THE HOT HATCH WAR VOL.II
| The best second hand hot hatchback for £5,000 |
No more excuses. It's time for our selected £5,000 hot hatches to do battle along the fabulous roads of the Scottish Borders
By Craig Toone | Photography by Andrew Ambrose
adrian’s Wall has seen some intense fighting over the millennia. Commissioned in 117 AD by Roman Emperor Hadrian, the wall separated the civilised empire from the barbaric Caledonian tribes. Legionnaires defended their conquest against waves of native attacks around the clock, and every scar is etched across seventy broken miles of stone and fossilised in history...But nothing compares to this.
Be in no doubt this has all already gotten out of hand. Mortgages have been switched to interest only. I’ve been eating exclusively pot noodles, John has been staring so hard at the TDI North website he’s gone cross eyed. Every participant has stripped anything superfluous from their lives and channelled the savings into their cars. No more TV subscriptions, golf club or gym memberships. Anniversaries and birthdays have passed by without cards or flowers. Brown envelopes containing bribes that would make a FIFA executive blush are being bandied about like sweets.
The constant bickering has given me tinnitus, or maybe that’s because I completed the last stint of the road trip up to the stunning Scottish Borders in the Clio. The refinement of a saw mill combined with super short gearing - a 70mph cruise in sixth equates to just over 3,500rpm - was enough to see me casting envious looks towards the Focus and Civic Type-R. Despite being the newest car here the 200 is comfortably the most uncouth, and despite being the lightest of the trio making the pilgrimage north, it's proving to be the thirstiest.
As per usual Kotto has bought an engine first and a car second. Mark has purchased a motorised roller skate whilst everyone keeps telling me and John to “stop boring us all to death about cam changeovers and fancy hubcaps”. Do not for one second underestimate the Panda 100HP. Low weight, gummy tyres, Mark’s local knowledge and a bin-it-to-win-it mentality means scalps will be taken. At one point in the weekend Kotto will be seen walking around looking a little sheepish, and that’s not just because he’s Welsh.
The chances are you might have already made your choice based upon personal taste, or tribal loyalty. Even neutral judges Alex and Andy secretly admit to having pre match favourites. It’s been a couple of months since our initial opening salvo, so as ever, things have moved on. For some that has meant some automotive doping via modifications. For others it's just been about ensuring they have the fairest representation of the breed. We’ve all had our issues and with so many flaws to fix, this test originally was in danger of becoming a phoney war. I had to call time and set a date. Thus several protagonists are wading into battle already sporting war wounds.
The engine in the Clio 200 might as well have been held in place by plasticine, so worn and torn were the engine mount bushes. In their place now resides a full set of Powerflex poly bushes. Next, an MOT highlighted play in the nearside steering rack joints. It’s a job that requires specialist tools thus better handled by the professionals at BTT Motorsport, who also clocked a new wishbone and ball joints were required whilst in there. After fixing the annoying exhaust heat shield that rattled more than a pissed off texan snake, the car received an oil change, fresh spark plugs and ignition coil packs. Kotto notes the car seems suspiciously raucous, which might be down to the Scorpion resonated cat back exhaust fitted whilst under the care of BTT. Rumbled.
John meanwhile must have been spending a significant amount of time in the company of the Russian Olympics team, because he’s dropped over £1,000 tuning his Type-R to the naughty side of 220bhp at the TDI North clinic. This promptly caused the “new” clutch fitted by the previous owner to let go. Cue another £515 on an Exedy clutch upgrade and a lightened flywheel. This means there was no money left over for a decent set of tyres which could prove a massive oversight against this lot. At least that's what he told us to expect, because he’s rocked up on immaculate lightweight alloys sporting suspiciously fresh Uniroyal Rainsport 5 rubber. Who needs a new bathroom anyway?
Mark, who won’t be joining us till the morning owing to a family matter (which is quickly assumed to be a cover story for some secret last minute Panda fettling by Loris Bicocchi) has endured some plain sailing after the mammoth re-commision upon delivery. It still hasn’t stopped him from having another alignment - just to be on the safe side. Kotto, bless him, has been spending a lot more time in the mirror each morning due to the persistent minor niggles his ST keeps spannering up. But in the moments of clarity - when he doesn't have to take his more reliable TVR on the daily commute - he claims it's still worth it. Just. His relaxed disposition suggests he might’ve finally conquered the gremlins.
Is all this fair? Perhaps not, but that is life in the secondhand car world - there is always something. They are reported for complete transparency and to give members of Pistonheads something to argue about.
A different kind of argument is brewing on the A708 between Moffat and Selkirk however. I’ve been openly confident about the Clio’s chances in this round but right now there is a strong possibility the Type-R and ST225 will form a pincer movement and cut off the 200’s supply of 99 ron. Kotto has come a long way to be here and the road is impossible to resist - it’s only fair I let him and John go off and play whilst I impatiently scout photo locations with photographer Andrew. It's our first time up in the Scottish Borders territory, yet already the anticipation is palpable. Even at crawling pace with constant stops the road is charming and the scenery isn’t too shabby either.
At least it would be if we could still see it, because at the Grey Mare’s Tail a sudden blizzard envelopes us. Five minutes ago we were basking in the sunshine. Welcome to Scotland.
he next morning Mark makes it to our arranged meeting point with independent judge Andy in tow aboard the Panda. It seems the barbs have started as early as the alarm clock as Alex, the second impartial contributor to proceedings remarks that parked next to the other three, the little Fiat doesn’t look as if it belongs, like the awkward outcast is trying to fit in with the cool kids at school. He might regret that comment.
