Who Needs 300 HP Hot Hatches, Anyway?
Cars like the Ford Focus RS, the latest hot Opel/Vauxhall Astra and even the highly-praised Renault Megane RS are all basically flawed in their concept, being overpowered, and having to compensate for that by being too stiff, too complicated and just too darn expensive. Facts and figures matter more than how these cars make us feel, and that can lead to some bad decision making, both on the buyers’ side, as well as the automakers’.
Remember all those hot hatch reviews in which the reviewer talks about how a front-wheel drive car can only really handle 200 hp, or just over? They then go on to say that <insert new hot hatch name here> features some sort of trick differential, beefed up suspension components and various electronics to help keep you pointing in the right direction. Do you not find that absurd? This makes the cars heavy, it dulls the ‘purity’ of the driving experience and it basically defeats the purpose.
Let’s talk about money and weight, for a second. We will use the most extreme hot hatch, as an example, just to clarify the idea – the Ford Focus RS. It may have 300 hp, or even more with very light engine modding, but it also weighs a lot, and when compared to a ‘more pure’ (and older) hot hatch, like the Renault Clio RS 182 or the Honda Civic EP3 Type-R, it looks ridiculous, and drives nowhere near as well as either of them. For instance, it has a weight disadvantage over the Clio of around 300 kg, and no matter how you try and go about explaining it, it is far too much!
Sure, it may have the trick RevoKnuckle front suspension, but it is simply there to compensate for the fact that the car could not handle the oomph of the five-pot Volvo engine without ‘help’. This neatly leads us back to the money issue. Stuff like trick suspension stuff, bigger brakes and a strengthened chassis doesn`t come cheap, and the 33,000+ EUR price tag and weight of just under 1,500 kg stand testament to that.
If you have that kind of money to spend on a car, and you want to go properly fast and show off, just buy a second hand Porsche Boxster, and you will be much happier. Sadly, our entire world is one big consumer-driven marketplace, and the automakers simply make what the buyers (think they) want. This is why, instead of striving to achieve perfection with the hot hatch, they simply give the consumers what they want – more power, flashy bolt-on bits and wheelarch extensions on idiotic cars we should all boycott.
Everybody who has driven the Focus RS and the new 280 hp Astra say that they are great cars, but due to the massive power of their engines, they have become quite tricky to drive and, as mentioned before, they totally defeat the purpose. However, everybody who has driven the Renault Clio RS 200, the last and greatest of the non-turbo 2.0-liter hatches, has a totally different story to tell. With the naturally-aspirated engine, throttle response is instant, and outright power is not all that matters.
Let’s face it - most of the super-hatches will be outdragged by the new high-powered diesel SUVs which are now out and about, and you will look like a complete idiot, shifting gears frantically, listening for the beep which tells you to shift gears, while the fat banker in his fuel-sipping diesel SUV will just mash the throttle, and will humiliate you without breaking a sweat. That is clearly not the way to go!
So, is there any hope, in this sea of excessive weight, turbo lag and giving cars more power just for the sake of giving them more power? Well, thankfully, there is, and it’s not the car you would expect me to give as an example, yet I say it is highly-relevant, given ‘the problem’ – the Toyota GT86. It isn`t particularly powerful or particularly fast (the Clio RS 200 is quicker, for instance), but then again, it isn`t that expensive, or heavy, or dull to drive, because the people behind it seem to be genuine car guys, and that is truly rare in the money-driven and shallow modern automotive industry.
They have given it enough power, a lightweight body, a superb chassis, excellent steering, an excellent driving position, while also making it look good and sporty, without being over the top for the sake of being over the top. If this philosophy would be applied to hot hatches, we would get something with a two-liter engine, no forced induction of any kind, as it wouldn`t be needed, a curb weight of under 1,100 kg, a close-ratio gearbox, and a stylish but not over-the-top exterior look.
The Clio RS needs to be brought back into the spotlight, as it is currently the best hot hatch that money can buy, and thankfully, it’s not even that expensive. For instance, the range-topping Gordini model that we tested cost just 23,000 EUR, yet it came fully loaded, with leather seats, air-con, cruise control and other such amenities, most of which are not really needed in a car like this, even if you use it as a daily driver.
However, the Clio is far from perfect, as it is still too heavy, the driving position is all wrong, and the noise it makes isn`t really evocative in any way – it just sounds like any strained four-pot motor, to be honest, and it can`t be cured with an aftermarket exhaust because it only makes the engine note louder, and not any nicer. The Clio also suffers from extensive and very visible cost-cutting, and while its interior may have looked good in 2005 when it was launched, it is not the best place to sit, really.
Sadly, the conclusion that needs to be drawn from all of this is there are no more good hot hatches for you to buy new, yet there are a lot of great old ones out there, the best of which is arguably the Peugeot 306 GTi-6, which has a physics-defying chassis, enough horsepower (160 hp, to be precise), a six-speed manual gearbox, great steering, and if you find one with a gold or red exterior finish, it will also look the part. If you want a good hot hatch, you either have to buy an older one, or you can buy one of the new city car-based alternatives.
The Twingo RS, Fiat 500 Abarth and the Suzuki Swift Sport are the best examples, all of which are excellent cars in their own right, with the Fiat being slightly more expensive and complicated, as it has a turbocharged engine. These cars are all you will ever need, for quick city driving, and in the real world, their very low weight, nippy handling and fun-loving nature will put a much bigger smile on your face - that is what actually matters, is it not?