It seems like only yesterday we awarded the Ford Fiesta ST a win against its Peugeot 208 GTi and Volkswagen Polo GTI rivals (read more here), then went a step further by crowning it one of the best-ever hot-hatches created and one of the best available at any price. That may have been because it was only a couple of months ago…
But Australians love felling a tall poppy, and if there’s a car to slash the baby Blue Oval down it was always going to be the new, fourth-generation Renault Clio RS200.
French master Renault Sport has played a long and consistent game with its hottest Clio models. Until now, that is. The Phase 1 missed our shores, the Phase 2 arrived in 2001 but was replaced only a year later by a substantially facelifted model, while the Phase 3 came in 2008 and was discontinued last year. All had high-revving, non-turbocharged four-cylinder engines stuffed into a three-door body, with a manual transmission sprouting out of the console.
The new Phase 4 Renault Clio RS200 gets a lower-revving, turbocharged four-cylinder engine in a five-door body, with a dual-clutch automatic the only transmission available. Philosophically, it could only be more different from its predecessors if it transformed into a rear-wheel-drive sedan … which might have actually pleased its purist following more.
While offering five doors and an auto is undisputably the ticket to sales popularity especially in this country, and the Clio RS200 is out to poach Polo GTI buyers, the new-generation model must perform the tricky balancing act of still offering the driving thrills a benchmark hot-hatch should.
The Ford does that brilliantly, but only offers three doors and a manual; the Volkswagen, not quite.
Ford, and Peugeot and Volkswagen, have forced Renault’s hand to lower pricing. The previous Clio manual was available in hard-suspension Cup trim for $36,490, where the new car is $28,790 in the softer of two suspension tunes. No longer is climate control standard, as it is in the $25,990 Fiesta ST, but touchscreen satellite navigation is. The Ford also gets rear parking sensors, where disappointingly the standard Clio gets neither that or a rear camera.
Both climate and back sensors require buyers to part with an extra $5500 on the Trophy specification that also adds leather trim with heated front seats and R-Link app functionality and racetrack data logging. The system also allows different car sounds – such as a Clio V6 or Formula Cup car – to be channelled through the stereo, timed to match the revs of the actual car.
Or you can take a standard Sport and for $2500 extra choose the Cup chassis specification which lowers ride height by 3mm, tightens damping and includes 18-inch alloy wheels, up from 17s, and red brake calipers. That’s how our Clio RS200 was specified, priced at $31,290. A fourth option is to go the whole hog and add another $5500 to the Cup chassis for the Trophy equipment mentioned above.
It’s a lot more simple in camp Ford. There’s no option for sat-nav, or leather, or an auto, or five doors. Looking at the Fiesta’s circa-2008 interior and its piano-black finishes with a Sony stereo seemingly modelled off a home theatre unit the decade prior, it will come as no surprise that there’s no app functionality either. Data logging? Car sounds? Depending on your perspective, the ST either needs no such gimmicks, or is simply living in a dial-up modem era.
In support of the former view, it seems the ‘Sport Technologies’ blokes at Ford of Europe have focused their attention on the tactility stuff that matters to drivers, such as gripping, lovely Recaro sports seats, a beaut little steering wheel and stubbly little gearknob.
The automatic versus manual debate is irrelevant when Renault fits tinny, clacky paddles to its hottest Clio and a tab on its gearlever that clicks in like a child’s toy gun. Otherwise the Renault interior smashes that of its rival, blending cool orange accents with high-resolution colour displays, slashes of chrome and piano black and neat bathmat-rubber plastics.
There’s more rear-seat room, and obviously better access back there, while the 300-litre boot is 14L larger.
It is disappointing that Renault reduces its warranty for RS models to three years, unlimited kilometres, down from the five year, unlimited kilometre warranty offered in its regular models, though in this case it at least matches the Ford’s number of years and eclipses its 100,000km limit.
As part of each manufacturer’s capped-price servicing program, the Fiesta ST asks $305 for each of its first three services, annually to 45,000km, versus $299 for the Clio’s first three, still annually but with 10,000km intervals.
