New Volkswagen Golf R vs Audi S3 vs BMW M135i

The Golf R has always been a fine all-rounder among the top echelon of hot hatches. Let’s see if the latest one can match the Audi S3 and BMW M135i for thrills and usability...

Audi S3 vs BMW M135i vs Volkswagen Golf R fronts

The contenders

NEW Volkswagen Golf R 2.0 TSI 320 4Motion DSG

List price £39,270
Target Price £38,139

Shares componentry with the latest S3, but this new range-topping Golf has even more firepower. It isn’t the bargain that it once was, though

Audi S3 TFSI quattro S tronic

List price £37,900
Target Price £36,084

Until the even hotter RS3 arrives later this year, this 306bhp, four-wheel-drive hot hatch represents the pinnacle of the A3 range

BMW M135i xDrive auto

List price £37,685
Target Price £35,782

The old M135i had a six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive. This new one loses a couple of cylinders but gains four-wheel drive traction

Hot hatches are supposed to be about cheap thrills, aren’t they? That’s what made ’80s legends like the Peugeot 205 GTi and Renault 5 GT Turbo such massive hits: the fact that you could have a bigger engine and sharper handling for only a few thousand quid more than you’d pay for an otherwise tardy runaround.

Fortunately, cars like the £16,000 VW Up GTI still offer smiles on a shoestring – but these days the term ‘hot hatch’ is rather broader and also covers serious performance cars that just happen to be wrapped up in a practical hatchback body. Indeed, the German trio we’ve got lined up here – the Audi S3, BMW M135i and new VW Golf R – are roughly as quick as a V8-powered Audi R8 from a decade ago.

Volkswagen Golf R 2021 side

There doesn’t appear to be a big difference between them on paper. Each has a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine under its bonnet, along with four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox as standard. They all cost roughly the same, too – at least when we’re talking brochure prices. So, should you just roll the dice? Or does one of these hyper-hot hatches deserve special consideration?


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

You could argue that 0-60mph times aren’t particularly relevant; after all, how often do you find yourself at a set of traffic lights with the inclination to fire yourself away from the line with maximum ferocity? But when it comes to one-upmanship down the pub (or more likely on Zoom or social media at the moment), these numbers are still the first to be quoted.

Audi S3 2021 side

The manufacturers concerned are all too aware of this, and that’s why each has fitted a launch control system to its contender. In simple terms, this should allow you to make the perfect getaway every time – whatever your skill level. We say ‘should’ because the M135i’s system proved rather unreliable during our test, often refusing to initiate – despite us following the rather complicated button-pressing procedure.

When it did work, though, the M135i raced to 60mph in 4.6sec – a seriously quick time by any standards, only tempered slightly by the fact that the hottest version of the previous 1 Series (the M140i) managed the sprint in 4.5sec when we tested it a few years ago.

That’s still slower than the S3 and Golf R, though; they posted times of 4.4sec and 4.3sec respectively. The launch control systems in the S3 and Golf R also proved far more reliable, nearly always initiating promptly.

BMW M135i 2021 side

Why was the Golf quickest? Simple: because it has the most power, at 316bhp, compared with the S3’s 306bhp and M135i’s 302bhp. And while you’d struggle to appreciate that difference without a stopwatch when doing 0-60mph drag races, you can notice it when you accelerate hard on the move. As if to prove the point, the Golf R’s 30-70mph time of 3.8sec trumps the S3’s 4.0sec and the M135i’s 4.1sec.

But while all three engines have lots of firepower and can deploy it effectively come rain or shine, none sounds particularly tuneful. The S3’s four-cylinder unit has been engineered to mimic the five-cylinder thrum of the recently departed RS3 (a new one is on the way). That might sound like a great idea, but the execution isn’t; most of the time the sound is more Xbox than exciting.

The engine noise in the other two doesn’t sound all that genuine, either. The M135i is the loudest if you’re sitting inside the car, but that’s because a lot of the sound is coming through the speakers. You do get a few pops and crackles from the exhaust, but compared with the old six-cylinder M135i and its M140i successor, there isn’t much to stir the soul.

Volkswagen Golf R 2021 front

The Golf R is the only one of our trio available with an optional sports exhaust – a £3100 titanium system made by Akrapovic – so it has the potential to sound most enticing. We’ve yet to experience it on this car, though.

Meanwhile, the M135i’s gearbox delivers the fiercest and most immediate shifts; that’s surprising, because the dual-clutch automatic gearbox fitted to the other two usually tends to be faster. The margins aren’t huge, but the S3’s ’box slurs shifts the most; you might wish upshifts were a tad more aggressive.

Although these are among the quickest hot hatches you can buy, they aren’t designed to offer the raw driving thrills of a Honda Civic Type R or Toyota GR Yaris. The deal here is a fairly even blend of fun, outright capability and everyday usability – and the Golf R strikes that balance pretty well.

Audi S3 2021 front

Our contenders may all be four-wheel drive, but the Golf sends more of its power to the rear wheels than its rivals. This is particularly true when you select Race mode; you can really feel the rear wheels helping to rotate the car as you accelerate out of corners. If that sounds scary, it really isn’t; it just adds another layer to the driving experience.

The S3 and M135i can shuffle power to the rear wheels too, but they don’t do so as readily in spirited driving. And when it does happen, it’s in a less measured, more staccato fashion. This helps the Golf to feel the most alive and agile through tight twists and turns, although when it comes to sheer cornering grip, there’s little between it and the S3 – no doubt in part because both cars are fitted with the same tyres.

Tyres could be one reason why the M135i doesn’t glue you to the road as well as its rivals; it’s shod with Bridgestone Turanza rubber, as opposed to the stickier Bridgestone Potenzas fitted to the other two. This probably explains why the M135i takes slightly longer to pull up from 70mph, too.

BMW M135i 2021 front

The M135i also feels a bit softer and less tenacious through corners. Even with our test car’s optional adaptive suspension (£500) switched to its firmest setting, the M135i leans a little more than its rivals and doesn’t respond as quickly when you ask for a sudden change of direction. That said, when you’re driving briskly rather than really hard, its relatively quick steering makes it feel alert and gives you a decent sense of connection with the road.

In the S3 and Golf, you need to apply a bit more lock to get around gentle corners, but both set-ups allow you to be more precise with your placement through turns when driving hard. You don’t exactly get feedback streaming to your fingertips in either like you do in a Civic Type R, though, and the S3’s steering weights up in a slightly unnatural, exaggerated way – particularly if you’ve switched to Dynamic mode, when it feels as though the front wheels have suddenly become entrenched in treacle. The Golf’s steering is lighter and more intuitive, but the margins aren’t huge.

Audi S3 vs BMW M135i vs Volkswagen Golf R rears

Like the BMW M135i, our VW Golf also had adaptive suspension (a £765 option that Volkswagen calls DCC), whereas the Audi S3 isn’t available with this feature unless you spend around £8000 more on the Vorsprung edition. In the forms tested here, the S3 is the firmest. It’s never jarring or crashy, but it’s the least agreeable – particularly in urban environments.

There isn’t a great deal in it between the Golf and M135i, with both proving surprisingly comfy by hot hatch standards – as long as you’ve switched the suspension to its softest setting. And there’s barely anything between all three when it comes to cruising refinement, although the Golf suffers from the least tyre roar at motorway speeds.

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