Hands up who's owned a hot hatch. No doubt many of us. Chances are you've at least had a close encounter with one, even if only from the passenger seat. There have been plenty of rubbish ones, true, but also many worth celebrating, because who doesn't like a car developed to entertain that can be had on a budget?
We can all name a handful of stand out examples, like the MkI Golf GTI, which first set the tone, or the Peugeot 205 GTI, which oversteered through the 1980s. There was the Astra GTE and Saxo VTS, and not long after that the Civic Type R really raised the bar. But the car many of us will remember long into the future as nailing the formula is the Renault Clio RS 200 Cup.
After the slightly underachieving 197, the arrival of the 200 Cup in 2009 was a bit of a revelation - it was like Dieppe had re-discovered its, ahem, Va Va Voom. Sure, it was basically a heavily facelifted 197, but with multiple key improvements that combined to form something quite different. Something, from the enthusiast's point of view, tantalising.
Let's remind ourselves of the basics. The 200 used an evolved version of the 197's 2.0-litre four-cylinder that had more low-down grunt - the same 159lb ft came 150rpm earlier - and a higher 200hp maximum, also delivered faster. It meant the powerplant now had the muscle it had been missing since the departure of the 182's older F4R.
Yet where the 200 Cup really made strides was in its chassis. It had unique hubs and 'double effect' hydraulic dampers that were 15 per cent stiffer than the 197 Cup's, with firmer springs and anti-roll bars to match. Throw in a 7.5 per cent quicker steering rack and torque-steer-quelling independent steering axis front suspension geometry - unique to the class back then - and the 200's intent was clear. As was its advantage over rivals, including the Mini Cooper S and Vauxhall Corsa VXR, which never felt anywhere near as serious.
That was nine years ago. Blimey. With almost a decade having since passed, things have changed. We've met many more hot hatches, including newer Minis and impressive Peugeots; Renault Sport has even lost its lead in the segment. Today's champion is the Ford Fiesta ST, and conveniently, it's also the machine that best illustrates how much the hot hatch recipe has evolved. Because while it retains many similarities with the 200, like a compact body, five seats and a manual six-speed gearbox, it goes about its business in a rather different fashion.
For starters, where the Clio required a four-cylinder engine that breathed atmospheric air to produce its 200hp, the Fiesta's makes the same output from a motor of 500cc and a cylinder less, albeit with the help of a turbocharger. It's a much smarter unit too, dropping to two cylinders when you ask little of it - none of the Clio's cylinders can relinquish their thirst for petrol. The Fiesta also has a proper Quaife limited slip differential and adjustable drive modes. Oh, and it gets unique hubs and bushes as well.
As far as the spec sheet goes, then, the Fiesta has the Clio covered. But as we know, the Clio's talents are deeper. To give both cars a fair shout, we're introducing them to a setting they should both excel in on the south coast of England. The drive from London to our coastal meeting point in the Clio is not a difficult one, but the focused Renault lacks a rather large number of creature comforts present in our Fiesta. Because it's a Cup - the famous CL10 CUP - it does without weighty bits like air conditioning, heated seats or a heated windscreen. All of these things were missed a couple of hours earlier when a thin layer of frost was present on its glass and Alien Green bodywork. Nic, having ridden to Sussex in the toasty Fiesta, complete with its leggier final drive and reserves of low-down grunt, looks comparably refreshed.
But we expected this. And anyway, the test route isn't about all of that stuff. For those who don't know it, the road's a twisting section of tarmac that in parts hugs the coastline of the English Channel, albeit from about 100ft up on the cliff tops, with hairpins and wide bends, as well as undulations, crests and cambers. It's a fitting location for these two hot hatch champs, and coincidentally only about 60 miles North-West of Dieppe, the RS Clio's birthplace. To really test them, we've organised a thin layer of mist and moisture for the morning. Better get that second coffee down.
The Clio helps speed up the osmosis of caffeine. Wind it up - and I mean really up, so the four's spinning all the way to and beyond 7,000rpm - and it comes alive, stepping onto its tippy toes like a gymnast approaching the mat before charging forwards. It has a 55lb ft deficit to the Fiesta's triple, yet the Clio feels plenty fast on narrow sections of the route, front wheels skimming over bumps with the engine note bouncing in time before screaming towards the limiter. There's a beep through the speakers when it's time to change up, and while the six-speed 'box is not exactly a revelation in engineering, it's closely stacked and the lever is placed tall and within a thumb span of the wheel, so it's enjoyable to work quickly.
Things get better. Turn the steering wheel - set about 20 degrees from vertical thanks to the Recaro sports seats being set too high like all old Clios - and the nose of the car responds so eagerly you could easily confuse it for an out-and-out sports car. The way in which the front end hooks up so positively is satisfying enough, but it's the damping's commanding control over the body that inspires such confidence in the driver. You might think a model with almost all of its key hardware located up front would feel nose heavy, yet the balance at pace feels far closer to the centre. You can pitch the car in and, if you've a trailed brake or closed throttle, wait for it to pivot, rear wheel lifted clear of the ground. What a satisfying feeling that is. Then it's up to you how you design the corner exit. Power on with little or no steering correction and a delicate four-wheel drift can be negotiated within the narrow confines of your lane. It's that effective.
