THE HOT HATCH WAR, VOL I
| Renaultsport Clio 200 v Honda Civic Type-R v Ford Focus ST225 v Fiat Panda 100HP |
Four Rush scribes and a mission to find the best hot hatch with £5,000 of their own money. What could possibly go wrong?
Introduction by Craig Toone
his means war... Diplomatic ties have been severed, snap-counts initiated and battlelines drawn. The rules of engagement went out the window faster than a Tesla Plaid hits 60mph and the Geneva Convention is null and void here.
It’s already no secret we adore a good hot hatch at RUSH, so much so four of us have put our money where our mouth is and purchased one. It all happened within just seven days - compliments quickly descended into jibes about who’d chosen best the moment the final V5 had been signed. John drew first blood by taking aim at Craig. Craig began questioning Kotto’s sanity more frequently than usual. Mark, clearly a student of Sun Tzu, quietly went about his business pulling strings, keeping the spotlight off his new wheels - which was covertly being fettled into rude health. The only thing we could all agree on is this could only be settled on the blacktop.
In what’s fast developing into a RUSH theme, this won’t be a strict comparison group test. There is far too much pride at stake. Each car chosen will have its own unique purpose depending upon its owner and there will likely be modifications to suit. Each owner will pick a discipline which is likely to favour their steed, with an independent adjudicator present each time to tread the minefield of skullduggery and repair broken friendships. Maybe we will crown a winner, or perhaps we’ll just give in to chaos theory and revel in the inevitable curveballs. There is no strict budget, only a desire to find the best drivers’ car and hopefully have some good old fashioned fun along the way. First things first, we’ll all introduce our cars before they meet for the first time in the Scottish Borders in the next issue. Let the games begin.
CRAIG'S CHOICE - RENAULTSPORT CLIO 200
Back once again with the Renault-gade master
A confession. Since I started this magazine there has been a nagging, but persistent headache occurring within my motoring sphere. An internal argument raging that’s akin to the frog that sits in the pan of water, blissfully unaware that the heat is gradually being cranked up as he’s merrily boiling to death.
My conundrum is I simply don’t enjoy driving as much as I used to. At least on the public road. Where previously it was a carefree pursuit of pleasure that cleared the mind and stoked the adrenaline, presently it’s becoming one of the factors that increase cortisol. Whether it’s the fret of avaricious ‘safety awareness’ vans, the perpetually surly cyclist or the dash cam vigilante, I’m spending more time worrying about the “what if’s” than getting on with the job at hand. And that’s before we discuss how being a car enthusiast these days is considered a social faux pas on par with casually dropping a fascist salute - at a dinner party populated by Guardian readers. Then there is the high percentage that if you work hard and have the keys to something nice, someone will come along to boost it, and I don’t mean increase the BHP.
The bottom line is this - the amount of time I spend driving vs the expenditure for that one moment feels like less value for money than ever. With house prices spiking faster than I can save and my commute dropping to three miles, suddenly my needs no longer align with the Uber Yaris. Yes, track days provide a clear conscience environment, but they are hugely expensive on top of a chunky PCP, and after each one, I still come away with a long list of desired modifications.
This is how I found myself at a Cazoo appointment, reluctantly handing over the keys to the GR Yaris. It’s not a decision I took lightly - this was meant to be my forever car, my 40th birthday present to myself. It's truly been a fantastic car, and one day I will very likely have another. I’ve covered just shy of 4,000 miles and I’ve made a slim profit of £1,300. Not bad for six months of motoring. The next port of call is Manchester Piccadilly train station and a seven-hour trip to Aberdeen to purchase a 2010 Renaultsport Clio 200 on 70,000 miles. It has the all-important Recaro seats, a recent cambelt change, replaced manifold flexi, refreshed perfohubs and a new gearbox under warranty at 30,000 miles. It needs some cosmetic love, but it's mechanically on point.