I’ve been dying to get behind the wheel of the Panda ever since Mark woke up one morning with a fuzzy head and a sense of dread, the eBay app on his phone patting him on the back for his purchase. Having driven a 595 Abarth for issue 001, I know roughly what to expect - a major charm offensive, but dynamics that begin to unravel as you push past seven tenths. This is because the two cars share a platform, but I believe the Panda has a trump card - its sensible 15” alloys and tyres with a generous 45 section sidewall. There is also no escaping the fact the Panda weighs a substantial 150kg less than its offspring, meaning there is less mass to keep in check - which matters when you have a wheelbase on par with a Mario Kart. Given that I’m also deeply into a phase of believing less is more when it comes to performance (at least on the public road), big things are expected of the 100HP.
You can't help but grin in the presence of the Fiat. The regular Panda isn’t much of a looker but has an honest, utilitarian appeal to it, especially in 4x4 form. The 100HP takes the upright, top heavy body and visually lowers the car with chunkier bumpers and fabulous dinky alloys that practically burst out of the moderate arches. There's even a mock rear diffuser and a sporty tail spoiler. It’s like one of those purposeful but oddly proportioned car doodles you did in the back of your school book has come to life.
The strong Scottish wind is making itself known in full gale force form, so I swing open the flimsy lightweight door with both hands fearing it might get blown off down into the Glen. Safely ensconced from the elements, what captures your attention isn't the expansive view out or a dashboard that looks as if it’s been crafted from stacked Lego pieces, but the comically tiny mirrors. The funky seats look tremendous but sadly they don't cradle you in the same manner as the others here. It’s not helped by the perched driving position which would certainly benefit from some reach adjustment in the steering column, as the wheel is positioned a fraction too far away to get truly settled.
Throughout my research there has been a bit of a ‘parts bin special’ feeling brewing in my head. The front brakes are lifted from the Grande Punto, as is the six-speed gearbox, whilst the rear brakes are sourced from the 4x4. The suspension is improved 25 x 25 - which means 25mm lower ride height and 25% firmer springs and there's a thicker anti roll bar at the front, whilst the rear axle doesn’t even have one. There is also a sport mode which backs off the power steering assistance by 20% whilst increasing the throttle response below 3,000rpm. Sadly, there is no switch to banish the ESP stability program.
Getting going, the Panda betrays its city car roots with horrid, light control weights that are better optimised for bumper car parking in Rome than the twists and turns of the Borders. Yet Mark has clearly weaponised wheel alignment - this is not your average Panda. It wanders around in a straight line like a distracted puppy sniffing out every camber and when you have to dodge a pothole you can zip around it like a pinball. He’s doubled down on the Fiat’s joker card - its agility. As I attack my first corner however, the Panda gives me a fright. The lofty, insecure driving position, light steering and penchant for body roll gives the impression the car is about to topple over. Or maybe it was the strong gust hitting the slab-sided body at the exact moment I turned in.
It’s a very spooky sensation that takes some getting used to. It’s not helped by the fact the Panda seems to be devoid of any feedback whatsoever during this moment, due to the featherweight steering which is making it difficult to trust. Perhaps the car is just mocking my efforts, because I’m clearly not trying hard enough.
Once you get up to speed and push through the dead zone I’m pleased to report you’re treated to a hilarious handling balance that is actually very predictable and benign. The Panda simply needs to roll hard and settle into a bend, where it can lean heavily on its sidewalls. From this point the car just encourages you to drive it harder and harder. As the front tyres reach the limit of adhesion, the Panda transitions into understeer almost in slow motion. It doesn’t suddenly lunge off-line and cause you to instinctively jump off the throttle to preserve life - its front wheels just start to spin and claw for traction desperately trying to keep the car pulling in the direction you’re pointing it. If you are pushing on and lift off the power or even apply the brakes mid corner, the car remains neutral and composed. Absent are the lift off oversteer antics associated with the likes of a 106 Rallye or Saxo VTR, which could be considered honorary rivals when you glance at the Panda’s spec sheet. There is no point in trying either, because you cannot turn off the ESP, although I’m sure I caught Mark rummaging around the fuse box earlier.
Some might be more than a little disheartened to read this, but such handling security is what allows you to really drive the Panda so bloody hard on the road. It never feels like it’s going to bite and consequently you spend more time attacking the road and with the throttle pinned than balanced. Kotto seems to be a very smooth operator in the Panda - “if you go looking for the engineering expense and precision of the others then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. This is a tiny car with a generous engine so it's very chuck-able and just brilliant fun.”
Alex agrees “there's a spongy feeling to the controls, which takes a while to get comfortable with. The steering and chassis have an excessive amount of slop that the others just don’t. But if you trust it, it will reward you. You have to drive to its strengths, enter a corner a little too fast, lean into the body roll and let the chassis settle. It’s lack of weight means you really can manhandle it, but it never feels tied down. The driving position exaggerates the topsy-turvy feeling of the chassis and in some corners, you feel like you might fall out of it. But if anything, that adds to the experience.”
Andy “I’d like a touch more power and less intrusive ABS brakes, but otherwise a rollicking great laugh and it doesn’t embarrass itself in this company.”
John however - a champion of the warm hatch category - is looking at us all with a furrowed brow. “I just can’t get on with the controls of the Fiat. I’m not saying I’m not enjoying the Panda - it has a character all of its own plus you can carry great momentum along the right road. It remains an antidote to the saturated power market and personality vacuum of modern cars, I just think you can do better than a 100HP if this is the type of car you want, such as a Suzuki Ignis Sport”
One car that is already garnering universal praise is the Clio 200. Mark is instantly besotted - “that front end bite is incredible and the steering feels fantastic. Straight away you notice that Renaultsport magic. The car felt incredibly tied down and feelsome - the front end through my first set of tight bends felt hooked into the tarmac, as only an RS Clio does. I’m even a big fan of the M car girth steering wheel and I adore the exhaust too. It's been over ten years since I was last behind the wheel of an RS Clio, and I wondered whether my memories of the various cars I owned and drove back in the day would come flooding back, or whether my perception would have changed after such a long time, and so much more experience behind the wheel. Turns out I’m already falling for it.”
