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You don’t need to spend a ton of cash to have fun on four wheels, nor do you need maximum power. Sometimes cars with lower performance ceilings, driven near their ragged edge, are the most fun of all.

Cases in point, the two you see here. The just-launched Suzuki Swift Sport from Japan and the just-updated Renault Clio RS200 Cup from France, both pocket rockets par excellence. Let’s have a look at ’em.


Price and spec

The little Suzuki kicks off at $25,490 before on-road costs (about $29K on the road), which is ballpark with the legendary – and now retired – Ford Fiesta ST. Big shoes to fill.

Then again, it’s a sizeable $7000 jump to the Renault at $32,490. It’s still sufficient to qualify as cheap thrills, but only just. It’s a few grand more expensive than the soon-to-be-replaced Volkswagen Polo GTI, for context.

Common standard equipment to both cars includes LED headlights (beautiful C-shaped units on the Clio, with dusk sensors), rear-view camera, climate control, button start, Bluetooth/USB, and 7.0-inch touchscreens with sat-nav.

Renault offers extras such as 18-inch wheels (17s on the Suzuki), various driving modes that change the ESC, engine mapping and shift ratios, and DAB+.

Our tester Clio also came with some options, including the $1500 Leather Pack (leather and Alcantara seats with RS naming and heating) and the Entertainment Pack (R-Link user interface, Android Auto, R/S on-board telemetry tracking and a Bose premium sound system).

The Suzuki offers superior safety tech. It alone comes with autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure alert. It also has a 2017 ANCAP five-star rating, while the Clio was last tested in 2013.

Controversially, the Renault also forgoes rear airbags. The company says they’re not necessary, but we say that if you plan on using the back seats, think long and hard before buying…

The Swift Sport is also the only car here with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto phone mirroring. This plus the extra safety features and the big price advantage secures the Suzuki an easy win on a sheer spec-for-money basis.


Cabins

The little Swift’s cabin has some really nice touches that lift the ambience, including a racy red steering wheel, red highlights on the dash and doors, and great bucket seats.

In typical Suzuki style, the cabin trims feel hard to the touch, but also hard-wearing. The centre screen looks a little aftermarket, but the UI is so simple it becomes fool-proof.

We were regularly bemoaning the lack of a digital speedo given Australia’s ridiculously overblown speed regulations that’ll sting you almost $200 for going just a few km/h over.

The back seats are actually useable for two smaller occupants, with a nice high roof and big side windows. The boot is pretty measly at 265L, and worsened by the lack of a proper spare wheel.

The Clio’s cabin lacks the Polo’s ambience and tactility, though the prominent centre stack is ageing well, despite the fingerprint- and dust-prone shiny black plastics.

The touchscreen lacks phone mirroring as standard, though the Bluetooth re-paired quickly enough, and aside from the cruise control buttons being on the transmission tunnel, the ergonomics are quite traditional.

Like the Swift, the seats offer plenty of support, but aren’t so track-focused that they become painful for general commutes. Perhaps the best features of all are the fixed metallic paddle shifters mounted on the steering column.

The back seats are something of a no-go for us, given the lack of airbags as mentioned. Though if you’re willing there’s okay room for short trips, and two ISOFIX anchors. Certainly more practical than your average coupe. Boot space is a more useable 300L.


Drivetrains

There’s quite a gulf between this pair, engine-wise. And here’s where the Renault looks to make up ground.

The Suzuki has the same 1.4-litre turbo petrol as the upper-grade Vitara crossover, producing what appears to be a modest 103kW of power at 5500rpm, and a more muscular 230Nm of torque between 2500 and 3000rpm.

That’s a damn sight more than the old naturally aspirated 1.6-litre. Our tester was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox sending torque to the front wheels, though a torque-converter auto with paddles is a $2000 option.

This low-ish power output tells us there’s plenty of space to the engine’s ceiling, which is music to the ears of the tuning scene. Suzuki itself tacitly admits as much. To say this engine is under-stressed is obvious.

By comparison, the Renault uses a turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol pumping out 147kW of power at 6050rpm and 260Nm of torque at 2000rpm. So, 44kW/30Nm higher than the Suzuki.

It’s mated as standard to a six-speed EDC dual-clutch auto with awesome column-mounted paddles and a launch control system.

Some people will rue the absence of the manual, but they don’t vote with their wallets. This is by far the highest-selling Clio Sport globally ever, and its predecessors were all manual only.


Performance

However, you don’t need to be a Newtonian physicist to understand the relationship between weight and power.

This new Swift is 80kg lighter than its predecessor, which was hardly a porker itself. This one weighs 970kg, which is about the same as a two-door, fabric-roof Mazda MX-5. Colin Chapman would be weeping tears of happiness.

By comparison, the 173mm longer Clio weighs 1204kg, which makes it a hippo by comparison. The power-to-weight differential is 122kW per tonne vs 106kW per tonne. Indeed, the Swift Sport’s P-to-W ratio is only a touch lower than a Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI’s 108kW per tonne.

Credit to Suzuki for making such a cracking engine. The tiny turbo yields minimal lag, and there’s a meaty mid-range that gives you ample rolling response, and plenty of punch out of corners without the need for multiple downshifts.

The manual ’box has a lovely pedal feel, though an even tighter shift pattern would be great. Note also how short the first and second ratios are, lest you carelessly bounce off the rev limiter and kill your progress.