It helped massively that the Clio and I had the chance to bond by taking the long way home through the Cairngorms, allowing me to get stuck straight into the Clio’s dynamics. Sadly it wasn’t quite the epiphany I’d hoped for - the temperature in Aberdeen was a bonnie 2 degrees celsius, so the Clio was wearing its winter set of tyres. They provided admirable traction but appalling lateral grip, and any attempts to enjoy the Old Military Road quickly pushed the nose wide and the tyres out of their comfort zone. It was like having Jelly for tread blocks.
Not to worry, the six-hour slog back home passed without incident, save for the truly woeful headlights and Renault’s obscure positioning of the cruise control next to the handbrake - which I didn't locate until the next day. Now that it’s on some proper rubber (Bridgestone Potenza Sport - 225/45/R17, £301 from National Tyres) and I’ve addressed the perched driving position by fitting a Wheeler Motorsport seat mount - which lowers the Recaro by up to 50mm - it's time to start enjoying the car.
Yes, the dashboard looks like it’s been made from melted down, recycled coke bottles and the build quality has all the resistance of the Maginot Line, but I couldn’t care less. The 200 feels like freedom. It’s a weight off my shoulders. Holding back on a particularly tasty but dangerous corner on a track day because of the value of the car? No problem. Worrying about where to park the car? History. Fretting over carrying so much speed down a country lane that I might end up on the front page of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph? Evaporated. I’m revelling in the little Clio’s truly exceptional chassis, it's ridiculous front-end bite, keen steering, and tireless brakes.
I know the driving position still isn’t as sweet as I’d like, at low speeds the ride is much firmer than anticipated, when it's cold the throttle mapping hops around like a kangaroo and the passenger side headlight seems to be fostering a botanical garden. There’s also the very real likelihood that it will send a rather big bill my way in the near future, plus a high chance I’ll get attached and end up spending more money fettling it than I’ve ‘saved’. So far the 200 has matched the GR in its surprising appetite for super unleaded - I’m averaging less than 26mpg!
But what money can’t quantify is this - the smile factor is currently redlining from ear to ear. The timid mindset is gone, and the bank balance looks much healthier. I truly adored the Yaris and a very large part of me is screaming that I’ll live to regret it. I’ve given up trick differentials, specialist manufacturing techniques, and a ten-year warranty for a decade-old, french shopping trolley with an oversized engine and lowered suspension. My only critique of the GR is it lacked an edge, an unhinged element that made the car feel alive when running errands. Refinement is no bad thing - to some that ability to fade into the background and be a normal car is a huge asset, but I wasn’t in the market for an S Class. I started looking at exhausts, but decent ones started at £1,000, and there’s a very good chance the car might end up sounding like a Fisher-Price BMW S55.
The Clio constantly strains at the leash like a boisterous puppy. It always wants to drive. The Yaris eggs you on, but only after you’ve told it you’re in the mood, pushed all the right buttons and cancelled the EU nanny aids. Otherwise it’s a bit dull. Don’t get me wrong, it never let’s you forget it's special with those hips in the mirror, the GR badging and the constant thumbs up from teenagers and die hard petrolheads alike. But it’s not exciting unless you’re driving with your hair on fire. And it bongs and chimes as much as the Clio rattles - I’m fully aware the door is open because I pulled the handle! To be fair to the Yaris, like I said in my initial report - I don’t think that’s its fault. There is a silly amount of red tape to jump through these days to manufacture a car and Toyota absolutely needs to be commended for making the thing in the first place. I’ll treasure the memories of savaging an M3 CSL cross country, gluing to the back bumper of a 991 GTS in Wales and snacking on a supercharged Lotus Exige in the Yorkshire Dales. I’ll cherish the way the car danced when the diffs woke up and the suspension that obliterated any road imperfection as if the dampers were filled with antimatter.
The Clio will have to last me several years as I invest into RUSH and climb the housing ladder. It’ll have to cover commutes, road trips, occasional use as a photography car and have enough space for two and a four legged friend, plus all our camping gear and still hold its own on a track day. Time will tell if I’ve made the right call, but right now that buzz and urge to just go out and drive for the sake of it is well and truly back.
