The hot-hatch niche is chockers with Shockers, but some are truly tasty and here are three tasty titbits. For those who have read my stories in the past will know I loathe non-existent suspension that has the merest few millimetres of travel. It is almost always coupled with tyres that are nothing more than smears of  expensive rubber on even more expensive rims. Bumps and ruts in the road feel like canyons of torture which re-arranges your organs and makes your eyes bleed. These you simply can not live with no matter how cute or reasonably priced the car is. Cars should make your life a pleasure.

So what is a “Hot Hatch”?  It’s a cute little family hatch that’s been given a goodly dose of Wheeties. It’s not just a matter of a bit of quality cow and an upgraded stereo. Of course there is that, but under the bonnet gets a once over as well as the brakes, steering and suspension. For good measure, there is usually a badge and big tyres to let others know how much extra money you’ve spent over and above the pov models.


Why are there 2 civic body shapes? Good question . The 4 door sedan was designed in Japan, and the hatch was designed in the UK for the UK and European markets. We get both. The SI and Type R look similar despite the fact that the Type R is a 3 door and the SI 5 door. You’ll notice a slightly Darth Vader/ Cylon look to the front of the tear-drop-wedge shape. The best things about the exterior is that it stands out in the crowd. Razor sharp looks.

civic type R front

VW have gone another way and kept their Polo low key. It looks very much the same as other Polos but has bigger wheels and the all-important GTi badge. Polo fills a gap left by the Golf GTi as it gradually grew bigger and bigger. You’ll notice the big wheel, fat tyres and LED running lights in the headlamps. The car looks solid and well built. Subtle but classy for those who want something with more go than show. Attractive and classy.

vw Polo GTi 2011

Mini, well, it’s a Mini. One look at the classic shape and I’m transported way back in time. The BMW Mini is every bit as iconic as the 60’s model. BMW sensibly left the basic shape the same because you can’t better perfection. There is something about a Mini that screams “HELLO I”M GAY”. I’m yet to find someone who dislikes the Mini. The looks were instantly a hit with the gay community, boy and girl alike. The John Cooper Works is the top of the range and like all hot hatches, has bigger wheels and tyres than the standard car as well as a whole bunch of extra stuff. JCW also comes with special paint colours. The good thing about Mini even the bottom of the range looks hot. Delectable, Iconic and classic.

Mini JCW black

mini jcw800px-Morris_Mini-Minor_1959

(BMW) Mini JCW                                              1960’s original Morris Mini, later the Mini MInor


Even the basic model Hondas have the same quality feel and build as the top models. The Civic these days is about the middle of Honda’s range. It benefits from the same attention to detail as the higher end models. Sometimes quality isn’t something you’re immediately aware of, but more like something you feel. Such is the case with the Type R. It feels like it will last a long time and that’s probably because it will.

VW have many brands under their banner but they all have one thing in common, a solid feel. The plastics feel high end and the lighting cutting edge. Fittings such as door handles feel as though you could swing off them. Good build quality is essential if a car is to be driven by boy racers.

Mini benefits from BMW build quality and design. There is nothing cheap about the range because BMW applies the same attention to every model regardless of where it’s made. There are touches chrome and wheels that are ENORMOUS. The paint and fittings have a high end feel and look.


The Type R has a flashy red space-aged dash with dials and readouts all over the place. Although the basic dash is shared with the base model SI, the Type R gets delicious go-fast red LCD’s and a big red START button. The seats are very firm and ultra hugging. Love handles are pushed into shape by the huge side bolsters. These are meant to stop you from sliding off your seat during spirited cornering but can feel just a little overdone.  They are firm and might be a little too unforgiving on long trips. The dash is similar to the 5 door SI but has red readouts and Start button. There are sporty highlights in the red and black upholstery and drilled pedals. The switch gear is well laid out too. The Bluetooth will be rolled out as the models are updated and will be fully integrated. It’s nicely designed so that things that need to be at hand are easily reached. The  gear shift is super short but a pleasure to use. The audio system is surprisingly basic but has a great sound. The trip computer has the usual menu items and like the rest of the instruments, is easy to read.

