Forget the genuine carbon trim and Superdry-meets-fighter-jet graphics, initially it’s the list price of the Citroën DS3 Racing that holds your attention. It costs over £23K, which makes it nearly £7K more expensive than the 154bhp DS3 DSport. Even if Loeb himself had fine-tuned the chassis and left his signature on the dashboard, that would be steep for a 204bhp front-drive hot hatch.
Right now, though, price is of little concern. Here in south Wales, low winter sunshine is illuminating a fabulous, undulating panorama and has turned the road that jaggedly dissects it into a glistening silver ribbon. This is prime hot hatch territory. The road has blind crests and plunging, tightening corners that demand respect for the centre line. For anything bigger than a Mondeo it’s a tight fit, but there’s just enough wriggle-room for a feisty little hatch to barrel along – provided it’s decently sorted.
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The DS3 Racing isn’t instantly reassuring. The surface is wet and the Citroën’s steering feels light, the wheel tugging slightly in your hands as its front tyres scrabble for traction exiting tighter turns. It feels like it’s up on its toes, a little short of grip, and if it were offered right now, you’d sacrifice some of its ride quality for a bit more positivity.
But that would be too hasty because, a few challenging miles on, the car in the rear-view mirror isn’t exactly harrying to get past, and that car is the Mini John Cooper Works. The JCW, acknowledged as one of the leading lights of the hot hatch class, shares the DS3-R’s turbocharged 1.6-litre engine (208bhp in the Mini’s case) and recorded exactly the same 0-60mph acceleration time at the Millbrook Proving Ground yesterday, so the Citroën is clearly getting some things right on the B4560.
Helping to highlight those things are the ubiquitous Mini and three other rivals, all of which cost less than the DS3-R. The JCW is £870 less expensive (although the extensive options list is so tempting), but we also have the 197bhp Renaultsport Clio 200, still our choice in this class and a bargain at £16,810 in ‘Cup’ trim. Then there’s the still-funky little Vauxhall Corsa VXR, which offers a frisky 189bhp for £18,625, and completing the test another new hot hatch, the Volkswagen Polo GTI.
In our view the Polo puts VAG’s shared platform and 178bhp, 1.4-litre twin-charger engine to better use than either the Skoda Fabia or SEAT Ibiza, although it costs a chunk more then them at £18,790, or £19,410 in rather plain five-door trim, as here.
To a degree, you get what you pay for. Take a close look at the DS3-R and you see that its exterior is detailed in gorgeous, satin-finish carbonfibre, from its radiator grille, around its wheelarches and along its sills to the rear diffuser. Bright red Brembo brake calipers peep from behind the blade-like spars of the handsome, 18in, anthracite-coloured alloys, and the interior is a riot of details, textures and more graphics (the set is a £450 option) that gives even the Mini’s cockpit a run for its money. It all sounds a bit much but somehow it hangs together without looking overblown.
Feels good, too. The Citroën Racing-designed bucket seats are surprisingly soft and generously proportioned but offer great support, while the reach- and rake-adjustable wheel ensures a sound driving position and feels lovely in your hands. Yet as soon as you get moving there’s a contradiction. The DS3-R is Citroën Racing’s first road car and should move the game on from the regular DS3 DSport. It sits a smidge lower and has wider tracks and bigger wheels and tyres, yet the absorbency and smoothness of the ride are what strike you first. Add in the steering’s lack of weight, the delicacy of the brake pedal and the rather ordinary sound from the tailpipes and you feel a little short-changed. Hardcore looks but a soft centre? We shall see…
WE WEREN’T EXPECTING to set any records when we met up at Millbrook, because it was lagging it down. First into the blocks was the Mini. Our test car must be the most subtle JCW you can specify, with stock wheels, dark green paint, a black roof and black mirror shells. The Mini’s engine is rated at 208bhp and 206lb ft, a few points higher than the version in the Citroën, and on the wet asphalt it scurried off the line, traction control working to good effect, to record a respectable mid-7s for the 0-60 sprint. Traction off, we lowered that to 7.3sec, with 100 up in 17.2, both times that looked like they would be hard to beat.
The Corsa got close on 7.5sec to 60, despite the fact that its turbo 1.6 engine ran out of puff 500rpm shy of the 6500rpm red line, but by the time it had got to three figures it was over two seconds adrift. With traction control usefully employed, the DS3-R slipped and gripped its way to 60mph to match the Corsa, and then, surprisingly, with traction off it got down to 7.3sec, equalling the Mini. At 100mph it was trailing by just 0.3sec.
