Two hatches that can give supercars a run for their money
ST’s 1.6-litre turbo is responsive and flexible
When pushed hard, Clio’s 2.0-litre duly delivers
Recaro sports seats cum wingback armchairs
Grippy Clio Cup brings its A-game to winding roads
ST’s steering wheel is in the driver’s comfort zone
I always suspected a well- driven hot hatch could keep up with a proper sports car, perhaps even a full-blown supercar, on a winding country road. As the R8 jinks and darts its way along this meandering, well-sighted stretch of tarmac that cuts across endless Welsh moorland, the Clio looming large in its rear-view mirror, the theory is being proven in real time. The supercar pulls out a few lengths every time the road straightens a little but, whenever it bunches up into a sequence of bends, the gap is reduced to nothing.
It can be done, then. But after that eye-widening dash across north Wales, I know better than most how much bravery, commitment and skill it takes to keep a little hatchback stuck to a supercar’s rear bumper. I just wish I hadn’t been driving the R8 at the time.
From that moment on, I’ve had a profound appreciation for hot hatches. In many ways, I reckon they’re the very best kind of car, full stop. Not only can they be exciting to drive, but they’re also practical to use every day and affordable to buy. And as proven by my moment of humiliation a few years ago, the very best of them really do have the pace to keep up with far more exotic cars.
The Clio Cup feels as fizzy and as effervescent now as it did eight years ago. Perhaps more so, in fact, given the car that replaced it went soft, with its flat, turbocharged engine and hesitant paddle-shift gearbox. The Recaro sports seats – so heavily bolstered that they look like wingback armchairs – could hardly be more purposeful. They do place you a little too high, though, and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, so you sit hunched up like a hungry trucker leaning guardedly over his breakfast.
There’s so much tension in the low-speed ride that you wonder if this thing is just going to skip and bounce uselessly over every tiny bump in the road, front wheels spinning up with a flare of engine revs every time they leap up off the tarmac. But with a little speed, the dampers get into their range, each one allowing its wheel to rise and fall over the shape of the road, all four tyres kept firmly in contact with the surface. The body is always very busy, bobbing up and down like a hyperactive child on a pogo stick, but under the skin, the chassis works beautifully.
The Clio holds on like a limpet, which is where its giant-killing cross- country pace comes from. The front end generates massive cornering grip, and with the whole car buzzing away with messages from all four corners, it’s easy to use every last ounce of that grip, mile after mile. This is a car you drive flat out everywhere, leaving nothing in reserve. Isn’t that just so much more rewarding than tentatively prodding the lower tranches of a supercar’s absolute pace?
We’ll miss gritty, revvy engines like this one some day, if we don’t already. Use the 2.0-litre lump like you would a torque-rich turbo engine and you’d call the Clio Cup dog slow, because it feels lacklustre in the mid-range. Once you get it working above 5000rpm and right up to the 7500rpm redline, though, it really does fling the car along at a good old lick. The manual gearshift is snappy and mechanical, too, so you relish every down change and fire through every upshift.
As far as small hot hatches go, this Clio Cup really is one of the very best of all time. In fact, in recent years, there has been only one other small, quick hatchback that could stand toe to toe with it. Put a gun to my head and I’ll tell you the Ford Fiesta STis the better car, but the truth is that it depends on the scenario. The ST is the more accomplished all-rounder but, as a car to get stuck into on a really inviting stretch of road, or perhaps a circuit, the Clio Cup just about edges it.
The Ford’s seating position is so much better than the Renault’s. You still sit a little high, but the wheel reaches right out to you, so you don’t find yourself leaning forward just to grab it. The Fiesta also feels tense and uptight at low speeds but, like the Clio, it finds its comfort zone with a little more pace. Unlike that car, though, it rolls in corners and pitches and dives, rather than staying completely flat.
You can drive the ST at five-tenths and find yourself enjoying every moment of it without really knowing why. It’s because the controls are all so well matched to one another. It’s such a cohesive car; clutch weighting matched perfectly to the gearshift action; steering ratio so in tune with the response from the front axle and the degree of body roll in corners.
It’s unusual to find that level of cohesion in anything this side of a Porsche 911. And when you start to attack the road, the ST responds with more agility, more poise, more feedback. It’s another car that you drive just as quickly as you can from start to finish.
Its 1.6-litre turbo engine is much more flexible than the Clio’s normally aspirated motor but less exciting at the top end. The front tyres, incidentally, are so underworked at the standard 178bhp that I’d have my own car upgraded with the 212bhp Mountune kit in a heartbeat.
Just as long as your chosen road keeps the corners coming thick and fast, either of these hatches would keep a much more exotic car honest. Any good hot hatch would, in fact. And what could possibly be more fun than frightening a supercar driver in your humble little shopping car?
Best Used Hot Hatches 2017
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Built 2012-2015 Price range £14,000-£20,000 We’d pay £17,500 We found A 30,000-mile, 2012 three- door with a manual gearbox and leather trim priced at £17,495 See BMW M135i for sale on Pistonheads
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