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.
The engine feels ever so slightly weak through the mid-range. It revs hard enough in the farther reaches, but you don’t expect to have to work a turbocharged engine so cruelly to make it give its best. More annoying still are the oddly spaced ratios of the dual-clutch ’box and the dead zone at top of the brake pedal’s travel. Renault has improved the haptic feel of the gearshift paddles and cut shift times somewhat but this gearbox is still a long way from what the defining modern hot hatch deserves.
With a decent manual gearbox, the Clio Trophy would have walked this contest. The car’s fluent, biddable handling and beautifully weighted, gently communicative steering are both outstanding.
On track, it’s easily the most natural, controllable and engaging prospect here. It shuns the contrived hyper-responsiveness of its rivals and instead bleeds in towards every apex with just enough body roll to load up its outside rear wheel, and to neutralise its cornering attitude on a trailing throttle, giving its driver options. The car never wants for stability. It’s just balanced and progressive enough to respond with some playful slip angle when you’ve had enough of slow in, fast out.
The Peugeot’s track handling can be playful, too. Fitted with wider tracks, shorter and stiffer springs and bigger rims than the standard GTi, the 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport is, in its own way, almost as engaging as the Clio. It has a much less delicate, less precise, more naughty temperament, though.
With just two full turns between locks, the steering is direct, heavy and lively with feedback. Turn-in is more immediate than in the Clio and front-end grip is a smidgen greater. Mid-corner stability is less secure, no doubt due to the overrun characteristics of the car’s helical limited-slip differential.
Under power, that diff gives the 208’s front wheels an unshakable hold on the asphalt, but at other times, it makes the handling quite sudden and unforgiving. Likewise, the car’s stiff springing and aggressive damping make it a handful on a bumpy road.
Although the Mini and Corsa are more fluent-riding and easy-going on the road than the 208, they both fail to make a lasting dynamic impression. In the Mini’s case, it isn’t for want of trying. The JCW’s ride is unexpectedly supple and composed, provided you avoid Sport mode. Disappointing lateral grip levels and the usual extra-fast, feedback-starved steering system ultimately leave you wanting more, though.
The Corsa feels more pragmatic than its rivals and handles fast road driving quite well. We opted to test the car in standard specification, without the stiffer springs, stickier tyres and slippy diff of Vauxhall’s Performance Pack. On the track, that made the car frustratingly short on traction, and relatively short on chassis response and body control. Would it have finished higher in the order in richer trim? Maybe, but probably only by a place.
And so, in the absence of the defining hot hatchback, the Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy gets the nod. Its chassis and steering are very special indeed, at least partly redeeming what remains a flawed powertrain, and outshining its nearest rivals quite plainly. But it’ll face a tougher contest against the Mazda MX-5 and Civic Type R.
Mini John Cooper Works Auto
Price £24,380; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 228bhp at 5200-6000rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 1250-4800rpm; Gearbox 6-speed automatic; Kerb weight 1295kg; 0-62mph 6.1sec; Top speed 153mph; Economy 49.6mpg; CO2/tax band 133g/km/21%
Vauxhall Corsa VXR
Price £18,245; Engine 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 202bhp at 5800rpm; Torque 207lb ft at 190-5800rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerb weight 1278kg; 0-62mph 6.5sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 37.7mpg; CO2/tax band 174g/km/29%
Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport
Price £21,995; Engine 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 205bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 221lb ft at 3000rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual; Kerb weight 1160kg; 0-62mph 6.5sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 52.3mpg; CO2/tax band 125g/km/20%
Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy
Price £21,780; Engine 4 cyls, 1618cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 217bhp at 6050rpm; Torque 207lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-speed dual-clutch; Kerb weight 1204kg; 0-62mph 6.6sec; Top speed 146mph; Economy 47.9mpg; CO2/tax band 135g/km/22%
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