FROM A SLIDE-HAPPY NEW FIESTA ST TO A YARIS THAT THINKS IT’S A RALLY CAR, 2018 IS THE YEAR OF THE HOT HATCH. BUT WHICH IS THE HOTTEST OF THE LOT?
WE’VE NEVER HAD it so good. If ever there was a hot hatch golden age, it’s right now. From chilli-pepper city cars to superhero superminis, road-legal rally reps to Porsche-slaying hyper-hatches, brilliant driver’s cars occupy every corner of the modern hatchback kingdom.
A good excuse for a party if ever there was one, so we’ve brought together eight of the best, in celebration and with the aim of crowning a king.
The rules? There are no rules: size doesn’t matter, and neither does price – simply put, which is the best to drive? Which most comprehensively stuffs every mile with good clean fun? Replacement tyres at the ready, let’s go.
RENAULT MEGANE RS
The new kid on the grid. We’ve driven the Sport version before – it’s a well-rounded modern hot hatch. But this is the Cup: stifer suspension, anti-roll bar, limited-slip dif and lightweight brakes. Whaddya got, Meg?
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
Some of its predecessors have been among the finest perfor- mance cars yet conceived by mankind. And after the lacklustre Clio RS, Renault’s thrown the kitchen sink at this one; engine tech from its F1 team and four- wheel steer for unholy agility.
Price | £27,495 (£35,245 as tested) Engine | 1798cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp @ 6000rpm, 288lb ft @ 2400rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, limited-slip dif, front-wheel drive Performance | 5.8sec 0-62mph, 158mph, 39.2mpg, 163g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 1407kg
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R
Type R Civics have been thrilling with dizzy redlines and sensa- tional chassis for 25 years now. The previous-gen FK2 brought turbocharging to the party, now new FK8 brings multi-link rear suspension. Our current favourite front-wheel-drive hatch, and the fastest of its type around the Nürburgring. Laser-guided handling; eye-watering styling.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
The most powerful hatch here, with 316bhp on tap. And the chassis? Same old magic – there’s a little NSX in there, and a little NSX goes a long way.
Price | £30,995 (£32,995 as tested) Engine | 1996cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 316bhp @ 6500rpm, 295lb ft @ 2500rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, limited-slip dif, front-wheel drive Performance | 5.7sec 0-62mph, 169mph, 36.7mpg, 176g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear Weight | 1380kg
FORD FIESTA ST
The 2007 Lego block Fiesta ST was good, but the just-retired 2013-on car was a true modern classic – a sublimely frisky Ford with a thing for wagging its tail. Not even a skateboard ride and ferry-like turning circle could keep it from greatness. And yet the new one’s even better.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
The Fiesta ST is the small car with the big heart, and the new one’s so good it’s already squared up to Alpine’s A110 and come away head held high. New 1.5 delivers the same 197bhp as the old car’s 1.6-litre four while using less fuel. Hyperactive chassis simply doesn’t speak understeer.
Price | £18,995 (£22,965 as tested) Engine | 1499cc 12v turbocharged three-cylinder, 197bhp @ 6000rpm, 214lb ft @ 1600rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, limited-slip dif, front-wheel drive Performance | 6.5sec 0-62mph, 144mph, 47.1mpg, 136g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 1262kg
TOYOTA YARIS GRMN
You want the bloodline? Erm… Corolla T-Sport? But a lack of heritage hasn’t stopped Toyota’s Gazoo Racing division taking the whole hot hatch thing very seriously. And the Yaris makes all the right noises: fizzy engine, spiky chassis, astonishing looks…
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
The GRMN might be terrifyingly expensive but the cash has been spent on some really good stuf: trick Sachs dampers and a very un- trendy supercharger. Toyota has shunned peaky, common-as-muck turbocharging for a clean, linear and slightly whiny supercharger – and like the first Mini Cooper S, it’s a brilliant engine.
Price | £26,295 (£26,295 as tested) Engine | 1798cc 16v supercharged four-cylinder, 209bhp @ 6800rpm, 184lb ft @ 4800rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, limited-slip dif, front-wheel drive Performance | 6.4sec 0-62mph, 143mph, 37.7mpg, 170g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 1135kg
VW GOLF R
Cornerstone of the Volkswagen R GmbH division and the pinnacle of the Golf range. GTI might bring the purist fun but R is a remorseless weapon of a war; a junior Audi RS without the sense of humour failure.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
Goodies like the spicier Akrapovic exhaust, uprated brakes and bigger wheels threaten to make usually po-faced hot Golf a much more interesting proposition. Flies the flag with pride for both quick-shifting dual-clutch autos and all-wheel drive. Competitive advantage or unnecessary complication?
