There goes your driver’s license
Clio RS vs. Fiesta ST vs. 208 GTI
At long last, the stars have aligned perfectly to enable our ritual comparison test. By stars, of course, we mean the French and German city cars playing the lead roles in this action heavy hot hatch shootout. Clio RS, Fiesta ST and 208 GTI - three arch enemies, each with a 1.6 turbo outputting about 200 PS, all fresh out of the oven. In order to ensure a perfectly balanced and unbiased comparison we recruited someone with slightly more experience than ourselves, WTCC driver Norbert Michelisz. Our very own Stig, so to speak.
It is still early in the morning but the sun is already doing what it does best: melting the asphalt and scorching the foliage around the Kakucs Ring, the location of our forthcoming test. And it is bound to get hotter during the day. We are taking refuge under the parasol of the canteen, weighing the chances with caution – after all we have not driven all of the cars yet. Words are scarce, sentences are short. Is the ST harsh? Yup How about the GTI? Nope.
All of a sudden, with the turbo huffing and puffing and the exhaust crackling, the Clio returns to the pits from the track. Norbert (Norbi to all his fans) emerges from behind the wheel and asks if it would be okay to adjust the tyre pressure. It is overblown beyond reason. – he says. How does he know after just two laps with a car he'd never driven before? It loses balance way too fast once you start pushing it hard, he smiles.
If you ever wondered why we needed a professional driver to help out with this shooutout, there is your answer.
While it may have been more entertaining to watch Norbi humiliate some WTCC hotshots as a promising rookie, he has by now earned a spot in the sport where his words are actually noted the world around. Hence he is not allowed to make any comments about cars which he may potentially compete against in his Honda. So I just rode shotgun with him, taking note of what he was doing with these mighty mice.
What amazes us everyday people is that there are no tricks. He doesn't work the steeering wheel faster, he leaves the handbrake alone, he uses no alternative body parts to shift gears and he has no secret time warp sunglasses. He does not even have sunglasses. But he does switch off the aircon and closes all windows. And then he drives the car along the ideal line with surgical precision. I have no previous knowledge of the track, he commented apologetically, and then, two laps later, he drove the car like it's nobody's business, recording identical lap times again and again down to the tenths of seconds.
We drive the cars, he plays with them. There is no fighting involved, no wizardry. No need to make amendments either because he enters each corner at the highest possible speed, no less, no more. Among the three cars he drove about fifteen laps. On one corner there was just the slightest of understeer. We'll just forget about this one, shall we? – he asked, meaning the timed lap.
Timed laps are magical. If we hadn't timed them I would have sworn the Peugeot is the slowest of the bunch. Its suspension feels the softest, it has the slowest response, and it does not have the slightest idea of what ovesteer is. And yet, the Peugeot turned out to be the fastest at 43.25 secs. The Fiesta was runner-up at 43.95 – but the incredible show it put on while doing it put the other two cars to shame. The Renault pulled a straight 44.00, due to no other than its gearbox. The Clio has the raciest chassis and brakes of the bunch but the dual clutch gearbox which likes to think it's smarter than the driver wastes valuable tenths on the track.
And yet, this matters not. Not at all. Not because 8/10 of a second is very little even on such a short track, or because a different choice of tyres could have reversed the end results. These times are irrelevant because being a hot hatch is not only about being fast. The three cars are so completely and utterly different in character if you like one of them you will never be tempted to switch horses just because the other ones are faster.
Peugeot 208 GTI: Fear not the GTI – Stump András
Driving the 208 GTI for a full week I certainly didn't become a fan, yet I am inclined to say this is probably the car that is best in tune with the needs and tastes of our times. It has a charming exterior, a marvellous interior and impeccable quality all around. The Peugeot will mesmerize anyone who has a desire to drive around town in a three-door city car, and has no real need for those 200 PS. Engine power for the 208 is nothing more than pretty decoration, a stylish case on your iPhone. And yet, this was the fastest car of the bunch around the track. Can't argue with that, can I?
I would love to say the GTI is the new king of Hothatchia but in all honesty I can't. It is stronger than the Fiesta, lighter than the Clio, which is probably why it beat them on the track. But those figures aside the Peugeot is a sloth, an indifferent slug. The 200 PS small car that you will only drive fast because you are supposed to. Doing so will give you no satisfaction, as opposed to touching the fine surfaces or musing over the splendid details. The audio sounds way too boxy, what a shame.
But can you win a hot hatch shootout with impeccable stitches or a two-tone door handle? Of course not. And the GTI just does not cut it. Not at all. The steering wheel is a frigging zombie, the brakes are mushy, the chassis is as playful as a spinster on PMS. This could be a terrible misunderstanding but the car is also dead silent, a telltale sign that it is all supposed to be like this. In the ST you can hear the engine through the footwell. In the Clio you cannot escape the fury of the turbocharger. It is all make-belief of course, played out via acoustical wizardry but honestly, there is no other way a turbocharged engine will ever give you a menacing grunt.
