Car makers spend millions giving their hot hatchbacks leading- edge engine technology, retro-chic shapes and dazzling dynamics. And we love them for it. But the one element they know they can never, ever underestimate is absurdly cheap and simple: a fast badge with history. The aim, we would hope, is to meld modern manners with the spirit of the past, to justify the claimed provenance in some tangible way and avoid anything that smacks of cynical marketing through taking an illustrious name in vain. Sounds straightforward enough.
For Alfa, the magic number is Quadrifoglio Verde (or green four-leaf clover, shortened to Cloverleaf in the UK). Slap one of these on your hottest contemporary Alfa and not only does it instantly denote said superiority but also, it is hoped, a depth of track-bred tradition that reaches back to its first appearance on the Alfa RL race car of Udo Sivocci in 1923. It implies a continuity of philosophy that lifts the chosen model – in this case the 168bhp turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir-engined Mito – clear of its workaday siblings. A romantic notion, but we like it.
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Renaultsport, you might think, had no need to rummage through Renault’s heritage to ignite its image. It’s on fire already. True, we’re not talking about a lineage that winds back to the birth of motorsport, but it does have a pretty awesome rep and, conveniently, folds down to ‘RS’ with no legal infringements. So the reanimation of the presumed deceased and embalmed Gordini badge (and, along with it, the signature blue-plus-white-stripes livery) is intriguing to put it mildly.
How much more sporting goodness can be wrung out of a 2-litre, 197bhp Clio 200? We suspect not even Amédée Gordini – born 1899 and, from the ’50s, mastermind behind Renault’s racing success and breathed-on road cars, starting with the R8 – would have been able to extract anything worthwhile. So no- one at Renaultsport has even tried. In reality, Gordini equals fancy cosmetics and bundled extras, nothing more. The name sounds very cool, though.
At least BMW has had the grace to call the Mini’s aesthetics/trim options something vaguely silly like ‘Chili Pack’. Then again, ‘Cooper’ is arguably the most iconic small- car badge of all, an integral part of the Mini legend for half a century that has been kept remarkably honest down the years, the Cooper family’s interest and input most recently manifested as the ‘John Cooper Works’ editions of the S. The standard Cooper S is tasked with upholding the honour of the famous name here, but as it now gets the same engine as the hottest version of the new Mini Countryman (181 instead of 172bhp), more than ever it looks fit for the fight.
Which brings us to the final contender in this gathering of heritage hot hatches, the mightily-named Abarth Punto Evo. This isn’t the last word in performance-orientated Puntos. That will be the ‘Esseesse’, which arrives in November with another 17 or so horsepower to add to the 161bhp developed by the Abarth’s turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir engine (essentially the same lump that powers the Alfa). For the time being, though, this is the feistiest Punto to wear the striking scorpion motif, and replaces the Abarth Grande Punto launched in 2008.
As with that car, note the absence of ‘Fiat’ from the designation. Abarth (the surname of a famed Austrian engineer called Carlo who founded his eponymous company in 1949, specialised in tuning and racing Fiats to great acclaim and was bought out by the Turin giant in 1971) is now promoted as a separate brand through 19 dedicated dealerships, some of which are run by Alfa rather than Fiat, this being regarded as a more natural fit with the brand’s up-tempo aspirations. Certainly, plenty of components are shared between the Punto and Mito beneath the skin – not least the engine and platform.
The implementations are distinct, though, and the visuals more so. The message that this Punto Evo is an Abarth and not a Fiat is delivered with all the subtlety of a Rio Carnival float. The badge-count alone constitutes a veritable nest of scorpions and is reinforced on our test car by optional thick sidewinder sill-stripes bearing the company name in block capitals (£160 with door mirrors in the same colour). Red Brembo brake calipers easily visible through the elaborately designed, claw-style 17-inch alloys and cooled by the generously sized air ducts sculpted into the front bumper combine with lowered suspension, flared sills and a rear spoiler and diffuser to further adjust the aesthetic attitude. In other words, the gender of the Punto’s rather feminine bodyshell has been reassigned macho- plus. A little OTT, but it just about wings it.
Inside, the welter of logos, the matching red and yellow Jaeger dials and the vividly hued stitching of the leather trim do much to lift the ambience of a predominantly black cabin, but some of the facia plastics feel low-rent and, although the seats look the business, they don’t offer enough under-thigh support.
The Alfa turns just as many heads, not because of its Cloverleaf badge and the associated addenda – large and nicely underplayed respectively – but because it’s a truly striking looking car. Not a shimmering beauty like the 8C Competizione, the car from which the Mito, according to Alfa, takes its design DNA. In fact, from some angles, it looks oddly pinched and bulbous, despite its hugely flared rear arches. From most, though, it’s a bold and original presence with a pleasingly muscular footprint.
The Mito’s cabin plays it relatively safe in the traditional Alfa idiom but is no less stylish for that with a curvy dash clad in surprisingly inoffensive mock carbonfibre, a decent complement of comparably big, clear dials supplemented by an info screen on the centre console and easy-to-use switchgear.