Okay, so it's not all perfect. Through the slower sections of road, the Clio's engine can feel a little underpowered, leaving you asking whether a lower cog would have been better. It really needs to be grabbed by the scruff of its neck to offer its best, so you have to guess right with the gears. But then traction from the car's ContiSport Contact 5s is limited on our still damp surface if you exit a tight corner in the peak of the powerband. In this circumstance, you do miss a diff, just a little bit.
Which leads us nicely to our Fiesta ST-3 that comes equipped with the optional Performance Pack and its motorsport-derived LSD, as well as more aggressive Michelin Super Sport rubber. It means that even with such a tough contender to face, the ST sits pretty in the mist that just won't budge today. Escape the cold air to its cabin and what a lovely place it is to be. Snapper Luc puts it nicely: "The Clio interior is like a bloody hire car by comparison". It is. Even the ST's Recaro chairs, while not as visually sporting, hug your hips tighter and come set at a much more acceptable height. Plus, the steering wheel ahead can be pulled close and to a perfect angle. It feels odd to say it, but in this moment the ST feels like the more serious driver's machine.
Ford's set the throttle mapping of the Fiesta to be extremely fast, so - even in Normal mode - the 1.5-litre motor feels very responsive at the first squeeze of the right pedal. Actually, it feels pretty rapid, the engine picking up so quickly and charging through the middle of its rev range that I immediately bounce it into the limiter at the 6,250rpm redline. I do it again with the next gear, so used had I become to the longer range of the Clio's engine. The ST's motor sounds great, though, with a bassy, almost digital note that's less tin top racer, more Playstation. Immediately, before we've even reached the first corner, it's a wholly different experience.
Because the Fiesta picks up the pace faster, its ride is softer and there's much better sound insulation, I arrive at the first corner a little hot. It doesn't feel that much quicker from behind the wheel, but it undoubtedly is, so I have to work the strong brakes hard and rely on the bite from the fronts to make the corner. However, the Fiesta feels secure and the car meets the apex with confidence, at about the perfect speed to really analyse its differing approach.
One immediately obvious similarity between our two contenders is in the way they both feel so excitable at turn in. The Fiesta lacks the body control of the 200, leaning slightly when the Clio stays settled and reacting to bumps its rival has never noticed. But its nicely weighted electronic steering is fast and the tail more than happy to cock its inside wheel to enable acute slides. Controlling them is not so intuitive as it is in the Clio because the more refined ST's back-end is just too softly sprung to offer the delicacy of the 200. But the way the diff juggles the triple's 214lb ft of torque to keep the nose at the forefront of what's happening is mightily impressive.
The Fiesta too feels light on its feet, ready to react instantly to your inputs, but it does so in a less natural way. You're always conscious of the car's components doing their jobs to enable its strong performance, like the turbo feeding the motor harder and the drive provided by the diff keeping the rear under control, where as the Clio feels more seamless, more organic. In this sense, the 200 Cup is like a track car for the road; the ST drives more like a road car armed with enough technology to make it athletic. No doubt that's an impact of making the ST more comfortable than its predecessor.
So where does this leave us? When it comes to the art of properly serious driving, the stuff you and I get our kicks from, the Fiesta can't match the Clio 200 Cup. The green car lacks the turbocharged punch of the ST, but its delicious, informative chassis feels perfectly matched to an engine that so smoothly gains momentum. It never feels out of its depth; instead it fires down a lane, ready and waiting for your next command like a puppy at its ball-wielding owner's heel. It's just a wonderful example of how clever damping and some smart geometry, along with an engine that feels so sweetly matched, can create such a beguiling driver's machine.
That leaves things sounding a little harsh on the Fiesta, like it offers sluggish responses and lacks sparkle, which is simply untrue. The Fiesta is a fantastic driver's car that would probably edge away from the Clio in a straight race on any road. It's just that in this hyperactive, motorsport-enthused company, nothing this side of an A110 or Cayman can match the 200. And that's what the hot hatch is all about, surely - being an affordable package that provides the same driving magic as something twice its price. Sure, it also should be practical, cheap to run and comfortable, things the ST walks all over the Clio at. But then only one of these two would have you climbing out of bed at 5am on Sunday to go for a proper drive.
SPECIFICATION - RENAULTSPORT CLIO 200 CUP
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@7,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 159@5,400rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Price: £15,750 (2009)
SPECIFICATION - FORD FIESTA ST PERFORMANCE PACK
Engine: 1,497cc, turbocharged 3-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 214@1,600-4,000rpm
Top speed: 144mph
Weight: 1,262kg (EU, with driver)