The Peugeot certainly has a clever suspension, allowing it to be very fast. Roll is kept at a minimum, directional control is superb but there is absolutely no wag in the tail and hence, no enjoyment in driving the car. The GTI is foolproof and diabiolically swift at the same time. After all Peugeot Sport has been building ferocious GTI's and XSI's for three decades now – except their idea of a 2013 hot hatch does not correlate with mine.
Renault also has immense and even more recent experience in the field. You can tell just by driving the Clio RS. The chassis is brilliant. The closer you get to its limits, the more fun it is. It will turn the corner almost before you decide to, steering response is just insane. Drive it on rough roads and it will start dancing about at high speed, yet it would never lose its composure. And then there are the brakes which work like they come from two classes up. All of which makes it even more painful that the gearbox should ruin the fun,
And the Fiesta, it's like an alien life form stranded on earth. Huffing and puffing it corrupts even the meekest of drivers. All it wants is go, run, leap. It may have the least engine power in the bunch but it is also the lightest one so you never actually feel it's out of breath. Its chassis is set up for playing it naughty rather than track driving – push it hard and you'll find the springs are softer than on the French cars and it enters turns slowly and somewhat insecurely. And yet when you drive it on the road you feel WRC'esque because of all the things going on while you give it all you got. And that's what driving a hot hatch should be about.
Fiesta ST: Let's have some fun! – Csikós Zsolt
Although I have never had a proper hot hatch reference car (such as a Golf GTI from the first two series or a Peugeot 205 GTI) I used to own a Renault 5 Alpine Turbo, a B-lister among wannabe mighty mice. And this new Fiesta ST entertains with the same kind of liberating driving enjoyment the R5 did.
Science is important, and there are two ways to get scientific with a hot hatch. You can dyno it and boast of the numbers to your friends, or you can take it to a narrowish and smallish track (Formula 1 tracks are way too large for these cars), and time your laps.
Yes, the Fiesta is slower. Seven tenths slower than the 208 around the track to be exact. You can't argue with lap times run by your local WTCC hero because he will ease off, start braking, enter the turn or let it rip at exactly the same point time and time again. He has a photographic memory and superhuman racing powers so there is no point in arguing against his findings.
And yet the Fiesta is the best car of the trio, exactly because of its shortcomings. Because the Peugeot, though fastest around the lap, is completely void of character. Engine notes are flat, comfort is outstanding but there is no communication with the driver. The 208 GTI clears bends without breaking a sweat, is perfectly balanced and utterly stable, probably the best piece of engineering in our shootout, with the finest details of workmanship. Compared to the Peugeot the Ford is downright mediocre. As for the Renault, it is highly powerful, has a great chassis but all of that is voided by the botched up gearbox. Not to mention the plasticy and haphazard interior. With a decent gearbox I might be inclined to pick the Clio – but for now it is the Fiesta or bust.
It is easy to see why. The Fiesta is great to drive. It has a hot hatch grunt, a sweet gearbox and highly communicative steering. Sure, the seats are too tight to be comfortable (although I am not exactly chubby), and all those buttons make the dashboard look overplayed. But who cares, as long as it plays your game.
If you enter the turn too quickly it is enough to lift off the accelerator and the car begins to lose the tail in a beautiful manner. If your speed was not enough just touch the brakes to induce oversteer.
Whoa, that's too much – just floor the gas and the engine will pull and straighten you out. There is plenty of power in the engine, torquey down below and lively at higher revs. If you get the hang of it the Fiesta will give you a free lesson in zumba, while always staying on the safe side with plenty of reserves.
And yet you can calmly drive it at 200 kph in heavy crosswinds because it can remain stable if you want it to. Plus it will not burn a hole in your pocket. With a surgical gearbox and well balanced brakes this car is the ultimate GTI. My only gripe is the stiff suspension, making the car highly uncomfortable on rough roads but I can live with that. If I was out looking for a fun car I'd pick the Fiesta without blinking.
Could be the best - Papp Tibor
No, make that: it is the best. Or let me put it this way: there are certain aspects of the Clio RS that make it the single finest vehicle in its class. The 208 has more comfortable back seats but the Clio isn't that bad either. The interior is no worse (or better) than its competitors, at least I can live with it. USB at hand and a touch screen, you don't need more than that. I don't even mind the piano black surface because it just does not matter in a hot hatch.
And the way it looks, Renault really went the extra mile. You don't even recognise it's a five-door car because the rear handle is hidden from sight, like on the Alfa Romeo 156. The Clio does not come as a three-door car, nor will it ever, and I think that's a good decision. In contrast, the 208 GTI and the Fiesta ST are only available with three doors. But why are we so hung up on convenience in a small city car that packs 200 horses?
Of course this is not the same 200 PS that you would get from a naturally aspirated engine. Or from a 2.0-litre turbo for that matter. On the other hand turbocharging technology has witnessed a quantum leap and today, instead of hectic vehicles that get more and more erratic as the engine speed increases, you have civilised powerplants with minimum turbo lag and a flat power band. The Clio may not be the liveliest of the three but it is still smokin' on this narrow and tight track where we never shift up from third anyway – it has immense pulling power with 240 Nm on tap from dusk till dawn (the Peugeot can do 275 Nm, the Ford 290 Nm)
But here's the catch. The Clio may have excellent chassis and steering, with minimum body roll even without the optional, stiffer, lower Cup suspension (something you don't want on Eastern European roads, possibly not on the track either), but it is over 100 kg heavier than the Fiesta. The two extra doors contribute maybe 30-50 kg, the rest is engineering. This could be the reason why there is only 0.05 sec difference between the two cars on the track despite the Ford only spurring 182 PS.
