It's been raining for three days straight. Pouring rain, spitting rain, the flit-flit-flit rain that comes at you sideways, and the kind of rain that seems to fire up from the ground in short little bursts, defying gravity. It is endless, blinding, and above all, wet. By all rights, soaked and barely able to see, we should be miserable. But we're not.
How did we end up here, shotgunning through the deserted Welsh moors, doused in water and happy as clams? Simple: we came to drive European small cars--the ones we don't get, the ones we can't get, the ones we'll never get. We came to see what we're missing. In the process, we fell into one of the largest storm systems of the past six months, stumbled upon some of the best driving roads on the planet, and blew our collective minds.
Driving in rural Britain isn't like driving anywhere else, and that notion doesn't have a thing to do with the fact that the steering wheel in a British car sits where you would normally find an American passenger's lap. Pull yourself away from London's heavy traffic and head off into outer Wales or Scotland, and you'll find near-empty stretches of impossibly narrow asphalt blazing off toward the horizon. When they're not draped over mountaintops, the roads are ripping through hedgerows and tree tunnels and slicing past immense stone walls, looking for all the world like the competition stages of a tarmac rally. You can almost hear the pace notes.
Britain's back roads are a chassis engineer's heaven and hell, a mystical land where the ordinary morning commute can bottom out and fluster even the most capable of sports cars. It's also a land where workaday econoboxes with long suspension travel can outrun supercars, unencumbered as they are by tricky on-the-limit dynamics, excesses of unusable power, or relatively stiff and unforgiving suspensions. The hot hatchback is an entirely different animal in Britain --it's a giant killer.
It's with that fact in mind that we've chosen the three cars you see here. One is a tiny, stripe-spattered Ford--but don't forget that British Fords often bear little resemblance to their American cousins, and are usually better for it. One is a diesel-powered sleeper/torque-monster from a European brand few Americans will have heard of. And the third . . . well, let's just say that the third is a little bit special. It's French.
All three of these cars are a full size smaller than almost anything with four wheels, a back seat, and true sporting credentials available on U.S. shores. Despite slow acceleration by American standards, all three are deceptively quick once the road goes snaky. And all three are so far removed from the traditional stateside definition of "small car" that they may as well have come from the moon.
You crest a rise, blink once, and the road disappears. Your stomach climbs up into your nasal cavity and starts holding your brain hostage. Momentarily freed of the burdens of logic, you plant your foot on the floor, grab fourth as the car lands, and feel the steering twitch as the front tires scrabble for grip. Before you can catch your breath, the pavement dances away again, plunging over a one-lane bridge and slinging you through six inches of standing water. This is a normal day in Wales. And the Ford Fiesta ST eats it up.
A lot of criticisms can be leveled at the Fiesta, but "lack of cheekiness" isn't one of them. Yes, the Ford is buzzy and rough on the freeway (4000 rpm is about 80 mph, and at that speed, the rear hatch emits an echoing boom like you wouldn't believe), and yes, it looks kind of dorky. (OK. Really dorky.) But throw it down a heaving country lane or pitch it into a roundabout without lifting, all four wheels adrift, and the Fiesta suddenly makes sense. It's like a puppy. You eventually realize that despite all the chewing on the furniture, the blasted thing just wants to play.
In a land of unpredictable pavement, the Fiesta works because all four of its wheels almost never leave the ground. From the cock-pit, it may feel a bit like a fat man on stilts--the goofy little Ford comes off as top-heavy, a feeling not helped by a horrible sit-up-and-beg driving position--but the Fiesta's suspension works overtime. Struts and simple L-shaped trailing arms in front are paired with four fanatically tuned dampers and a rear torsion beam. The end result is four contact patches virtually married to the pavement and a cheery, involving, almost unflappable chassis that begs to be whipped.
Taken by the numbers, the Fiesta doesn't seem like much: two liters, sixteen valves, four cylinders, 148 hp, and 140 lb-ft of torque. In ST trim, the Ford's midrangey four carts around 2569 pounds, and 60 mph arrives in an unremarkable 7.9 seconds. Still, at 11,389 (just over $22,000), it's more than worth it. (Need to put that figure in perspective? A base 2007 Mini Cooper S costs 13,179 in the U.K. and is seen as a slightly expensive but nevertheless smart buy.) The Fiesta's basic spec sheet may not be that impressive, and admittedly, some of its interior trim feels like it was screwed together by drunken zoo animals, but no matter. The whole package is as close as you can get to a modern version of the first-generation Volkswagen GTI, and that's no small compliment.
That, in turn, brings us to the upstart of our little group. Coincidentally, it's also related to that first GTI, but more by bloodline than by character. The Skoda Fabia VRS is the factory-assembled diesel--diesel!--hot-rod version of the standard Fabia, a Volks-wagen-derived hatchback built by the Volkswagen Group in Europe. (The Skoda nameplate has its origins in a Czech marque dating to the late nineteenth century, but these days, Skoda is merely an in-house, bargain-basement VW alternative.)
Compared with the Fiesta, the Fabia VRS initially seems to be an enormous mess. Hard, nasty plastic and mile-wide panel gaps are everywhere. Cost-cut Volkswagen switchgear fills the dash. The instrument cluster looks like a cheap copy of a cheap copy of a cheap watch, the dampers throw in the towel and bottom out at the drop of a hat, and the steering has absolutely, positively no feel whatsoever. Anywhere.