JOHN'S CHOICE - HONDA CIVIC TYPE-R FN-2
The unloved underdog
Most of us have a manufacturer that we have a soft spot for. For me, it has always been Honda. Whether on two wheels or four, on TV or on the street, there’s always been something that’s drawn me to the Japanese brand. For this reason, I’m going to stake my case as to why, for £3,000 - a Honda - more specifically an FN2 Civic Type R is the car I’m looking to buy.
After many years of going on track days, often in cars not particularly suited to the task in hand, I’m now in the position to choose something fit for purpose. I have my own personal set of criteria that this car needs to meet which really narrows down the choice but I’m going to go through each individually and compare them to the qualities of the FN2.
Firstly I’m a sucker for a high revving, naturally aspirated engine. I love the thrill of watching the needle climb to the redline, the engine singing and not letting up on its frantic energy until you pull for the next gear. More revs mean more drama and nobody this side of Ferrari does it better than Honda. The K20 unit in the FN2 is a legend. It’s powered some of the greatest front wheel drive cars ever made, from the EP3 Civic to the DC5 Integra. Ariel even chose it to go in their mental Atom and it’s also been the go to motor for many engine swaps, including turbo and supercharged builds.
While in standard form, it’s not the most powerful motor in its class at a smidge under 200bhp but it makes up for it with throttle response, minimal weight and reliability. All assets that make it perfect for track use, where a smooth, linear power delivery is optimal. Not possessing the sublime skills of Lewis Hamilton, I like my cars to be progressive and predictable on the limit, meaning I can grab them by the scruff of the neck and take the car as close to its limit as my ability will allow. This is where for me, forced induction has its drawbacks. A front engined, front wheel drive car is dynamically all wrong from the get go. The bulk of the car's weight is in the wrong place and the driven axle can easily be overwhelmed with too much input of throttle, steering or both. Turbocharged engines throw more weight over the nose meaning an even less favourable weight distribution. When you add in the slight change of driving style needed to work around the sometimes unpredictable torque delivery, for my level of driving, the advantage you gain on the straights is quickly negated by its drawbacks.
My car of choice also needed to be practical. I don’t have a trailer or even a car capable of pulling a trailer - so spare tyres, tools and any luggage, need to fit in the back as I’ll be driving to and from the circuit, often with my girlfriend. This rules out the likes of Mazda’s MX-5 and Toyota’s W30 MR2 (not that I fit safely in either). A hot hatch it is then and the Civic is more than capable of lugging plenty of stuff around while keeping us in relative comfort for the journey with cruise and climate control...The latter I will no doubt remove as I get carried away with modifications and weight reduction! The FN2 has a 50 litre tank and with twinkle toes, can see nearly 40mpg on a run meaning long haul travel to different circuits (I live up north) doesn’t have to be a major financial hurdle. While on track, that mpg figure will obviously get slashed but a top up just before you arrive at the circuit, alongside a couple of Jerry cans in the boot should see you through the day.
I’ve never been one who enjoys working on cars, it frustrates me and losing track time to a car that breaks down every 5 minutes would have me pulling my hair out and rapidly looking for something else. This means reliability and cost of maintenance are big ones for me. I also can’t afford huge bills on specialist maintenance, a full service after every track day is fine by me. Once again the FN2 comes good on both aspects here. Honda’s trademark reliability is well proven and bar making sure you use good quality oil (5W40 fully synthetic is recommended at around £50 per service) and regularly check the levels, the K20 is a robust engine. The simplicity of a naturally aspirated engine means there’s less to go wrong and heat management that is critical on forced induction cars is less of an issue, meaning eyes are focused on the next apex and not the gauges.
As my skills on track grow, I want the car to be able to grow with me. I’ve been on the wrong end of this a few times, cars that needed modifications to improve power or handling but due to poor aftermarket support, it was either put up and shut up, or remortgage the house and hurl the proceeds down the custom rabbit hole. With the FN2, one look on Tegiwa, Nengun, TDI North or eBay and you’ll see there’s enough parts out there to build an absolute monster even the most ardent FWD detractors would be happy with. To cover the minimum main track day mods (just brake pads and tyres) you’ll need around £780. A set of Ferodo DS3000 front brake pads for example are £144.83 on Tegiwa, or the more road biased but also competent on track DS2500 are £125.40. I’d recommend swapping the standard 18 or 19 inch alloys for a set of quality second hand 17s (eBay is your friend here).