It’s not hard to see why. The 200 is one of those instant impact cars that immediately feels right the moment you fly into the first corner. And you will, because the Clio inspires so much confidence from the off. The steering is head and shoulders the most feelsome here, alongside being perfectly weighted and ultra direct. Reactions to off centre inputs are instantaneous - this car turns in so sharp, and the chassis is right with it every step of the way, pouring into a corner as one cohesive unit. The body control is pure witchcraft - there is no need to let the suspension ‘settle’ into a corner or hard direction change, just flick the wrists, pin the throttle to the bulkhead, snatch a couple of gearchanges and hunt down the next apex.
Grip feels boundless and the brakes are a revelation too in the present company. The closest they get to fading is when you park the car outside a barbershop. The initial pedal travel is light, but wonderfully progressive and modulation quickly becomes second nature and if you do have to anchor on, the car sheds speed straight and true. You quickly forget about analysing the car and just immerse yourself in the drive, minutely trimming your line, pushing harder and harder. The Clio comes alive the more “on it” you are and soon you’re in the full rental/hire car zone, and still the 200 eggs its driver on.
The rear axle is so stable it makes the Focus in particular feel very nose heavy. It feels as if the weight distribution in the Clio is closer to 60:40 than the typical 70:30 split of a front wheel drive car. Like the Panda, this might lead those with the skills in their locker to assume the 200 is too inert, but switch off the well judged ESP and introduce some trail braking and the Clio will swing round. The difference is in the 200 any involvement from the rear is instigated rather than micro managed.
Is such a balls out approach to getting your kicks tiresome in the long run? Only if you like easy, turbocharged torque and quilted leather armchairs. In isolation, the F4R is a firecracker of an engine, but in the company of a K20 equipped Honda, it’s made to feel a little industrial and dare we even say, sluggish? Perhaps it’s rather unfair to be judged against a modified VTEC, and there is no doubt the poly bushes are transmitting some rather unpleasant noise, vibration & harshness into the cabin that is absent from a standard car.
“Renaults befuddling two stage throttle doesn’t exactly help” says John “it feels like I’m activating kickdown in an old school auto. In isolation, the engine would be fantastic, like any NA unit it comes to life over 4-5000rpm and keeps pulling all the way to the redline where you hear a very motorsport inspired beep to let you know when to change gear. At first I thought that might become irritating, but I quickly ended up relying upon it. However, I was just hitting the 8,600rpm limiter in the FN2 and it revs with an eagerness the Clio can’t match. The engine internals in the Honda spin with less inertia and it sounds better too.”
It’s an interesting conundrum because in the Clio’s predecessor the F4R was a centrepiece asset. In 200 guise it revs harder and higher than ever before thanks to the close ratio six speed gearbox. It also has a fatter spread of torque. It's frantic, buzzy and bang up for it, yet you can’t help but feel the motor has lost a step compared to its application in the 172/182. Lifting up the bonnet could almost be viewed as a metaphor - in the older car, the unit looks steroidal, bursting out of the engine bay like the Hulk. In the 200, the engine appears constricted, suffocated by its surroundings.
One thing that is proving to be a big hit is the revised driving position. I’m not shy about admitting the £130 I forked out on the lower seat mount is quite possibly the best money I have ever spent on a car. It can drop the Recaro by as much as 50mm, but I settled on 40mm. It has changed the entire feel of the drive, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say its lead to better dynamics too considering some here are - cough cough - the wrong side of 110kg. That's almost 10% of the weight of the car, which will no doubt have a knock-on effect on the centre of gravity. It’s not hyperbole either, because the kit only lowers the driver's seat, so there is a direct, eye opening comparison whenever someone jumps in the passenger side.
It cannot, however, disguise the low rent interior with its lopsided glovebox and a steering wheel that’s shedding its skin, plus the rather high running costs. We know it’s futile to expect Lexus-like build quality from a French supermini, but next to the Ford and Honda the gap in quality is difficult to swallow. Don’t forget this is the youngest car here by a number of years - the 200 is teetering dangerously close to weekend toy territory in this company.
One car that doesn’t have a problem with its engine or refinement is the Focus ST. I will admit to having preconceived prejudices against the Focus. Pure hot hatches for me are always the smaller cars. The Fiesta’s, Clio’s, 205’s and Mini’s. It’s just what I gravitate towards. And I know I should be professional and never judge a car by a stereotype, but the whole goldie lock ‘n chain, late night industrial estate meet and tuned to bursting point with an ASBO exhaust ownership profile puts me right off.
Yet the word coming down the grapevine is rather positive. Andy “this is my cup of tea. The gearbox feels the sweetest to use in my humble opinion and the steering is lovely”. Kotto “it can’t quite mix it with the others in the corners but if you do fall behind the Clio and Civic, just send a message to the engine room and you’ll be tailgating them again in the blink of an eye.”
Time for an attitude adjustment. It’s no groundbreaking mk1 Focus in the styling department, but it does look rather fetching - even understated - in Performance Blue with dark alloys. The interior however does come across a bit too sober and lacking in imagination - the only thing that spices the place up are a trio of additional gauges and snug bucket seats, which are sadly mounted much higher than anticipated. Still the materials are a cut above and the straightforward ergonomics mean I’m right at home.
None of that matters the moment you give the Volvo sourced five pot its head. Lighting up the turbo engages warp drive and my god it sounds fantastic. The warble from the five cylinder motor is truly characterful right from tickover and the turbocharger is keen to join the party with minimal lag. You’ll know when it arrives though - there is not a chance this is a standard example the way it demolishes a straight. My butt dyno logs it at circa 260bhp with a nice round 300lb/ft. of torque.
