Two generations of the R32 were all it took to cement the latterly named Golf R's legendary reputation in the early 2000s. Devoid of ghastly bodykits, racing stripes and hilariously oversized aftermarket alloys, the R took what made the Golf one of the best handling hatchbacks on the market, tweaked the power, improved the handling and stayed true to a 'less is more' design philosophy to up the ante yet more. In doing so, 'the R' became an undisputed king of the Hot Hatches, an accolade it still holds today.
Indeed, when the new fourth generation R was unveiled last year, it showcased a newly developed 2.0-litre TSI four-cylinder, now producing 276bhp and 280lb ft of torque, and in the process became 'the most powerful production Golf ever'. It was a statement underlined by impressive performance figures: the new 4th gen R was 0.4s quicker to 100kph than its predecessor and more than a second faster than its sister GTI, which shared the same engine. On top of this came new all-wheel drive system, a lower ride height, better weight distribution, revised sports suspension and an updated six-speed DSG gearbox. All signs pointed – as we discovered on its regional debut – to a model that had once again set the benchmark for performance hatchbacks.
Unsurprisingly, Volkswagen's rivals were keen to prove them wrong, which brings us to our German trio here today.
In the white corner from Stuttgart we have the Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG, the third generation of the company's entry level A-Class and the first ever compact model to receive a performance upgrade from Affalterbach in the latter's near 50-year history. At the heart of the A 45 is Mercedes' established 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder, 'the most powerful series production four-cylinder in the world'. Champing at the bit is 355bhp, 147bhp more than the A 250 Sport on which is based and 79bhp more than the Golf R. And while lunatic power is what we expect from AMG, the A 45 also brings with it a high-performance cooling system derived from the SLS AMG, an updated DCT seven-speed sports transmission, sports suspension and steering, and an updated all-wheel drive configuration 25% lighter than any of its rivals, all designed for improved road holding, sharper gear changes, and a more responsive throttle. While 'less is more' is the hallmark of the Golf R, more is most decidedly more with the A 45 AMG.
And then there's our final combatant in the M-coloured corner, a 2012 BMW M135i. And that 'M' moniker needs an asterisk: the 1M Coupe – and latterly the M235i – remain BMW's entry level M models, meaning Munich's representative today is the slightly less-sportily honed M-Performance 1 Series. Don't let the rather garish livery fool you though, since the M135i still brings some serious punch to Das German shootout. Although bested by the AMG in terms of outright power – 316bhp to 355bhp – both boast the same 332lb ft of torque figure. BMW's established 3.0-litre TwinPower Turbo six-cylinder is also the largest engine of the three, and while this could hinder the Beemer's dynamism, a lightweight – yet performance-savvy stiff chassis – means the M135i tips the scale 50kg lighter than the AMG. Into the mix is also thrown an eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox, M-spec suspension, an aerodynamically optimised bodyshape, and a 4.9s 0-100kph time. Don't count out the old school player just yet…
So, three heavyweight contenders, one crown. Will the fourth generation Golf R retain the crown it has held for the best part of a decade, or is one of its more powerful adversaries ready to whip the rug from beneath its Bridgestones?