SUVs are ascendant.
These high-riding pseudo-offroad wagons are the new kings, and the road to their supremacy is littered with fallen heroes of yesteryear.
Large Cars were the first to go as SUVs exerted their showroom power. That was quickly followed by V8 sports sedans like the Chrysler 300 SRT, Ford Falcon XR8 and Holden Commodore SS. Now we’re forced to get our super-fast large car kicks from performance Jeeps, and Mercedes-Benz and BMW SUVs.
Likewise, the Medium Sedan category has been decimated, with previous sales champs like the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Liberty and Mazda 6 knocked spectacularly out of the ring – although one or two still refuse to admit defeat despite the bruises and broken bones.
The same goes for Small Cars; that category accounted for one-fifth of all new car sales a decade ago, but today it is barely one-third the size it was in 2012 and falling faster every year.
What’s next, and will the SUV tsunami ever stop? Is any passenger car category sacred?
What about hot hatches? Can SUVs kill even that much-loved category?
That’s what we’re here to find out. We’ve gathered three freshly launched performance SUVs of differing sizes and prices to find out if they can be the hot hatches for future generations.
Remember the Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk2, the Peugeot 205 GTi and the Suzuki Swift GTI from last century? I certainly do. I cut my teeth on them, learned the limits of front-wheel traction in them, discovered the joys of a well-executed handbrake turn and experienced the exhilaration of cocking a rear wheel in corners – often followed by the white-knuckle terror of lift-off oversteer.
Hot hatches were plentiful and affordable back when I got my licence in 1989; the Swift GTi, for example, was barely $20K. It packed a thumping 1.3-litre petrol four-pot (with no turbo) that produced a stonking 74kW and 113Nm, and had a five-speed manual transmission.
Pathetic by today’s numbers, but those days were simpler times, before ANCAP, before safety standards, before airbags and ABS and crumple zones. The diminutive Swift GTI took advantage of all of this to keep its kerb weight down to 900kg, and so was an absolute hoot to drive.
Then there was the Nissan Pulsar SSS, the Ford Laser TX3, the Renault Clio, the Seat Ibiza GTi… Even the Subaru WRX has been a hatchback at times.
But anyone who believes Ye Olden Days were better is kidding themselves. Safety regulations have added weight but they have also saved lives, and turbocharging has given modern engines the power to counter that extra weight. Back in 1990, a Porsche 911 promised 0-100km/h in six seconds; these days a Mazda 3 can do sixes.
Our three hot SUVs don’t do sixes. They do fives and fours. We’ve chosen them not just because they’re fast, but because they cover a wide spread of budgets, sizes and intentions.
Like all ‘real’ SUVs, they have four passenger doors and two rows of seats. Plus they have a decent amount of boot space for their exterior size.
Hot hatches, too, had two rows of seats and decent boots, but sometimes only two doors.
But we’re not really interested in what they have or had, we’re focused on what they’re like to drive.
Specifically, can these hot SUVs put a smile on your face like hot hatches once did?
|2022 Hyundai Kona N||2022 Volkswagen Tiguan R||2022 Porsche Macan S|
|Engine||2.0L 4-cylinder turbo petrol||2.0L 4-cylinder turbo petrol||2.9L V6 twin-turbo petrol|
|Power||206kW @ 6000rpm||235kW@6500rpm||280kW @ 6700rpm|
|Torque||392Nm @ 2100-4700rpm||400Nm @ 2000-5600rpm||520Nm @ 1850-5000rpm|
|Drive||Front-wheel drive||All-wheel drive||All-wheel drive|
|Transmission||8-speed DCT||7-speed DCT||7-speed PDK|
|Fuel consumption (comb)||9.0L/100km||8.8L/100km||10.2L/100km|
Our test drive started with a cross-country jaunt from Melbourne to Moe via Yarra Junction and Noojee. The C425 and C465 are two of my favourite Sunday morning roads. They’re quiet, packed with curves and sparsely habited.
The Volkswagen Tiguan R is not so much a hot SUV as a prestige SUV hotted up. It’s at the top of the Tiguan family tree in terms of price, performance and equipment. It’s powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that sends 235kW and 400Nm to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
This 1722kg SUV feels quick to drive, and while we didn’t measure the accelerative performance of any of our test cars, I don’t doubt Volkswagen’s 0-100km/h claim of 5.1 seconds.
What it doesn’t feel is agile, at least not like a hot hatch. That’s because the Tiguan’s dimensions give its suspension a busy workload countering cornering forces and ironing out road surfaces. Plus this is a prestige SUV first and foremost, so it’s not trying to be the last word in performance. But we’ll get to that in a sec.
If the Tiguan is a prestige SUV that’s been hotted up, the Porsche Macan was built hot from Day One. But that’s as you’d expect of anything wearing a Porsche badge, even an SUV.