Price | £33,470 (£49,675 as tested) Engine | 1984cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 306bhp @ 5500rpm, 295lb ft @ 2000rpm Transmission | Seven-speed DSG auto, all-wheel drive Performance | 4.6sec 0-62mph, 166mph, 39.8mpg, 163g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear Weight | 1505kg
From a standing start the i30N is already one of our favourite hot hatches of the moment. A diferent choice from the usual suspects – and a credible one. This is the Performance version; bit more power, e-dif, bigger wheels, stronger brakes. The first fruit of Hyundai’s new N perfor- mance sub-brand, developed partly at the Namyang R&D centre in Korea and partly at the Nürburgring – hence the name.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
The Hyundai’s come from nowhere to do things properly; serious body control and poise, proper performance and a soundtrack like playing Sega Rally.
Price | £27,995 (£28,550 as tested) Engine | 1998cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 271bhp @ 6000rpm, 260lb ft @ 1500rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, e-LSD, front-wheel drive Performance | 6.1sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 39.8mpg, 163g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 1407kg
SUZUKI SWIFT SPORT
Suzuki has form with fizzy, light- weight and naturally-aspirated warm hatches – we’ve loved ’em for years. Our first impressions of the new Suzuki Swift Sport could be summed up as lukewarm – this is the challenger’s second chance at glory.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
It’s light like a Lotus – Colin Chapman would most certainly approve. Suzuki the lightest car here by some margin, even pipping the weeny Up GTI and somehow even lighter than the previous Swift Sport – truly Suzuki’s engineers are wizards.
Price | £17,999 (£17,999 as tested) Engine | 1373cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 138bhp @ 5500rpm, 170lb ft @ 2500rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive Performance | 8.1sec 0-62mph, 130mph, 50.4mpg, 135g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 975kg
VW UP GTI
40+ years of hot hatch experience from the brand that popularised the concept, poured into the chunky little Up. The specs are similar to the original Golf GTI and spiritually the Up GTI succeeds the Lupo GTI – it’s the car we’ve waited for ever since the Up first went on sale. Mechanical proof you don’t need outright power to have fun.
IN WITH A SHOUT BECAUSE…
Prior experience would suggest the Up GTI hits the sweet spot; cheekier and perkier than the Polo GTI, huge fun and, thanks to the industrial might of VW, astonishing value for money.
Price | £13,655 (£16,655 as tested) Engine | 999cc 12v turbocharged three-cylinder, 114bhp @ 5000rpm, 184lb ft @ 4800rpm Transmission | Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive Performance | 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 58.9mpg, 110g/km CO2 Suspension | MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear Weight | 1070kg
IT’S LIKE A jar of sweets has been emptied into the pitlane at Rockingham Motor Speedway. Midget gems of all shapes, sizes and vivid colours, with plenty of e-numbers. The most gob-stopping performance figures belong to the Type R, the 169mph super-hatch fixing its permafrown stare on Renault’s new RS Megane as they meet for the first time.
They’re as different as they look. The Honda uses big power, big downforce and adaptively damped suspension; Renault Sport has ducked out of the arms race, opting for a lightweight 276bhp 1.8-litre engine to the Civic’s 316bhp 2.0-litre, and a choice of passive suspension set-ups (this being the stiffer Cup version) with a torsion beam rear to the Honda’s more sophisticated multi-link. The Megane’s secret weapons are supercar-wide tracks and trick four-wheel steering.
At Rockingham, the Renault’s the more rewarding steer – balletically poised, infinitely adjustable, the rear-steer magically tweaking geometry to counter roll in quick corners and pivot its big diamond-clad nose into tight ones. But out on the road the Renault feels more aloof initially, the getting-to-know-you stage more protracted than in most cars as you try to build a rapport with both chassis and powertrain. Meanwhile the Civic’s con- stant feedback puts you straight in touch with the tarmac, and invites you to dig in and enjoy it. If you had to make a snap call on first impressions, you’d quite likely want to take the Megane for one more lap and the Civic for the drive home. This is going to require closer investigation…
While Rallye Red Honda and Volcanic Orange Renault soak up kerbside attention like spoiler-wearing sponges, the dark blue VW Golf R sits quietly in the background, almost unnoticed.
