FOR all the talk within the fleet industry of tax-efficient diesel company cars, there’s still a large sector of the market who will gladly pay more tax to drive the car they want.
These user-choosers love sporty hatchbacks and now they are spoilt for choice.
The latest addition to the ranks is Ford’s Focus ST, packing a 222bhp turbocharged punch and also looking the part with its aggressive bodykit and gaping air intakes in the front bumper.
It has come along at just the right time to spoil the Astra VXR’s party. The Vauxhall not only looks amazing, it is also the most powerful hot hatch with an impressive 237bhp.
Completing the 200bhp-plus club is the Megane Renaultsport 225. While not as hardcore as the Astra, it still looks and goes well.
With 197bhp, the Golf GTI can’t compete with the super hatches, but its power and handling have impressed all who have driven it.
Which leaves us with two tepid hatches in the shape of Audi’s A3 2.0T FSI, which shares the Golf’s engine, and the BMW 120i. Neither is a traditional hot hatch, but both have enough other virtues to make them warrant attention
Audi A3 2.0T FSI 3dr
P11D price: £18,867
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £996/£1,811
2005 VED bill: £165
Custom Fleet: £381
BMW 120i ES 5dr
P11D price: £19,522
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £944/£1,717
2005 VED bill: £150
Custom Fleet: £352
Ford Focus ST-3 3dr
P11D price: £19,292
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,315/2,392
2005 VED bill: £165
Custom Fleet: £391
Megane Renaultsport 225 3dr
P11D price: £19,297
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,188/£2,161
2005 VED bill: £165
Custom Fleet: £364
Vauxhall Astra VXR
P11D price: £18,792
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,281/£2,330
2005 VED bill: £165
Custom Fleet: £394
Volkswagen Golf GTI 3dr
P11D price: £19,792
2005 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,089/£1,979
2005 VED bill: £165
Custom Fleet: £397
RICHARD SCHOOLING, Commercial director, Alphabet (GB)
Fleets’ growing appetite for high power hatchbacks may seem surprising but today’s safety levels, efficient engines and strong demand for ex-fleet examples, underpin their potential as status-reward cars. Brand perception and stand-out qualities are key.
This category is still defined by the ubiquitous hatchback outline but the BMW truly breaks the mould. Visually and technically distinctive and compelling financially, it is in a class of its own for drivers and fleets.
The A3 doesn’t offer the most driver involvement but stays with the leaders on wholelife costs. The Golf further refines the hot hatch concept, while Renault’s Formula One success puts a sporting spin on the cheeky image it has cultivated for the Megane.
Sadly, performance versions of mid-market cars struggle to keep up with the leaders on depreciation. This pushes up the wholelife costs of the Astra and Focus ST.
PAUL CONNOR, Pricing risk manager, Lombard
THIS is a fast-growing segment of the fleet market, fuelled by a wave of new products. Aside from their performance, these cars are also versatile, being just as at home carrying the shopping or motorway cruising.
The Golf sets the benchmark – it has a huge breadth of abilities. And the popularity of the range with fleets helps the GTI to the strongest residual value.
The Astra is having a halo effect for the Vauxhall range. With rakish looks and a 237bhp engine, it could get through a lot of front tyres and become a licence-loser.
The Megane is also sporty and looks distinctive, but it’s a niche product.
The Audi and BMW are not as exciting but they carry real prestige.The BMW has questionable styling and trim quality but maintenance is cheap because of the inclusive servicing package. The Focus is newest addition and fleet sales may benefit from keen pricing and a familiar badge.
JOHN POUT, Head of strategic and international sales, Arval
No longer rough and ready, the hot hatch has grown up and offers some sophisticated options. BMW, Audi and Volkswagen remain the premier choices.
It may not have the same iconic status as before, but the Golf GTI still packs a punch, holds the road well and continues to set the standard for build quality in the hot hatch genre.
Stealing the show for looks and acceleration is the Astra. The only weakness I can see is poor rear visibility, but you’ll leave everyone standing with this model anyway, so who cares. It can’t match the Golf’s RV, but this car is for enjoyment.
The Megane offers a more subtle and comfortable ride, although it’s not so sexy to look at. Renault has built this Megane to suit the more mature driver seeking the hot hatch look but with an eye on comfort and value.
The A3 comes with class and style, though it is a bit girlie for my taste. A strong residual value and excellent running costs ensure it gives the Golf a run for its money.
BMW may have compromised on its quality a little to squeeze into this fleet area but the 120i is a pleasure to drive. Audi and Volkswagen can step aside – I’ll take the BMW thanks.
NICK AULD, Trade services manager, Custom Fleet
The rise of the user-chooser in the fleet market has been fuelled by a proliferation of similar models to those selected for this month’s panel.
It is very rare for any manufacturer these days not to have a hot hatch at the top of its model range in an effort to create a halo effect that trickles down over the other cars in its line-up, and this month’s selection typify that trend.
We have relegated two cars, the BMW and Audi, to the status of non-runners here, as although excellent cars in their own right, they don’t qualify as hot hatches. Our first choice is unequivocally the godfather of the group, the Golf GTI, and one which continues to define the class.
The Renault Megane 225 comes close, combining excellent handling with a powerful engine. The Focus ST is third, although it is still very much an unknown quantity as few people have yet to drive one. On paper it looks very good but we’ll reserve final judgement until we try one.
The Astra VXR is the quickest car here, and while it is great fun and phenomenally fast, we prefer the handling of the Renault and for this reason have put it fourth.
ROBERT REDMAN, Senior pricing analyst, Masterlease
This ‘super hatch’ sector has grown from virtually nothing in an amazingly short period of time. The Golf GTI, Astra VXR and Megane Renaultsport 225 are all relatively similar to each other, packing hugely powerful turbocharged engines in specially tuned and developed chassis. All three offer performance which was previously the preserve of sports cars, but coupled with the practicality of a family hatchback.
Choosing the best of this trio is largely down to personal choice – the Golf GTI is the more refined car, the Astra is rather more hardcore and the Megane sits between them, offering a compromise of comfort and performance.
The Focus ST is due to be launched very shortly and it should be a very competitive addition to this sector.
If it lives up to its promise the ST is sure to join the lengthy list of successful performance Fords. The Audi A3 and BMW 120i follow a different approach, offering a prestige badge rather than ultimate performance, especially in the case of the BMW.
How the panel voted
1: Volkswagen Golf GTI
The Golf is the benchmark for this sector. It’s not the fastest and doesn’t look overtly sporty, but its blend of power, image, comfort, practicality and competitive wholelife costs secure an easy victory.
2: Ford Focus ST-3
FORD’S Focus ST is an unknown quantity as no-one has driven it yet, but its on-paper promise sees it take second. A high rental figure dents its challenge for outright hot hatch honours.
3: Vauxhall Astra VXR
NOT a car for shrinking violets, the Astra VXR demands attention. It’s the most powerful car here with a scorching 237bhp, but for some of our panel it’s a little too hardcore.
4: BMW 120i ES
The BMW is not a hot hatch compared to its 200bhp-plus rivals, but the 120i has a great chassis and, more importantly in this comparison, a superb RV forecast which means the lowest rental rate.
5: Audi A3 2.0T FSI
ANOTHER car which doesn’t set pulses racing, despite sharing the same engine as the Golf GTI. The A3 is too understated in this company, although does offer a strong wholelife cost proposition.
6: Renault Megane 225
THE cheapest of the super hatches on rental costs thanks to big support from Renault, although it has a poor RV and the driving experience is neither hardcore nor comfortable.