And so here we are, tiddlers assembled in the depths of Wales, the aim being to test the cream of the sub-hot hatch crop on roads that should suit them down to the ground, the roads of the Elan Valley – roads where supercars fear to tread.
The Panda’s presence is self-explanatory, likewise the Fiesta’s – although we have here the new Mountune version, all the better to press home the advantage, perhaps. There are other new arrivals, too: a pair of teeny turbos in the contrasting shapes of the Darth Vader-ish Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart and the suction cup that is the Abarth 500, while others are more familiar – the Suzuki Swift Sport and Renaultsport Twingo being eCoty veterans. There’s even a wildcard in the dainty form of the Mazda 2. Not very evo, I’ll admit, but I’ve an inkling it may spring a few surprises. What there isn’t is a Mini. We wanted one – a One, in fact – but failed in our quest.
Subscribe to evo magazine
So we’re seven; none with more than 150bhp, only one heftier than 1100kg and some as low as insurance group 4. Assembled in the hotel car park that evening, they’re a good-looking bunch – but there’s more to it than that: putting these cars in close proximity to one another seems to have caused some sort of chemical reaction. Like a small boy with a strip of magnesium in one hand and a lighted splint in the other, an air of mischief permeates the air.
Only one has real star quality (the Abarth), but there’s an inherent sportiness, an eagerness and zest to the rest that makes them look restless as the sun sets and the crows quieten down (hopefully they’ll stop crapping on the cars now, too). OK, so the Mazda 2 is an exception (John Hayman dismisses it as a ‘granny’s car’) and the Colt Ralliart is doing its best to disguise its ugliness behind black paint. In fact the Mitsubishi reminds me of the rocket-powered hatch that Jackie Chan piloted in The Cannonball Run, and as the TT can attest, it’s equally good at delivering stealthy speed. One car is still absent, though, and it’s the potential star of the show; John Barker has promised to get here for breakfast in the Fiesta Mountune.
JOHN KETLEY HAS has promised a bright start, so we’re out at first light. He didn’t mention the fog, but since we’re blearily awake and a fry-up is still at least an hour away, we decide to sally forth into the equally bleary morning. I distribute the keys for the Abarth and Colt, keeping the Mazda’s for myself. It was my shout to include the 2, having last driven it about a year ago and been impressed by its light, accurate controls and deft footwork.
None of that seems to have gone missing, which comes as a relief. As we clear Rhayader the Mazda feels friendly and able. I’m enjoying the easy driving position, an interior of great clarity and good quality and a raised gearlever with an MX-5-esque shift. However, with the least sporting bias of all these cars it neither sounds interesting, nor goes hard. But that does, of course, bring challenges of its own, challenges that exist for all these cars to a greater or lesser extent.
Less power means less speed, so you’re forced to use the chassis rather than the engine to maintain pace and have fun. Less grip means less speed too, so limits are lower, the car working at a more accessible level. And it’s just as well we’re not eating up the ground too fast; given the number of drowsy sheep on the road, I get the feeling we’re the first cars on the mountain road to Aberystwyth this morning.
We are rewarded, though. As we climb, engines straining against the gradient, hints of brightness tantalise through the cloud. Then suddenly we’re through it, looking back on a white sea, above us not a cloud, just sharp, bitter light. Perfect. Chilly, though.
Fed by this cold air, the turbos in the Mitsubishi and Abarth are in their element. The Abarth’s 1.4 has the breathier, gustier, more responsive delivery. It’s on song from 2000rpm and adds pace pretty forcibly. But it’s not as fast as the Colt. Although there’s bugger all in it on the torque and weight front, once the Mitsi’s needle sweeps past 3000rpm there is a hint of Evo IX as it hesitates briefly before jetting forward, accompanied by a gruffer, rougher engine note.
Hayman and I stage an impromptu uphill drag race to satisfy our curiosity. The Abarth sneaks an early lead, but the Ralliart then stampedes its way past with a twitch of torque steer. Zero to 62mph in 7.4sec? I can well believe it. In this company the Mazda is nowhere, but its time will come. After breakfast.
JB must have heard the sizzling bacon, as he rolls up just as mountainous plates are delivered to the table. Full Welshes digested, we head outside to view the final member of our party. The Fiesta is a naturally handsome hatch, but white paint gives it a touch of Essex glitz, and the lines are fussier than the Mazda’s. It’s a big car, too – a full-sized supermini when most of the others here are based on city cars. But what’s this poking out from under the rear apron? ‘A hefty twin-pipe that looks like it’s dropped off an old BMW,’ JB tells us as he fires it up. A brassy parping reverberates through the car park. Abarth has done a much better job with the 500’s exhaust – you find yourself leaving the door open as you turn the key just so you can hear the throaty gurgle. But as we depart the Brynafon Hotel for the second time this morning, I’m in the Fiesta. And I’m impressed.
