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LIFESTYLE: Motoring: Battle of the hot hatches

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VW Golf R and Opel Astra OPC in Battle of the Hot Hatches, Chevrolet Sonic RS and the Subaru WRX

Written and compiled by Azim Omar CA(SA), a member of The South African Guild of Motoring Journalists

The battle of the VW hot hatch vs the Opel hot hatch has been around since both companies introduced hatch backs. Today we have the ultimate from both the grand marques: the VW Golf R vs the Opel Astra OPC.

Appearance

VW has opted for somewhat subdued and subtle differences between the Golf GTi and its Golf R – well, that is until you look really closely. At first glance the mag wheels, four exhaust pipes, and smoked tail lights give away that this is no ordinary Golf. Then, as you look closer, you notice the extensions on the rear bumper, side sills and a front spoiler that gives the car a lower stance and sportier look. Finally the front bumper has been redesigned, eliminating the front fog lights and widening the air dams, making the car look more aggressive than any other Golf.

Opel had a different approach: they want you to notice the OPC from a mile away. To start with, the OPC is only available in a two-door version. This means a totally different body to the normal Astra, which is a four door. The coupé body looks amazing with its swooping lines that flow into each other. The rear end has a large, double roof spoiler which actually complements the look of the car. The rear lights have been meticulously crafted to complement the coupé look and the square tail lights. This entire package is completed with unique and sporty mag wheels.

Verdict appearance: VW 6, Opel 9

Interior

The dashboard layout of the Golf R is typical VW, with the top of the dashboard extending just past the air vents and a large centre drop-down section. The new touch screen infotainment system looks good. More importantly, it is user friendly. The steering wheel is chunky and has a squared-off bottom section. The seats are similar to those of the GTI, but have R insignia on the top section. They have sufficient lumbar support but look pretty ordinary. Finding the perfect driving position is fairly easy. The rear leg room is good for a hatch while the boot is smaller than that of the GTi thanks to the four-wheel-drive system. Overall the interior is solid with quality finishes.

As you look into the Astra OPC, the first thing you notice are the oversized sports seats that, I must admit, don’t look very comfortable. However, once you slip into them, they fit like a glove with support and bolsters in all the right places. The chunky gearshift and steering wheel feel good, but the steering wheel is large for a sporty vehicle. The drop-down centre console has more buttons than most planes. Finding a perfect driving position is a synch. Legroom is good for a two door, but getting in and out takes some contortionists movements. The boot space is good and the overall level of finishes is high quality. The biggest drawback for me was the monochrome display on the top of the dashboard. This just gave the interior an old feel.

Verdict interior:  VW 7, Opel 5

The drive

The Golf is well known for its road holding, so what makes the Golf R the ultimate Golf is the addition of a four-wheel-drive system. This makes it almost impossible to unsettle the vehicle; in actual fact, this car sticks to the road like a leach. Thanks to the optional electronically controlled drive modes, the suspension, gear box and ride can be customised for town driving to track days and anything in-between. The steering wheel is responsive and has excellent feedback. The DSG gearbox, which was the only available gearbox on the R at the time of testing (it’s now available with a manual gearbox), was smooth and ultra-quick in its gear changes. The paddle shift made it easy to drive the car in sport mode and keep the car at the required revs without taking your hands off the steering wheel. This makes you feel like you’re driving a thorough-bred sports car. The interesting part about driving this car at its limits is that it remains sure-footed and composed no matter what you throw at it – the same cannot be said for your passenger, however. The engine has somewhat of a subdued rumble at idle, but that changes quickly to a roar, especially at high revs in sports mode.