Not only will you decrease unsprung mass, you’ll also knock around £25 a corner off a set of 18 inch Toyo R888R’s which for 225/45/17 should be around £140 per tyre. If you want to carry a set of wets Uniroyal Rainsport 5’s are around £110 a corner in the same 17 inch size or another £10 each for the 18’s. If your car comes with the 19s you’ll have trouble getting decent tyres at that size for anything other than eye watering money, so a wheel change should be priority. As for engine modifications, I don’t really hold this as a high priority. I prefer to keep the factory reliability and concentrate the budget on improving the chassis and handling. Polyurethane bushes, coilovers etc will all be fitted in time. Induction and exhaust systems will no doubt be modified, however that’s more for pleasure than performance. Saying that, it’s nice to know there are options available for big NA power, should I be left a nice inheritance from an unknown rich relative! Cams, ITB’s, forged internals…who knows?
The sensible thing to do here, especially since I’m very budget-conscious, would be to buy a car that someone else has poured money into and is ready to go with some of the key upgrades listed above. Right or wrong, I want to do them myself, meaning a standard car is what I’m after. I want to drive the car as Honda intended and as I learn its character, put my own stamp on it. My driving style could be completely different from the previous owner and we could prioritise very different upgrades. There’s also the question of who and to what level of competence the work has been done too (see reliability criteria). With the car being a long-termer I’m happy to take my time and build MY ultimate Type-R.
The elephant in the room is why an FN2 over an EP3? Well, once again it comes down to cold hard cash. For £3,000, most EP3s have covered over 130,000 miles and have a chequered MOT history. FN2s are still around for the same price with sub 100,000 miles and in much better condition. While the engine can handle big miles, I feel it’s wiser to start off with something a bit fresher, especially for a car that will be living the rest of its life on track and not pootling to the shops. Will I miss the fully independent suspension and less weight of the older car? Maybe, but I feel it’s a sacrifice worth making so I can spend money on performance modifications rather than fixing signs of wear and tear or neglect.
I have no doubt you’ll be wanting to tell me how wrong I am and that XYZ would be better (it’s been getting tribal online), the rest of the RUSH crew will get their say too. But looking at the competition, I’m feeling confident.
KOTTO'S CHOICE - FORD FOCUS ST225
The boosted blue oval...
It doesn’t take a genius to buy a hot hatch, just look at us RUSH reprobates. The secret is to buy wisely. Through a weird alignment of destinies, we’ve all bought hot hatches of many varying qualities at near enough the exact same time. Each one of us has a different reason why we bought our car, for me personally I’m just a glutton for haemorrhaging money and time in the pursuit of… I’m not really sure what, I’ll ask my therapist.
I’d like to think my 2008 Ford Focus ST3 is the last fun daily, the last hurrah - I’ve had a promotion at work and the time has come to get into a better house that’s practically next door to my workplace… Thus, my Fast Club TVR Chimaera is now my daily which surprisingly has been fantastically reliable so far. The Focus, maybe not… it’s like I walked into a Wetherspoons at 1 am on a Saturday and took home the broken mess I first saw. Don’t get me wrong - it has low miles, good service history, fantastic interior condition, great exterior and it’s not using oil to make pretty smoke clouds out the twin 155mm Howitzer exhausts. During the test drive, everything seemed ok apart from a minor steering shake that could’ve been a wheel bearing or badly balanced wheel.
And yet, the only thing that is unbalanced is me because the clutch is slipping, the gearbox mounts are worn and vibrating horribly under acceleration and it needs four new tyres. Day two the engine management light came on due to a faulty fuel rail pressure sensor, various important suspension bits started rattling and the nearside headlight’s heinously expensive HID Xenon bulb popped. The timing belt has been changed, which is good, but it’s not had something called ‘the block mod’ done, which is basically a small £40 addition to the belt change to stop the engine exploding with a Michael Bay-directed Tom Cruise cocaine-fuelled meltdown level of frenetic energy.