The naturally aspirated Clio has the power but not the torque of its forced-induction rivals, but it’s still a match for the JCW and DS3-R to 60mph, while in-gear from 30 to 100mph, wrung out and revs kept high, it’s on the pace of the longer-geared Citroën.
Had there been a crowd, they might have left by the time we got to the Polo GTI, assuming they’d seen all the action, but that would have been a mistake. Although boasting the least power at 178bhp (and idling with an oddly offbeat, clattery note like it was a three-pot or had a loose exhaust manifold), the DSG-equipped Polo left the line with no slip, no fuss and no driver input – save for keeping the throttle pinned – and flabbergasted us with 7.1sec to 60. Yes, it was a bit behind by 100mph, but the twin-clutch gearbox’s shifts were swift and seamless and would have guaranteed the same time, every time.
If you’re looking for a hatch that’s the polar opposite of the Citroën, you’ve just found it. The DS3-R’s interior is so plain and its looks so unadventurous in five-door form that you wonder how they get them to leave the showrooms. Go for silver, replace the Golf GTI-mimicking alloys with steelies, and you’d have the ultimate Q-car. Well, you would if it was a blast to drive, but it’s hard to know what to make of the Polo on the rain-slick twists and turns of the B4560.
There’s no question that it has more outright grip than the Citroën, and it feels usefully lower slung too, which is encouraging. The seats offer good support and are trimmed in a grippy material too, and yet it doesn’t feel very sporty. Partly this is because the DSG ’box (there’s no manual option) introduces a lack of precision with its mushy throttle response and the way it allows the car to coast into the first downhill turn unless you drop it into ‘S’ or select gears manually via the lever or wheel-mounted paddles. The dynamics are an odd mix, too. It feels like an ordinary model that’s been hotted up with shorter springs and bigger wheels and tyres; the ride feels firm at first but then a bit soft at speed, and although it finds lots of grip, the steering seems low-geared and there’s not much weight or feel through the slim wheel-rim.
‘It’s as if every part of it has been designed by a committee, right down to the dynamics, which don’t really marry up,’ says features editor Henry Catchpole.
The Clio makes a stark contrast. It’s a familiar shape, though it looks particularly good in white with black wheels and detailing that includes a black roof and darker rear glass. This isn’t the entry-level Cup model but the regular, £17,810 version, with the higher level of standard kit that comes with it, fitted with the optional Cup chassis. It’s also got the optional Recaro seats, which cost £970 (similar items are standard in the VXR Corsa), though even without them you’d recognise the quality of the chassis. The cockpit is not a patch on those of the Mini and Citroën but it’s neat enough, with decent materials and a few sporty touches, such as the Ferrari-style yellow-faced tacho that red-lines at almost 8000rpm, and the fat-rimmed steering wheel.
You sit taller in the car than you might expect, but that’s soon forgotten because the dynamics feel just-so within a few hundred yards. The weight and rate of the steering, the sweetness of the damping… you sense that this chassis will deliver, that the money in this car has been invested in what you can feel rather than what you can see.
And so it proves. The Clio devours this road, turning keenly, naturally, connected with the surface but not dictated to by it, and delivering great feel. It carries speed, grips tenaciously and hooks up early for the exit, all of which helps keep its naturally aspirated engine on the boil. Its mid-range torque is better than the original Clio 197’s, and as long as you wring it out to 7500rpm – right until you hear the beep of the upshift prompt – the Clio has the performance to match the most potent here.
The Mini can maintain a similar pace, but it does so in a completely different manner. The JCW feels low-built, short-legged and roll-free, its ride firm and jiggly, and it finds terrific grip on this slick surface. It reacts sharply to big bumps, though, and there’s one on a fall-away left-hander, where the cars are loaded up most, that thumps right through the shell of the Mini and deflects it from its line. It’s not worrying, though, because the JCW is almost kart-like and moves sideways all of a piece, four-square, before recovering grip quickly and cleanly. There’s not a great deal of steering feel to work with, a situation not improved by a prod of the Sport button, which merely adds more weight and sharpens the throttle, and the brake response is rather abrupt and sensitive, so you make less fluid progress than in the Clio.