But weight is not a real issue. The gearbox is. The Clio RS is simply not available as a manual shifter, all you get is the douple clutch unit. And that's a deal breaker. While it shifts real fast in RS mode it will still arbitrarily shift up or down, something Norbi also found strange. He felt the Clio should have clocked the fastest time of the three. Maybe the rear isn't as playful as on the Fiesta, and the steering may feel vaguer, it still drives with pinpoint precision and beats the Peugeot for engine sound hands down. Although I felt the Renault sounded better on the outside than on the inside. And when the gearbox changes gears it sounds almost like a miniature M6.
I don't know. Maybe we are just old fashioned. Perhaps we underestimate the positive effects of the gearbox. Used in sports mode it does work really fast, probably faster than a manual would. It's just that it will shift even when it shouldn't. Maybe today's kids, brought up on Playstation/Xbox, only consider these paddles as a proper shifter and maybe today's driving standard is indeed a politically correct touring style, a mere cruising. Regardless, this gearbox needs to have its control software reprogrammed to stop it from groping around the gears in auto mode, because the way it is, it was this gearbox that robbed the Clio RS of its crown as the king of modern hot hatches
What the hell do you need a sports car for? - Nínó Karotta
Ever since I have left Totalcar Magazine I have tried a lot less cars. I always intend to try them out, at least for a day, but it rarely works out. Which makes the fact that I could drive all three of these hot hatches even scarier. Because this means these cars were available. Nobody wanted to drive them. Which means two things. One, our editors are old twats, and two, none of these cars are brilliant enough to rip you out of your everyday life for a few days of forgotten fun.
I tried the Peugeot 208 GTI first, driving it to a hip bistro on the hillside. Which is what it is intended for. It is metropolitan, refined, civilised. As far removed from the original GTI as our solar system allows. Sitting in what could be termed as a premium interior I mused over the refined controls, the modern elegance of the cabin, the sense of space offered by the panoramic roof and how nice the gearbox is – and I arrived before I knew it. On the way back I stepped on it in second gear and spent the next minute fearing for my driver's licence. Luckily there were no police officers around. The suspension was comfortable enough for post-meal transportation. The car is light-footed but it just doesn't want to turn instinctively
Then a few days later I sank my claws into the Clio. I remember driving the old Clio RS just oce, back in 2004. The police would have just shot me in the back for what I did with that car. I took a slight detour of about three hours on what was a twenty minute ride, normally involving none of the mountainous hairpins I found myself to include with the Clio. That's the kind of car it was. This new one feels twice as solid and is full of design finesse inside. Just looking at the shift paddles makes you woozy for a moment. I was initially inclined to start off on a wide open throttle because I loved how the car launched like a fully grown sports car. But after about three minutes the only feeling I had left was a sense of pure hatred for the gearbox. For being a hot hatch the Clio has an acceptable ride but on the whole it feels cheaper, more crude than the Peugeot. I am certain there is some Renaultsport ingenuity trapped in between the double clutches, as they have been responsible for some serious automotive voodoo in the last decade but this gearbox is beyond reason.
Finally I took a spin in the Fiesta. Plastics feel way too cheap after the two French cars. But the Ford keeps tugging at you like a bored child, let's go, lets go. It is less powerful, less serious. Feels like a toy car, which is what makes it work. This was the only car I needed to cool off before shutting it down in the evening. This is a naughty car. Then, on the way to the office next morning I hated the wretched thing for finding all the ruts, the potholes, the streetcar rails, the manhole covers and in general all surface irregularities and communicating them to my butt. I was furious. I felt like flooring it but I was sitting in dense traffic.
Hot hatches used to be about removing you from the calamities of everyday driving by making you want to drive like an idiot. But here and now I no longer feel inclined to do that in the city. Nor should you. I suppose the French must have come to the same conclusion, toning down their cars accordingly. But the thing is, if I want to get from A to B in numb comfort there is nothing better than the Citroen C5. Why would I want a 208 GTI or Clio RS for that? The restless Fiesta, writhing like a puppy tied in a canvas bag, is a proper hot hatch but noone in their right mind can afford to drive like this car demands to be driven. Or if you do you, because you just don't care, you will find it underpowered and underspec'd. No wonder nobody wanted these cars.
The Fiesta ST gives you the most adrenaline for your money, making it our unanimous favourite and winner because, despite a lack of speed and a torturous ride, driving it unrestrained makes you grin incessantly. The GTI plays an altogether different game, being civilised and well mannered, but because it does so very consistently it deserves a second spot. The Clio RS has the potential to humiliate both of these to tears but is ruined by an abhorrant gearbox, which makes the final verdict a two-pronged one: if you feel like playing it out, get the ST, but if you cannot handle temptation stick with the GTI.