Can we pretend that neither the finest hot hatchback of the modern era, nor one of its more accomplished adversaries, ever existed? Just for the next 10 minutes? It’s the only way we’re going to get through this test while giving these crossovers a fair hearing, because the truth is that the new Volkswagen Tiguan R and Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 are deliberately and irreversibly compromised from the outset.
The hot hatches in question are the Golf R and the AMG A35. Both are great performance cars, but especially so the Golf, which has during the past decade gained a reputation for excellence based on its sublime mix of everyday usability and prolific speed. If you want unassuming yet exciting, the Volkswagen is where you start.
Excellence is a fragile thing, though. If you were to inject an extra 195kg into the latest Golf R, pull the axles 49mm farther apart and set the seats a Coke can higher, you’d expect to jeopardise the recipe. Which, not to put it too bluntly, is what the Tiguan R does. The GLB 35 takes a similar approach, only with the A35 as its base and with an even more significant accretion of flab. It weighs almost 1800kg all-in and is 99kg heavier than the VW. And all this even though neither car carries anything more wholesome than an inline four. Porkier, taller and wider than we’d like, they’re both resolutely compromised.
But that’s the last we’ll say by way of comparison to the hatchbacks. Clearly these crossovers will be dynamically inferior to their progenitors, but they’re worth exploring because in isolation they still seem to have an awful lot going for them –and, of course, the market demands them. Alongside the GLB, AMG now makes no fewer than 10 further SUV derivatives, which is more than any other bodystyle, and Volkswagen already has dedicated R-badged models for the T-Roc and Touareg, which straddle the Tiguan in terms of seniority.
So what exactly are these cars? Fast, for one thing. The Tiguan R is the marginally more potent and accelerative of the two, but each pairs more than 300bhp from a 2.0-litre turbo engine with four-wheel drive and a dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Both will smash 60mph in around five seconds, and both cabins are replete with the kind of heavily bolstered seats and perforated steering wheels and shiny pedals you’d expect to find only in something seriously quick. The duo’s exterior design doesn’t leave any room for interpretation, either. Radiator vanes are threateningly visible through open-worked bumpers and brakes glint from behind manhole-cover alloys that fit snug inside wheel arches beefed up with plastic cladding. If they were people, these two would be dedicated-to-their-family types but with lengthy criminal records.
They would have expensive tastes, too. You’ll receive little change from £50,000 for the Volkswagen and none at all for the Mercedes, so the several-cars-in-one proposition they each offer is very much priced in. As a reference point, the 385bhp V6-engined Mercedes-AMG C43 Estate costs just under £53,000. Permission to wince granted.
For cross-country pace, the Volkswagen puts on an exhibition the Mercedes can’t match. But partly in doing so, it also loses this head-to-head. Though resolute in its road-holding, the GLB 35 grips less ferociously, rolls more generously and takes bends with perfunctory precision rather than any zeal. It’s less dynamically adept than the Tiguan R, too, but it has at least been permitted its own identity: a softer, more-rounded one better suited to its role as a higher-riding family car.
While you find yourself with a grudging respect for the Volkswagen, it’s hard not to develop some genuine warmth for the Mercedes. AMG’s Direct Steer is too, er, direct offcentre and there’s almost nothing in the way of feedback, but if anything, the lower-feeling driving position makes the AMG easier to place than the VW. Both cars then ride with surprising fluency with the dampers in their most relaxed settings, but the AMG breathes more with the road. And while its 302bhp engine feels the less potent of the two and resorts to the same sonic fakery as the EA888 in the Tiguan R, the GLB 35 is still an unambiguously fast car and the flavour of made-up engine noise is sweeter. It’s simply a more personable machine and more comfortable in its beefcake seven-seater skin.
So the AMG wins. Its reason for being is clearer, while in the Tiguan R you’d always wonder if it needed to be so big, and how much better the Golf R would be doing things. But that’s strike three, and we’re out.