I personally could do without the red readouts though. It’s a bit over powering especially at night. Although easy to read, it sometimes feels seems a little blurry as if you have had a good night out.

honda civic type r interior

The Polo has the basic Polo/golf look about it. Like the Golf GTi, there is the tartan seating and upgraded appointments, The steering wheel buttons are common to the range so make for easy use from one model to another. Again, the quality interior belies the way the car drives. Also standard is the DSG (direct selection double clutch gearbox) common to all brands in the VW group. This makes the Polo GTi the easiest in city traffic. It’s neat and tidy and like the outside has a quality feel. A look around a VW showroom will show you how similar the interiors really are. This has added value to the smaller cars. Keep in mind the Polo is about the same size as the original Golf from all those years ago. The instruments are nice and easy to read and the equipment is within easy reach. It’s what you might call a thoughtful design. Great audio with impressive sound. VW don’t have any call for flashy bits that are simply there to sho off, so this well appointed, no-nonsense interior is good for the price.

POLO GTi interior 2011 2

The Mini is a mix of cute, odd, classic and retro. The big dial in the centre of the dash is the speedo. Personally, I’d get the GPS which goes in that space and the speedo is then in the centre dial where it belongs. Other than that, the interior in playfully simple. All the tech is hidden behind retro toggle switches and rocker buttons. The are touches of chrome and other metal highlights. Once you’re used to the layout, it really is very easy to use. The switches aren’t quite as easy to use as the Honda and Polo, but somehow it doesn’t matter. The whole point of Mini was to be quirky. Everything about it is unique. The interior looks as though it has been put together from a meccano set with the tacho binnacle being mounted directly on the steering wheel.  There is no hiding the bijou proportions, but that is something Mini owners have relished for 50 years. Over all, there is a charming quality that you just can’t put your finger on but it is a love or hate situation. The cabin feels snug but not cramped. Of all the Minis, the JCW has the boy racer feel to it and the one I would buy, though perhaps minus the roof!

Those that love it, will love it forever. It’s a welcome departure  the more familiar hatch design. There is no doubt that it is cosy inside, but, who cares?

Mini jcw dash

The drive

Type R

Looks aren’t enough for a what is essentially an entry level car to truly make it into the Hot Hatch Club. The Type R is very, very pretty, and it is also very easy to drive. There is nothing tricky to it and in city driving it is very nippy. The suspension is different to that in the Civic sedan. The Type R has McPherson Struts up front, but torsion bars in the rear. They say it is for handling and weight but it makes the ride a trifle hard and can be a bit choppy if you strike an errant rut in the middle of a enthusiastic cornering manoeuvre. You notice this even more if later that day you test drive a Polo GTi or Mini JCW. Although Honda have gone for a slightly starwars type of dash, it functions perfectly and looks great. I’s nice to see some thought going into conventional instruments to make them just a little bit interesting.

The 2.0l 148kw power plant does the 0-100 kph in about 6.6 seconds, though official figures are hard to find. It sounds raspy and just a little bit angry, rather like a proper 60’s sports car. The electric steering is beautifully precise and the entire package is both  quick and flat in the corners. It’s worth noting the electric assistance does not give the vagueness you often find in such a set up. There is enough road feel so that so that you know what your car is doing at all times.

The brakes are particularly good although the roads were wet for much of the time, the electronic nannies kept us out of the bushes. Sadly there was no bluetooth standard.

I’ve already touched on the clutch and gear box combo being very easy to use, so over all, a very nice package. Most importantly, the Civic passed the 2 bags test and easily took our 2 hard-cased carry-ons. I can’t move on without mentioning the unique seating options as the rear seats perform origami like transformations to accommodate all sorts of needs.

The drive was exactly as I expected with the Type R proving to be worthy of the name Hot Hatch. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. In a way I’m relieved that it was not as hard core as previous Type R’s.

Polo GTi

VW is going for the small twin-charged engine option with 132kw through the 7 speed DSG transmission. The seats are firm but not hard and the side bolsters support without poking into your sides. The electric steering again had the right amount of road feel wit just the right amount of assistance. there is nothing worse than over-boosted steering with no feel and no feedback. The power is fairly smooth with little lag and a pleasing boost as the revs build. The twin charge means the old fashioned lag then hammer-like acceleration has been ironed out.

There are certain corners we take all the test cars on. It’s a good way to see if there are any annoying habits and compares apples to apples. VW claim the car corners like it’s on rails, and I have to agree. We did an enjoyable mountains drive on a Sunday afternoon and the only thing that could have been improved was if the roof had been missing.

The gorgeously smooth DSG is best left to do its own thing. The manual option is there for decoration as far as I’m concerned. The changes are faster and somehow it always seems to be in the right gear. Like most of you, our driving was in city streets in city traffic and the lack of clutch was a joy in peak hour travel. On the mountain trip, the DSG was almost psychic in the shifting up and down.

