Cheap thrills: Britain's Best Affordable Drivers Car 2020

Britain's best affordable drivers car 2020 - lead image

Our epic driver’s car fest opens at the lower end of the price spectrum, and is something of a hot hatch shootout

A cloying autumnal mist hangs over Exmoor as we muster, early doors, for the start of our two-day Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car contest.

The murky conditions, a brisk wind that cuts through to the bone and a shortage of vendors of piping-hot tea should sap enthusiasm, but in fact the opposite is true. You see, not only are these moorland roads epically good, but we’re also going to be driving them in a quartet of cars that prove you don’t need a bank account under the name of Bezos to access a billion-dollar experience behind the wheel.

Speaking of which, you’ll notice we’ve gone for an all hot hatch line-up this year. Well, sort of, because delve a little deeper and you’ll discover that each one stretches this decades-old descriptor in wildly different directions. Crucially, what they do have in common is uncommonly good value. All have prices that come in under £40,000 and a juicy PCP deal could mean paying not much more than £200 a month for the privilege of parking at least one of our contestants on your drive.

First up is the Volkswagen Golf GTI, a 45-year-old legend that originally popularised the pocket rocket phenomenon and is now in its eighth generation. Then there’s a pair of returning but revised champs: the Ford Fiesta ST and Honda Civic Type R. One has been treated to some tasty tuning tricks, the other fettled with the addition of some gumball tyres and a stripped-out, circuit star vibe. Completing our quartet is the Toyota GR Yaris, a car that in size, fourwheel-drive layout and WRC-infused DNA could have fallen through a wormhole from an early-1990s group test with a Subaru Impreza Turbo and Ford Escort RS Cosworth.

So where to start? Well, the Fiesta is the most affordable here, especially in the form tested, which gets the Mountune treatment for its turbocharged 1.5-litre triple, plus upgraded brakes and some cosmetic changes, but not the Essex firm’s choice suspension upgrades. And that’s as it should be, because there was always a sense that the Fiesta ST’s deeply capable chassis could handle more grunt, which is exactly what it gets here. The £890 engine upgrade delivers 232bhp and a punchy 258lb ft.

It’s those engine mods that dominate initially (well, that and the relentlessly firm low-speed ride). A bespoke twin-exit exhaust gives it a deeper and gurglier backbeat, but the thumping mid-range is what really grabs your attention. The Ford accelerates with such muscular elasticity from about 2000rpm that it’s easy to keep the ST snapping at the heels of its more powerful rivals.

There’s a puppyish enthusiasm to the way the Ford goes about its business, rushing for the apex like a hyperactive terrier on the scent, playfully lifting an inside rear wheel as cornering loads grow. It’s laugh-out-loud fun from start to finish. And few front-wheel-drive cars are as throttle adjustable. The Fiesta allows you to tighten or widen your line at will – although buyer beware, because even in its most sensible setting, the ESP gives you more angle of dangle than you’d imagine.

Yes, the ride is unyielding at low speed and some of Exmoor’s more testing stretches result in the odd hop, skip and jump, while the powerful brake upgrade lacks the progression of the standard stoppers. But the basic Fiesta’s package remains as compelling as ever. “I like it a lot,” says editor-at-large Matt Prior. “It’s a fun factory. And actually very capable while it’s at it.” Exactly.

If the Fiesta is the rabble-rousing teenager, then the Golf is the grownup in the room, if history is anything to go by. Yet it could be that this heritage is starting to weigh heavily on the VW’s shoulders, because like many approaching their half-century, it appears to be going through something of a mid-life crisis. At a glance, all the usual subtle but significant GTI calling cards are present and correct. Powerful turbocharged engine? Check. Lowered and stiffened suspension? Check. Red stripe on the front grille? Check. Checked seat trim? Erm, check. And yet something has changed.

Senior contributing writer Andrew Frankel hits the nail on the head: “I don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve with this car. It had a unique formula so why change it? It’s like Apple deciding it really needs to be a bit more like Samsung.” Essentially, it feels like the Golf is trying too hard to keep up with the whippersnappers and has abandoned its hard-won reputation as cultured all-rounder in the process.

Make no mistake: the Golf is a fantastically quick and capable car and it picks apart these helicoidal Devon roads with clinical efficiency and real precision. It’s clearly quicker point to point than its immediate forebear, the brilliant front-end grip, tremendous traction and cast-iron body control helping to keep it suckered to the road. The engine is a corker, too, pulling with real deep-chested muscle from nothing before zinging happily to the redline.

What’s missing is the engagement and back-and-forth banter to go with its harder-edged character. The steering is too light and not chatty enough, and while you can disable the ESP (although you’ll need Crystal Maze levels of problem-solving skills to do so), the VW isn’t particularly expressive, preferring to play it straight. Worse still, knock the dampers back into Comfort mode and the brittle edge to the ride remains. It’s still the one you’d take for the long haul home, but the old easy-going nature has evaporated. “A good hot hatch,” says road tester Simon Davis, “but not a great GTI.”

