There’s a new group of spiced up family hot hatchbacks making the North Sea crossing from Germany. The Volkswagen Golf R, BMW M135i and the AMG-tuned Mercedes A45 all pack at least 300 horsepower into the bodies of regular family hatchbacks.
If you’ve got your eye on one of these blistering B-road weapons, which one should you plump for? We’re pitting them head to head to find out.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to styling performance cars: obvious or subtle. Do you want to let everyone know you’re in a hot model or lull them into a false sense of security at a traffic light grand prix and let your throttle do the talking? Two of our offerings go about it different ways.
The Volkswagen is all about understatement. You’d need a very close look indeed to tell that the Golf R isn’t an ordinary, run-of-the-mill diesel-engined version. Even the GTI and GTD are more overt, with a red styling line letting the world know there’s a hot hatch coming. This would probably be fine if the regular Golf wasn’t so boring to look at.
Mercedes has gone for the other approach, with carbon fibre everywhere, quad exhausts (and they’re square) and big, shouty red brake calipers. The AMG badges are hard to miss too (particularly on the inside), but even so the A-Class on which the car is based is actually a pretty attractive shape. Of course, the look is a little diluted by the fact Mercedes will sell you AMG-kitted A200 diesels which look incredibly similar…
This leaves us with the BMW M135i. If the Golf R was understated, the M135i is anonymous. Unless you are a massive BMW nerd – and there are a few around – there are absolutely no exterior clues to the fact this is a smoking hot hatch and not a base 116i. Worse still, the model has been done absolutely no favours at all by either the recent facelift or the division of the range to move the coupe into its own line called the 2-Series.
Interior and practicality
Things don’t get much better when you move into the cabin of the BMW. Although there’s no questioning the high-quality materials, and the driving position is bang on and the instruments are laid out intelligently – the sat-nav screen is angled a little towards the driver, for instance – it is an exercise in bland. A little “///M” badge is the only evidence of anything special. However, BMW has stepped up their game with boot space – 360 litres is the best seats-up volume here, and 1,200 litres is second best by just a whisker.
Inside, the Golf R is almost as understated as on the outside, but there are little touches that make you feel like you’re in a range-topping car. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is a very nice touch, but the fact that the standard seat material is cloth is borderline appalling at this sort of price and performance, no matter how many “R” logos are embroidered into it. With a 343 litre boot, the Golf is second to the BMW with all seats occupied, and the 1,233 litre capacity with the back bench dropped is the best of the trio.
The A45 AMG thus comes last for boot space in both categories, at 341 and 1,157 litres respectively, although it’s not a resounding defeat. It makes up for it by having the outright craziest interior of anything this side of a Citroen C4 Cactus. Leather gives way to suede, brushed aluminium gives way to carbon fibre and there are red bits everywhere. AMG has even managed to conjure up a bonkers gearstick and you have to be going some to make a gearstick look bonkers.
Volkswagen’s offering is the most conservative here. It’s a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol unit throwing out 296hp and 280lb/ft of torque. Driving a four-wheel drive system, the Golf R is capable of a 0-60mph sprint in 5.1 seconds, a 155mph electronically limited top speed and it’ll return 39.8mpg combined. That puts it into VED band G. Slow it isn’t.
BMW has gone for a bigger unit. The 3.0-litre, six-cylinder petrol is up on power and torque over the Golf, at 315hp and 332lb/ft. It’s rear-wheel drive, so that extra power doesn’t help the M135i along much quicker – it matches the Golf to 60mph (the automatic is 0.2 seconds quicker) and it reaches the same limited top speed. Fuel consumption is worse too, at 35.3mpg combined (37.7 for the auto), putting it into VED band J (or H for the auto). But the six cylinder noise is generally accepted as a more interesting and sporty tune than the other four cylinder engines here.
Again, we’re left with the Mercedes as the nutter of the bunch. Like the Golf R, there’s a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol, driving a four-wheel-drive system, but this one hits an eye-popping 355hp and 332lb/ft of torque. This makes the Mercedes half a second faster to 60mph than either the BMW or VW – on its way to the same 155mph limiter – while returning a better 40.9mpg combined economy than either too. It, like the Golf, sits in VED band G.
Although the Mercedes is a supremely fast car on country roads, for all the fury of the drive and madcap interior AMG has forgotten any notion of comfort. The A45 AMG rides like a child sliding down the stairs in a cardboard box – you can tell the chemical composition of a road just by driving down it in the Mercedes. Some reviewers also don’t rate the automatic gearbox too highly, saying it’s a little too keen to change into the wrong gear at the wrong time.
The Golf R edges out a little over the competition here. Like the Golf GTI it hides the fact it has a relatively small amount of power (for this class) because it can transmit all its power to the road without spinning its wheels constantly. Keeping up with the AMG would be a tall order, but despite the firm ride at least you’d reach your destination with all your vertebrae in tact.
Rear-wheel drive may be the classic driver’s configuration, but the M135i is the least capable here. That’s not exactly a damning verdict, because it is still extremely good, but the Golf and A45 are better. Where it excels though is on the cruise. By far the best riding of the three, this would be the car of choice for a long motorway schlep – and the six-cylinder engine doesn’t need to be revved as hard as the others to get similar pace.
Value for money
What the Mercedes offers comes at a price – and it’s a significant price. You’ll have to part with £38,195 to join the AMG set and while this is almost all-inclusive and doesn’t need many options adding, it’s a lot of money.
Volkswagen fulfils its ‘car of the people’ tag by being the cheapest car here – £29,900 for a three-door manual version, or another £655 for back doors and another £1,425 for the DSG automatic gearbox. But corners have been cut; we’ve already mentioned the lack of leather (a £1,720 option) but there’s also no sat-nav (add £750).
And that makes the BMW M135i effectively the cheapest car here. At £31,375 (£1,495 more for the auto) there’s nothing really missing that you’d expect to be included on a thirty grand car.
There’s almost no winner here, or to be more accurate, no losers. A glance at carwow’s aggregated wowscores is no help because the Golf R and M135i both score in the nines and, though there’s no current rating for the A45 AMG, reviewers can’t determine whether the Mercedes is better than the BMW or not.
If you want a car with a sense of fun, it has to be the AMG. Its competitors are dull to look at, a little dull to be in and not as fast, but it offers the least amount of space and may well shake you to death.
The BMW makes the best cruiser, has more space and is the best value for money, but it’s the least capable road machine and is the least frugal for all its long distance abilities.
In typical Volkswagen style, the Golf doesn’t hit any of the outright heights of either competitor, but nor does it hit the lows. It’s the best compromise and is the outright cheapest, but it needs some options ticking to make it complete.
Ultimately though, you don’t pick a hot hatch because it makes sense. You buy one because it’s fun and the only car we’d feel a pang of regret for not buying if it pulled up alongside at the lights is the potty Mercedes A45 AMG.