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Autocar's top 50 cars on sale today


The rules for inclusion are very simple insofar as there are no rules. We didn’t divide the cars into categories or price points or make sure that every major manufacturer was represented.


Instead, we wrote down every possible candidate based simply on the cars that the senior editorial staff and road test team liked most, and we’ll say now that if this had been a list of our top 87 cars, we’d have saved ourselves a whole lot of time and effort.


What actually happened is that we disappeared into a large room with big chairs, poured ourselves a lot of coffee and discussed, debated, argued and just occasionally shouted at each other until we’d whittled it down to 50 cars.


We then all named our individual top fives to find the cars that would take part in our final shootout and placed the remaining 45 in order of preference. Then all we had to do was decamp to Wales for two days of driving with our five favourite cars to find the best of the best.


(VWROC haven't listed them all but here's a sample...)


36, BMW 235i - There are lots of BMWs on this list but, shockingly, not one M car. This is the nearest we came to choosing one — a car £22k cheaper than an M4 and nicer to drive.


31, Audi R8, 4.2 - It may be old and due for replacement, but a manual V8 R8 coupé remains perhaps the sweetest junior mid-engined supercar that you can buy, as well as the easiest to live with. It’s an act that will take some following.


17, Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy - If you don’t know why a front-drive Renault hatch with a rear beam axle is this far up this list, get to your nearest dealer. Drive one and you’ll never ask again.


1, VW Golf R - It’s a Golf. How could we? It’s like having the world’s greatest haute couturiers at your feet and asking if anyone has seen the Boden catalogue. But you can see our thinking. We like good cars and we like quick cars. The Golf is good and the R is quick; QED, we have our winner.


Actually, it’s not like that at all. For the purposes of this exercise, it would be really quite handy if you could somehow forget that it was a Golf at all. If you do not, you’ll think that it’s another fast and fluent Golf, in the finest traditions of all those fast and fluent Golfs since the original GTI let the world believe that VW invented the hot hatchback almost 40 years ago.


Worse, you might believe that it’s like the previous Golf R, only a bit quicker, and then you’ll be struggling to see how it even made it into the top 50, let alone won the whole contest outright.


Think of it, then, as another car, a breed apart, and take our word that whatever it may look like, whatever it may be based upon, this is a whole new level of hot hatchery. And because hot hatches are what people who need a practical car but love to drive actually go out and buy, that makes it quite an important car, too.

It is no exaggeration to say that when you dial up Race mode and fire it at a tricky road, it doesn’t feel like any kind of Golf at all.


Indeed, and in the same way as Nascar racers have superficially familiar road car bodies draped over race car muscle and bone, so this R feels almost like a silhouette Golf. It offers not just raw speed but also far more valuable gifts such as grip, composure and feel.


How do we know how good this car is? Because the tougher the test you set it, the better it feels; that’s the test that cannot be ducked. There are lots of cars that might feel good when hunkered down in a quick, smooth, constant-radius curve. But what about one that’s narrow, treacherous and teeming with crafty changes to camber and surface? A decent British B-road, in other words. That’s a challenge of a different magnitude and one that the Golf R tackles with indecent relish.


Of course, being merely capable in such conditions is only half the battle. It is the most important quality, because without the confidence that’s a natural byproduct of such excellence, you never want to drive it like that in the first place.


But then comes the other stuff: the throttle response that you’d simply not ascribe to a small, four-cylinder engine through which a great deal of turbo boost is being blown. You’d expect it to sound as interesting as a digital radio in a tunnel. In fact, it sounds fabulous.


Then there’s the balance. This car has four-wheel drive, so you expect it to understeer, but it doesn’t. It just steers, jabbing into the apex with its quick, accurate steering, swivelling its hips into neutrality or better if you lift off the throttle. It’s not just capable; it’s massively, implausibly involving, too.


Sooner or later the road will end, you’ll take a deep breath, press a couple of buttons and the car will go back to being an everyday, common-or-garden, quiet, comfortable, well built and spacious Volkswagen Golf.


Doubtless there have been other hatchbacks as incisive as this and some, perhaps, as easy to live with. But these talents have never been combined in the same car until now.


This may just look like a Golf in running gear with a sharper set of spikes, but it’s not: it’s a landmark in real-world performance car design. And in its very best form – with three doors and a manual gearbox, just like the one you see here – it’s yours for less than £30,000.

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