The Mini Cooper S is too familiar a sight to warrant a second look these days but, that apart, it’s still the most distinctive and adventurous design here, a cubist counterpoint to the samey, generic profiles of the others, with a cabin founded on outrageous pastiche and boutique-plush execution yet still managing to be properly driver-centric and practical (great seats and driving position), even if it is disgracefully poorly packaged in the rear.
Were the Renaultsport a regular Clio 200, it would provide a lean, minimalist riposte to the Mini’s calculated cuteness, the Alfa’s strangely attractive oddness and the Abarth’s unrelenting Abarthness. Save for the vibrant paint-jobs and weird black ‘F1 wing’ front bumper element that actually looks like a moustache, the quickest Clio is most noteworthy for being largely uncorrupted by go-faster gee-gaws, inside and out, and having a functional, no-nonsense driving environment with serious-looking semi-bucket seats.
Gordini couture applies signature blue paintwork (with matching accents on the interior leather and, more dubiously, the inner sections of the alloy wheels), twin white roof and bonnet stripes, a flip from black to white for the bumper moustache – which now looks like a Hollywood smile – dark facia plastic instead of grey, overlayed with glossy piano black trim facings, and more standard kit, including sat-nav, Bluetooth, cruise control and keyless entry. The overall effect is certainly plumper and more luxurious, though we’re not sure that’s what Gordini had in mind when he set up shop in the ’50s. At least, like the Mini and to some extent the Alfa, Renault can now claim to represent the chic, well-appointed, style-conscious and customisable end of the sector.
Then again, we don’t think you’ll really care once its torso-hugging seat has locked you in place (those in the Alfa and Fiat seem like plush armchairs by comparison). The Renault’s driving position may be less adjustable, but it swiftly gets you in the right frame of mind. Soak up the cabin ambience by all means, but with the hills and valleys of the Peak District stretching out before us we just wanted to strap up, switch on and fire down the nearest stretch of open, twisting tarmac.
It’s no great mystery why the Renault initially sets the bar for this group. Notwithstanding the formidable reputation it brings to the party, its high-revving, naturally aspirated 2-litre four delivers more power than the turbo units in the Mini, Alfa and Fiat. Torque holds up surprisingly well, too, its 159lb ft peak being only 25lb ft shy of the Alfa’s turbo-massaged output, and the margin is partially clawed back by its shorter overall gearing. The Clio is also the lightest of the quartet, giving it the best power-to-weight ratio.
So we can dispatch the answer to one question straight away. Flat-out and in a sprint, the Clio has the legs of its rivals here. In any kind of straight-line race, it’s got things tucked up. That’s not the whole story in everyday, give-and-take driving conditions, of course, but from the start the Clio feels alert and urgent, punching off the line with palpable zeal and enthusiasm and responding crisply to small throttle inputs. An audible gearshift prompt that beeps just before the rev-counter needle hits the red line allows you to keep your eyes on the road while avoiding a time-sapping brush with the rev limiter.
And you’ll want to focus on the road to make the most of the workload the zesty motor gives a sublime chassis. As with the regular Clio 200, there’s a choice of Sport or Cup chassis set-ups, the latter with lower, firmer suspension and quicker steering. This one’s a Sport, but don’t go getting the idea that it’s the ‘soft’ touring option. The ride remains pretty unforgiving and isn’t the best of company on a long haul. Tyre noise is intrusive, too. But find the right road and, as news editor Ollie Marriage put it after returning from one particularly satisfying blast, ‘this thing is dynamite’.
There’s no harshness or unseemly jarring but an almost Lotus Elise-like composure that combines extremely precise control with a nuggety suppleness. Although quick, the steering avoids nerviness and simply feels accurate. It also has decent weight and feel. Maybe it doesn’t turn in with quite the unabated eagerness of the Cup, but when the Gordini gets stuck into a bend you feel completely connected with the action, exquisitely in-synch with the rhythm of the chassis. It has a lithe, sinewy athleticism that manages to carry seemingly implausible speed into and out of corners without wasting energy. The Brembo brakes are terrific, too, not least for their absolute refusal to fade under duress.
Tough act for the others to follow. First, the Mito. It immediately feels a bigger, heavier, lazier car. But then that’s partly down to its biggest flaw: the switchable electronic DNA (Dynamic, Normal, All-weather) engine/chassis settings. The Mito’s default position, even for the Cloverleaf, is ‘Normal’, which feels anything but. In fact, it’s hopeless, giving the Alfa a lethargic throttle response, twirly-light steering and a soft (though not especially well- controlled) chassis set-up that’s completely at odds with what you’d suppose to be its Cloverleaf billing.
Thumb the control on the centre console to ‘D’ and the car wakes up with a start. Gifted the appropriately crisp throttle response, the MultiAir motor is little short of amazing: lusty, tuneful, almost hyper-sensitive to the throttle and capable of making you think it has rather more than the quoted 168bhp and 184lb ft of torque. Its entertainment value is enhanced by a slick-actioned and fast-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. Despite what appears to be its on-paper deficit, it will just about live with the Clio on the straight but, come the twisty stuff, it falls back, however committed the pilot. For a car with a good helping of comfort and refinement in its dynamic make-up, this is no disgrace. Just so long as we’re clear that it’s no hardcore charger.