No, it’s not a genuinely small car – the doors are awkwardly long, for instance – but once inside you forget that. It doesn’t feel bigger and nor does it act it. The Fiesta has the best driving position here thanks to a wheel that moves in and out as well as up and down – the only one of our gang to do so. It’s great to hold too, and the cabin is modern. The stock seats aren’t too bad, either. So far, so good.
I’m short-shifting through town, enjoying the taut ride and precise throttle response, trying not to upset the tranquillity until I’m clear of the few remaining houses. I’m not expecting much the first time I put my foot down, but I am expecting more than this. As Barker says later, ‘If this is what it’s like with 140 Mountune horses, the stock engine must be pretty limp. All the torque seems to have been converted into noise.’ He’s spot on – the exhaust accurately plays the tune of your right foot, and loudly too. Meanwhile, you keep waiting for the power to come in, to develop, but even up beyond 5000rpm you’re disappointed.
Ford claims the extra 20bhp liberated has taken two seconds off the 0-62mph time. It hasn’t. The Fiesta is nowhere near as quick as the Abarth (which shares the same 7.9sec claim). As we climb onto the hills it’s not pulling out any gap on the Swift Sport (0-62 in 8.9), either. It is delicious through smooth curves, though. There’s not much steering feel or weight but the chassis slices, transferring momentum from entry, through apex to exit with minimal fuss. Curious suspension, though. In a straight line it remains short travel no matter how rough the surface underneath, but when you tilt it into a bumpy corner it seems to find another four inches of travel. The Mazda behaves in a similar way.
Time for some cornering shots, and I’m at the back of a three-car convoy, pursuing the Panda and Swift. The Fiesta pivots nicely from the middle, but I can sense it transferring more weight and being less able to control it than the cars ahead, which means it drifts off line through this pair of rutted, crumpled corners. Despite its standard suspension (the Mountune mods only affect the engine) the Fiesta feels supple, but ahead the Swift looks entertainingly energetic, while the Panda up front looks, well, frantic. It’s on two wheels, not just a little bit, but really quite a lot.
Got to have a go at that. The gumball tyres have prodigious grip, which isn’t altogether sensible when the body is this tall and narrow and the suspension this stiff. The springs only permit a little lean and, after that, the g-force is working against the whole car; throw in a few bumps and wheels start leaving the ground. JB, following in the Abarth, is amused: ‘At times I saw fresh air beneath both back wheels – the bounce is either worrying or hilarious, dependent on whether you’re driving it or following it.’
The Panda is born to excel on this road – not in terms of its speed (the Colt is probably quickest along here), but the experience it delivers. It helps that it’s the only one that can even slightly make this perilously narrow road feel like a two-laner, but in essence it’s the feel-good factor that distinguishes Fiat’s baby. That and the concentration required to drive it, because you do need to pay attention.
The main hazards out here are sheep and your own exuberance, and when driving the 100HP it’s all too easy to get carried away, charging at corners, challenging the chassis. The trouble is that the road never finds a flowing rhythm. It’s a bit like experimental jazz: it’ll be all mellow and calm, then it’ll throw a zippity-doo-dah at you. These come in many forms – bridges, crests, mid-corner bumps, immediate narrowing, etc – but since the Panda never settles into a rhythm and neither does the road, they’re perfectly suited.
The sensation of speed is heightened by the Panda’s smallness, magnified by its six-speed gearbox (the only car here so equipped), and to be honest, unless you’re paying attention to the tenths of a second, it’s every bit as rapid as the other naturally aspirated cars, with good punch low down and a feisty mid-range. And we all agree we love the 100HP’s honest combination of utilitarian looks with chunky wheels; I even enjoy the fingernails-down-a-blackboard scratchiness of the cabin plastics and the comically small doors – they’re all part of the Panda’s appeal.
The Abarth is a different kettle of fish altogether. We turn round to head back, past the ancient mines, up through the river gully which opens up onto wide moorland views, and this time I’m in the Panda’s bigger brother. Not that much bigger – don’t forget that deep underneath these two share the same underpinnings, even if the sensations are miles apart. The whole way the Abarth looks and acts is more contrived, but the 500 has easily the best interior of all these cars, full of colour, excitement and interest. The picture deteriorates when you get moving, though. ‘The steering’s like working against magnets,’ John B says later, ‘the clutch is like stretching a piece of elastic and the gearlever is basically an upturned root vegetable.’ After the pogoing Panda the 500 feels vague too, jouncing lazily from bump to bump, unwilling or unable to control vertical movement, hazards flashing as you brake for a corner, traction light flashing through it. Sport mode helps calm the electronics a touch, as does Torque Transfer Control (TTC), Fiat’s diff-aping system. I can just about detect it working through the tighter bends, allowing you to pick up the throttle a little earlier, but the lack of connectivity between driver and chassis isn’t helping the Abarth’s cause.
