Euro Hatches Compared: Ford Fiesta ST, Renault Clio Renaultsport 197, and Skoda Fabia VRS

Sam Smith
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Charlie Magee

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.

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