Here’s the deal, then. To be here, a car has to be in some way new, cost less than £25,000 and be in with a realistic chance of victory in this contest.
The question is ‘how much fun can you sensibly have for less than £25k?’ and, frankly, we’re not going to bother including cars that are obviously going to lose.
That means the field is tight for cars that are newish, funnish and goodish. I’ll start with the obvious candidate, the Mazda MX-5, because we had it here when we posed the same question last year. You could argue it’s back as either a defending champion or in a new Sport Recaro form but, either way, it’s basically the car that won last year. It has a 2.0-litre engine, a limited-slip differential, Bilstein dampers, the pleasing Recaro seats that give it its name and a £24,295 price.
It will not have escaped your notice that Mazda did not develop the MX-5 architecture just for itself, and finally here’s the alternative model in the UK. Fiat’s own variant, the 124 Spider, has a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine that gives out 138bhp, instead of the Mazda’s naturally aspirated 158bhp.
But there are other changes, too. The 124 Spider is longer, bigger of boot and softer; it’s a slightly different proposition for its £23,205. The pair mark the resurgence of the traditional way you’d have fun for less than £25,000: two-seat roadsters that represent up-to-1960s visions of having affordable fun.
And they’re joined by the post-1970s version of how to have fun on a budget: three hot hatchbacks, all front-wheel drive, all entertaining.
All owe something to their companies’ recent past, mind. Let’s start with the DS 3 Performance – a long-awaited reawakening of a performance DS 3 after the Racing of half a decade ago. In its ethos, it’s similar to that: a 15mm lower ride height than other 3s and a 1.6-litre turbo engine making more than 200bhp (205bhp here), but now it has a limited-slip differential and its own chassis tuning.
Also above the 200bhp marker is the Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy, which has just become a mainstay, rather than a limited-run model, in the Renault Sport line-up. Our test car doesn’t have the changed aesthetics of the facelifted model that’s due imminently, but it’s mechanically the same, so it’ll do. It still has a dual-clutch gearbox for its turbocharged 1.6-litre engine and hitherto we’ve found this Renault Sport hot hatchback to have a competent chassis but not necessarily a great powertrain to match it.
And finally, there’s our favourite hot hatchback of recent times, whose power has latterly been tweaked to give it the chance to compete with cars like the 3 and Clio. The Ford Fiesta ST200 always made 197bhp anyway, but only on overboost for 20 seconds. So now it makes 212bhp for 20 seconds and 197bhp all the time. There are chassis changes, too: additional roll stiffness has enabled Ford to slacken the spring rates, and the steering is retuned.
Thing is, where could you spend 20 seconds on full throttle? Not somewhere like Blyton Park in Lincolnshire, which is the right kind of size for cars like this, because it was designed not as a race track but as a handling circuit for road cars. That’s one reason we like coming here with road cars like these. They won’t, as they might do on Silverstone’s GP circuit for example, feel like they’re lost in the grandest of spaces. They’ll feel like they belong.
I'll start with the MX-5, which we’ll let lay down some kind of benchmark in the same way that a Caterham used to when we invited it to Autocar’s Handling Day solely for that reason. If you’re wondering why a Caterham or other lightweight track car is absent from this contest, incidentally, it’s because the action in most of them happens well above £25,000, and because this is a road car test. We’ll deal with the true sports cars later.
Mazda might argue that the MX-5 is a true sports car, but there is a difference between it and a proper lightweight. No lightweight sports car would put you this high on its seats, which I still think is a genuine MX-5 problem. Likewise, the absence of steering wheel reach adjustment.
But as soon as you start throwing the MX-5 around a circuit, you begin to realise where its magic lies. On Bilstein dampers, it resists tipping into corners as easily as lesser MX-5s do, has fine body control and, with a limited-slip differential and 158bhp, how you corner is largely up to you in slower bends. Its natural tendency is relatively neutral: not a lot of understeer, not a lot of oversteer. But because its limits are modest and it’s easy to get near them, the power of its engine is enough to adjust its cornering line. It steers with precision, the gearshift is snickety and the engine revs out well. You return to the pits from a few laps at Blyton and think: “You know, I don’t think anything is going to beat that.”
Then you get in a 124 and realise that, certainly, this isn’t going to. Not on track, any rate. It’s softer, slower and, in fairness, designed to fulfil a slightly different brief. The engine has low-rev lag but high-end reluctance to reach the redline. There’s a fair degree of roll and longitudinal pitch as you accelerate or brake, so you revert to tiny, fingertip inputs, to keep it stable. Otherwise, should it get unsettled, it’s like driving a hire kart: you lose the momentum, and it doesn’t have sufficient power to haul itself away again. It’s not an unpleasant experience – just nothing like as incisive and controlled as the Mazda. It’s a pity because the basics are there. Maybe in being softer, it’ll make a more pleasing road car.
So to the hot hatches. I begin in the DS 3 because, from what I’ve read, it’s the one I’m expecting to like least.
Within about half a minute, I know I’m wrong. It’s genuinely entertaining. It steers lightly but with real response and precision, there are hints of information among some torque steer – and, hey, mild torque steer is information of a sort, telling you how hard a time the front wheels are having and that the engine is zingy enough at the top end. Given that it has a limited-slip diff, it puts its power down well, never feeling like it’s going to overheat its front tyres as a large hatchback would.
It’s a reminder that this is where the best hot hatchback track action remains, with superminis that don’t overwhelm their consumables like the latest 1600kg, 300bhp monsters. And the 3 is fun. Its gearshift is only fine – a little notchy – and the engine good, but the handling’s propensity to pitch a rear wheel into the air during cornering and grip on is entertaining. It’s not massively oversteery, but it is surprisingly fast, and a bit serious. It’s not just the rock solid bruiser I expected. There’s real dynamic depth to its character.
Also serious on a circuit is a Clio Trophy. In terms of its chassis, the Clio has latterly been more serious than it is fun, and when you drive one, you realise it is built to go fast and be agile and adjustable. If you trail a brake towards a corner, the back will let go more readily than the 3’s, but that ability is the peak of its power. The steering is light and accurate, lacking in ultimate engagement, and its powertrain is still a problem for a car setting out to entertain. Despite its extra power over the other two, it’s just not engaging enough. It’s just quick. Sometimes that’s okay, but not in a car from Renault Sport, from whom we’ve come to expect feel and feedback in spades. I’m inclined to think that the Clio is less entertaining than the 3.
Neither is as much fun as the Fiesta, though. The ST200 combines a level of seriousness and fun that the other hatches simply cannot match. Its responses are sharper, there’s more immediacy to its handling, its gearshift is sweeter and its steering is more weighty, accurate and feelsome, with a touch of torque steer. The ST’s balance is fairly neutral, but you can play around with the chassis, encouraging a rear wheel to lift or step slightly out of line. The result is a really incisive, capable hot hatchback from the oldest school. Some things are frustrating still: the ergonomics of the dash-top are hopeless and the driving position is only adequate. But the poise, agility and balance mark out the ST as something special.
If you haven’t driven an ST for a while, as I hadn’t, I’m not sure you’d notice the ST200’s extra urge, but it makes a more engaging, brappy noise than before and goes quite hard. I’ve no qualms about saying it’s the best hot hatch in this company.