You’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re looking for outright performance, distinguishing driver engagement, striking hardcore character, real-world usability, bang-for-your-buck value or just a bit of variety, you’ll find it in this year’s market for souped-up superminis.
You’ll probably be looking for all of the above, though – because why wouldn’t you?
But part of you might be thinking that unless you spend every penny of the notional £30,000 we allow for this exercise on either as much power as you can lay your hands on or on something with driven rear wheels, you’ll be cheating yourself. Not so. In fact, buying the very best affordable driver’s car for you may well be impossible without first recognising the need for more sophisticated thinking.
Not necessarily accepting compromised performance credentials, though. On 0-62mph acceleration, for example, the Vauxhall Corsa VXR, Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy and Mini John Cooper Works need acknowledge only the Caterham Seven 270R and Honda Civic Type R as their superiors. These are pocket rockets in the truest sense: they’re all quick.
All four superminis also have two rows of seats and proper hatchback rear ends with split folding rear chairs, making them much more usable than the rear-drive brigade. Meanwhile, only by buying one of these superminis will you end up in a car capable of bettering a real-world 40mpg one moment before glugging down the 98RON and pinning your ears back the next.
But before we get onto what these four do, a quick note about what they are. The Clio Trophy is the only car here with five doors and, by dint of that, the most practical. The Mini is the least practical, primarily because it has the smallest boot, but it has more brand allure and design appeal than the rest put together.
Neither the Vauxhall nor the Peugeot tempts particularly at first, although we must acknowledge that the 208’s two-tone ‘coupé franche’ paint job is optional. But why you’d pay £945 extra to make your hot hatch look like a dipped strawberry is beyond us.
Every great hot hatch needs a belting engine. The Mini JCW is at an obvious advantage, having the most swept volume, most power and most torque. In practice, the quality of the Mini’s engine shows itself as remarkable smoothness and flexibility as much as outright pace. There’s no peakiness to its delivery at all.The Mini finds plenty of traction, too, although its optional six-speed automatic gearbox frustrates.
The standard JCW uses a six-speed manual ’box, but BMW couldn’t supply a manual car for this test and the auto isn’t well suited to a tight track like Bedford Autodrome’s East Circuit. In paddle-shift mode, it can be a touch obstinate, declining to downshift close to the redline or to save upshifts until your prevailing speed has come down.
The second best engine here isn’t so easily guessed. Fact is the Peugeot probably has the best powertrain all round, its simple manual gearbox scoring points on usability where the more ‘sophisticated’ transmissions of others fall down. The 208’s engine pulls harder than its headline figures imply. It also revs freely, responds smartly to the pedal and sounds nicely waspish at high revs.
The Renaultsport-fettled Clio’s 1.6-litre turbocharged motor does enough to relegate the Vauxhall’s thirsty, occasionally breathless, booming engine into also-ran position, but it ought to do more. Truth is the quirks and shortcomings of the Clio’s engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox are many and various.
Flat out on track in manual mode, both work fine. Bumbling along in no particular hurry on the road in ‘D’, the same is true. But the vast majority of miles are, of course, driven in modes and moods between the two and the Clio doesn’t cover them as consummately, decisively or forcefully as it should.