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Speedweek 2023 Contenders: The hot hatches

The little flat back rockets, and a sedan?

Jordan Schmidt
January 26, 2024
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Flat-back rockets

Brace yourself, this is the category that seems to get South Africans all riled up. It's the flat-back rockets, the noisemakers the windgat mobiles – it's the hot hatches that have heart, that have soul and means year-end bonuses for the roadside camera attendants. At the heart of all these contenders are a modest hatchback that was never meant to really stir emotions. Add a highly-strung engine, an exhaust that makes pops on command, and you're in business. Just make sure you dish out gearbox warranties with that...  

Mercedes-Benz AMG A35 Sedan

A sleeper in the midst

The A35 Sedan is a seriously underrated car, but before we get into the nitty-gritty, we grouped the baby AMG with the hatches due to its original hot hatch nature. Now that that’s out of the way, let's get into what makes this rocket tick.

The A35 is often met with the ignorant statement, “Why buy the slow model?”. For starters, the A35 is not a "slow" pick. I have had the privilege of driving both the A45 S and A35 Sedan back-to-back and found that the A35 isn't lacking all that much on the topic of performance.

Its 2.0-litre turbocharged, mild-hybrid 4-cylinder pumps out an assertive 235kW and 400Nm. The way in which AMG has developed the launch control on this pocket rocket is incredible, giving the A35 a 0-100km/h time of 4.7 seconds. I also found this younger AMG sibling to be quite capable in the corners, where it navigated curves with ease and simplicity while keeping a high rate of speed through the bends and delivering a satisfying amount of power on the exit.

I've often said that unless you possess a high degree of driving skill, there isn’t all that much that differentiates the A35 from what the A45 S brings to the table, despite a little more power for straight-line speed. It's an unbelievably easy car to operate and have fun with, and it makes an incredible noise too. True, it's all synthesised, but the outside world seems to enjoy it.

The AMG A35 costs R1,247,453, which is more than the rest of the competing hatchbacks, but it has a more comprehensive and refined infotainment option and superior Mercedes-Benz technology. The A35 maintained its superior performance in the rain, allowing it to take first place in our hatch category during the timed laps.

Merc's A35 proved itself worthy at Speed Week 2023. Yes, it's a little more clinical and less exciting than cars like the Honda Civic Type R, but it isn’t designed to be a track tool. Instead, it's a fun little sportscar, which makes a lot of sense as a daily driver and the occasional track weapon. Jordan Schmidt

Honda Civic Type R

Corner competency

The Honda Civic Type R has caused a stir in the motoring world, so we decided to put it to the real test in our 2023 Speed Week. Having driven the Type R before Speed Week, I was curious to hear the collective opinion of my co-workers. To say they were impressed would be grossly understating it.

Although it only drives the front wheels, the Type R manages to impress with its distinct ability to involve the driver. Its ability to maintain momentum through the corners, paired with its satisfying gear changes and near-perfect rev-matching, it can't help but impress any avid driver.

Off the line, the Type R does struggle to lay the power down due to its front-wheel-drive nature. But once on the move, the 2.0-litre 4-cylinder, which produces a robust 235kW and 420Nm allows this beast to exit corners with enthusiasm.

This not-so-hatch-looking hatch has an impressive amount of space on the inside too, with plenty of leg and shoulder room for all passengers, which doesn’t come as a surprise due to the increased width of the car and its roots that are firmly entrenched in practicality. As a bonus, the lower, wider stance improves its cornering ability. The interior is lined with the usual red Type R trim, in case you didn’t know that you were already in something special.

The exterior is more refined than the boy racer version it replaces, but it retains the signature big wing on the boot that defines the Type R brand. Adding the three tailpipes to the back will attract stares from the public, and even when viewed in the rearview mirror, the Type R looks imposing.

With a price tag of R1 million, Honda had to produce something truly remarkable, and they accomplished it with an absolute monster of a hot hatch. That there aren't more of them is, of course, unfortunate.