Golf R – Manufacturer Specifications:

Engine: 2,0 l / Four-cylinder Turbo

Power: 206 KW

Torque: 380 Nm

0 –100 km/h: 5,2s (claimed)

Fuel Consumption: Average 6,9 l /100 km

CO2: 165 g/km

Price: From R490 300

The Astra has always been known to be quick off the mark and very frugal. This OPC is quick off the mark in first, however the change from first to second gear leaves much to be desired, especially when you are pushing it. It almost feels like the synchro is not working or there is something wrong with the gearbox as it grinds from first to second while you see all the cars around you just passing by. Once you get past second, the vehicle changes into a somewhat of a monster as you plant your foot on the accelerator. The vehicle is well poised for a front-wheel-drive vehicle but does suffer from understeer when pushed on a bend. The ride is comfy and with the support of the sports seats you always feel like you are in a cocoon. During daily driving the vehicle is easy to drive and there is no issue in gear changes. The sound from the exhaust not only excites other drivers, but sends adrenalin pulses throughout your body. The only problem is the speed limits on our roads.

Verdict drive: VW 9, Opel 6

Opel OPC – Manufacturer Specifications

Engine: 2,0 l / Four-cylinder Turbo

Power: 206 KW

Torque: 400 Nm

0 –100 km/h: 6,0s (claimed)

Fuel Consumption: Average 8,1 l /100 km

CO2: 189 g/km

Price: From R486 500

Conclusion

Overall, both these hot hatches have lost the uncomfortable and raw unfinished composure of the original hot hatches. Instead these are more sophisticated, almost executive luxury vehicles that have split personalities. Depending what you looking for in a hot hatch you can definitely find it in these two cars, although individually they both don’t tick all the boxes. The ultimate would have been the looks, interior and roar of the Astra OPC with the build quality, infotainment system, engine and gearbox of the Golf R. Unfortunately I don’t see Opel and VW running off to make this perfect hot hatch. So based on what we have, my choice would be the Golf, even though the Astra looks much better and sounds better. I prefer a hot hatch that performs like one and the Golf R definitely does. Well done to VW for taking it this time around. ❐

Overall verdict: VW 22, Opel 20

SUBARU WRX

Manufacturer Specifications:

Engine 2,0 l / Four-cylinder

Turbo Power  197 KW

Torque  350 Nm

0 –100 km/h  6,3s (claimed)

Fuel  Consumption  Average 8,6 l /100 km

CO2 199 g/km

Price From R449 000

There it was: a blood-red Subaru with bulges and curves in all the right places, the most prominent being the extended front-wheel arches with rear air vents that give the car a certain nostalgic rally look. The race look is extended at the rear end with two quad tail pipes on each side and a black rear diffuser. Up front the new-look headlights with LED surrounds give a more sophisticated look. However, this would not be a Subaru WRX, or Scooby as it’s more affectionately called, without a bonnet scoop, and this car has it. This being the WRX it is not as wild as the WRX STI version, but definitely does have a wild side and the black mag wheels complete the package.

So from the outside you can see that this is a Subaru but with a certain cultured finish. The sculptured bonnet and wheel arches make this car stand out from almost anything on the road. This new version has definitely grown up and will look perfect at home, on the track, or in the executive parking lot.

Open the door and you are welcomed by black leather sports seats with red accent stitching. Not only do they look good, but they are very comfortable. The driver’s seat is electronically adjustable allowing even the fussiest driver to find a comfortable position with ease. The chunky squared-off steering wheel has a really nice look and feel. In keeping with the trends, there is a large touchscreen infotainment display that helps reduce the number of buttons. In keeping with the racing theme there is a second display at the top of the dashboard in line with the centre console. This display has a split view; the small section to the left is for the ventilation display. The larger section can be adjusted to display the driving wheel angles, reverse camera, fuel consumption and power usage, but my favourite was a circular display that shows the amount of turbo pressure that is being used with a marker indicating the highest level reached since resetting it. This display is controlled by a switch that is situated between the two centre ventilation vents. The main display houses the entertainment system (radio, CD, USD and DVD). Yes, it plays movies too. This also houses the navigation system and vehicle settings. As you fiddle with these displays you come to realise that this is a real toy.

The space up front is good and the large windscreen and windows make it feel open and airy. The rear is also surprisingly spacious and comfortable. In fact, I think it gives most vehicles in this category stiff competition. The boot is generous and there is a full-size spare wheel, but it does not come with a mag wheel. Instead, it has a rather ugly dull-yellow colour rim.

