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.