Similarities between Renault Sport and Ford Sport Technologies continues under the bonnet, with both models utilising 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
The Clio makes 147kW of power at 6000rpm; the Fiesta 134kW at 5700rpm. The Renault delivers 240Nm of torque at 1750rpm, of which the Ford matches but makes across an astonishingly broad 1600-5000rpm. It also can match the Renault’s power and eclipse it for torque by a full 50Nm, for 20 seconds of pressed throttle at a time thanks to an overboost function.
Question: when in Australia can the throttle ever be kept pinned for more than 20 seconds at a time? Ford claims a 6.9-second 0-100km/h, 0.2 seconds slower than Renault's claim for the Clio RS200. Regardless, the speed at which the Fiesta ST would be travelling after 20 seconds would be well past red and blue light territory.
Perhaps it explains why, in gear, the Ford feels so much faster than the Renault. The Fiesta ST weighs 1197kg, slightly down on the 1218kg Clio, but not by enough to matter. It has to be the overboosted torque.
The Ford Ecoboost engine also sounds a lot better than that of its rival, with a deep intake warble that stays at a single pitch through the mid-range. It’s thanks to a ‘sound symposer’ not of the gimmicky variety, but a physical pipe that feeds the good noises into the passenger footwell.
By contrast the Renault engine has an industrial, slightly grainy soundtrack. The upside is lovely pops on full throttle upchanges, and burble and crackle when the throttle is lifted and revs are left to hang. The Fiesta ST could do with a fruitier exhaust.
The Clio RS actually sounds at its best when launch control is used. Accessed via holding both steering wheel paddles back at the same time, the driver simply then needs to hold the brake and pin the throttle. The computers pin revs at 2500rpm, but the engine stutters like a racecar preparing for a dragstrip christmas-light countdown. It’s great to see a bit of mongrel in an otherwise sophisticated hot-hatch.
Launch control also no doubt helps the French hot-hatch achieve its excellent standing start acceleration time. It’s as effective and efficient as the dual-clutch automatic transmission is doughy and ditzy.
In normal auto mode, a soft throttle makes the Clio RS200 feel sluggish around town. Although the transmission is quick to upshift in this mode, no doubt to help achieve its 6.3L/100km combined cycle consumption claim, it’s slow to downshift when the throttle is prodded and slurs when doing so.
Sport mode, therefore, becomes the default choice because it keeps the throttle lively and engine awake. But around town it hangs on to gears long enough to be annoying, yet during hard driving it doesn’t downshift aggressively enough when hard on the brakes heading into a corner.
More solutions await. Turn the RS Mode button to Race, which is available only using the manual tipshifter facility, and shift times are reduced from 270 milliseconds to 170ms. But if you want fast shifts – surely the point of a dual-clutch automatic – and gears to be held even if the rev limiter is nudged, Renault forces you to disable the stability control completely.
Otherwise, when either using the fixed paddles behind the steering wheel or the transmission lever tipshifter (which is the correct way around: push forward to downshift, back to upshift) the transmission mostly works fine. Well, except for the fact when, for example, a paddle is pulled to upshift to second gear at 6500rpm the computers won’t allow first to be selected again until revs fall below 4800rpm.
In any gear, at any time, the Fiesta ST manual of course will permit its driver to perform a heel-and-toe downshift and whip the tacho needle up between the 4800-6500rpm zone in which the Clio automatic denies. To be fair, the Renault in higher gears is more amenable to permitting going back through ratios earlier, but it’s still not the crisp sporting automatic good enough to deny the existence of a traditional manual. The Fiesta ST also beats its rival's claimed economy by 0.1L/100km, but its on-test 11.7L/100km extended that lead by 1.3L/100km.
Everything gels immediately in the Ford Fiesta ST. Its steering is perfectly weighted, wonderfully quick and hugely feelsome. The clutch take-up is a little high for some tastes, and the manual doesn’t have the short shift pattern of, ironically enough, the fabulous manual in the previous Clio RS, for example. But there are no complaints when the shifter is still slick and well defined.