It really feels nice to rely on the boost too after the other three, which require driving like you stole them to get any meaningful form of progress. The mid range is a delight to occupy, letting the five pot dig deep against the gearing yet still keeping touch with the pack, and the aftermarket exhaust is perfectly pitched - full of bass without putting holes in your eardrums. There’s not a pop and bang the entire weekend either. I’ll take my humble pie with extra custard thank you.
The steering, although quite light, guides the car sweetly - in fact all the control weights have a fantastic, fluid consistency to them. They aren’t exactly brimming with feedback, they’re just very pleasant to use. The gearshift is worthy of particular praise.
There is however, no disguising that bloated kerb weight. The Clio gained 150kg in its transition from mkII to mkIII also - a EURO NCAP safety rating of five stars a worthwhile penalty - but what Renault did is shift the dynamic bandwidth and altered perceptions. Ford chose to replicate what was already dynamically great in the old ST170 but attached ankle weights. The chassis and damping feel good at a medium pace, where the car responds best to those with a smooth style. But once you push past a certain level the weight begins to tell and the body control is ultimately too soft, then the damping starts to get flustered and it ruins the entire interaction. It’s not as overwhelmed as the front axle mind, which falls to bits with any enthusiastic application of the turbo nutter pedal.
Being fair to the Focus, I’m now on the narrow, nuggety section of the test route which isn’t exactly its natural habitat, but I’d already pegged the Focus as a point and squirt machine because the rewards for trying harder just aren’t there. I understand why Ford went to such extreme lengths when they engineered the RS now.
And it seems I’m not alone. “I have to start by saying, what an engine. I am Stig Blomqvist. Five pot warbles are the best!” Says Alex “It makes all the right noises and just feels raucous. Its chassis is soft and it doesn’t want to be hustled, but you can push it and feel comfortable doing so. It’s shockingly refined for something that makes so much noise. Driving at medium pace is where this car works so well, use the torque and make up time on the straights. It’s not a car for attacking a road, but it is a car for enjoying them.”
Mark “mega engine - sounds brilliant and I love the big fat lump of mid-range torque that arrives when the turbo spools up. Chassis felt capable, but unfortunately the front wheels can't even begin to handle the fury the five pot can produce, which I'm sure was magnified by the weather conditions and that ruined the experience for me. Trying to push on felt like trying to tame a wild animal, entertaining to an extent, but ultimately unsafe! It also felt like quite a big car compared to the rest and a little wallowy. I'm sure on the right roads, in nice dry, warm conditions, it's a great car, but on these roads in the middle of a Scottish winter, not for me.”
On paper it appears that every generation of the naturally aspirated Type-R loses some of its banzai sparkle. The EK-9 had double wishbone suspension all-round - incredible on a car of this class. The EP-3 ‘breadvan’ kept the independent rear suspension, but devolved to MacPherson struts at the front. The FN-2 is the least loved CTR because this time around the weight went up, the car gained a solitary BHP and a Torsion beam was now in place at the back, which demands firmer suspension in order to handle well. A poor showing on some poxy British motoring show also cemented the FN-2’s reputation. Yet the Clio also has the same setup and is lauded, so what gives?
With Alex behind the wheel, the Civic bounds into view, intake chomping on the sub zero air before he sends the car into the final right hander, deftly handling a wiggle from the front axle. That looked good, and sounded even better. Time to sample what the Type-R truly has to offer.
Me and the Honda need to get up to speed quickly, because I’ve left it late in the day to get behind the wheel and the mad charge back to base for a hot shower and hotter curry awaits. After an embarrassing guffaw about not being able to start the car (why does the Civic have both a key and a starter button?) I’ve got some ground to make up. Still, at least it gave me time to appreciate the interior, which is as sharp as the Fords is sterile.
Straight away I'm driving the Honda much harder than I’d anticipated, impressed by its wheel at each corner feeling which is unusual for a family hatch of this size and mass. The refusal to acknowledge any form of body roll combined with an intake that draws breath like a peak 1990’s touring car quickly has my head full of Best Motoring fantasies. START-OH! Suddenly I’m jousting with Dori-Dori ahead in the Clio, Hattori in the Ford on my six with Gan-San in the Panda making one of his trademark late braking lunges. I can still hear the over-excited Japanese commentary and pulsating euro-beat baseline now.
The K20 spins so freely it's as if all the ancillaries that draw blood detach their fangs with the engagement of VTEC. I’m a little perplexed, because I’m fortunate enough to have driven John’s car in its standard format and I can assure you this is some transformation act. The uprated clutch and lightened flywheel are a match made in heaven for the tweaked engine software, which now introduces yo! mode at 4,000rpm. And don’t for one second think that erases the famous fireworks at the top end, because with another 20bhp to play with, the lunge to the redline is keener than ever.
Winding the K20 out to and playing chicken with the shift lights becomes addictive, allowing a momentary kiss of the limiter before snatching another upshift, hell bent on keeping the engine singing in the land of internet memes. It works both ways too, because the gearbox is so incisive and the throttle response is so sharp every downshift is a joy to perform, complemented by another bark from the intake. I don't believe this particular gearbox is peak Honda, but in this company it doesn’t matter because it’s still outstanding and the Type-R has the only gearbox you whip around the H pattern just for the thrill of it. The aluminium gear knob also looks and feels fantastic.
