Testing great driver's cars in the Welsh mountains

Honda Civic Type R, Mercedes-AMG A45, Peugeot 308 GTi and Volkswagen Golf R face off for the title of best affordable driver's car

Tony Middlehurst
Sunday 10 September 2017 13:31
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We’ve taken a dozen or so great driver’s cars on both road and track to whittle them down to a short list of four. Now we’re on the great Welsh mountain roads to pick an overall winner in our ‘affordable driving greats’ championship.

There’s a big gap between the cheapest contender – the 266bhp, £29,000 Peugeot 308 GTI – and the dearest, Mercedes-AMG’s 376bhp, £42,000 A45, but they’ll all get a fair shake because this face-off will be judged on a mix of everyday driver appeal and value for money.

Let’s start with some comments on the Honda Civic Type R. Visually, this is a Marmite car. Few admit to loving its looks; plenty will say they hate it. We prefer to call it interesting. After its exploits on the Llandow racetrack, that was upgraded to very interesting.

Other cars fell at that track hurdle. The Audi RS3 Sportback set the quickest lap time and was the only one that could hit 100mph from rest in under 10 seconds, but all the talk in the trackside office was not of this but of the way the Honda had performed around there. Nobody had dared hope it could be as good a drive as it turned out to be. It was utterly absorbing on the circuit, and the story was continuing now on Welsh roads.

This new Civic is physically large, but
it has small-car grip, response and tactility. Still, on 
the narrow roads of the Rhondda Valley, it’s hard to ignore its dimensions. If you rate compactness, it could be an issue. First though you’ll be marvelling at the amount of feel Honda has worked into its controls, how much drama they’ve managed to inject into a turbo engine – and how big a step on from its predecessor the Civic has taken as a road car.

The metal gearlever is lovely in both touch and action, shaming the relatively baggy nature of the 308 GTi’s six-speed manual ’box. In isolation, it’s fine, but getting into the Honda makes you resent Peugeot’s failure to come up to those standards of mechanical engagement.

On power, the Honda’s four-cylinder engine is beaten only here by the Mercedes-AMG, but the gap between them is wide. Even so, the Honda’s on-road pace never leaves you feeling short-changed. The Merc has almost too much thrust for public roads, generating worries as well as thrills.

If the A45 is quicker than it needs to be, and the 308 GTi not quite as quick as it could be (although it does fizz around in a very appealing manner), both the Golf R and the Civic Type R are right on point in terms of hot hatch performance. Their speed is acessible. The Civic engine is more characterful than the Golf’s, though its slight turbo lag could become an annoyance over time, especially in light of the fact that the rest of its control responses are so sharp.

Once you’re motoring hard, though, the Honda engine keeps on delivering when other turbos will be running out of breath. Its surges of power at 3500rpm and 5000rpm are motoring catnip. There’s fine traction on all but wet or extra-bumpy roads, and weighty feedback from the steering.

Steering is important in a hot hatch. The Type R’s is smashing, narrowly shading both the A45’s and the Golf’s (quite light) setups. The 308’s lags behind, letting down the well-balanced chassis with very little feel coming through its slightly over-assisted and often criticised small wheel.

Ride quality is just as critical in this market, especially if you plan on tackling typically rutted British country roads. Here, the Honda has to give best to the masterful Golf R, whose adaptive damping is wonderfully adept at absorbing and filtering away ridges and lumps. Having said that, a previous-generation Type R driver will be stunned by the suppleness provided in the new Civic’s Comfort mode.

At the extremes of handling, there’s a suspicion that the Honda’s ideal setting might be somewhere in between the softness of Comfort and the slight woodenness of Sport, but in 99% of circumstances you’ll be having a whale of a time chomping through roads with a big grin on your face.

After three days on
road and track, we agreed that the A45 was faster, the 308 GTi cheaper and the Golf objectively ‘better’ – but the Civic Type R was not just 2017’s most improved hot hatch, but also the champion driver’s car.

Mercedes-AMG A45

Price £41,875

Engine 4cyls, 1991cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 376bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 350lb ft at 2250-5000rpm
Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight 1555kg
 0-62mph 4.2sec (claimed)
Top speed 
155mph
Economy 40.9mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 
162g/km, 31%

Volkswagen Golf R

Price £32,710
Engine 4 cyls, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 306bhp at 5500-6500rpm
Torque 280lb ft at 2000-5400rpm
Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight 1483kg 0-62mph 4.6sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph
Economy 37.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 160g/km, 31%

Honda Civic Type R

Price
 £32,995

Engine 4cyls, 1996cc, turbo, petrol
Power 316bhp at 6500rpm

Torque 295lb ft at 2500-4500rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual

Kerb weight 1380kg 0-62mph 
5.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 
169mph

Economy 36.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 176g/km, 34%

Peugeot 308 GTi

Price £29,405
 Engine 4cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 266bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 243lb ft at 1900rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1205kg 0-62mph 
6.0sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph
Economy 
47.0mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 139g/km, 26%

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