Which is precisely why you’d buy the Clio: for the package deal. No one in 2009 was buying the Cup for the F4R motor – and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you do now. Instead, the Renault is a perfect example of a chassis and drivetrain so acutely compatible that severing one from the other has made its successor precisely half the model it ought to have been.
With the Honda Civic Type R, our other hall-of-famer along for the ride, you bought the car for the engine – period. Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (more enigmatically, VTEC) was Honda’s way of maximising the volumetric efficiency of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol motor in a domestic market that penalised larger displacement. Where Toyota, Nissan and Subaru chose the turbocharger (and Mazda the rotary engine) to do the same job, Honda’s engineers perfected alternative camshaft profiles; one lobe for low-rev efficiency, the other to keep the valves open longer for greater performance.
The mechanical description hardly does justice to the result, though – especially in something as shamelessly bespoke as the 2009 limited-edition Mugen. Any Type R would have served its purpose here, but Honda’s hand-built European prodigy – replete with new pistons, ECU, camshafts, exhaust and a 237bhp output – is something special. Like all lusty VTECs, at low speeds it pulls, but only in the dawdling whine of half-mast effort. There’s only about 135lb ft and 140bhp on tap below 5500rpm, making the lightened Mugen feel like a sprinter roped to a tractor tyre.
This is fast car purgatory, a takeyour-medicine period during which you reflect on how much spring and damper technology has moved on from the Mugen’s palpable crash/ bang rebound. Then, suddenly, from a very gentle gradient, the VTEC’s power curve goes up like a Eurofighter Typhoon. Accompanied by some deep internal war cry, the camshaft unshackles the valves and the Civic lunges forward on a prolonged and enthralling 8500rpm love grind that has the steering wheel squirming ditch-ward.
The Mugen has it all: sound, tempo, urgency, elation, intoxication – all laced with a sense of high-toned recklessness that is unmatched among its current equivalents. A Ford Focus RS or Audi RS3 are vastly quicker than the Civic in real terms, but with cliff-faced torque curves, they tend to smooth-talk you into breaking the law. By mechanically separating sane, fuel-sipping normality from its through-thelooking-glass alternative, the Type R knowingly encourages you to light the pyre on which your licence will likely be burnt. Even the Clio, mounted on that sublime chassis, can be driven pleasurably at seventenths, but the Mugen is like a floundering waterskier: slow down too much and you sink into the gloom. Better to go all white knuckle with it, a human VTEC functioning in the kind of heightened, half-scared state consistent with the high-octane drama happening under the bonnet.
So where does that leave our swansong, the comparatively humble Swift? Well, not as far back as you might think. Clearly, it is slower than its counterparts and not furnished with quite the same degree of theatre, but it’s more amenable and likeably less fraught, too. The Sport’s motor is essentially the same unit found in the SX4. It’s no fire-breather, rather breathed on to deliver its 135bhp at a racier 6900rpm. The torque actually turns on a little later than in the Clio and the gearing is plainly taller (the Swift is the only car here you’d happily share time with on a long motorway journey), but the agreeable small car vibe is kept wonderfully intact – not least because of its insubstantial kerb weight.