The Mazda MX-5 proved brilliant in our first attempt to find the best sub-£25,000 track day car, where we tested our shortlist on the track. Now, we take them onto some UK roads to see how they fare.
On the track, the Fiat 124 Spider, for several reasons, wasn’t so brilliant. And the surprise ‘hot mover’ – as Radio 1’s Mark Goodier might have described it had it been a record rather than a car and committed to CD in about 1990 – was the DS 3 Performance, which threatened to bonfire the bookies’ odds with a typically Gallic irreverence for the expected order of things.
But we’re only halfway there. Next we head out onto the road, surely the natural environment of the affordable performance machine. Here, a good car proves its worth by brightening the grimmest and greyest of days, while a troubled one that perhaps hasn’t set your world alight elsewhere gets a second chance to impress.
And so three hot hatchbacks and two rear-wheel-drive roadsters negotiate the tangled mess of motorways between where the rivers Trent and Ouse become the gigantic Humber and where the A1M escapes to the north of Leeds and York. Thereafter, the scenery takes a turn for the dramatic: turn right for the stark, empty beauty of the North York Moors or left for the slightly less empty but no less wonderful Yorkshire Dales. No other county in the UK offers such a variety of roads on which to immerse yourself in the talents of a car gifted with the capacity to write excitement large upon them.
We’ve already opted to turn left – to overnight in Harrogate, breakfast early and then complete the final 60 miles or so into the Dales, to rendezvous at the convergence of some favourite roads we know to be as interesting on the camera lens as they are magnificent when filtered through a fine chassis. Here, whatever fillips and foibles these five cars have in store for us can be drawn out, cultivated, classified, confirmed, debated, debunked, decried and celebrated. There may also be occasion for pre-packaged sandwiches, Jaffa Cakes and the odd bit of puerile humour.
The track gave us the opportunity to explore these five driving experiences in big, primary colours: outright grip, handling balance, body control, performance level, stability at high speed and under braking – that sort of thing. And yet a good road fills in the detail like a magnifying glass held up to the back of your hand. Things that seem much less important when you’re barrelling in to corner after corner on a circuit – control weight, initial handling response, ride fluency, throttle response and that crucial ability to communicate how much more grip, traction or damping authority is available at any given time – come instantly to the fore.
So often, a gentler-riding sports car with better bump absorption and more dexterous wheel travel – perhaps lesser lateral grip levels but more progressive handling – works better on the road than a firmer-sprung, shorter-riding, bigger-wheeled and fatter-tyred one. Which is why there was always hope for the 124 Spider in this test. Knowing it was a softer, more laid-back take on the rear-driven roadster concept, we knew it wasn’t likely to do well on the track. But then again, when your mission is to out-compete the MX-5 on handling delicacy and suppleness, any car maker would have its work cut out.
And so when you jump out of the Mazda and into the new and interesting Fiat to point it at the same hilly, twisting, uneven and narrow stretch of asphalt along which the MX-5 has just conveyed you, you set out with hope rather than expectation.
The Fiat’s engine is toneless and flat compared with the Mazda’s instant atmospheric zing, and its promise of instant and accessible torque is greater than what happens. Below 2000rpm, you’re made to wait a long time for a meaningful reply from the engine to the accelerator pedal, and the potency of its delivery tails off above 4500rpm in proportion to its coarseness.
Making decent progress in the Mazda means permanently inhabiting the upper half of the rev range, but in the Fiat, it means living in an even narrower and lower band of revs. So you invest less, perhaps, but more often than not you take less pleasure in the process. You probably have to change gears every bit as often in the Fiat, and you don’t get anything like the crispness of response from the engine as you do in the Mazda. So much for the turbocharged option.
The Fiat feels much more softly sprung than the Mazda when it’s steering, cornering, cresting and riding bumps. To give the 124 its due, there are undoubtedly roads and speeds that it makes a happier marriage of than the MX-5. The Fiat soaks up big undulations more gradually and gently than its cousin. Its body often stays flatter and makes the driver’s life easier for being less closely connected to the surface of the road than the Mazda’s. The Fiat handles urban roads more comfortably, too.
But to claim that makes it the better road car would be ridiculous. The 124’s steering is heavier and a blunter, less consistent means of positioning the car than the MX-5’s. Its handling is less willing, less precise and less controllable when you want to engage the driven rear axle to point the car towards your exit. The perception of weight can be a deceiving thing, but the Fiat feels as though it weighs hundreds of kilograms more than the Mazda when in fact the Mazda is the marginally heavier car. Overall, the 124’s dynamic trade just doesn’t seem worth making because, more often than not, where Fiat has made the 124 different from the MX-5, it has also made it the poorer sports car – on road, on track, without question.
Now for an eye-opening reminder of the enduring appeal of a good hot hatch. Whether you’re surfing the 124’s mid-range torque or chasing the redline in the MX-5, neither seems to be throwing you down the road with particular urgency. And yet in the Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy, DS 3 Performance and Ford Fiesta ST200, boisterous acceleration and instant excitement are exactly what you get. The most important broad-brush truth to take away from this test is that if you want rear-driven handling purity for your £25,000, you have to accept less real world, point-to-point pace as part of the deal, even in 2016.