But it carries a frankly enormous stick. The R’s here because it’s still the benchmark all-things-to-all-men premium hot hatch (and all weathers, being the only all-wheel-drive car here), and because it’s fitted with the new-for-2018 optional Performance Pack. Said Pack doesn’t change the 2.0-litre turbo four’s 306bhp output but adds lighter, uprated brakes, bigger 19-inch wheels, a boot spoiler claimed to be worth 20kg in downforce, and a speed limiter bypass for 166mph. Although the Golf R can be had with a decent (if wide-gated) manual gearbox, the Performance Pack’s available only with the DSG ’box, making this the only auto here. On the road it feels a bit too polished for its own good at first – imperiously fast, unrufflably grippy. But get it on the right stretch of tarmac at the right time and the way it can tear the road apart is quite something.
The traction it finds is hilarious. Whatever the shape of the corners ahead, it takes them and bends them to whatever shape it fancies. The R is neutral in balance, a go-where-you-point-it apex trouble-shooter rather than a tail-happy, power-oversteer fiend like the also-all-wheel-drive Ford Focus RS (which itself would be a contender in this test had it not recently gone off sale). But the Golf’s far easier to live with – and far more expensive to buy.
A five-door DSG car with the Performance Pack costs more than £41k; this test car, with a further brochure’s worth of options fit- ted, works out at £49,675. Part of that’s down to the shouty new titanium Akrapovic active exhaust option, to give the R a burbly baritone bark to match its bite – for nearly £3k on its own.
So the Golf’s exhaust costs more than 20 per cent of the list price of the cheapest car in this test – coincidentally, also a VW. Ever since the Up skipped into showrooms in 2011, its wheel-at- each-corner stance and have-a-pop handling have been ripe for a performance version, but only now is there finally an uprated Up. The fact that Volkswagen has given it the full GTI treatment suggests it’s confident it’ll be worth the wait.
There are tartan seats to go with the badge (but without any extra lateral support – prepare for high-speed cornering to work your core), and some likeably kitsch red ’n’ black gearknob graphics. If you’re not already smiling, you will be within a mile on the road – the Up GTI is sensationally good fun.
A healthy 148lb ft torque output in a relatively light car makes its turbocharged three-pot feel more muscular than its 999cc would suggest. It’s helped by a speaker-augmented engine note that sounds a little like an air-cooled Porsche that’s been through a shrink ray, and the new six-speed gearbox in place of the Up’s usual five-speeder – it stacks its ratios closely enough to make it feel reasonably urgent, if not outright quick. The relatively mod- est performance envelope is a strength in its own way, because you can’t help but wring the Up out at every opportunity, and it relishes being driven by the scruff of the neck. While the sus- pension’s lowered and stiffened with new top mounts, trailing arms and spring rates, it’s still relatively soft, allowing a touch of roll-oversteer to help manipulate its snub nose into bends, and surprisingly tolerable ride quality for a kart-sized car with kart- sized 17-inch wheels.
The closest thing to a direct Up GTI rival is Suzuki’s Swift Sport, seen here in one of the most intense shades of yellow ever applied to a car’s body (and a summer insect magnet as a result, it turns out). Like the Up, the flyweight Swift’s admittedly more a warm hatch than a hot hatch, but we were such firm fans of the last one we had to see if its reincarnation retains the old magic. The answer’s a mixed one. It’s a step forward dynamically, with a more positive front end in place of the old Sport’s penchant for understeer, and the ride is a well-judged trade-off between give for British B-roads and take for relatively tidy body control, although it rolls far more than ideal on track. The four-cylinder turbo pushes it along briskly enough without quite feeling, er, swift, but the soft rev-limiter cuts in before the tacho reaches the redline, a cardinal sin in a hot hatch. It’s paired with a six-speed gearbox with a usefully shorter throw than the base Swift we recently had as a long-term test car, but the clutch pedal is still featherlight-city-car spec, making you feel like a bull in a china shop at first. The last Swift Sport was a likeably honest and lovably affordable warm hatch. The new one’s still honest, still likeable, but at £18k it’s no longer quite so affordable. Spend a bit less and get the Up, or spend a grand more and get a Fiesta ST.
