French hot hatchback battles are nothing new, but they're rarely this controversial. The new Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo EDC has a hard act to follow in its RS Clio 200 father. Not least because Renault has hobbled it with a five-door body and chosen to ditch the screaming naturally aspirated engine and six-speed manual for a turbocharged engine and mandatory seven-speed paddle-shifter.
Peugeot’s new 208 GTi, meanwhile, is shackled to a ball and chain comprised of rose-tinted 205-GTi-shaped memories which inconveniently don’t include the times it refused to idle in traffic, where its steering weighted up horribly a quarter turn away from centre, water streamed in through its sunroof and its lift-off oversteer tried to kill you at every opportunity. Yep, Peugeot is fighting Renault and its own past.
Hoping to sock it to both Renault and Peugeot is the new Ford Fiesta ST. There has never been a truly great top-rung hatch sold under the Fiesta banner. Beloved of the Burger King set, the last Fiesta ST was a fun, if underpowered steer, but pitched a rung further down the performance ladder from the fast Clio. The new one wants to lock horns head-on. This should be interesting.
Which hot hatch is most powerful?
On paper, it’s the Peugeot that’s packing all the muscle. Its Mini Cooper S-derived blown 1.6 delivers the same 197bhp as the Clio, but trumps it for torque, its stout 203lb ft total besting the Renault’s middling effort by 26lb ft. Toss in the Pug’s 44kg weight advantage and you’ve got the ingredients for a bruised Renault. By contrast, the Fiesta looks in danger of falling off the pace. While still 41kg lighter than the Clio, and matching its 177lb ft, the Ford musters only 180bhp. And because top speed is all about power, the ST runs out of puff at 137mph, while the other two stretch on to 143mph. But that’s not the whole story, because the Fiesta’s secret weapon is an overboost function, which temporarily unleashes 197bhp and 214lb ft of torque in 15sec bursts for overtaking, and general hooning around.
So what's the bargain of the group?
A not-so-secret weapon is the Ford’s bargain basement pricing. Our ST-2 test car weighs in at £17,995 plus an extra £275 for the ST Style Pack, which adds a grey hue to the 17in alloys, red-coloured brake calipers and illuminated kickplates. But if you can live with a slightly lower-spec stereo and without heated half-leather seats and projector lamps, you could put an ST-1 on your drive for a fiver under £17k.
The 208 GTi weighs in at £18,895, but that includes cruise control, parking sensors and climate control, all cost extras on the Ford. The Renault is £100 more in basic form, and misses out on the leather trim, but does deliver satellite navigation as standard.
The Clio’s pinched waist and this car’s £1300 paint job make the purposefully handsome Fiesta look a little plain. But there’s no getting away from that frumpy five-door layout foisted on the Dieppe Renaultsport crew by its Renault overlords. This one’s a posher Lux-spec car (£19,995), but it also has the £650 Cup chassis. That means black-painted 18in wheels shod with Dunlop Sportmaxx RT rubber instead of the stock silver-coloured 17s, red brake calipers and a 3mm ride height reduction on springs and dampers 15% stiffer than standard.
Right, is the Clio as controversial inside as it is on paper?
Slide into the dull-looking but grippy and well-positioned seat, and it’s all pretty underwhelming. Lots of cheap shiny plastic, which looks like it’ll mark easily, surrounds a dash screen that can show all manner of telemetry data from steering angle and cornering g to laptimes. As Marty McFly said, ‘your kids are going to love it’. Very definitely not cheap are the magnificent metal shift paddles that sprout from the steering wheel and put you in touch with the Clio’s mandatory six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Combine that transmission with the Clio’s newfound turbocharged focus on mid-range performance and you’ve got a very different car to the one that went before.
Not least in fuel consumption. All three cars score mid-to-high 40s mpg, the Clio in particular posting a massive 30% improvement. As you’d expect, the torque curve is radically redrawn too. It’s not just that there’s 18lb ft more of the stuff, but the peak arrives at 1750rpm instead of 5400rpm. So instead of overtakes requiring a flurry of revs and some nifty hand-and-foot co-ordination, downchanges are optional, and even then require nothing more than a contraction of a pinkie. But what EU legislation giveth, it also taketh away…
Time to drive the RS Clio hard…
That easy-access to the performance means you don’t have to try hard. And you aren’t rewarded either. It’s like driving a quick diesel. Later on, you’ll be able to download some virtual sounds to make you believe you’re in an F1 car or Nissan GT-R. Our test car did without, and all we got was a sound like air being sucked through teeth, the sort of noise your mates will make when you tell them you’ve just bought a French supermini with money that would have netted you a 20,000-mile Porsche Cayman.
A disappointment? Only until you discover an apologetic little button buried between the seats. It gives a choice of three driving modes: Comfort, Sport and Race. Avoid the first, whose throttle response is soggier than a WWI infantryman with trench foot, and whose gearchanges slide home soporifically. Instead, concentrate on Sport – or, better still, Race – push the chassis a little harder and the whole car wakes up, sharpening the throttle and banging the gears home with a thunk, if still relatively slowly.