Where our front-drive supermini contingent is concerned, it isn’t enough to compare one engine with another because, like it or not, your 3 and Fiesta will come with a six-speed manual gearbox and your Clio with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The Ford’s gearbox is excellent: muscly, short of throw and happy to be physically abused. The DS’s isn’t as good: slightly baggy feeling, with a troublesome clutch that’s as good as dead in the lower 75% of its pedal travel. But the Renault’s paddle-shift ’box deserves the lion’s share of any derision for its lazy shift speed, slurry shift quality, unintuitively spaced ratios, unhelpfully cited paddles and the regrettable crushed-cornflake haptic feel of every change.
Although it may not develop the most power, the Fiesta’s engine sounds better than those of its rivals, and after weighing in with a sizeable slug of mid-range punch, it gives more in the upper reaches of the rev range than its peers do. All are 1.6-litre turbos, of course, and the 3’s edges the Clio’s for free-revving potency when extended.
Still, there are surprising contrasts between the ways that all three front-drivers deal with the challenges of a road such as Yorkshire’s Buttertubs Pass, even if ultimately one of them encourages you to set about it with more zeal than the others and rewards you more vividly when you do.
In the DS, you have to negotiate a slightly flawed driving position (pedals too high and too closely set). Every bend and jink in the road is filtered through steering that’s short on directness, weight and feel, and the car’s grip level plays things safe by storing up just a little bit too much lateral purchase at the rear axle. But its ride is probably the best suited to fast B-road driving of any in our group. Quite moderately sprung with plenty of wheel travel and very deftly damped, the 3 soaks up big vertical inputs like a wannabe rally car being driven flat out on a tarmac special stage.
In the Clio, the steering is just as light as the 3’s, but it commands a marginally more tenacious front axle. Accessing the best of the car’s handling means wrestling not with such a tricky layout of controls but instead with that paddle-shift powertrain, whose flaws we’ve already detailed. It’s worth the trouble because, although the Renault’s ride is more aggressive and less absorptive than the DS’s, its handling is better balanced and becomes more and more fun the faster you go.
Now hop into the Fiesta ST200. Before you’ve even made it up and over the gravel car park’s kerb and onto the road, you’ll have noticed that the suspension is firm. Very firm. It’s more restless and insistent than the ride of either of the other superminis. But stick with it.
Controls are spot on: meaty and direct steering, equally weighty but usable clutch and hard but progressive brake pedal. There’s plenty of traction at the front wheels, and plenty of feedback about what those front wheels are doing flows through the steering wheel rim.
Now here comes a corner. The Fiesta turns in more keenly than any other car here and feels more playful mid-corner than anything save the MX-5. Its chassis is alive to your mood, totally in tune with what kind of line and attitude you want to take around any given corner. The firmness of the ride seems to soften as you pour on speed and it seems to implore you to press on.
That’s why those high spring rates are worth their place. More than anything else here, the Fiesta seems to want to be driven fast. And that’s what makes it exciting to drive.
Our five affordable driver’s cars have shown their hand on both road and track and our final destination is Harewood Hillclimb.
Nestled in a verdant cleft of Yorkshire’s Golden Triangle, it’s one of Britain’s most distinctive motorsport venues and well worth a visit for those who want a change from the usual circuit experience. And after some exploratory runs up the narrow course’s ribbon of track, it’s time to decide our winner.
It has become plain that only two of our band of five rivals have a sufficiently complete armoury of qualities to be in contention at this stage – and it may surprise few that they’re the MX-5 and the Fiesta ST. That the 124 Spider squanders the advantages conferred by its rear-drive mechanical template and so underwhelms as a sports car delivers it the dreaded wooden spoon. That the Clio still suffers with an engine and gearbox so far beneath the standards set by its chassis, and otherwise smashed by Renault Sport’s skilled engineers so often over the years, also relegates it as an also-ran. The 3 Performance has its moments. If you live on a particularly sunken B-road or you just particularly like the feel of a well-tuned damper at work, it may be the car for you – but I doubt it.
Not after you sample what either an MX-5 Sport Recaro or a Fiesta ST200 can do. Separating these two is mightily difficult. As a second car, the Mazda would probably be the better addition to any driveway. Its handling purity and the sweetness of its driving experience are capable of engrossing you on a perfect day like nothing else.
But for me, the Fiesta would make the more compelling drive when averaged out over every trip: to the supermarket, to the office, on the school run, or to that road. It’s faster, more visceral and more exciting than the Mazda. It’s a more practical, usable car, too – and, as we’ve written so many times, the fun supplied by any particular car can only ever be appreciated on those occasions when you have to use it.
And so – not least because you can have a car within touching distance of its brilliance for less than £18,000 in an entry-level ST – the Fiesta ST200 is our Best Affordable Driver’s Car of 2016. Nothing offers greater entertainment for less outlay. The humble hot hatch is back on top.