Ford’s pint-sized working-class hero thrilled us in its last guise, with a chassis so sharp we feared it could only make it worse by meddling. The good news is that Ford hasn’t fluffed it.
At Rockingham – and on the road for that matter – the ST spends most of its time on three wheels, its nailed-down front- end grip and fast steering pivoting it into corners and its (op- tional) limited-slip diff sling-shotting it out again at improbable velocity for a car with just the three cylinders. The over-bolstered seats pin your arms together like a straitjacket, and its unyielding suspension has the worst ride quality here, but quite simply it’s too much fun to care. Rivals? Peugeot Sport’s 208 GTi would be a natural foe in the wild but it’s recently gone off sale. We drove the Pug back to back before this test as a benchmark but the Ford walked it; the 208’s controls are too long-winded, its engine too laggy. VW Polo GTI? We back-to-backed that too, and it’s just too damn refined for its own good. Fast, planted and pleasant, but not exciting enough to earn a place here.
The Toyota Yaris GRMN on the other hand: that is exciting. Saddled with a name that rolls off the tongue like sandpaper and looks like shorthand for Garmin, Gremlin or German (ap- propriately, given the initials stand for Gazoo Racing Masters of Nürburgring – the former being Toyota’s motorsport division, the latter where much of this car’s development took place), it’s limited to 400 examples in Europe, with only 80 allocated for the UK and virtually all sold out.
The recipe gets stranger: under the bonnet you won’t find a small-capacity turbo but a supercharged 1.8-litre tuned by Lotus, at the back there’s a wing nearly as over-sized as the Civic’s, in the middle are a load of garish graphics and the whole shebang’s £26k. A strange brew indeed, but a tasty one – we defy anyone to drive a GRMN and not wear a grin ear-to-ear 500ft into the experience.
There are no switchable driving modes to muck about with, just one brilliant, frisky standard set-up, with light but direct steering via a tiny toy-like wheel, and excellent damping from expensive-feeling Sachs shock absorbers. The clutch is reassur- ingly heavy, the gearchange shorter than the car’s name, and the urgency from the 209bhp engine (more linear and progressive than many turbo’d hatches) accompanied by a waspish rasp from the central exhaust, and a noise like tearing sheet steel near the redline. The Torsen limited-slip diff feels well integrated too; positive enough to tractor-beam the Yaris out of corners without corrupting the steering.
Of course there are plenty of downsides. The sports seats are great but the rest of the interior comprises woeful grey plastics (like a ’90s Impreza or Evo – but not in a good way), the info- tainment system is the worst here (no mean feat when the Civic and Megane both feature two of the least usable touchscreens on sale) and the driving position is compromised at best. The Fiesta ST can equal it for fun, for less cash, but the GRMN is a terrific surprise package. And to think that the base Yaris is the blandest supermini in the world…
Perhaps the only car on a deeper shade of beige is the standard Hyundai i30. And that too’s been transformed into an unex- pected hot hatch hero. We’ve been running an i30N for a while now, the Hyundai confounding expectations with its muscular engine (if it really does make no more than its on-paper 271bhp then we’re a bunch of bananas), neatly balanced handling and big-hearted character – just as much as it’s infuriated with its polydipsic thirst and stern ride quality.
The top Performance version gets an active exhaust, making it the meanest-sounding car here (with the exception of the tita- nium-tubed Golf), and power steering to destroy your arms. On the road it feels like artificial weight for the sake of sportiness, even in its lightest switchable mode, but on the track it suddenly makes sense, lending the N a racecar-like feel on turn-in and a sense of serene stability under braking (great brakes by the way, uprated as part of the Performance version’s spec).
Already a fun road car, the Hyundai really excels on the circuit, with bags of adjustability at and just below the limit. All told, it can’t match the Civic or Megane for ultimate dynamic ability; the i30N torque-steers more markedly, transmits its power less cleanly and doesn’t immerse the driver in the same level of high-clarity feedback. But it comes closer to both of them on sheer fun than we’d have expected just a few months ago, and for that Hyundai is to be applauded.
As is Toyota for the Yaris, the nicest surprise here, if not quite a Fiesta-beater – it snares fourth place. At the outset, some of us thought the Up GTI and Swift Sport might spring a surprise, too, but as fun as they are in isolation, they feel ordinary in this stellar company. The impish Up punches far above its weight but some would like to see more comprehensive chassis tweaks to differentiate it further from the already nimble standard car, and to really back up those three letters on the boot (and the grille, and the wheel, and the gearknob…). But the fact is some of us wore a bigger smile emerging from the Up than its near-£50k VW stablemate. Make no mistake, the Golf R is a brilliant car.