Get to some decent bends and you discover that the thing turns in quicker than a horny teenager beckoned upstairs by his girlfriend for some early-night naughtiness, and the LSD mimicking ESP function, which nips up the front wheels, after measuring the speed of the rears, does a brilliantly subtle job of maximising traction and killing understeer. But I preferred the steering in the old car, and the Cup chassis, which worked well on the fast-flowing road from Bedale to Hawes, torque steers badly on the lumpy Dales roads. A non-Cup car would probably fare better, though softer suspension is unlikely to cure the irritating road roar on long journeys. A bit of a mixed bag, then. Brilliant in parts, and faster than its predecessor, I’ve no doubt Renault can prove. But more fun? Not from where I’m sitting.
Has Renault ruined the hot Clio?
Had this been a track-based test, where the Clio would have been able to make the most of its stiff Cup chassis and dual-clutch ’box, the Renault might have taken it. I’d have the old Clio over this new one in a heartbeat, but if we accept that the job of a hot hatch is to excite, then the Clio’s lightning fast turn-in, disdain for understeer, and child-pleasing computer-game readouts probably have the answers many buyers are searching for.
Time to try the Peugeot 208 GTi
The 208's shape and stance are great, but the standard 17in wheels are small and fussy, the bulbous chrome mirror covers chintzy. The brochure’s colour palette is as vibrant as funeral attire and those 205-esque wheelarch spats and sill extensions are plain clumsy.
Open the Peugeot’s door and it looks more promising. The quality is superb and the fat leather sports seats look particularly inviting. But what on earth is going on with the driving position? It’s as if the only people around when they were signing off the interior buck measured 7ft and 3ft respectively. For everybody else, the only way to avoid completely bisecting the gauge-pack with the donut that passes for a steering wheel is to drop the column so low the thing is in your lap. And like the old joke, it’s driving me nuts. Right there in that single, simple flaw, is reason enough for many potential buyers to walk away. And that would be a shame because, you know what, on these roads this 208 GTi is a brilliant little car.
The driver-pleasing Peugeot is back?
It’s easy to see why we, and others, weren’t bowled over on the launch. It’s almost too refined, too supple. Deputy editor Ben Barry hit the nail on the head when he said the Peugeot had a Jaguar quality to it, absurd as that might sound.
The surprisingly convincing electric steering requires a delicate touch, but points the nose into corners sweetly, and the damping manages to deliver great body control while almost completely isolating you from small bump intrusions. It’ll even let you load up the rear tyres so progressively when you come off the gas that you feel completely comfortable switching the ESP off and nibbling away at the grip limits, without fear of a 205-style sortie into the nearest hedge. On a track, the Clio might well eat it alive, but on the road the Pug’s very different working practices mean it is also a fun sidekick.
If we’ve one complaint, it’s that the Peugeot’s power- and torque-to-weight advantages don’t feel that obvious on the road, so effortless is the performance. If that’s a concern, or you prefer your thrills with a harder edge, then be confident that Peugeot is leaving the way clear for an even more focused GTi to come.
The big surprise, a really welcome surprise, is just how great the 208 GTi really is. It rides better than the Renault, its engine is nicer to use, its sweet six-speed manual more fun than the Clio’s twin-clutch. You might say that it feels more GT than hot hatch, that it doesn’t get the blood pumping like a good thrash in its French rival. But don’t mistake its gentle nature for any lack of ability either to cover ground, or to entertain.
Can the Ford Fiesta ST really beat the French hot hatches?
I can’t remember the last time a hot hatch felt so right, so complete, as this ST does. Bad stuff first. The ST probably looks a little too restrained, too much like a 1.0 Fiesta for some tastes, the turning circle is poor and looking at the inexplicably tiny multimedia display is like watching TV through a pair of binoculars turned the wrong way round. The motorway ride, too, is a touch busy after a glide on Peugeot’s magic carpet.
But Ford has everything else nailed. The huge Recaro seats are some of the best I’ve ever tried, £1m supercar chairs included, and the squared roofline and large windows means rear passengers have more space than in the Peugeot; more light than in the Renault. I push the starter button (a key is standard on ST-1), slide the slick gearlever home, and give the thing death right through to the top of third. Finally, here’s an engine worth listening to. It’s not quite as bassy as its Focus big brother, but there’s a definite warble to it that goads you into working the delightful gearchange. Slicing back and forth between ratios over Buttertubs Pass, rolling your foot across to spin the engine up in time for the next downchange, it’s hard to imagine why you’d want to delegate to a computer.
The positives don’t end with the drivetrain. Though a typically useless Ford turning circle explains the two turns between locks, the meatily weighted steering still fires the ST’s nose into the apex with real vim. Ultimately, the Cup-spec Clio feels more aggressive on turn-in and probably resists understeer a little more ably. But even with the overboost function raging, the Fiesta remains calmer under pressure, never succumbing to raggedy torque-steer histrionics. The overriding impression is of a car that works brilliantly in its entirety, one where engine, transmission, grip, steering and body control come together to make a truly great hot hatch.
It’s a tough call, but one you needn’t fret over. The joyously brilliant Fiesta ST sees to that. The cheapest car in the test is also the best to listen to, delivers the sort of interaction through its wonderful manual gearbox that the Renault can’t match, and has a chassis that melds the best qualities of both rivals.
Drive a truly great hot hatch and you wonder whether you really need anything bigger, whether you’d be having more fun in something more powerful, or rear-wheel drive. Up here on the narrow, frenzied spiralling Dales roads, it’s unlikely. Small pocket rockets are great on British roads – and the Fiesta ST is the greatest of the lot.