The chassis is the next revelation. Hmmm, it shouldn’t feel so capable and close to the Clio - I didn’t expect to go around that last tight sequence with such speed and composure. John has only fitted 25mm spacers alongside lighter alloy wheels and Uniroyal Rainsport 5 tyres, but it's another quantum leap over stock. The spacers effectively increase roll resistance and lower the centre of gravity, which is in clear evidence, but my attention is drawn towards how effective the damping is. Dropping to 17” rims has clearly been a masterstroke by John. With a lot less unsprung mass to keep in check and juicier sidewalls, the suspension is better able to take the sting out of the worst tarmac whilst still keeping the body in check. Speaking of which, it feels like the Honda has the strongest structure here when pressing on.
The ride quality remains undeniably firm - shading even the Clio for the most aggressive rebound here - however it never crashes or shits the bed down a nasty stretch. It really doesn't like fast compressions, but the worst you will experience is a lack of travel or the tyres fouling the arches. You’ve got to get the confidence to drive through it, because the Type-R is never deflected off its line. It could be different however with a car full of passengers when loping along - I can’t imagine it coping anything like as well as the Focus when four up.
The steering is the big fly in the ointment for me. Nicely judged weighting and gearing means it isn’t a complete dealbreaker - the feedback is just completely absent, most noticably at the turn-in phase of the corner. It makes you wonder if the the conditions are playing into the Honda's hands, where the fault in the steering could be amplied in high-grip, dry weather. The lads however, remain hugely impressed around the dinner table.
“The Clio and Type-R both go around a corner in a similar manner - the Clio feels like it rotates better because the initial bite is so strong and the body pivots more, which makes it feel more playful. The Civic feels like it's on rails, like a touring car that took a wrong turn out of the paddock. I f-king love it” exclaims Mark.
Alex concurs “I’d say the Clio is definitely more nimble. Its front end goes in at whatever rate you want and the rear follows. It’s alive during corner entry. The Civic is so flat, you turn in and there’s a stable balance from entry to exit. The 200 handles with excitement, the Civic corners with conviction.”
Negotiating the poppadom platter with the precision of the Honda’s gearbox, Mark begins recalling his run back to the hotel in the Clio via the B6399. Pretty soon it becomes clear the blossoming romance is on the rocks.
“I know that road was particularly choppy but the Renault was just awful. The damping fell apart, way too busy. I noticed earlier on a particularly tight, left hand hairpin that the suspension momentarily felt loose, but I ignored it. I was excited to get back into the Clio for the high speed run, my initial interaction with it having been so positive! Immediately I sensed trouble, the previously immaculate steering was transmitting some signs of unrest, vibrations and subtle knocks quickly became evident of dampers that simply could not cope with the uneven and ragged surface below.
"The problem became magnified in the next few bends, the car unable to take my pre-apex throttle application without skipping 6-12 inches wide, understeering violently as the front tyres simply couldn't find any purchase because the dampers couldn't keep them planted to the unsettling road surface. Now, you might think this was just the road surface, and nothing to do with the Clio’s dampers, but the fact that I’d already been through the exact same section in the CTR and Panda, with no such dramas, made the problem abundantly clear.”
After ordering another round of Cobra’s, he continues - “I know Craig has been curious to hear the team's thoughts as he singled them out in the group chat beforehand. I believe on this road that inkling has become a reality. Now I am left wondering if every RS Clio I’ve ever driven has in fact been a ‘tired’ example as I just never got the praise thrown at them when they were new. Up until now, the 200 had me under its spell”.
Away from the damper destroyer B6399, Alex has been impressed by the Clio’s damping and ponders outside of hard test parameters, would you send your own car down that stretch in the same manner? “The slightly softer edge in terms of damping works well across all roads and surfaces, only the roughest roads will undo it. It’s compliant and supple, which feels fantastic at higher speeds, next to the Type-R there is a feeling of brittleness about the Clio however. I’d love to try a refreshed car to put it beyond doubt.”
Over a curry spicy enough to thaw the Abominable Snowman, John gives us all some food for thought. “As modified the Civic now feels the raciest car here. There is plenty more to come from this platform too, such as the limited slip differential from the later Championship Edition. This is how I feel Japanese performance cars should be viewed - you’re buying a baseline to modify from hoping to turn the car into something special. Me and Craig are probably on the same amount of money invested into our cars now.”
Indeed, it’s an interesting topic that warrants further philosophical debate - the cheaper, unloved car with money to refine, or the more expensive ready made option and leave well alone. John chimes back in - “out of the box the Clio has a clear edge over the Civic in terms of driving dynamics” cue the but - “however, if you take into consideration the potential of modifications to the Type R’s chassis, I think the Honda can take it. I believe it’s easier to bring the Honda’s chassis up to the level of the Clio’s - granted you cannot capture that steering feedback - but no amount of fettling will bring the Renaults engine up the the VTEC realm. And there is a much higher tuning ceiling in the K20 too. That said, right here, on this combination of tarmac the 200 still has its nose in front by a gnat’s whisker for me”.
What of the other two? Little is said other than when the Panda is mentioned it's quickly followed by a mischievous grin, but the consensus is it lacks the ultimate clout to take on the leading duo. And the Ford? Everyone agrees it needs a big day tomorrow, but we’re heading for St. Mary’s Loch, where the roads are more open and flowing - which should play to its strengths.
t's a hilarious sight when you’re snapping at the heels of a smoothly piloted Focus ST, only to look over at the other side of the valley to see a Fiat Panda about 100 yards ahead of a pursuing Civic Type-R. Mark and the Panda are proving to be quite the double act.
There is quite the contrast between the way the Focus and the Renault make their way down a road. Mercifully it’s stopped raining, however the roads are still glistening. This is more of a friendly joust making progress than full on contact with the enemy. The gap ebbs and flows as the Focus finds a moment to deploy its straight line shock and awe, but cranking the 200 up through the next couple of bends immediately re-establishes the equilibrium. It’s clear the Clio has something in hand over the Ford down this stretch of road, nevertheless I now feel a little guilty about christening it the Blue Whale at dinner last night.