The Macan S is the middleweight boxer in the Macan range, above the Macan and Macan T, but below the potent Macan GTS. It’s priced at $113,200 plus on road costs, is powered by a 2.9-litre turbo V6 producing 280kW and 520Nm, and has a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.8 seconds.
Compared to the Tiguan, the Porsche feels more capable in the corners and more nimble on change of direction, and that’s despite carrying an extra 160kg over the Tiguan. That weight does manifest when you’re driving, however, making the Macan’s powertrain feel a touch more ‘mild’ than I expected, but again, I’ll get to that in more detail later.
Now, I’d like to introduce the third member of our trio.
If the Tiguan is mundane made hot and the Porsche is mildly hot, then the Hyundai Kona N is mild gone wild. We’re talking absolutely bonkers off your tree wild like Keith Moon in hotel rooms – or Trump’s toupee in a hurricane for those unfamiliar with that 20th-century rocker reference.
The Hyundai Kona is a small SUV, which makes it the closest physically to a hot hatch. But instead of saying its name “Kona N”, it makes more sense to say it “KonaN”, because the performance this diminutive little SUV packs is truly barbaric. And yes, I’ll explain that further in a sec.
The speed-legal road trip through the Yarra Ranges to our racetrack destination doesn’t tell us everything about these cars, but it does confirm that all three are capable of hustling along winding country roads with pace and aplomb.
The Konan feels least refined and most raw whereas the Macan and Tiguan are very refined, although perhaps a touch distant.
This is an important point, because on roads like these, great hot hatches made you feel like you were jacked directly into the mechanical magic. They made you feel a part of the machine, your fingers skimming the road, your right foot feeding the mill and your left foot rubbing the brakes.
An imaginary gyro built into your butt told you everything you needed to know about lateral forces and tyre grip, which left your brain free to direct the show and drink the adrenaline.
Hot hatches – really good hot hatches – were so much more than the sum of their parts, and the most important part was you.
On the road, the Tiguan is the most distant and detached, the Porsche the most polished. The Konan is ballistic but barely tamed.
One area it struggles with is everyday driving at low speeds, carpark speeds. The front tyres scrub noisily during tight turns, making a sound not unlike a fixed axle racecar.
The Hyundai Kona feels most hatchback-like, its small dimensions and short wheelbase also make it the most nimble. And it’s not short of power from the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, even though Hyundai only claims 5.5sec for 0-100km.
The Kona’s ride does not have the same range as its Hyundai i30 N stablemate. We suspect Hyundai has had to tie the Konan down more tightly to counter its higher centre of gravity (the Kona’s hip point is higher and its roof is 120mm higher than the i30’s).
On its most compliant setting, Konan is still very very firm, reacting to all the bumps in the road. None of this upsets the car because it’s well planted and stable. It’s just that the firmness can wear thin over time.
|2022 Hyundai Kona N||2022 Volkswagen Tiguan R||2022 Porsche Macan S|
|Boot size (min/max)||361L / 1143L||615L / 1655L||453L / 1468L|
|Tow rating (braked)||1600kg||2200kg||2000kg|
|0-100km/h claim||5.5 sec||5.1 sec||4.8 sec|
But where Konan feels most hatchback-like, both the Tiguan and the Porsche feel like the SUVs they are.
The Porsche’s adjustable suspension helps the driver tie the 1.6m tall wagon down to the road when the occasion demands, but you never lose the feeling that you’re sitting high in an SUV, not low down in a hatchback as you do with the Kona.
The Porsche has an unfussed pace. It’s properly rapid yet feels utterly composed at all times. This is one well-sorted machine on the road. Fast through sweepers, quick to deal with tighter turns, and really, really muscular on the straights.
The Porsche’s multi-adjustable driver’s seat, which includes adjustable bolsters, holds you firmly in place, but that can’t iron out the tippy feeling of sitting in a much higher car around corners.
The Porsche’s engine is a pearl. Its bigger capacity makes it feel muscular even at low revs, and the power swells in intensity like a wave approaching the shore.
On the tight turns of the Haunted Hills circuit, however, the Porsche feels its size and all of its 1883kg. That’s not to say it is not ponderous or cumbersome. In fact, it’s impressive how much agility Porsche’s engineers have extracted from the Macan. But there’s no escaping the body motion of a high-riding SUV and the seat height which exaggerates the sensations of that body’s motion in the corners.
It’s on the racetrack, too, where the Porsche’s 280kW engine feels more mild than wild. For example, even though it has the biggest capacity at 2.9 litres and the most power, it cannot translate that into a speed advantage on this tight and twisting circuit.
Our unofficial speed trap at the end of the back straight sees the Porsche topping 115km/h before hitting the brakes hard to take the downhill right-hander. The Tiguan manages just under 110km/h but the smaller and lighter Konan reaches 120km/h, even though it has the lowest power-to-weight of the three.
In fact, the circuit is where the Kona excels. It’s the shortest of our three, and therefore you sit the lowest which reduces body sway and heightens those fundamental hot hatch sensations. The Kona makes you feel more enmeshed, more tightly woven into the machine than the other two.