Perhaps throwing the GTI’s issues into even sharper relief is the fact that it rides no better than the Civic: the same track-biased Civic that rolls on Michelin Sport Cup 2 rubber and has an interior shorn of infotainment, air-con and a chunk of sound deadening. “Still an exceptional driver’s car,” says road test editor Matt Saunders, wide-eyed after a few runs. “Just gets the essentials so right: driving position, control layout, Porsche GT3-level feedback and precision, spectacular body control at speed.”

That reference to the rear-engined legend from Zuffenhausen isn’t hyperbole, either. It has been said before, but if Porsche were to produce an affordable front-wheel-drive hatch, then it would drive much like this perfectly honed Honda. The steering is brilliant, with a just-so rate of response and all the feedback you’ll need, and the car pivots beautifully into a corner, its attitude up for instant and accurate adjustment using any combination of steering, brakes and throttle.

Yes, there’s some wheel scrabble and torque steer when those Michelins are chilly, but they warm through quickly to deliver tenacious grip. Body control is absolute, the damping effortlessly keeping everything on an even keel no matter how evil the surface, and the engine still has that voracious V-TEC addiction to the redline. Then there’s the improved six-speed transmission, which is a slice of snickety-shifting heaven. If there’s a better manual gearbox in a front-wheel-drive hatch, I’ll eat the Honda’s aluminium-topped gearlever.

If there’s a gripe, it’s the Civic’s size: it’s quite chunky for a family hatch. Both the Matts, Prior and Saunders, utter the same ‘it’s a big car’ comment after clambering out of the Honda’s deeply bucketed driver’s seat. Oh, and the fact that the standard Type R delivers 99.9% of this Limited Edition model’s ability for about £6k less.

But that’s about it for negatives on the Honda, and if you want something more compact and less expensive, well, there’s always the Toyota. The fact that the Yaris exists at all is incredible. There’s no need for it from a motorsport homologation point of view, so you have to speculate that Toyota expensively developed and built a bespoke four-wheel-drive platform for its new supermini just for the hell of it. These are people we can work with. And while £33,495 might look pricey for a Yaris, you can bet the brand isn’t making a penny out of it.

Still, any financial loss is our gain, although the GR’s charms aren’t immediate. Pugnacious wide-arched stance aside, the Yaris feels a little ordinary at first. You sit high behind the wheel and the interior is rather workaday to behold. Hit the starter button and the three-cylinder engine fires into life so unobtrusively that you have to check the rev counter to confirm its running.

Get moving, though, and the Toyota is brain-bulgingly, eye-poppingly exciting. It’s simply so fast across the ground, thanks to its blend of compact dimensions, four-wheel-drive traction and a boosty engine that gets stronger and stronger the harder you work it. Most of our testers needed a few moments to reflect after an energetic attack on Exmoor, but with thoughts gathered the superlatives soon flowed. “Stone the crows!” exclaims the normally inscrutable Saunders. “I thought we might never see the likes of this car again – what used to be called ‘a licence-loser’. And yet, for me, it has charms that come through right across the speed range.”

It’s the composure that gets you. No matter what the surface or the weather, the Toyota digs in and goes, taking everything in its stride. There’s barely a whiff of understeer on turn-in and its ability to let you get on the throttle so much earlier than in the others here is otherworldly. Yet there’s also a playfulness on show and you can subtly vary your angle of attack from corner entry to exit, the trick four-wheel drive sending enough torque rearwards for satisfying, four-square slingshots down the next straight, aided by a gloriously ferocious engine that really comes on song at about 4000rpm and feels twice as powerful as its official 257bhp rating. Davis describes it as a “furiously rabid weasel”, which I can’t really argue with.

We loved the Toyota, then? In a word, yes. So I won’t beat around the bush: the Yaris smashed it, with five of the six judges placing it top of their list and the sixth putting it second. That’s as close to emphatic as you’ll get. So there you have it: Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car 2020 is a Toyota Yaris, and that’s a line I never thought I’d write. Now, can this remarkable little machine pull off a similar giant-killing feat against the heavy hitters?

Four fun used alternatives

Honda Integra Type R, £17,500: The first series-production car to bear the Type R badge is still arguably the benchmark for front-driven performance cars. If the paint scheme of this “stunning” one-owner example isn’t to your taste, the 8700rpm redline will be.

Toyota Corolla GT AE86, £17,000: You have to go back to the Corolla AE86 for a tail-happy Toyota developed with the same ethos as the GR Yaris. Finding one that’s not had the Tokyo Drift treatment is tough, so a trip to Portugal for a rare coupé-bodied car is worth it.

Ford Fiesta RS Turbo, £9100: This pocket rocket wore a sporty bodykit like that of the XR2i and used largely the same engine but was two seconds quicker to 62mph and is rarer today. It may not have been as engaging a steer, but you can’t argue with the kerb appeal.

Volkswagen Golf R32, £15,495: The MK4 R32 has twice the driven axles as the new GTI, costs half the money and puts out the same power. It falls short in the subtlety stakes, but drive the pair in convoy down a busy high street and see which gets the most admiration.


Britain’s best drivers car 2020: The main event

Video: Best sports cars reviewed | Britain’s Best Driver’s Car 2020 shootout​

Source: Autocar

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