The cars have nearly all picked up nicknames by now. There’s Kung Fu Panda for its giant killing act, Le Baguette for the Clio because we lack imagination and the aforementioned for the Focus. Only the Civic remains nameless, however eyeing up its brooding black paint and contemplating a superhero level performance thus far, The Dark Knight comes to me.
It's an appropriate title, because once again the Honda is working its magic. Fresh from the Kung Fu sparring session, Alex is once again effusive. “The power train is an absolute master stroke. The engine is so tractable and free reviving, and that gearbox is just something else. There’s a mechanical slickness to the Civic that no other car here can hope to compete with. It felt so stable and was incredibly confidence inspiring, even in the pouring rain.”
There’s a security to this car that encourages you to keep the foot in, even as the rain momentarily turns to snow. In the dry, could that translate into a lack of ultimate adjustability? “I don’t think it would matter,” argues Andy, “you’d just go full Banzai chasing the limiter everywhere. Ten tenths is where this car seems happiest!”
“How great will this be on track with a set of R888’s?” Ponders Mark, before snatching the keys out of Alex’s hand “as hard as I push, the Type-R remains unflustered. It's always 100% composed and locked onto whatever line I point its nose down, with truly impressive damping.” It’s a performance that continues to defy popular wisdom. And to think John almost bought the properly lauded EP3.
There’s a different cadence to day two that upsets an assessor's rhythm. Its tracking and action photography day, which isn’t the back stage access to a rock ‘n roll concert you might think. There is more standing around, more crackling radios and cars disappearing for extended shifts in front of a lens. Moments behind the wheel come in staccato bursts.
Perhaps that’s why I haven’t found myself itching to get back behind the wheel of the Focus ST. For me the Ford is a good car with a spellbinding engine, but it’s quite telling the ST is the one I’ve spent the least amount of time in and we still can’t forge that bond even when passing St. Mary’s Loch for the umpteenth time. Sometimes, car and driver just don’t gel.
Being fair, this is the sort of day where the breeze bites and the rain penetrates down to the bone marrow. A day with as many tributaries streaming across the road as feeding the - just about visible - Loch. That said, I’m still not sensing the inherent control and balance required to take the fight to the fleet footed Honda or twinkle toed Clio.
The inescapable bottom line is, engine note aside I’m still not inclined to drive the ST very fast, nor am I being cajoled into misbehaving. Isn’t that one of the most crucial elements in a hot hatch? If not the most? After a while I find myself simply backing off and that doesn’t happen in the other three. The front tyres are struggling to accurately deploy the mountain of torque with the traction control off and it’s not the remap because the Focus is torque limited in first and second gears. Leave the system on and it scolds you far too much, hampering progress.
Despite our personality clash of the highest order, the Blue oval is still finding admirers. Chief cheerleader is Andy “I admit it can’t compete with the Clio or Honda, however it just seems to do anything I ask of it without any complaints. I know from previous experience that the handling balance is very neutral and compliant when the conditions aren’t against it. The suspension is really supple and have I mentioned the engine yet?”
“I’m normally quite vocal against unnecessary trinkets such as heated seats, but today they have proved quite inviting!” proclaims John. “The driving position is more natural than the Honda’s and the wheel comes up close to your chest and having such a wall of torque from what feels like tick-over is just as exciting as VTEC. This is a very fast car when the tyres find purchase or the torque limiter lets you have free reign once into third. It’s a level of surge only a turbocharged motor can provide. Gearbox lacks a little mechanical feel, throttle response is dulled compared to the others and the seats are a touch too squishy. Also, after afew hard miles the brakes can’t disguise they are slowing down a fair amount of mass. Despite the conditions they still ended up smoking after even a short run. That said, I’ll admit to having a wee browse in the classifieds last night for one to replace my Audi A2 as a daily - not that I can afford to. That’s usually a good sign.”
The punky Panda is beckoning for another stint behind the wheel so off I go bouncing down the road grinning from ear to ear. This car is a complete and utter hoot to drive and the opposite of the Abarth I mentioned earlier, which sparkles below seven tenths before deteriorating into a soggy mess when pushed properly. The Fiat will feel out of sorts unless you’re prepared to drive it on its door handles - it practically begs you to.
The little 1.4L motor has more than adequate performance below 50mph, where neither the Honda or Renault can stretch and maintain a meaningful gap. The throttle response is on point too - at least a match for the Clio if not the Type-R. The Panda is one of those cars in which the road testing figures disguise its true roll-on performance, because two gear changes are required to hit the (massively outdated in our opinion) benchmark of 60mph. The wide band of mid range torque plus practically zero inertia means the Fiat picks up really well. An excess of grip over grunt also means you’re on the throttle much sooner than anything else here too. In fact, there are long sections in which you never contemplate coming off the loud pedal - the Panda is a car that stretches and elongates straights.
Unique here is the engine and exhaust remaining stock, so the Panda doesn’t exactly shout about what it has. However the engine emits an approving gruff noise when given it’s head. It’ll rev right out to 7,000rpm too, but sadly its best work is spent by 6,500. In the first couple of gears you’ll go looking for the redline, but once into third and fourth it's just as effective to short shift around 6,000rpm and drop back into the hot spot of torque.
For Panda owner Mark, the love affair continues to blossom “the Uniroyal Rainsport 5 tyres I went for are proving to be a great choice. They have excellent grip in the wet, and the steering feel is pretty decent too. Many complain they have soggy side-walls but in a car this light it's simply not an issue. I used to only ever drive the car with Sport mode engaged, which used to be a ritual every time I started the car, but now I prefer the regular steering mode, it just feels more natural.