It’s just a little staid against more tactile, involving competitors, and the Performance Pack doesn’t transform it in the same way as the similar pack available for the front-drive GTI.
So three are left standing: the Megane, sublime on the track, enigmatic on the road; the Civic, every bit as ferociously fast and forensically involving as we remember; and the new Fiesta ST, which is just a riot everywhere. Over to Chris Chilton for the unenviable task of picking a winner…
TECH FOR TROUBLEMAKERS
RENAULT MEGANE RS
>The theory : At low speed the rear wheels turn the opposite way to the fronts for a tighter turn-in. At higher speeds they turn the same direction as the fronts to improve stability.
> The practice: The four- wheel-steer efect feels more natural on the RS than it does on the Megane GT, but you can clearly feel it working, particularly in Race mode, where the switchover from agility to stability occurs at 62mph instead of 37mph. Not everyone will like it.
FORD FIESTA ST
>The theory : Inside and outside wheels need to turn at diferent speeds during cornering. A conventional open dif allows that but too much right foot will spin up the lightly loaded inside wheel. LSDs limit the speed diferential between the wheels, with cheaper brake-based systems like the Up’s nipping the inside front brake.
>The practice: On track the cars with mechanical difs – Fiesta, Megane, Civic, Yaris and i30N – are in a diferent league.
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R
>The theory : Struts have to cope with steering, driving and suspending the car. When you add gobs of power you can get torque steer, and that’s often worse if the car is fitted with an LSD. Systems like Honda’s separate the steering from the suspension so the strut doesn’t rotate.
>The practice: Drive the ballistic Civic and you’ll be convinced dual-axis struts definitely work. Torque steer – and as a result, driver efort and stress – is reduced.
VW GOLF R PP
>The theory : Give too much power to a front- wheel-drive car and you’ll end up with a wayward, tyre-melting mess.
> The practice: In the baking hot summer weather of our test the Golf R’s four-wheel drive didn’t ofer enough traction advantage to make a diference over the front-wheel-drive cars, and with an open dif at both ends it didn’t lock into the apex like the LSD- equipped front-drivers (or turn-in like a Focus RS with its active rear dif).
TOYOTA YARIS GRMN
>The theory : Turbos use waste exhaust gas to fast-track fuel and air into the combustion chambers – great for power but lag ruins throttle response. Superchargers do the same but are driven directly for an immediate response.
>The practice: The Toyota does feel snappier than its turbo rivals, pulling hard from down the rev range when they’re still waking up. Plus it sounds fantastic – as does telling people your supermini has a Lotus Elise motor.
AND THEN THERE were two and half. The Fiesta might be a rung down the hot hatch ladder, it might not be pushing 300bhp or jostling for the front-drive Nürburgring record currently held by the Type R, but we know better than to underestimate the hot hatch world’s Ant Man on real roads.
When we say ‘real roads’, too often we mean fan- tasy stretches of tarmac that are only handily nearby if you’re Highland cattle. But this time we’re keeping it local. We spend a lot of time at Rockingham because it’s a fun track but the lanes around it are so good, the brakes are often smoking as we roll onto the track, never mind off it.
We’ll be doing our best to smoke what’s left of the brakes to- day, but then we’ll also dial back the pace and do the whole thing again, because what matters on the track isn’t necessarily what matters on the road. Sure, we’re interested in how fast you can cover ground, but we’re more concerned with whether you have fun getting from A to B on the way at the kind of speeds you can get away with.
The Megane RS, Civic Type R and Fiesta ST are catching their breath in the paddock at Rockingham, each gently ticking to a different beat as cooling metal contracts, like three clocks set a fraction of a second adrift of each other. Which keys would you grab first?