In ‘D’ the suspension is firm, well-damped and tightly controlled. But the Alfa just never feels as agile or biddable as the Renault. Or anywhere near as intimate and involving. Much of the blame here is with the steering, which is oddly inert and synthetic and almost completely devoid of natural feel. Drive the Cloverleaf briskly and you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Give it the beans on a challenging road and it will come up short.
For a car that shares so much under the skin, the Abarth feels surprisingly different. Like the Alfa, it has switchable driving modes that alter the throttle response and damper setting (but just two – Normal and Sport) and a smart electronic front diff that limits power to the inside wheel to reduce understeer when the Sport button is pressed. The Normal mode isn’t quite as torpid but still saps too much life from the engine response and makes the damping (which is softer than the Alfa’s anyway) rather loose and crashy on poorly surfaced roads. It also renders the steering absurdly light. But at least it doesn’t default to this setting when you switch off if you’ve selected Sport.
This sharpens things up significantly and gives the Punto just as much straight-line verve and beefy low-end torque for any given throttle input as its Italian sparring partner – and a similarly throaty induction note to boot. But, although the helm gains some weight, it feels even more numb and artificial than the Alfa’s and throws in an extra helping of torque steer if you jump on the power early past the apex. All of which blunts the urge to exploit the ample levels of grip, a pretty neutral chassis balance and powerful braking. The firming of the ride makes things feel sportier but the damping isn’t as well-judged as it is in the Mito, giving a bouncier ride that never quite settles and lacks the close-coupled quality of the Clio’s. The rather vague, long-winded gearchange puts a damper on driver enjoyment, too. A lot of car for the money and one that’s good in parts, the Abarth, but it simply doesn’t gel.
Like the Italians, the Mini Cooper S is no shrinking violet under the bonnet. The latest, mildly tweaked edition of its 1.6-litre turbo four is a cracking motor that has an excellent spread of power and torque, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel like a turbocharged unit. The twisting peak arrives at just 1700rpm, but it revs smoothly and eagerly to 6000rpm before the urge begins to tail off. As Ollie puts it, the Cooper S ‘hammers along, surges away from traffic lights, belts out of roundabouts, the lot’. Great gearchange, too – slightly sweeter than the Clio’s, if not quite as slick as the Mito’s. (As with the Fiat and Alfa, the new Cooper S has stop/start technology.)
The Gordini might have the edge in initial excitement and involvement, but the Cooper S has its pace covered on the Peak District’s smoother sections of writhing blacktop, staying composed, unruffled and nailed to the Renault’s rear diffuser. It doesn’t muster quite as much outright grip or have the hair-trigger transient responses, but its well-weighted helm is keen, quick, accurate and communicative. It bites into turns and, crucially, you can feel the grip at the front and trim the line even when the tyres are loaded up. In short, it has tremendous roll-on pace which completely nullifies the 16bhp shortfall.
On bumpier roads, though, it’s a different matter. The optional 17-inch rims and tyres seem to exact a greater penalty on the chassis’ ability to cope than we remember older Minis with the large wheel/tyre combo suffering. In absolute terms, the ride is no stiffer than the Clio’s. The problem is the amount of kickback through the steering which, at its worst, can almost wrench the rim from your hands and send the car jinking bodily sideways. Maybe our car wasn’t representative, but it was enough to spoil playtime in the Peaks and let the Clio off the hook.
Whether Amédée Gordini would, were he alive today, is more debatable. Having his name attached to what amounts to a paintjob and trim upgrade seems just a little insulting to the memory of a man whose passion was performance and motorsport. The irony is, it seems unlikely he’d disapprove of the Clio 200 which, even without the Cup chassis, has displayed a talent worthy of Gordini’s ambition, pulled out some clear blue water between itself and the Mini Cooper S on this occasion, and made the efforts of the Alfa and Fiat seem like lame tributes indeed to their very fast badges.
GORDINIA prolific road and race car tuner and even an F1 team in the 1950s before a buyout by Renault. First joint road car was the 1957 Dauphine Gordini. They entered Le Mans several times in the ’60s too.
ABARTHFounded in 1949. Lots of motorsport success in the ’60s in hillclimbing and sportscar racing, predominantly in the 850-2000cc classes. Prepared Fiat’s rally cars after 1971 buyout, including the classic 124.
CLOVERLEAFA four-leaf clover was presented as a good luck token prior to 1923 Targa Florio. Sivocci’s Alfa won, and the emblem has appeared on Alfa racers ever since, including the Le Mans-winning 8C 2300.
COOPERThe Cooper Car Company launched in 1946, racing in F1 in the ’50s and ’60s, winning constructors’ and drivers’ titles in ’59 and ’60. Mini Coopers won numerous rallies, including the Monte.