“The new brakes feel really good now and are bedding in nicely. I’ve read a few contemporary road test reports that talked of them being snatchy and difficult to modulate, but I haven’t experienced that at all. In this car the pedal feels nice and progressive and easy to judge. Perhaps the sneaky fettling by specialist mechanic JHD had a hand in that.
“Downsides? The ride is a bit lively and on a choppy stretch of tarmac it can get uncomfortably bouncy! However, it's not a deal breaker on 90% of surfaces, and even when it does start to pogo about, it still tracks dead straight doesn’t seem to get overly flustered, most probably due to its low mass”
It is not a complete love-in however. As we all huddle together like Emperor Penguins the gearbox is causing quite the rift between the six of us. Mark is a big fan “it's one of my favourite features of this car. The lever is mounted high on the dash like an EP3 Civic Type-R, touring car style. The shift action is very positive, and the ratios are short and evenly spread - second only stretches to 45mph, and third hits the giddy heights of 70mph! This helps the outgunned 1.4L feel much sportier than it actually is, and makes the most of the modest power. It gives the impression you are accelerating much faster than reality, as you fly up the ratios in a spirited manner, as if piloting a Group N rally car”.
Alex however, ranks it amongst the worst he’s experienced. Personally I have it on a par with the Clio’s unit for the complete opposite reasons. Where the ‘box in the 200 is far too notchy, you at least have the impression that you’re operating a mechanical device. The six-speeder in the Panda is inoffensive in its action and you can zip around the box at great speed, but I agree the shift operation is so light I get little satisfaction stirring it.
But let's not get carried away. It’s worth remembering that when new, the Panda wasn’t a huge amount more expensive than some of the cars here were purchased for only a few short weeks ago. It's being kind to say the car was built to a price - when you back off all sorts of curious, functional noises emerge and the cabin would have all the ambiance of a Butlins caravan if it weren’t for the leather retrim. Everytime the wipers operate I can hear the relay in the motor clicking. But then again, the only time I backed off in the Panda was for a snow drift.
Parking the Panda up and rejoining the Penguin Parade I can just about hear snippets of conversation above the wind. “Good god the Clio is a looker, its bubbled arches and pert little derrière are just perfection. Then you spot those Recaro seats, wibble” squarks Alex.
John wades in, “just magical out here. You know exactly how far you can push the car and better still, it gives you this sensation no matter what speed you’re doing. You swear the already small car shrinks even further around you the faster you go - a trait only the best cars achieve. It talks to you, gives you the required information you need to make a decision as to what inputs you want to give back and then it responds instantly. Even as a certified JDM and Honda nut I’m comfortable openly saying this - I’m completely sold.”
Kotto has clocked all is not well with the Clio’s Brembo’s - “whenever the car returns to base it’s clear something is up, because the passenger side disc ends up a different colour to the drivers side and is expunging a lot of heat. We have ourselves a sticking calliper - great for staving off frostbite, but not good for Craig’s wilting bank balance.”
Something else that appears to be wilting is the gearbox. The third generation Clio is famed for its chocolate syncros, most notoriously into third and fourth gears - yet that isn’t the issue here. This example simply isn’t a fan of being rushed, almost as if it’s low on or has degraded oil. Press road tests waxed lyrical about the six speed unit, so I have fingers, toes and everything else crossed that a switch in oil as suggested by the forums is the solution.
For some it's starting to ruin the flow of a drive considering the 200 encourages such an all action approach. Kotto confesses it's starting to get on his nerves “the Clio is like that big summer blockbuster that everyone hypes up ad infinitum and you’re afraid that when you get to the cinema, it’s a let down. The chassis is right up there and the turn-in is so sweet, however the steering lacks that ultimate granular feedback required to elevate the car onto the god tier. The gearbox is terrible too and once I found out the brakes weren’t 100% it became difficult to put my trust in them.” But Kotto still leaps to the Clio’s defence “in spite of such irritations, it remains the most fun car here and the one I’m most comfortable pushing to the limit down roads that are unfamiliar to me. Can I have another go?”
South of Hawick (pronounced Hyyyckk - throw in a hint of Wookie and you’ll get it) a different member of the team is once again succumbing to the Clio’s charms as Mark disappears down the A699 on his own at quite a lick. When we eventually catch up, the big grin is back - “that car has just redeemed itself for me!” he proclaims with a glint in the eye. “The 200 and I were feeling a bit awkward with one another following our tempestuous love-hate affair so far. Back on a smoothly surfaced and fast section of tarmac, I could sense within the first three bends that the little Frenchie was out to win my heart back! The unflustered steering and suspension was mind-blowingly good, the front end was limpet-like in its initial bite, resulting in corner entry-speeds that would no doubt be impossible in any other car here. This all meant that just a few miles down the road I actually had to pull over and wait for the rest of the convoy. We were flying, and the Clio felt absolutely epic!
That’s not to say the conclusion here is foregone. There is always more to a car than the way it tackles a series of switchbacks. For certain members of the team, there are compromises worth making for that one moment where it's just car and driver on the open road. Others might put greater emphasis on theatre over precision. There are nuances in play that allow us to make a case for each one of the contenders. Hot hatches are a melting pot of priorities. The Focus has the blue collar muscle, the Panda is overflowing with a lust for life and we can all think of 8,600 reasons why the Type-R is in with a shout. But right here, on these roads and in these conditions, which set of keys do we gravitate towards first?
ore than any car here the Focus was a victim of the conditions. Deploying almost 300lb/ft of torque using the front wheels with Michelin PS4 tyres was asking for trouble. Whilst its chassis was amiable, jumping straight into the Focus from the Clio or Honda highlighted the gulf in class - and the extra weight in play when hustling. In this company the ST was just a little too soft and alot too heavy.