It’s a good place to be, though. Even after the DS3-R the Mini’s cabin feels dramatic, the huge central speedo the size of a dinner-plate dominating the dashboard and piano-black trim contrasting with the (optional) sage leather. The Mini sounds fruitier, more enthusiastic than the Citroën and feels sparkier, too, but, as we’ve already discovered, the DS3-R can match the pace of the JCW despite having what feels like a looser, more precarious hold on the wet surface.
The Citroën feels taller, softer and less grippy, but lots of bumps that trouble the Mini slip mildly beneath its wheels and you get terrific steering feel. You can sense the treadblocks of the front tyres slipping sideways on the surface, and you can modulate the throttle to maximise the torque passing through them at the exit or slur a line precisely wide by overloading them.
‘The DS3 feels really grown up after the Mini and Clio, quite relaxing,’ says Catchpole. ‘The steering’s too light, you’ve got to learn to trust the front end, and you need the other cars to show your pace, but it’s quite fun, involving.’
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Corsa VXR on test and, considering a facelift is imminent, it still looks pretty tasty, even in more modern company. It appears to follow the same formula as the Clio, its cabin essentially neat enough, with sportiness imparted by a pair of deep-sided, torso-hugging Recaros and a chunky-rimmed wheel. You sit tall, as in the Renault, too, but in a narrower shell, and you can feel this in the Corsa’s handling.
The first thing you notice, though, is how casually punchier its delivery is compared with the Clio’s. It’s shorter-geared than the Mini and Citroën, too, which puts its pace on a level footing with them, though you sense that there’s a fraction more lag before it picks up. Dynamically, it seems fine in general driving. Catchpole had done most miles in it before we arrived in Wales and liked its slight rawness, which is entirely in keeping with the VXR ethos; a bit of scrabble under power, a slightly edgy feel to the rear.That same rawness is less welcome here, though, and makes exploiting the performance a nervy affair. As Chris Harris observes, the Corsa and Clio have similar spring rates but the quality of their damping is poles apart; the VXR never settles with the road, its steering in particular always being distracted by some bump or camber. It also lacks feel, so you’re not sure where you are on this wet road, meaning your right foot hovers where it’s planted in the others.
THE ROADS HAVE dried out by mid-afternoon but this doesn’t improve the enjoyment of the Corsa; you simply don’t get the feel to work with, the sense that the car is planted and you can choose how much to lean on the grip. It’s hard not to feel a bit frustrated on such a spectacular bit of road, though part of the problem is that you know there are other hatches that tackle it with much more confidence and make it fun, which is why it brings up the rear in this test. It’s not bad but it could be better with some fine tuning.
The VXR beaten by the bland Polo? Well, yes. The VW’s motor sounds odd and it seems as if everything about the car has been set to five on a scale of ten, but on asphalt finally dried by the weak sun, the Polo comes alive, still digging for grip but now with steering feel you can use and some adjustability. Catchpole is amazed: ‘The chassis is transformed, and there’s something appealingly old-school about it. I don’t even mind the DSG…’
We were all hoping that the DS3 Racing would raise its game too, find more grip and meld more with this archetypal hot-hatch road. It didn’t happen. It earns full marks for consistency, because it feels exactly the same as it does in the wet – oodles of steering feel but not much grip, and a sense that the supple ride is keeping the road at arms’ length. But to live up to its looks (and price), it needs to be grippier, harder edged, more focused. ‘A mechanical diff might give it more bite,’ suggests Catchpole.
The Mini maintains its character, too, though with the speed it can now build up, the road feels even lumpier. It’s still a bit short of steering feedback but it still feels all-of-a-piece over the bumps, so it’s fun and effective in its own style. But it’s not the most satisfying Mini, and it’s not the best hot hatch either, because that accolade still rests with the Clio.
‘It’s my winner because, climbing into it after every other car, you think, why aren’t the others like this?’ says staff writer Stephen Dobie. Quite. The trick, of course, is that it makes tackling a tricky road like this look easy – wet or dry – while involving and rewarding you. It feels good just ambling but, like all great handling cars, it has a depth of ability to keep the keenest driver satisfied. Sure, it might not be quite as relaxing at a cruise or as fancy inside as some others here, but if that bothers you then maybe it’s not a hot hatch you’re looking for. It wins this test easily.