Track Race: Audi RS3 vs Merc-AMG A45 vs Honda Civic Type R vs BMW M2 [Video]


The first major storm of the Cape winter is about to hit us. We’re parked at Cape Town's Killarney race track, praying for a break in the inclement weather that will be long enough to allow us to film, photograph and track test the assembled crew of 3 hot hatchbacks and a coupe. It’s a near-perfect lineup of pint-sized performance machinery.

The hot hatch game used to be all about extracting compelling levels of performance from otherwise run-of-the-mill hatchbacks. These days, however, 5-door performance cars are all about terrifying levels of power and torque, sophisticated electronic systems, trick differentials and track-ready handling but, at greater cost to your bank balance. Yes indeed, whereas old school hot hatches were reasonably affordable, some of these cars cost almost R1 million.

A trio of hot hatches


Three cars, 3 different philosophies, 4 and 5 cylinders, front and AWD.

First to arrive is the Audi RS3 Sportback with its Sepang Blue paint scheme. Its turbocharged 5-cylinder mill is, somewhat surprisingly, the most vocal of the trio of motors. With its exhaust flaps engaged, it lets rip with cracks and pops on upshifts and when you lift off the throttle. This partly explains why the Audi gets driven much harder than many of its peers. To just inch the Audi slightly forward requires a blip of the throttle and, when that happens, a furious micro-thunderstorm rages from within. The much-loved 2.5-litre motor is positioned in the RS3’s nose and power is distributed to all four wheels.


The Audi RS3 has a bellowing exhaust note and the best launch control system.

In its favour: stylish looks, raucous exhaust note, creamy power delivery and generous all-wheel grip in tricky conditions.

Next up is the Honda Civic Type R. Judging by the car’s exterior appearance, the Honda’s designer must have watched a 7-movie marathon of Fast and the Furious before incorporating every ostentatious detail he saw in the new Type R. Each little winglet or air dam has a purpose, either to aid airflow or to improve cooling. The car thrums at idle in a much more sedate manner than the RS3. Just look at it; a mad, blabbering exhaust note on top of that might have been too over the top.

It’s the least powerful of the three, but it’s here as an underdog; to keep the more powerful cars on their toes. The Type R will shine come track time. It does, however, seem that Honda arrived a little late with its turbocharged engine and stupefying front differential… With the power that front-wheel drive cars can effectively put down seemingly at its limit, manufacturers are moving to all-wheel drive propulsion as the battle for hot hatch supremacy reaches fever pitch.


The Civic Type R requires familiarisation, but proves itself every bit a track weapon.

In its favour: Crazy Japanese styling and trick technology

The Mercedes-AMG A45 rocks up last. It splashes through a puddle and slithers to a halt. As it ticks itself cool, we ponder why on earth it looks so understated. The Benz’s exhaust note even sounds tame compared with the RS3’s. Maybe white isn’t its best colour? Then it dawns on us that the Benz doesn’t have the AMG Aero package. The latter adds a massive rear wing that gives the A45 its distinctive look. At the track, among these rivals, it needs to puff out its chest and boast a little more. It does admittedly have the most powerful production 2.0-litre engine in the world under its bonnet. Also, AMG has worked hard at reducing understeer and making the A45 a more effective track weapon.


The A45 is the most powerful and has a sophisticated AWD system.

In its favour: most powerful

Track time

The rain is staying away for now, but a 50 kph headwind is pumping down the main straight. The clouds are low and heavy, so we crack on with the hot laps. The RS3 is parked closest to the pit lane's exit... its almost as if it is eager to attack the track first. A plethora of noises and echoes ping off the facebrick walls surrounding Killarney. Even when ensconced in the car, wearing a full race face, it’s hard not to crack a smile at the lunacy of the ‘pipes on the Audi. The out lap is all about assessing conditions and checking for standing water, but there’s none — Killarney drains well.

When the RS3 lines up on the start line, it’s by far the easiest car to launch. The Audi has a no-fuss system that is happy to fire off repeated launch starts without a single moan from the car’s computer nannies. Set the traction control to Sport and the transmission to manual (with a flick of the brushed aluminium paddle shifter) and then feed in the throttle with the left foot on the brake. The revs climb to around 4 000 rpm. Slip your hoof off the brake pedal and the RS3 positively bullets off the line. Even if you only have an ounce of mechanical sympathy, the sheer force of the RS3’s launch control system will make you cringe. It is absolutely brutal.

There’s almost zero wheel slippage as all 4 tyres munch into the asphalt. In an instant, the RS3's transmission seamlessly snatches second and, 4.3 sec later, 100 kph is reeled off; and all that in a hatchback: it's madness. The Audi's steering is heavily weighted to compensate for the insulated nature of the electronic power steering system, but at the cost of feel and feedback. The front end feels a tad numb on turn in, but the RS3 changes direction nimbly and adroitly. It’s easy to “wring the neck” of the Audi, but we wish it was a bit more involving to pilot. It’s very safe and predictable in the bends, but loses time mid-corner compared with the others, because you have to wait a bit longer before you can jam the throttle back down.


Pit lane was wet over the course of the day but the track remained dry (thankfully).