A 0–100km/h time of 7.2sec (we managed about 7.5sec) is nothing to sneeze at. Even better, the front wheels don’t axle tramp or torque steer excessively allowing clean and crisp getaways.

It also must be part of some sort of auto-temperance movement, because no matter how hard we would wring the engine, it stubbornly refused to drink more than 6.4L/100km of 95RON fuel.

The Renault’s engine is also a cracker, especially in the most dynamic setting, with a raspy note and, in tandem with the EDC, a crackling exhaust note on upshift and under initial engine braking.

Purists may deride the lack of a manual, but the EDC’s tactile paddles, ability to double-downshift instantaneously, gear shift indicator next to the digital speedo and a launch control system address most concerns.

This is a powertrain that really comes alive under duress. Pottering around town you get the typical dual-clutch indecisiveness, but on a twisty stretch of quiet road or better still a racetrack, this little pocket rocket is just a delight.


Dynamics

That theme continues here. Our Clio RS tester had the lower, 15 per cent more stiffly sprung/damped Cup Chassis, which makes it about as comfortable on urban roads, around town, as a conversation with an angry father-in-law. But combined with the grippy Dunlop Maxx Sport RT2 rubber and the electronic RS LSD fitted to limit wasteful wheel spin, that stiffness makes it preternaturally nimble in the right domain.

Renault Sport imbues front-wheel-drive hot hatches with grip, agility, light-yet-responsive steering and sheer engagement better than nearly any other brand, and despite criticisms of the body style, safety and gearbox, this Clio iteration retains those crucial dynamic traits in spades.

Hands on the wheel, fingers near the paddles, driving mode set to Race to load up the wheel and sharpen the throttle, and you’ll find naught but flawless balance, alacrity and thinly veiled automotive aggression. And plenty of lift-off oversteer.

By contrast, the Suzuki is calibrated to be a better daily driver. Its fixed dampers and springs are softer, giving it a really nice pliant and cushy character over urban roads, cobbles and even gravel. Noise suppression is rubbish, though.

It also doesn’t have any of the Clio’s RS trickery: no tricky electronic track-honed LSD, no driving modes to mess with, and little on-board telemetry aside from a basic power/torque application display.

What it does have is the kerb weight of a tin of Milo, and with a body weighing so little, you don’t need stiff coilover-style springs and other stuff to give you super-sharp turn-in, good mid-corner body control and rapid directional changes.

Nor do you need huge brakes to stop immediately, regularly, with little fade (a track day in 35C told me this).

At the limit, you find the Swift’s ragged edges faster than the Clio. Push too hard and you’ll get understeer more quickly, you’ll get rack rattle over mid-corner hits, and you’ll lose mechanical grip earlier.

However, the Suzuki is every bit as engaging as the Renault, and in some ways actually reminds one of the Clio RS 182 of the early 2000s. Sometimes, back-to-basics in a great vibe to embrace.

The Clio RS is certainly more objectively accomplished, and will tear up a track in a way that’ll leave the Swift for dead. But the Suzuki’s charm offensive nevertheless keeps it compelling after a stint driving its wheels off.


Ownership costs

Suzuki offers a three-year/100,000km factory warranty, plus capped-price servicing at six-month/10,000km intervals, with each of the first three visits currently pegged at $175 a pop.

The Clio RS gets the company’s strong five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty cover, plus four years of included 24/7 roadside assist if you service your car within Renault’s dealer network. Servicing intervals are 12 months or 20,000km, with each of the first three visits presently capped nationwide at $369.


VERDICT

Doing the testing for this comparison was an absolute joy. This pair both offer a ton of fun (in the case of the featherweight Suzuki, it only cracks that mark with a driver on board), and won’t break the bank.

The Renault is technically the better car. Its dynamic ceiling is higher, engine more potent, and engineering credibility higher. It’s expensive for the class, but you can see where the money goes.

The Suzuki’s lightness makes it preternaturally nimble without the need for back-breaking suspension, and though it’s built to a price, at least it comes full of features. That new turbo engine is a ripper too.

It’s ultimately a matter of horses-for-courses: Renault fans won’t be swayed, but it’d be hard to imagine anyone regretting buying the Swift Sport, either.

Model Renault Clio Suzuki Swift
Variant RS Cup Sport
RRP $32,490 ($36,240 as tested)  $25,490 ($25,990 as tested)
Engine 1.6-litre turbo 1.4-litre turbo
Power 147kW @ 6050 103kW @ 5500
Torque 260Nm @ 2000 230Nm @ 2500
Drive FWD FWD
Gearbox 6 dual-clutch auto 6 manual
Fuel use 5.9L/100km 6.1L/100km
Front suspension MacPherson strut MacPherson strut
Rear suspension Flexible axle w/ programmed
deflection and coils
Torsion beam, Monroe shocks
Wheels 18-inch 17-inch
Tyres 205/40 R18

Dunlop Sport Maxx RT2

195/45 R17

ContiSportContact

Kerb weight 1204kg 970kg
Power-to-weight 122kW per tonne 106kW per tonne
0-100km/h 6.7sec 7.2sec
Length 4063mm 3890mm
Track f/r 1504/1500mm 1510/1515mm
Height 1434mm 1495mm
Wheelbase 2589mm 2450mm
Boot space 300L 265L

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