And now I write this, the eve before I hand it over to my mechanic to spend the day servicing it and finding out every single fault it has whilst I cry in a nearby Starbucks next to six cups of their hardest hot chocolate, each with a different poorly spelled name on it; one of which being Camel Toe. (It’s pronounced koh-toe). My last foray into a fun daily vehicle has been a Brexit level of disaster which I can only blame myself for. On-top of the tax, fuel costs and impending £2,000 or so bill to make it right it’s been a ruinous experience and many people have laughed at my expense. Literally. And yet, I feel quite smug.
The ST225 Ford Focus (Or XR5 if you’re upside down in Australia) was a big hit when first released, I’m sure we all remember Jeremy Clarkson yelling ‘Rooney!’ during his test on Top Gear. But the ASBO image is just that, having beaten the Golf GTI in Auto Express’ 2006 hot hatch shootout it’s clear there’s a lot going on for the Ford - on a commute it’s quiet, refined, comfortable, well kitted for summer or winter. On a B road thrash it’s loud, agile and clutch destroyingly fast thanks to the turbocharged 5-cylinder’s torque. It takes a lot to upset the Golf GTI monarchy and the Focus ST225 nailed it by doing everything very well. Granted it wasn’t as fast as the Astra VXR… Apart from that the VXR was dreadful in every way. The Megane RS handled better, but it’d shatter your spine then prolapse your well groomed anus. Perhaps the Golf GTI was more luxurious, but if you look at a 2005 Golf GTI now your eyeballs would turn inside out and escape through your nostrils. It's a small wonder why it did so well, ST guise or not. The mk1 Focus is probably one of the greatest cars of all time, certainly the best hatchback because it changed the segment, market, class, whatever. For good. Then the engineers had to follow it up with the 2005 Focus. I think I’d be less nervous in-front of a firing squad.
Anyway, this car has exceeded my expectations. I thought it’d be a slightly worse mk1 focus that was a bit fat, a bit soulless but blessed with a Group B soundtrack and mountains of power. But as I said above, there’s depth to this car. The turn-in is sharp, the body control is about a decade before its time, it has stretch-mark-inducing grip, and when you’re finished cornering you put the power down and you’re awarded a turbo-diesel level of torque that surges you forward at an alarming pace. But it’s only got 225PS or about 222BHP… and weighs the same as a supertanker - 1437kg. So, it’s not so fast it’s spoiled in a sense that a civil servant in a Transit with a ray gun can threaten your licence, you can have a huge amount of fun as it’s just on the verge of being properly fast with a 0-60 of six and a bit seconds. I can see why it got stolen a lot when new because it’s brilliant fun. And the best bit? The noise. Honestly, there’s been less impressive Metallica concerts, there’s a lot to unpack, turbo whistle, blow-off valve deluge of spent boost, thunderous exhaust, off-gas gunfire, upshift bang, suspension rattle.
There are a few problems - skating swiftly by the numerous issues with a politician level of grease. Like all new Fords the seating position is quite high, the roof too tall, the keyless push-start system is great but for some reason, I still need to use the stupid fob to unlock and lock the doors, no climate control as standard, no parking sensors (Limo tint windows and winter night parking is a nightmare), the facelift like I have is £100 a year more to tax than the pre-facelift, and the corrosion protection is at best described as absent. On top of that, I’m a highly experienced IT engineer and even I can’t figure out how to pair my phone to the car, and the cherry on top - the weight, how did it end up weighing 200kg more than the 2004 Ford Focus?
But I digress, I’ll end it on a high because this car is great and my first true hot hatch under ownership. I’m not one for them - I like sports cars, coupes, GTs, roadsters, or tiny fizzy hatchbacks I can abuse. So, it’s new territory for me and I totally get why people love a hot hatch. It is the do-anything car and Ford did brilliantly - why I’m keen to preserve it in its standard guise which is unusual for the ST225 crowd where the going rate for horsepower is over 300. The other writers may be blue in the face at this point, eager to say it’s too fat to be any good but they’re in for a surprise. It’s still the most comfortablest, the most fastest, the most biggest, and on a twisty road totally unphased by the Honda or the Renault. My biggest concern is it’ll try to eat the Fiat Panda.
