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.