I’m guessing you’d pick the Megane. It looks sensational, like an AMG A45 after three months of pumping and preening in preparation for a place on Love Island. Those wide hips (45mm wider than the Megane GT’s) give it a real muscular stance that makes it impossible not to stop and stare, and fortunately this display doesn’t fall apart when you get close enough to scrutinise the details. We’re talking about the Renault Sport chequered flag motif played out in the foglight design, the stretched and vented front wings and, on our car, two key options housed inside them: £950 of handsome 19-inch ‘Interlagos’ forged alloy wheels, and the Brembo bi-material brakes visible through their exquisitely delicate-looking spokes. Combining a steel disc and aluminium hub, the bi-material brakes lighten each corner to the tune of 1.8kg – and your wallet by a total of £900. We’ve seen some of these jewels before, but the overall impression is of a classier Megane attempting to move clear of simply pandering to the trackday crowd and firmly into hot Golf territory.
Which makes it the polar opposite of the loudmouth Civic.? As brutal as a concrete tower block, the Type R is Mr Hyde to the sober-suited Golf R’s Dr Jekyll. You’ll either love the way it looks or you won’t, and even if you love it, you won’t love all of it. The fake honeycomb grilles plastered over both ends do their utmost to kill the authenticity and credibility of a car we know to be both authentic and credible under its questionable skin, while the bonnet scoop feeding air to the most powerful engine here, the rear diffuser, that mutha of a rear wing and the little aero thingies at the trailing edge of the roof help claw some self respect back for the engineering team.
Grotesque it might be, but the Civic R and its ludicrous triple-tailpipe exhaust looks like it means business, which, as James Taylor found out on the night before the shoot, means every hot hatch driver in the vicinity wants to try his luck. I wish them the best of it, because you’d need more than luck to keep pace with a Civic Type R along a fast, narrow B-road. You’d need a serious bit of machinery in the Nissan GT-R league, and the balls to use it properly.
German hot hatches like the Audi RS3 and AMG A45 might be pushing on 400bhp, but the Civic’s three-twenty looks like plenty, and not just because Type R weighs almost 200kg less. This latest Honda 2.0-litre still sounds disappointingly flat compared to the screaming naturally-as- pirated VTECs of old, but it’s massively strong, a significant 40bhp punchier than the Megane, and feels it, even if the 5.7sec-plays-5.8sec 0-62mph stats don’t bear it out.
Visually, the inside of the Type R is as much a mess as the outside. There’s the nasty red leather on the steering wheel and the even nastier low-tech analogue fuel and temperature gauges either side of the central speedo that look like some kind of crude Tomy kids’ toy. But the fundamentals are right, and righter than they have ever been. Compared with the previous Type R this one features a lower seat that pinches you like a proper FIA-spec bucket. It’s the sort of pinch that seems a little tight – right up until the point where you bundle the car into a serious third-gear B-road bend and bury the right pedal.
The Type R is one of those rare cars where everything just clicks the moment you set the wheels rotating. It corners with barely a hint of roll but the new multi-link rear suspension gives it the kind of composure that’s a genuine shock given the Fast and the Furious silhouette. So it’s both comfortable and it can get its power down – a fairly essential skill when you’ve got the kind of power that was 911-spec only a few years ago. The steering is quick and clean, and barely corrupted by torque steer. The gearshift is light and short of throw, its only negative feature the polished alloy shift ball that can get slippery in your hand.
There’s an organic feel to the whole experience, something you don’t get in many cars. Something you don’t get in the Megane. Because the Megane’s more complicated, less intuitive to fathom. It starts the moment you drop into a seat that’s more trough than bucket. It looks fabulous and those bolsters ought to offer plenty of support – provided you’re fat enough to buy your trousers at a clown outfitters. For me, in my summer coat at least, those seats simply aren’t snug enough. And they need to be because the Megane is every bit as rapid through the bends as the Civic. Not as analogue, mind. The body control is incredible but the ride on this car’s lower, stiffer Cup-spec suspension isn’t as good as the Honda’s and there’s more torque steer despite both using similar technology to separate the front strut from the hub.
But the biggest mind bender is the 4Control four-wheel steering system. It feels more natural here than in the slower Megane GT, but it still takes a couple of miles to understand how the car’s going to react at different corners taken at different speeds. Or even the same corner taken at different speeds. Get your head around it, remembering that the changeover speed from rear wheels steering into the corner to them pointing away from them is different depending on which of the myriad drive modes you’ve selected, get comfortable with the unusual, imagined oversteer sensation on tight corners and it starts to feel pretty special.
