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.