MARK'S CHOICE - FIAT PANDA 100HP
The feather-weight roller skate...
Back in November I posted a fateful story on my @pissed_on_petrol Instagram account - “should I buy a cheap little hot hatch winter warrior to save my SL65 from the (a)salted roads?”. Encouraged by a wave of positive responses, a flood of Peroni and a we-double-dare-you from the RUSH whatsapp group, I emerged from the haze the following morning with notifications on my phone from an angry fiance and multiple messages from a dodgily named ebay operator, alongside a transaction successful statement from the banking app. 48 hours later my extremely spur of the moment purchase arrived - a 2008 Fiat Panda 100HP. The transition was complete - I had finally become my pissed on petrol alter ego.
I found the car listed on eBay for a steal with an attractive spec, decent history and with a lot of recent work carried out. I immediately called the vendor and was promised the car was just as described, with new brakes all round, new tyres, new rear shocks and the list went on. Best of all, the car was a one off specification because the previous owner had spent a not insignificant sum having the interior retrimmed in full BMW red leather, complete with embossed Fiat logos and heated seating!
It all sounded too good to be true, so my impulsive side took over and against my good judgement, within ten minutes I had bought the car, sight unseen. The only problems were negotiating a truce with SWMBO and the location of the car - Aberdeen. Handily I had a friend making the rounds on his low loader heading in that direction, so he collected the car on my behalf. At least that was one problem solved.
The car arrived late at night but first impressions were positive. It looked like a good, clean example and the interior finish was superb - the red leather could’ve easily passed for a factory option. The next morning my trusted mechanic @jhd_ltd was dropping off my 430 Scuderia, so whilst he was on-site with the trailer I handed over the Panda for a once over and a cambelt service before even driving the car.
Two days later the call came in. Being asked if I was sitting down wasn’t the ideal opener “the cars a mess” was the word from my trusted mechanic. Turns out although the discs and pads hadn’t seen much use, the car had been sat so long all four calipers were seized solid, requiring complete replacements. It was the same story with the tyres - plenty of tread, but perishing due to age, again requiring replacements. The exhaust system was rotten and there were signs the car had not been serviced for some time, despite the previous owner claiming it was fanatically home serviced. There was some good news however - there was no sign of any significant corrosion or rot, and other than the addressed issues, the rest of the car was solid.
So what started out as a simple £250 cambelt service turned into a much bigger & comprehensive recommissioning of the vehicle, from top to bottom. The car was then treated to a full geo set-up and a detail. Wondering how I was going to explain the £1,400 bill to my now estranged fiance faded into the background as I went out for a tentative first drive.
I’ve had the Kung Foo Panda (as christened by the lads at JHD) back for several days now and I have to say it feels absolutely brilliant. Since my first time behind the wheel, I have found myself pondering the question - what is the perfect amount of performance for a road car? The answer to this question is always subjective, and will no doubt be influenced by the type of roads one usually drives on. For me, ninety percent of my driving is done on a mixture of twisty and fast & flowing Borders B-roads, so obviously the perfect amount of performance for these roads is very different to the requirements of someone who mostly commutes along a motorway. Save for my treasured 106 Rallye, the majority of my cars have far too much performance for ‘my’ roads. In the Scud, GT2, Aston, SL65 and Caterham, you can only use a couple of seconds of full throttle acceleration before you’re into license losing territory. Whilst certainly thrilling and exciting, you can never truly exploit their full capabilities on the public road.
In the Panda however, the opposite is true. There have been times when I have been hooning along with my right foot buried into the carpet for what feels like a comical amount of time. When traffic conditions permit, you can keep this little rollerskate signing for mile after mile, with the focus set to carrying as much momentum through bends as possible whilst avoiding the brakes at all costs! And with it being so small, even single track B-roads hold no fear. You can exploit the full width of the road whilst clipping the apex. It has become a wonderfully entertaining way of driving to work.
Although it has been an expensive escapade, it feels good to have breathed new life into this special little car. I had originally planned to sell the car after winter, but right now I’m not sure I will - I can already feel this little scamp is going to get right under my skin.