Hot hatch shootout


The first thing you notice when driving the new GTI is the sheer power. You have to work hard to stop it from wheel spinning all the way up to fourth gear. It really does have that kind of power, from its finely tuned two-litre turbo charged engine, that puts out 170kw, giving you ample opportunity to hit 250km/h on your favourite race track, that is. You don’t want to be caught by Officer Swift doing those sorts of speeds on the road. That usually only ends up in tears.

Being only a front wheel drive, with Golf R power, the car does feel a touch overpowered at times, and it really does take a good day or two to get the accelerator control right. It is no wonder the front tyres were shot by the time I got the car for a week. Rumour has it there is a trigger happy journalist out there who gets the cars before me and who does not mind giving it horns. Oh to be young again.

The GTI will bring the boy racer out in you, no doubt. It even has a track timer for your next trip to Kyalami, and the big 19’ Pirelli tyres make up for the front wheel drive configuration at higher speeds. Speaking of speed, I was able to get her up to 220km/h on a one km straight piece of the track and the vehicle was still accelerating with ease. Without the engine limiter, you’d get closer to 275km/h with this puppy.

The interior of the GTI feels like you’re in an Audi A4 sport, to be honest. The GTI is no longer the people’s race car; it’s pushing R500k, and with those extras you climb into Golf R territory, which has the all important AWD system.

The GTI has more German refinement than ever. The sunroof is top class, and great for summer evening drives at the coast. The bucket seats are good enough for any racetrack and keep you locked into position on fast corners.

Mini Paceman S

After all of that frivolity, I stepped straight into the 1.6 litre turbo Mini Paceman S, which to be honest felt heavy and underpowered after driving the racy GTI. The body of the Paceman feels very solidly built, with no expense spared on safety, which compromises on sheer performance; a fact most drivers will accept.

However, the hard plastics on the dash did not have the same soft quality feel as last year’s model, which is very surprising for such a marquee luxury brand. The round centre speedo seemed bigger than the 2014 model, and less subtle. Although, the aircraft style buttons never fail to impress.

Another peculiar thing was that the car has a John Cooper Works paint job, seats with badges, and an ‘S’ badge on the frontend, and is only a front wheel drive. So you’ve got something that looks like the all-wheel-drive JCW model, but under the skin is only a Paceman S.

This reminds me of the sort of person who buys an M3 badge and promptly puts it on his 320i and thinks nobody will notice. Either the car is a Paceman S or a JCW; please make up your mind Mini. And speaking of Mini, the Paceman is no Mini, and is a two-door crossover SUV in reality. Having two doors won’t be an issue if you are single, but with kids it is not advisable.

Ok, I’ve got my gripes out of the way. The Paceman S does turn a lot of heads, easily the most of any car I’ve driven this year. While it can’t keep up with the GTI for performance, it does have more than enough for the average driver and handles nicely under less stressful conditions.

The sunroof is massive and gives you the feeling of driving a soft top, without having to actually buy one. The Mini Cooper S Paceman automatic costs R417 900, but there are a great many options to choose from. Our test car had more than R100 000 worth of extras. Now for 500k you can buy the AWD JCW's version, which is a better car and does what it says on the packet.

All Minis are backed by a two-year, unlimited km warranty and the Paceman comes with a three-year or 75 000 km maintenance plan. After such time expect to pay BMW servicing prices, similar to the GTI.

Focus ST

Then, enter the new Ford Focus ST3, which has shed its 2.5 litre turbo for a more environmentally 2.0 litre turbo that thankfully pushes out the same amount of power. And power is the first thing that comes to mind when driving this beast, in beast’s clothing.

There is nothing subtle about the new ST, with a sinister growling engine noise that gobbles up most cars without the need for a single punch thrown. In terms of performance, the GTI and the Focus are very evenly matched, with the Ford edging the power stakes by five KWs.

Behind the wheel there is very little to choose between the cars, both with very low profile tyres for maximum grip, both have bucket seats made for somebody that is not 100kg like me. They do, however, do their job amply, while the Paceman’s seats are more family sedan in nature than racing companion. The centre console on the ST is a little in your face, but won’t bother the younger set that is likely to pick one up.

It is refreshing to see a manual gearbox in the Focus, within easy reach, giving you the feeling of really driving the car, which feels more planted in sports mode strangely enough. The ‘flappy’ paddle gearbox in the other cars just doesn’t quite do it for me, and it is more difficult to change gear while cornering. The sheer power of the ST must be to blame for some of the negative comments about its ferocious handling, which does take a little while to get used to. But once you have mastered it, it will give you hours of enjoyment on a mountain pass near you.

The sheer sound of the ST is a tipping point for me, and sounds more unrefined and manly than the other two. The Focus has a great modern look that makes it stand out from regular city slickers. The GTI is so popular, that chances are you’re going to be wearing the same dress as somebody else at the party. In the ST, you rock the party. In the Mini you organise the party.

In truth all the cars service difference segments. The GTI performance pack is for a wheel-heeled petrol head looking for fun around every corner, in a car that you can take the kids to school in. The Paceman S, with the fancy paint job is most likely aimed at the female market place and metro sexual urban males. The Focus ST is for hooligans with cash on the hip and who like keeping their neighbours up at night.

In terms of works of art, the Paceman edges it for me, with more wow factor. The wow factor in the GTI comes from the pulsating acceleration (0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds), with the Focus a mere 0.1 seconds adrift.

All three cars are very closely priced to their top of the range AWD siblings; the standard model costs the same as the full house version of the GTI and Paceman S respectively. The same can be said for the much anticipated Focus RS AWD that is set to hit our shores next year. Just the sheer fact that they’re all AWD versions is tempting, but if you can only afford a FWD version or don’t have to corner at a million miles an hour, any of the three hot-hatches are more than capable of exciting you in style.

Gregory Simpson

PULL QUOTE: The GTI is so popular, that chances are you’re going to be wearing the same dress as somebody else at the party. In the ST, you rock the party. In the Mini you organise the party.


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