We thought the Type R was fantastic, and it more than held its own during this year's Speed Week. It wasn't the quickest, but it made up for it by offering a very enjoyable and memorable driving experience. Jordan Schmidt

Toyota GR Corolla Circuit


Hot Corolla

The Toyota GR Yaris was a massive success upon its initial arrival, even winning our first speed week in 2021. To say that we were excited about the arrival of its Corolla sibling at Speed Week 2023 would be a massive understatement. But, unfortunately, it lacked some of that flair with which the Yaris made such an impression.

The GR Corolla takes a different look at performance compared to the Yaris, despite sharing many similarities: a performance nameplate and an engine. The Corolla is a more clinical track tool that excels on the racetrack. Its striking exterior is stunning, to say the least, but we found it to be rather large and bulky.

Off the line, you must build the revs to get a good launch due to its sticky tyres and its all-wheel-drive system. Its topical 1.6-litre turbocharged 3-cylinder engine produces a spicy 221kW and 370Nm, which allows this track-focused hatch to get on the move rather quickly with an estimated 0-100 sprint time of around 5.3 seconds.

Unfortunately, in the tighter turns, it had a tendency to understeer, but in a track environment when the weather is dry, the Corolla does rip its way around the faster corners. Its AWD system also allows for early acceleration out of the corners, and its 30/70 torque split does make allowance for some tail-happy antics.

The interior is where the Corolla loses a few points. Despite the GR toggles to configure the car to your driving style, the interior is very vanilla Corolla and lacks that GR excitement. Also, the seating position is rather high, which removes a sporty variable from this sporty car.

It is one of the more reasonably priced hatchbacks, coming in at R902,400, which begs the question of whether or not it is worthwhile to spend an extra R100,000 on the Honda Civic Type R.

The GR Corolla is a competent hot hatch. I love how it looks, and it certainly moves, yet it does lack the same excitement that we loved in the GR Yaris and may be a little too mature for our liking. While we at TopGear SA give it high marks for its performance on the track, we believe that it lacks the emotional appeal that sets a hot hatch apart. Jordan Schmidt

Renault Megane R.S. 300 Trophy


The ageing underdog still delivers the goods

In the hot hatch discussions, where GTI, R, AMG, and M prevail, Renault's R.S. moniker is often overlooked. This is a shame since it has a product that is arguably one of the most engaging, fun, and best-sounding hatches on the market. Unfortunately, there isn’t much time left for Renault's R.S. brand, but our time with this special Megane R.S. 300 Trophy was utterly enjoyable as it took on some titanic names in the annual Speed Week.

We had the privilege to experience this remarkable hatch during our first Speed Week in 2021, and it impressed us immensely back then. It is the oldest car in our lineup, but its ability to induce a smile on your face is still as prominent as ever.

Its 1.8-litre 4-cylinder motor mustn’t be slept on, as it packs a serious punch. Pushing out a healthy 221kW and 420Nm of torque, it devours the 0-100km/h sprint in 5.7 seconds. This isn't what impressed us this year, though. Its raucous exhaust note turns heads for miles, and its rear-wheel steering allows for phenomenal cornering ability. The 300 Trophy is a car that is packed with both attitude and character, and its age proved irrelevant against the latest machinery in the performance hatchback stable.

The broad stance, powerful front end, and distinctive centre exhaust arrangement that pops and bangs like a teen's first free-flow exhaust discovery give the car a stunning appeal that belies its age. However, it still commands considerable admiration despite being an underdog in the hot hatch market. The 300 Trophy now retails for R949,999, in line with the industry-wide trend of ever-increasing vehicle prices. Despite this steep investment, it still proves to be a strong option for those looking for a performance hatch. You will struggle to find a car with as much character for the same price.

Yes, the Megane wasn’t the fastest car in our ensemble, but it again proved to be a team favourite and a sheer joy to drive. Megane R.S., you will be missed, but we are thankful to have experienced you in all your front-wheel-drive glory at our favourite and quickest week of the year. Jordan Schmidt

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