the Mini Cooper S that does the job on the handling front. It’s trite to say that it’s like a go-kart, but that doesn’t stop Mini itself from displaying the rather twee “maximum go kart feel!” message when sport mode is selected. Still it’s true that the Mini is a top notch handler and extremely agile.
However, the Cooper S’s ride is still somewhat compromised (better if you select the adaptive dampers and leave it in Comfort) and that makes for a poor day-to-day car. This is where the Golf GTI steps in. Refinement isn’t just good for a hot hatch, it’s just plain good. It’s certainly not as good to drive as the Cooper S, but it’s better than the previous generation GTI and it’s not likely you’ll really notice the difference unless you’re on a track day.
Both cars go about the business of power in a remarkably similar manner, but one most unbecoming of their predecessors – a two litre turbo. The Mini Cooper S’s version produces 192hp and 221lb ft, while the Golf GTI’s is more potent at 217hp and 258lb ft.
There’s very little to choose between the two engines in any department, as it happens. Both are smooth, powerful and torquey, both will hit 60mph in under 6.5 seconds and both will return over 45mpg – on paper at least!. They’re both nicely hushed at cruising speeds but make a nicely gruff bark when pressed on.
If you’re after the last drop of performance, the Golf GTI nicks a few tenths and a few mph and you can always upgrade to the 230hp Performance Pack. There’s no John Cooper Works version of the Mini yet, but the previous one had a 30hp hike on the Cooper S which would close the gap.
Value for money
At £18,855, the MINI Cooper S is pretty pricey for a little car but, as befits a larger sector car, the Golf GTI starts at £26,580 – so this isn’t exactly a level playing field!
On just about every other front though, it’s as level as it gets. The two cars post the same fuel economy figures, road tax (VED) band and insurance group to within a few percent of one another. Both also perform extremely well when it comes to retained value too and will get you back 50% of your purchase price after three years – though this means that the GTI will never close the gap of the purchase price.
If you want the absolute most amount of fun from your hot hatch and don’t care about carrying any people or any stuff, it’s a no contest win for the Mini Cooper S. The price difference is colossal, though you could easily wipe that out if you start getting naughty with the options list.
But it’s the Golf GTI that fits the hot hatch brief more closely. Of the two cars it’s the one you can use every day of your life for every job and still act the fool should the mood take you. The Mini is just too compromised, with a rougher ride and a cabin that has tiny rear seats and a tiny boot that are effectively ornamental.
That 40% premium for the Golf is a bit hard to rationalise away, but if you’ve got even the beginnings of a family it’ll take two trips in the Mini to see that the GTI is the only sane choice.