There’s one setting for the throttle, too, and that setting is ideal, with the sort of crisp delivery to the right foot that rivals non-turbo cars unless the revs are really, really low. That said, the Fiesta ST pulls from 1200rpm, and hard from barely above that. Another 500rpm above its 6700rpm cut out would be sweet, but the same request can be directed to the Renault.
Although the Clio RS200 Cup gets harder suspension than the Sport models, and lower-profile 18-inch tyres, it still rides more smoothly than the Fiesta ST. The Ford is very jiggly around town, though the Renault thuds a bit over expansion joints and smaller potholes too. The difference between them is more noticeable both over speed humps, where ultra-taut rebound damping in the Ford jolts the driver’s back, and sharp-edged imperfections, where it crashes slightly.
Critically, it is never annoying or hindering, and on a rough road at speed its first rate body control makes it feel hewn into the road surface, yet it never threatens to spit itself and its driver into the scenery.
One guest tester described the Fiesta’s ride as “on the upper limit of what is liveable”. It’s a perfect summary but one that arguably encapsulates how hot-hatches can just get to the edge of acceptable ride comfort if there are sizeable handling benefits. The same is true with the Renault Megane RS265.
The Clio RS200 still has better absorbency at speed, and similarly high levels of body control, but the Fiesta ST has the handling edge.
Maybe its hardness helps, but the Ford communicates to its driver like few cars regardless of price. That allows the driver to dig deep into its amazing front-end sharpness and feel the grip levels of the excellent Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres, and once they eventually fade. When working the front end harder than you could in virtually any front driver, the rear end starts to dance ever so slightly, pivoting around to help the nose point.
In tight stuff, grab second, turn in, nail the throttle, and the torque vectoring control mimics a limited-slip differential like few electronic systems we’ve tested. It puts all its overboosted 290Nm to work fabulously well. There’s three stability control settings – on, Sport and off – and the middle one has complete trust in the chassis while curtailing only the dumbest of mid-corner throttle lifts.
The Clio RS200 has different handling traits. Perhaps it’s only after driving a communications master, but the front end seems fractionally more aloof. Maybe that’s because the otherwise excellent steering is lighter, and shows up a slight vagueness not evident in its rival; maybe it’s because the suspension filters out more irregularities.
Whatever the case, the Dunlop SportMaxx tyres have less grip than the Ford’s in the dry, but they go well in the wet. They only amplify the wonderfully playful handling that results in the Clio RS200 being keener to oversteer than the Fiesta ST, bouncing from one side to the other during quick changes of direction where its rival stays flatter. Renault’s own torque vectoring system can be felt working, and working almost as well as the Fiesta’s, although its generally subtle stability control system interferes more often.
When everything gels and the transmission is in the right gear, the engine is on boost, the exhaust is crackling and the chassis is slightly sliding around, it remains an entertaining treat.
A champion hot-hatch all-rounder, the new Renault Clio RS200 blends a finer level of style, class, comfort, speed and handling than any other rival. It does, however, lack the sort of spark that has made its predecessors feel so special – particularly the 2005 Clio RS182, a personal highlight. In assessment terms, it also has a big chink down the middle of the car; replacing the manual with an auto only heightens the demands for a better effort than its dual-clutch.
The Ford Fiesta ST feels special. Maybe not in its cheap interior, though at $26K let’s not forget that it is actually cheap. But the spectacular handling highs easily offset the hard ride, and the engine and transmission soundly beat that of its rival. It may not please as wider audience as its swish French rival, but this segment is called hot-hatch for a reason, and when a hot-hatch can challenge the drive of cars twice and three times the price, the winner is clear.
Photography by Alex Bryden.
Ford Fiesta ST
Engine: 1.6 litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 132kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 1600-5000rpm
Transmission: 6-sp manual
0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.2L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 145g/km
Renault Clio RS200 Cup
Engine: 1.6 litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 147kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission: 6-sp dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 6.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.3L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 144g/km