Ford Focus RS or Renault Clio Cup - which is the ultimate hot hatch? To find out Autocar tested them back-to-back.
The Focus RS500 is billed as the ultimate expression of a hot hatch. But has it gone too far? With 345 bhp and a price tag up with a BMW 335i or a base spec Porsche Cayman has this extremely talented but insane hatchback forgotten its roots?
At £35,750, up £7,855 over the ‘standard’ RS, the RS500 has an extra 45bhp, a shade more torque, a matt black vinyl wrap and a few interior details. It also comes with the hugely evocative RS500 name, last used on the whale tailed Sierra Cosworth.
The Clio Cup musters a naturally aspirated 197bhp and 156lb ft of torque from its 2.0-litre four pot motor. Its price of £16,710, under half of the Ford, asks a lot of questions of the menacing Focus.
The RS500 has the answer in third gear. In its lowest two ratios, the Focus’s torque is limited to the same levels as in the standard RS to protect the gearbox and improve traction. But when you slot third, you enter a different world – one dominated by induction gasps and the sort of acceleration the Clio can’t live with.
It is also a world that features a fair amount of torque steer, even with its trick Revo-knuckle suspension. On a dry straight road you have to hold the wheel quite tight, but it seems a reasonable trade-off for the performance available.
Find a section of road that’s quiet enough and the Focus feels brutally rapid. Just as we found with the regular RS, the RS500 has a playfulness to its chassis that is downright amusing. Turn in, lift off and the nose tucks in nicely without any real risk of misadventure, then get back on the power.It’s the classic front wheel drive recipe, but honed for maximum enjoyment.
Swap into the Clio and it can feel underwhelming. With the poorer ride and an artificial feel to its steering, the only obvious advantage is its lightness: at 1204kg, it carries 263kg less than the Ford. But it is from this lack of mass, and a closely stacked set of ratios, that everything else grows.
Although its outright pace will still be less than the RS500, between the wave of gearchanges, frenzy of revs and a surprisingly useful upshift buzzer, the sense of pace is at times greater in the Clio.
But it is into braking zones and corners that the Clio’s lack of weight pays dividends. The steering, brakes and lack of body roll the car gives you a sense of freedom that encourages a little more entry speed and a little more throttle.
This means you arrive at the end of a fast drive wired and exhilarated, exactly the point of a hot hatch.
But the fact remains the Focus RS500 will always be going slightly quicker. To find out how much quicker, we visited the Bedford Aerodrome for a few laps free from the moral (and legal) restrictions of the road.
Up to a point, the Focus proves an entertaining track car, with good front-end bite and plenty of adjustability in the chassis. However, at the limit the movement in the rear axle that makes the RS500 such a fun road car robs time around a lap.
The RS500’s brakes also lack modulation and it is difficult to carry speed into a corner without tripping into messy oversteer. The result is a one-shot lap time of 2min 12sec.
The Clio is at a disadvantage on the circuit’s straights, but the fact is you can brake later and turn in with more speed than in the Ford. At first your cornering speed is limited by front end grip, but persevere with more speed and it can be persuaded into the sweet spot between understeer and oversteer, giving a lap of 2min 15.5secs – very close considering the power deficit.
Where does this leave the Focus? Well, it remains a hugely exciting car, with refinement and space the Clio can’t match.
But a hot hatch should be about simple ingredients and a balance of abilities not dominated by any single component. Having 345bhp is great for a time, but using every last one of the Clio’s 197bhp is simply more fun.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be more or less powerful or expensive hot hatches out there, but I reckon the Clio Cup defines better than any other where the centre of gravity for the hot hatch should be.
The full test review is available in this week's Autocar magazine, on sale now.