Thankfully, the koda has one redeeming quality: it's as fast as stink. Wispy black smoke may puff out the tailpipe on hard acceleration, and the turbocharged four-cylinder may sound like a clogged garbage disposal when it's working hard, but for all its faults, the Fabia moves.
Amazingly, the 10,087 koda's 1.9-liter diesel churns out 229 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1900 rpm, and that's enough to keep the 2745-pound Fabia from feeling like so much dead weight in the presence of anything more pedigreed. You don't so much accelerate as gobble up huge chunks of landscape. Chomp. (One postal code.) Chomp. (Another.) Chomp. (There goes a family in a Land Rover.)
Wales lends itself to that kind of driving. Even in the rain, British pavement can be amazingly speed-friendly--large, sharp surface aggregates matched with good drainage mean that a wet Welsh road can often amaze with its capacity for pure stick. It's the equivalent of Mother Nature urging you to go faster, regardless of the weather.
And so you do. Climb up onto the misty, moss-coated moors, and you find lines of sight that extend to the horizon. Once you wrap your head around the visibility and complete lack of traffic, you start doing silly things: Opposite-lock, wisp-of-smoke handbrake slides. Fully apexed and tracked-out corners using all of the pavement. Twin-lane, triple-digit, catch-air driving. (And why not? There isn't a single living thing for miles.)
If the koda isn't perfect in conditions like these, then you bathe in its numb absurdity. You ease your sorrows by bludgeoning the scenery with an excess of clattery wheelspin. You blaze sideways past signs labeled with impenetrable Welsh names like BWLCH and BRYN-YR-AR-BRYN, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the BBC with half a finger on the wheel. It's no enthusiast's dream. But blowing people's doors off with a nerdy-looking diesel? Who wouldn't love that?
That question, in turn, brings us to our final contestant. For it's this car that provides the answer to that last question, and the answer is A Renault Engineer, or possibly Anyone With A Pulse Who Has Heard Renault's 2.0-Liter Twin-Cam Four Wailing Away At Almost Eight Grand. Enter the Renault Clio Renaultsport 197.
The Renaultsport Clio is something of a conundrum, a car you find yourself loving and hating for the same reasons. It is, to be concise, a 194-hp, 7250-rpm, underbody-diffuser-sportin', fantastically damped, red-stripe-on-the-wheel, touring-car-cum-rally-car-in-sheep's-clothing. It is wonderful. But you have to work for it.
At anything less than eight-tenths driving, puttering around town and off the cams, the Clio doesn't live up to its curbside promise. A host of cosmetic changes--wider fenders, dual exhausts, a wider track, and a rear diffuser, to name a few--separate the Renaultsport Clio from Renault's ordinary Clio hatchback, and at first, you feel a little cheated. The sixteen-valve, 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces only 155 lb-ft of torque at a high 5500 rpm, and when combined with the Clio's relatively portly 2734-pound curb weight, it doesn't feel very quick off the line (nevertheless, 60 mph arrives in a fairly quick 6.9 seconds). Forward progress is smooth and the engine is well-mannered, but you spend a lot of time shifting the close-ratio six-speed in order to stay in the engine's narrow power band. It's fidgety. The interior is cursed with a million squeaks and rattles. The steering is very, very linear, but it's also very, very numb.
So you drive the Clio down the road. You marvel at its mild understeer, the understeer that progresses to a beautifully controllable four-wheel drift if you dial in a touch more entry speed. You laugh out loud as you toss off one more whooping downshift. The exhaust barks in the background and your ears tingle. And then it hits you: the 13,179 Renaultsport Clio is simply one of the best front-wheel-drive cars to ever set tire to pavement.
It's all there: the near-perfect chassis balance (no front-wheel-drive car should be able to do what it does), the staggeringly good wheel control (its suspension seemingly can't be bottomed out). Over the same slick roads that have the Fiesta and the Skoda working hard but gaining no ground, the Renault simply rockets into the distance, howling its little sixteen-valve head off. As the Clio whomps its way over yumps and bumps, never losing composure or that crucial sense of wicked, countersteery fun, you fall, and you fall hard.
In circumstances like these, you'd think that it would be easy to forget your surroundings. But--especially for first-timers like us--Wales isn't so easy to shake, and the land itself has almost as much of an impact as the driving does. Like Northern California, the Welsh terrain is an oft-rainy soup of fjordlike inlets and rolling green hills and microclimates, but it's at once fuzzier, spookier, and more mysterious. Couple that with the traditional British rural ephemera--phone booths in the middle of fields? Land Rovers hauling tea carts?--and you end up with a strange cross between a Led Zeppelin album cover and The Benny Hill Show.
In the end, it's that innate sense of foreignness that has to be remembered. In a weird place like this, these cars seem perfectly natural. But even under the best of circumstances, none of them would really work in America. Stateside roads are too different, U.S. traffic is too dense, and the need for straight-line speed is too overbearing. On the wide-open lanes of middle America, involving, spritely, and nimble will simply seem busy, nervous, and small.
Regardless, these three jewels carry lessons. They remind us that speed and power aren't always coupled, and that character and chassis poise are far more important than ultimate velocity. By all rights, denied these perky little bits of four-wheeled genius, we should be miserable. But a wiser man than us once said that if you don't have your dreams, you don't have much. By that scale, we've got a lot.