The Kona’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine – ripped straight from the i30 N with 206kW and a firey nature – is a little ripper. So eager and willing, although it is a touch remote as the turbo spools up in response to big throttle increases.
The Kona feels a lot like a Jack Russell Terrier, eager to play and willing to have a go regardless of the enemy it’s fighting. It’s not perfect, but in this case, it’s the flaws that give the Kona its character. The slight delay in engine response forces you to anticipate your needs, to plan further ahead. The front-end scrub in tighter corners again forces you to plot a smoother line around corners instead of chucking it in and improvising on the go.
But if you do chuck it in and have a go, the rear end can be encouraged to slide, to drift. This playfulness is a fundamental part of what made hot hatches so invigorating, and sometimes a little scary on the limit. The Kona N doesn’t feel scary, or maybe I’m older and more experienced than the invincible and ignorant idiot I was in my 20s. Still, if this level of chassis playfulness is not what you want, leave the ESC on. (Now that’s an option the Swift GTI never gave me, sadly.)
The Konan has flaws. That turbo delay is one, and the way the front end scrubs on tighter turns is another. But like all cars with flaws, once you adapt to them the rewards seem richer. It’s like knowing the secret handshake to a private club. Only you can unlock the door to the treasures beyond.
All of that is what makes the Kona so endearing. The Kona is outgunned on paper in this company, but not in the real world. In terms of smiles on our testers’ dials, the Kona proved more accomplished than the Porsche, although the Stuttgart stormer did have its fans among our test crew.
As for the Volkswagen, it was outgunned on the racetrack, but I doubt anyone will be surprised to read this. The Tiguan R couldn’t make the transition from a powered-up prestige SUV into a true performance SUV, and it never showed one whit of hot hatch behaviour.
It was not as enjoyable on track as the Porsche and not even close to the addictive insanity offered by the Kona. The VW’s chassis was the least malleable in corners and not as responsive to the throttle. On the racetrack, the Tiguan R’s tyres screamed loudest, the Tiguan’s body swayed the most, and the steering felt the least alive of the three.
Very little about the VW immersed the driver in the occasion on-track, but if I wanted a vehicle to drive across this country – and enjoy a few corners along the way – I’d buy the Tiguan because it was the most comfortable and the easiest to live with, and $45K cheaper than the Porsche.
At the end of the day, Volkswagen doesn’t need the Tiguan R to be a 21st-century (cashed-up) boy racer’s hot hatch dream because it already has one of those. It’s called the Golf R, and it will rip racetracks to shreds and take the driver to heaven. Even better, it costs pretty much the same as the Tiguan R.
Instead, Volkswagen wants the Tiguan R to be a sharper and sportier Tiguan, and that’s exactly what it is.
So, where does that leave us?
The VW Tiguan R is a very impressive SUV with a potent drivetrain and enough smarts to use it without ruffling any occupants’ feathers. But it does nothing that a hot hatch does.
The Porsche Macan is the Porsche of mid-size SUVs, but it’s still an SUV and lacks sharpness around the edges of its performance envelope.
The Kona N is brilliant and barbaric, and there’s no better fun to be had in a hot SUV under $50,000. It comes closest to fitting the hot hatch mould and mimics many of the attributes I grew up loving. But, as close as it is, nothing can match the rawness of the original hot hatches.
But what if we fast forward to the current crop of hot hatches? The variety of the late 20th century is not there, but the current crop is far more accomplished and more ballistic than my 20-something mind could have imagined.
Even the smallest of the breed – the Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N – pack plenty of performance into tiny frames, and they know how to show drivers a great time.
Above that, we have the Golf GTi and Hyundai i30 N, the ‘last men standing’ in what used to be a rich and vibrant category boasting entrants from Subaru, Ford, Renault, Mazda, Alfa Romeo and others.
That list of current hot hatches is not very impressive. The cars themselves are, but the number of options is poor. That’s because Australians are moving away from small cars and small hot hatches, and buying SUVs instead.
So, the question we set out to answer – Are hot SUVs the new Hot Hatches? – may be a moot point. If things keep going the way they are we may not have any hot hatches to buy anymore. Hot SUVs may be our only choice.
Glenn Butler is one of Australia’s best-known motoring journalists having spent the last 25 years reporting on cars on radio, TV, web and print. He’s a former editor of Wheels, Australia’s most respected car magazine, and was deputy editor of Drive.com.au before that. Glenn’s also worked at an executive level for two of Australia’s most prominent car companies, so he understands how much care and consideration goes into designing and developing new cars. As a journalist, he’s driven everything from Ferraris to Fiats on all continents except Antarctica (which he one day hopes to achieve) and loves discovering each car’s unique personality and strengths. Glenn knows a car’s price isn’t indicative of its competence, and even the cheapest car can enhance your life and expand your horizons.