The biggest surprise for me was the ride which was firm but supple. VW have been building Golf GTi’s for years and apart from ripping performance, they have always had great ride. This sophistication is something the Germans seem to excel at. The Polo GTi is really just filling a position left as the Golf got bigger and bigger. The only thing I should note is we had the 4 door version and personally I found the front doors a bit small so I would go for the 3 door model. 2 bags easily swallowed by the boot.

The Audio system was good but I’d go for an upgrade and the test car didn’t have bluetooth as standard.

Although the cabin is simple, it’s well laid out everything is dead easy to operate.

The Polo lived up to GTi expectations in every way. All in all, a pleasure to drive.

Mini JCW

Mini is the most expensive of the 3 cars. Although it wears the Mini badge proudly, we are really talking about a BMW that’s been shrunk in the wash so it had better be all that and more. Luckily it is. It’s a small car with a wheel in each corner, brilliant brakes and a stonking 155kw twin scroll turbo engine that has a sporty exhaust pop when you lift off the juice. For those who have driven the original Minis, the BMW version is not such a big departure. It’s as if the change has been gradual from the early 60’s and a logical progression from then to now. It is exactly what would have happened if had production been continuous. This is the biggest strength for such an important car. Of all the retro inspired cars, Mini has been the most successful both in sales and in popularity.

As I’d mentioned before, Mini enjoyed Gay Icon status from day one which most car makers would give their eye teeth for. Like the Type R, the Mini John Cooper Works has only 2 doors and a hatch, which suits most of us just fine. The back seat is really only a place for a couple of shopping bags and a coat. this is just as well because the boot is microscopic. “2 bags” did fit but they stood on the end with the cargo flap removed, but hey who cares, we got the tailgate shut.

Handling is sharp and with the direct (electric) steering and supple suspension. The ride is usurpingly good. You’d expect if to be harder than the Coopers S, and it is, but not uncomfortably so. In fact the JCW rides like a much bigger car. Like the previous Minis, the JCW handles like a bullet train on rails and nothing seemed to upset it. Quite something for such a small car. Although Mini is its own car, it is still a BMW so the over all quality is extremely good.

Spookily enough all 3 cars have similar 0-100 figures at between 6.6 and 6.9 seconds. Once upon a time that was reserved for super cars only. A jaguar E type Series III in 1971 had a 5.3 L V12 engine and managed 6.4 seconds to 100kph. And the servicing alone would have kept you in the poor house not to mention the fuel bill which would have kept small Arab states in all the dates they could want.

Much has changed in British car design but Mini is definitely a modern interpretation of the famous models of the past.

Wrap Up

There isn’t much between the 3 size-wise, but there is a lot of difference in style and looks. The Polo was the best Value at around $29,000 but extras would soon bring that price right up. The Civic at $44,000 is in the upper-middle of the bunch and the Mini is around $49,000 which sounds like an awful lot for a tiny car, but then it is an awful lot of tiny car for the money! The best bit was none left me crippled for life and none would be a compromise.

All had great audio with Ipod inputs.

The Polo had the best ride, the only auto (dsg) gearbox, was the cheapest and was the most practical and the best value for money.

The Civic is the most striking looking especially in the red It also had the nicest gear change and the best steering and smart rear seats.

The Mini had to most kit and best handling. It also had the best quality feel about it and was the most fun to drive but cost the most.

All three sounded fabulous especially when given a a bit of wellie and all three want a joy to drive. In the end the choice is going to come down to a matter of taste and budget All have electronic nannies along with seating for 4 adults and the creature comforts of home. I have a feeling that by the time you spec’d the Golf and Type R up a bit, the money is going to look different. The only thing the Mini needs is satnav. Although I loved it, the Civic is too expensive and should be more around the mid thirties than the mid forties, for that matter the Mini could be a bit cheaper as well. Do you get value for money? I would say a firm yes because at the end of the day, none of these cars is ordinary. What was more important, each made me feel special, and that is something I can’t say about every car I drive.

I loved all 3 and would be very happy to own any of them.

The bottom line:-

Item Mini JCW Civic Type R Polo GTi
engine 4cyl 1.4L 4cyl 2.0L 4cyl
power 155kw 148kw 132kw
torque 260nm 193nm 250nm
charger type twin charger n/a twin scroll turbo
0-100kph 6.9 sec 6.7 sec 6.9 sec
fuel cons comb 7.1 L/100k 9.3 L/100k 6.1 L/100k
doors 3 3 5
auto/dsg n/a n/a 7 spd dsg
manual 6 spd 6 spd n/a
curb weight 1140 kg 1345 kg 1189 kg
fuel tank 50 L 50 L 45l
co2 gm/kg 165g 219g 142g
price $49,000 $44,056 $29,000