It’s finally possible to say that the RS3’s brakes are very good. Enthusiasts have, in the past, complained that fast Audis’ brakes cook quickly and are prone to fading. The final corner in Killarney requires deceleration from 208 kph to just 68 kph in around 4.0 sec. The Audi stops confidently and is the most stable over the bumps when it needs to scrub off speed. If you want a car that thrills the aural senses, looks impressive, can win most light-to-light sprints and isn’t going to show you up on the track then the Audi hits the mark.

 

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Next to take to the track is the Mercedes-AMG A45. Just from sitting in the car you can tell it’s an edgier proposition than the Audi. The Alcantara-clad steering wheel feels racier and the driver’s seat holds you tighter around the thighs. The moment you pull away, the A45 seems comparatively tighter and more rigid. Rigidity is good for the race track, but not so good for the road. Thankfully we’re on the former and the A45 is dialled into Sport+. In this setting, the traction and stability control systems are less intrusive.

The Benz’s launch control procedure is more finicky than the RS3’s and the A45 is prone to cancelling Race Starts for no apparent reason. Eventually, the Benz allows us a successful launch, but it spins up the front wheels for much longer than the Audi before it squirts off at full pace. Benz claims the A45 is a tenth quicker from zero to 100 kph, but on this low-grip surface we’d say the Audi gets off the line more effectively when you launch it from a standing start.

The stiffer chassis of the A45 instantly feels more alive into turn one. The Benz’s rear end is more dextrous, which helps the front end turn in sharply, plus the car’s quicker to rotate in slower corners. That means you can get back on the power earlier and less time is spent waiting for the car to change direction. The steering is also heavy (if less numb than the Audi’s), but, as with all electric steering systems, it lacks direct feedback from the wheels to your hands.


Type R displays its mad personality, making the other hot hatches look a touch plain.

Where the A45 AMG really starts to impress is when you lay down the power on corner exits. The advanced all-wheel-drive system shifts power around to extract optimal traction and you can physically feel that underneath you. The outside wheels begin to shift the car inwards, quelling understeer without killing power. It works brilliantly and the difference is immediately noticeable on the timesheets. The A45’s engine also has supreme mid-range grunt – it seems to have better acceleration when accelerating from 60 kph. The top speed comparison confirms this: the A45 reached 212 kph, 4 kph more than the RS3.

Next to warm up its tyres is the underdog: the Civic Type R. The Honda is going to struggle on a track like Killarney, where mid-range power is deemed more important than slick handling prowess. The Type R takes some getting used to, because the front-wheel-driven car feels vastly different to the other two (all-wheel-driven) machines on the track. It’s also has a manual 'box and that requires further familiarisation.

It’s a light, agile car, but its tyres take a while to warm up before optimal grip levels are available. The red R button to the right of the steering begs to be thumbed. This is a track, so the button’s pressed down and the dashboard lights up in an incandescent red. The Type R is the most track-focused car here, it was designed entirely to smash lap times over and over again. Once warmed up, the Type R livens up. The front end is very light even though all the power is heading only to the front wheels. The lightness translates into agility and nimbleness... it makes the other cars seem like lumbering oafs.

The manual shifter sends the Honda's engagement factor into hyperspace. Your focus increases and your heel-and-toe technique needs to be spot on or you’ll disrupt the Honda’s balance. It too has an amazing differential, but it interferes with the steering more than in the A45. It tugs the steering inwards much earlier and the best method is just to hold a light grip on the wheel and let the electronics take over.

The Honda darts into apexes with its sharp steering and the chassis is so taught that it sustains incredible corner speeds where the other cars started to squeal for grip. So much so, that through the medium speed corners it actually claws back time on all the other cars. The top speed on the back straight is only 204 kph and its lack of launch control lost it over a second on the lap.

 

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The Type R is eminently engaging to drive and its lap times kept improving the more time it spent on the track. It’s a car in which you can really spend a lot of time honing your driving skills and pursue quicker lap times. The Honda can get a little loose under braking as it adopts a lift-off oversteer technique to get its front end to turn in faster. It’s the most fun to drive and the most driver-focused car (so far), it just lacks the outright grunt to match the others.

And then along came an M2


The BMW M2 dropped in to spoil the front- and all-wheel drive party.

Better late than never. The BMW M2 arrives in the pitlane, straight from its local media launch in Cape Town and sporting a brand new set of brake pads and Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. It’s different to all the other M cars in that it’s not a standalone creation, but effectively a superheated M235i replete with selected performance addenda from the M3/4. It’s much better for it, however, and the shorter body gives it a muscular, angry stance. It looks the part.

For the first time in a while, it’s also an M car that sounds the part. It has a rough exhaust note at low rpm and a real guttural tone that’s not electronically enhanced like those M5/6 and M3/4. When experienced from outside, the M2 is hitting all the right notes, then.

Climb aboard and it’s just like in an M235i, save for a carbon fibre transmission tunnel and some weave on the dashboard and door handles. BMW can up its game a little with the interiors of its M models, there’s more they can do to give their cockpits greater senses of occasion.