The part you all have been waiting for is how this vehicle drives. As I depressed the brake and started the button, the engine gurgled to life and then settled to almost silent purr. This was a bit odd, as I was expecting a loud rip curling sound that would send shivers down my spine, but nothing. After the vehicle warmed up I could activate the sport mode, which I was hoping would increase the sound and thrill of the drive. Even though the sound was elevated and the gearbox moved through gears more rigorously, it just felt like something did not feel right in that it was too sophisticated. As I planted the pedal to the floor, the G forces increased and the car just rocketed to crazy speeds, but still no roar from the engine or exhaust. On the road the car felt solid and sure-footed. In the bends the four-wheel-drive system ensured that the vehicle was glued to the road. On the long road I actually appreciated the silence from the engine as I could easily have a discussion with anyone in the car. The one drawback was the rather large amount of wind noise at speeds above 100 kilometres per hour. That being said, the sound system worked well to drown out any wind noise. The biggest drawback with this vehicle has to be the dreaded CVT gearbox. I am certain I would have had a lot more fun with the manual version instead. I personally loath CVT gearboxes, as they take all the fun out of driving and replace it with angst.

The new Subaru does look amazing and still keeps the boy racer look, almost like wearing a jacket and jeans. The vehicle still has all the ingredients of a fast sporty car – all that was missing was the sound. The most amazing parts for me were the rather low fuel consumption on the open road and the sheer comfort and space of the car. This new WRX will definitely remain a cult car, but with added appeal.  ❐

CHEVROLET SONIC RS

Manufacturer Specifications:

Engine 1,4 l / Four-cylinder

Turbo Power 103 KW

Torque  200 Nm

0 –100 km/h  9,5s (claimed)

Fuel  Consumption Average 6,6 l /100 km

CO2 155 g/km

Price From R231 000

Over the last few years, Chevrolet has slowly been introducing additional vehicles in its South African line-up. A little while ago they launched the Sonic to compete in the mid–small hatch segment. Like many vehicle segments this one has started to heat up, with all the manufacturers adding power and sporty looks. Chevrolet has embraced this head-on and has launched the RS version of its sonic.

At first glance the one thing you notice that is different from other Sonics is the charcoal mag wheels. This gives the car a sporty look. Added to this there are additional chrome bits and a rear spoiler. The look is completed with RS badging.

Inside this RS badging is continued, with the seats being embossed with the RS logo. The dashboard in particular has a unique look. The driver’s console has a large rev counter with silver surrounds which is extended on the right-hand side. This rectangular extension houses the digital speedometer and has circular lights running the length from top and bottom. These circular lights look more in place on a drag race vehicle as each additional light lights up after you pass a certain rev before the red one turns on (that means change a gear up). Unfortunately the lights on the Sonic are just your normal warning lights that you never want to see light up.

The infotainment system looks more like a tablet with its colour display and app-like motions. In fact, this system has an app that does connect to smart phones. Once you get accustomed to the system it is fairly user friendly, however getting used to it does take a long time. The semi-leather seats are sporty and supportive. The steering wheel and gearshift have a chunky feel, adding to the RS theme.

There is ample head and leg room for both front and rear seat passengers, making this a practical vehicle and one that you and your family can grow into. The luggage space is decent, with the boot having two height levels. This is mainly used for split loading or if you need a flat section to load once the seats are dropped.

The RS is powered by a 1,4-litre turbo-charged motor. Don’t expect super car power, but it does have oomph and can get you into a spot of trouble if you have lead in your boots. The ride quality is good and the car feels solid. It has a very light steering wheel and short overhangs making it easy to drive, park and manoeuvre around town.

The Sonic RS has certainly impressed me. It may not be the best in its segment, but it does have many features that few in this segment have. I feel like the good old days of Chevy’s being part of the talk regarding cars with street creed may not be far off again. All that’s left is for the Chev Camaro and Rodeos to return to

South Africa. ❐

Author: Azim Omar CA(SA), a member of The South African Guild of Motoring Journalists