Sounds special, too, at least in Race mode, when the tuneless drone of the Megane’s 276bhp 1.8-litre engine morphs into a hard-edged growl that sounds so good you’ll not care that it’s microchip assisted. You’ll be too busy wondering why the huge, cheap-looking media screen and its jumbo rotary control looks like one of those fake TVs Ikea used to dress its showroom sets with; why there are so many driving modes; or why the six-speed manual gearbox feels so obstinately clunky. Clunky enough that, despite the spot-on ratios, you might actually find yourself wishing you had two pedals and two paddles instead. And for once you can. Unlike Honda and Ford, whose hot hatches are exclusively manual, Renault gives Megane buyers the option to choose. And if we were choosing a Megane exclusively for road use, we’d probably swallow our macho pride, go for the more compliant non-Cup chassis and put the £1500 saved towards the dual-clutch transmission option.
When the Megane and Honda can cover so many bases from lunatic trackday toy to mini GT, how can the little Fiesta hope to compete? Visually, it can’t. It’s not totally devoid of performance presence: there’s a smart honeycomb grille at the front and those Marmitey wheels, which look like an ’89 XR2i’s spun out in a centrifuge, are teased right out to the edges of all four wheelarch- es thanks to a wider track. But apart from the discreet ST badge on the boot, there’s little to tell you this is Ford’s kindergarten supercar rather than an ordinary shopping-grade Fiesta.
Nothing to tell you it’s an up-scale ST-2 unless you peer in and clock the bigger touchscreen; nothing to tell you it’s fitted with the optional £850 Performance Pack that brings goodies like the limited-slip differential, launch control and shift lights. Nothing at all to suggest it tears down the road like Warner Brothers’ Tasmanian Devil after a dozen cans of Red Bull.
It really does. Between us we’ve owned plenty of iconic ’80s and ’90s hot hatches, the kind of cars forum bores will tell you they don’t make any more. They’re right. The new ones are even better. Charge up to a corner, pile on the lock and bail out of the gas and the ST throws itself so sideways you’ll be crying with laughter when you finally get the thing gathered up. Modern cars – with their massive tyres, over-zealous stability systems and equally over-zealous corporate lawyers – rarely let you get up to that kind of mischief these days. But the Fiesta will. Clearly Ford trusts you – and clearly has some awesome lawyers.
You don’t have to drive it like that to get your kicks, though.
You can dip into that same old-school throttle adjustability just a little to sharpen your lines, or not at all if you keep the stability system engaged. Then you’ll focus on the Mini-like steering that accentuates the short wheelbase and the gutsy 1.5-litre triple and its sweet-shifting six-speed manual sidekick that could only be better if the stick was mounted a smidge higher. Outgunned by the Civic to the tune of 120bhp, and taking a retro 6.5sec to hit 62mph, the Fiesta ought to feel disappointingly torpid. But it never does because you’re always right in the thick of the action. It’s the best small fast hatch on the planet, and at the £18,995 price Ford is asking for the entry-level ST-1 – and it’s debatable that you’d need more – it’s an absolute bargain.
But it’s not the best outright hot hatch. Because entertaining as it is, the Fiesta can get a little OTT. The ride, for instance, is still punishingly stiff, even if Ford has smoothed off the old car’s sharper edges. And the Performance Pack car’s LSD that so ca- pably hooks you into the apex of a corner doesn’t have the benefit of the clever front struts fitted to the Civic, Megane and hotter versions of its Focus brother. Really wring the Fiesta’s neck and there’s no time for slacking off – on rough roads the steering can get pretty busy and, just occasionally, it feels like it wants to send you into the scenery.
The ST is something to be enjoyed in short bursts, when you can expend every last drop of brainpower giving the car the attention it deserves. It’s the car that enlivens the 10-minute thrash to the station before your long daily commute to work on the train. The car you buy when you’ve already tried splurging £20,000 on a timewarp Peugeot 205 GTi only to discover it’s not nearly as much fun as you remember it being. And quite possibly the one current hot hatch you’d pick if you had that much-pondered ‘one last gallon’ to burn through before the end of the world.
But if you had a whole refinery’s worth of the stuff? Then you’d take the Civic. That’d give you enough time to get used to the freakshow styling and the stares it garners, to reconcile with the slightly disappointing soundtrack and the crude aftermar- ket-style multimedia system. But not to get bored. I’m not sure there’s enough oil left in the ground for that to happen. The Civic appeals because it’s brilliantly absorbing when you’re on it, and surprisingly great company when you’re not. But also because there’s a simple honesty to the way it drives. Right now, it’s still the best hot hatch you can buy.