This is the DCT model, so BMW’s lightning fast dual-clutch gearshifts are engaged by pounding the shift paddles on either side of the steering wheel. The responses from the transmission are prompt and accurate every time you call for a gear – it’s an excellent gearbox for track conditions. The launch control system is infuriating (much like the A45’s, in that regard); perhaps 1 out of 3 launches happen successfully. In order to get the best launch, the tyres need to be warm and sticky, otherwise the M2 will just spin its rear wheels and complain about an overheated clutch or gearbox. Drive it slowly for a few minutes and everything comes back to life; the warning lights disappear.


The BMW M2 proves to be both enjoyable on track as well as an aural pleasure.

Get the launch right and the M2 lights up its back tyres for just a split second and jiggles its posterior as it hunts for traction. The new rubber gives it that added grip and it bolts down to turn one. Everything discovered from driving the other three cars gets tossed out the window as the M2’s back starts to dictate proceedings. It’s not snappy at the tail, but a consistent, manageable slide wakes up the senses and sends the adrenaline rushing to all extremities.

The M2 goes in sideways, kisses the apex with the front and then goes out sideways with the power on. It’s not alarming, hooligan-like sideways action, just a little bit of rear happiness to let you know there’s a limit to the grip levels. The power delivery from the turbo straight 6 is smoother than those of the four- and five pots here. It’s also happy to rev like no other turbocharged car around, tapering off only right atop of its 7 000 rpm limit. The smooth delivery also helps the handling feel more manageable on the track, in other words, less oversteery when you lay down the throttle.

It wins in the faster corners where it has more grip and its front wheels are uncorrupted by power. In the tighter corners, it’s a different story, however… the power has to be fed in more progressively where the all-wheel drive cars’ throttles can just be hammered down on exit. It loses time there, but after the laps with the M2, the driver will feel like they have had a mild workout. To drive, the M2’s fun, enthralling and, most of all, fast. Like the Civic, the more time you spend with it, the more you learn about its handling nuances and the more the lap times improve.

 Picking a winner


Once all the cars had completed dry laps it was time to look to the lap times to pick a winner.

This is a track test and, after 2 days of hard driving at Killarney, a winner must be chosen. For a driver who wants to explore their performance machine on a track, which of these cars would we rate as the best, most satisfying vehicle to experience those much-craved adrenaline kicks?

The slowest car around the track was the Honda Civic Type R. It lost out mostly due to its lack of outright power and the manual standing start, where it argaubly lost most of its time. The Civic is easily a match for the others in outright circuit pace once it’s up to speed, its suspension and trick differential are unbelievably effective, but the Honda feels as if it’s doing all the work for you at times. Having a manual gearbox does make it entertaining – and utterly involving – to hustle and if you’re obsessed with lap times there’s always a little more you can squeeze out of the Civic.

Third place on the time sheets went to the Audi RS3, even though it gave us the most aural pleasure. It’s also an absolute rocket out of the blocks, posting the fastest sprint time of the lot. It’s very easy to drive fast and has dependable brakes that last longer than a few hot laps.

Second place on the timesheets (by a mere 0.01 sec) was the Mercedes-AMG A45. It surprised us with its mid-range grunt and its ability to stave off understeer on corner exit. It gained so much time on the others on corner exits where its power and torque advantage was put to full use by its excellent all-wheel-drive system. The system can lead you into a false sense of security, one in which you start to push the car beyond the levels of adhesion. There’s a strange lack of sensation of speed in the A45 — you only really realise where its limits are when you’ve gone well past them.

That leaves the BMW M2 as the fastest car, but by no more than a whisker. The M2 is the most balanced contender going into bends and you can really feel its rear end teetering on the edge of adhesion as you feed in the power. It’s a visceral sensation to feel the rear end at the very edge of its limit and still maintain that forward momentum that allows you to get the best lap times. Given more laps there’s no doubt that the M2 would go even faster as you get braver and more in tune with its handling. Fortunately for us, the first storm of the Cape winter lashed down on the track not moments after we got the last shot and last lap in the M2. It’s a deserving winner when you considering that conditions didn’t favour it. It might just be our favourite M car as well.

 

Lap time

Sector 1

Sector 2

Sector 3

Sector 4

Sector 5

Top speed (on track)

Claimed 0-100

Audi RS3

1:30.60

21.14

17.18

10.42

12.77

29.09

208

4.3

Merc A45

1:29.40

21.42

16.92

10.20

12.39

28.47

212

4.2

Civic Type R

1:31.42

22.75

17.01

10.04

12.40

29.22

204

5.7

BMW M2

1:29.39

21.62

17.10

10.02

12.55

28.10

215

4.3

Related content:

Watch the BMW M2 Drag Race against the Merc-AMG A45

Watch the Audi RS3 Drag Race against the Merc-AMG A45

Read our review of the Audi RS3 here

Read our review of the Honda Civic Type R here

Read our review of the Mercedes-AMG A45 here

#ChooseDay Haven't seen our track race #video? Vote for who you think wins & watch it here - https://t.co/H0VLrypgip

— Cars.co.za (@CarsSouthAfrica) May 31, 2016

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