Hustling was one thing the rather wonderful five pot engine was good at however, and this corrupted a couple of our judges into placing it ahead of the pugnacious Panda. The Ford’s turbocharged thrust was both its greatest asset and its biggest limiting factor on these roads, frequently overwhelming the front axle. You spent as much time appeasing the WMD under the bonnet in the corners than tucking into the handling, which showed glimpses of its dry weather ability along the right road. Otherwise, the Focus was happy to let the house flies buzz off in the bends before teleporting right back onto their back bumper at the merest hint of a straight.
When the dust (or snow) settled however, the Focus quietly began its assault on the ranks. Whilst we are first and foremost a publication about drivers cars, there is a lot to be said about how important the flipside of the coin is when you’ve spent over eight hours on an exposed mountain top, soaked to the bone and just want to get to the curry house free of interior rattles, with good headlights and the heated seats cranked up to maximum. The more polished control weights, weightier gearbox and nicer steering (by majority consensus) also favoured the Ford. This meant it drew on ranking points with the Panda, but on tight and challenging Scottish Borders roads, it simply wasn’t as much fun to drive as the Fiat and thus collects the wooden spoon by my executive decision.
The Fiat Panda 100HP has proven to be quite the enigma. It aggressively split the judging panel right down the middle between those who were willing to embrace its gusto, and those who simply could not gel with its roly-polyness. Panda by name, Panda by nature.
The little Fiat may have finished third in the rankings, however it gave many judges the biggest grin of the day - in some cases there were tears of laughter. It even entertained when you weren’t even in the thing as it bucked and bounced its way down a road laser locked onto its prey or leading the way.
It was undeniably unfair to put the 100HP up against cars starting with double the power, but it can hold its head up high. It’s proof that driving pleasure comes in many different flavours (and that you shouldn’t always look for perfection), we just think this is one dish best served as a third or fourth car. One thing worth noting - whilst everyone could think of ways to improve the Panda, nobody wanted to modify it. The owners of the other three cars here can’t say the same.
There was quite the step up from the Fiat and Ford to the Honda and Renault. We have our winner, and it's the FN-2 Civic Type-R. Shocked to see the odds-on favourite slain by the least critically acclaimed Civic Type-R? John certainly was, talking down the Honda’s chances throughout the duration of the test. Or maybe it was tactical, lowering our expectations before unleashing the VTEC fury. Either way the Type-R has been a complete revelation and deserves the spoils of war.
Popular wisdom and the Jeremy Clarkson fan club will write the FN-2 off as being too slow, too crashy and a shadow of what came before. But this is a car utterly transformed with the simplest of modifications. There is also the consideration that all is not well with this particular Clio. It's clear as the weekend wore on that my 200 isn’t the fittest example of the breed. The gearbox wasn’t as crisp as expected, the damping felt tired, the passenger side front calliper displayed evidence of sticking and the car requires a new thermostat pronto. That’s the reality of our tight budget and we had to call it as we see it on the day - assessments made by our peers in fastidiously maintained press cars are a different animal.
Even still, the Clio went down fighting. This was a narrow points decision - three out of the six judges still placed the 200 first in their personal rankings. It edges the Honda comfortably in the steering and initial turn-in departments, it has the best seats and driving position by a country mile and stronger brakes - despite the reported ailments. However, it doesn’t have a powertrain combination from the motoring gods and if you could live with the FN-2’s steering, the Civic became a match for the Clio’s chassis in the wider corners turning flatter and just as hard. It’s damping also proved to be firmer but more composed, whilst the body structure felt the most rigid here. When the going got tough, the Civic got better and better, and the revised VTEC profile and barking intake also made the car just as exciting when you just wanted to flow down a road. Then you factor in an interior that's a clear step up and still looks current, plus much greater refinement when your hair isn’t on fire and the Honda completes the upset.
First blood goes to the Type-R then. But this isn’t over. There will be no peace treaty. This is a war of attrition. I’ve already vowed to return without my tail between my legs in a 200 with fit dampers and a sense of vengeance. Walking even taller than his usual 6ft 3, John is riding the crest of the victory wave and has agreed to a rematch - on track. He has further modifications up his sleeve. The Panda might join in for the craic, but one car that won’t be attending is the Focus, because Kotto has sold it. Neutral judges will once again be on hand to avoid mutually assured destruction - unless it's of tyres.
HOW WE VOTED
| HONDA CIVIC TYPE-R |
| RENAULT CLIO 200 |
| FORD FOCUS ST225 |
| FIAT PANDA 100HP |
K20Z4 Inline-4cyl, 1998cc, 16V DOHC VTEC
198bhp @ 7,800rpm, 142lb.ft @ 5,600rpm
1,340kg, bhp/tonne 147, lb.ft/tonne 106
6sp manual, open differential, fwd
0.60 – 6.8s, 0-100 – 16s, max – 146mph
F4R Inline 4cyl, 1998cc, 16v DOHC
197bhp @ 7,100rpm, 159lb.ft @ 5,400rpm
1,240kg, bhp/tonne 159, lb.ft/tonne 128
6sp manual, open differential, fwd
0.60 – 6.9s, 0-100 – 17s, max – 141mph
Duratec Iline 5-cyl, 2521cc, 20v DOHC
222bhp @ 6,000rpm, 236lb.ft @ 1,600-4,000rpm
1,430kg, bhp/tonne 161, lb.ft/tonne 169
6sp manual, open differential, fwd
0.60 – 6.6s, 0-100 - 15.3, max – 152mph
Inline 4-cyl, 1368cc, 16v DOHC
99bhp @ 6,000rpm, 97lb.ft @ 4,250rpm
975kg, bhp/tonne 101, lb.ft/tonne 98
6sp manual, open differential, fwd
0.60 – 9.5s, 0-100 - 32.4s, max – 115mph