Especially over the yump. It’s a tricky line over the little bridge, requiring the car to approach it a little off-balance. The Abarth deals with that OK, but when it lands, as John Hayman reports from the sidelines, ‘it practically leaps back into the air’, lurching uncomfortably towards the grass. It’s not a comfortable experience and I’m glad when photographer Chris Rutter gives the thumbs up. And the Mazda? Sweet as a nut, utterly composed the whole way through.
Which basically sums up the way it drives. It’s hard to wrong-foot the Mazda. It rises above the hurly-burly, swooping cleanly along, managing to take corners without braking, just leaning over, assuming an angle and working front and rear very evenly. The trouble is there’s not enough interest to hold your attention. Or gain your affection. It doesn’t slot itself into the road, instead it remains aloof, impressing rather than entertaining. And for that reason it fails to tug at my heartstrings.
Mitsubishi’s reputation has been bound up in one car for years now, and I’m far from persuaded that lending the Evo’s nose to the Colt is a good move. If there’s an angle from which it looks bearable, I haven’t found it yet. What I have found is a new road, a dead-end service access for the most remote of the Elan Valley’s dams. It’s tortuous, surprisingly long and on one exciting occasion deteriorates into gravel. Time to show the Ralliart the art of rallying. Or I would if I could turn the traction control off. This is a minor concern in the great scheme of things; a much larger one is the absurdly heavy steering. Unlike the Ford and Mazda’s helms it does give you something to work against, but you have to turn through the resistance before the front wheels even start to react.
There are some curious suspension traits too: the rear axle goes out of its way to help you into fast turns, there’s sway at the top of the damper travel and you always seem to exit corners with too much lock on, the weighted front wheel struggling to deal with the torque and angle. We’re not entirely convinced our Colt is 100 per cent healthy.
Or maybe the Swift just makes it feel unruly. The oldest car here still feels rather good as we belt back the way we came, eager to make use of what looks like being a decent sunset. You get a great view out of the Suzuki, past the low scuttle and upright A-pillars (the Colt’s, by contrast, are hugely obstructive), it looks pert inside and out, all flush fitting instruments and neatly chamfered edges and, most crucially, it behaves right, too.
You can fling the Swift around with abandon and it’s with you all the way. The nose just sticks, the tail scoots round in line, it feels stiff and together, and boy do you have to go hard before the stability system cuts in. In a word, it’s eager: leaping forward on small throttle inputs, hungrily aiming for the 7000rpm red line, always ready to turn tighter than you already are, finding grip and stability where there doesn’t appear to be any, and free from the rattling suspension and steering kickback that surprisingly afflicts the Fiesta.
Finally, ages after driving the Panda, I feel like we’re getting somewhere. OK, so the Swift could do with snappier brakes, chunkier seats and more communicative steering, but as a package it’s the most convincing I’ve driven so far today.
And then I drive the Twingo. I can only assume we got all giddy at eCoty last year when we placed the Abarth ahead of it. Out here the Renaultsport is yards, miles, light years ahead. It starts as soon as you get in – the Twingo’s cabin is the only one that can hold a candle to the Abarth’s, the seatbacks grasping you under the armpits and not letting go all the way down to your buttocks, the design fresh, different.
Slot first (the gearshift is light and fast, the gate sort of open) and feel the inertia-free way the Twingo drives. Here you can keep the throttle steady, just steer around corners and get real reward from the poised chassis. It’s sharp, agile, an effective and enthusiastic communicator, able to pick these roads apart even more precisely, effectively and entertainingly than the Swift or Panda.
It’s not fast, but the sensations of speed are heightened by the short gearing, and right at the point you’re about to change up – around 6000rpm – the 1.6 becomes harder-edged, more focused, encouraging you to hold on for every last rev, to see the green light flash, giving you the go-ahead to grab another gear. Then you hit the brakes, feel the ABS tinkle underfoot, tilt it into yet another off-camber, smeary curve, feel it cock a wheel, dive for the apex…
THAT EVENING I arrived back at the hotel convinced I’d saved the best for last, and the next morning, when we’re out again, I keep returning to the Twingo as the yardstick with which to judge the others. Once again the hills are alive to the sounds of popping rev limiters and squealing tyres as we finalise judgements, opting for an eCoty-style scoring system (each driver marks each car out of 100, the car with the highest average score wins).
Of the bottom four, none deserves to finish last, but none quite deserves fourth place either. The Fiesta? Too aftermarket, needs the full Ford ST treatment. The Abarth? The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak. The Mazda? Untapped potential. The Colt? Too rough around the edges.
So with our current Knowledge champion already out of the running (and our credibility on the line), we’re left with three. The Panda, our previous champion, still has all the fun of the fair. OK, so as you follow in the wheeltracks of others as they glide along you can’t believe the 100HP is leaping around so alarmingly, but you always smile when you drive it. It’s a rufty-tufty car alright.
The Swift and Twingo have the same genetic disposition to amusement and entertainment but spread a veneer of professionalism over the top. The Renaultsport is the more alert and fizzy of the two, the better damped, the more constantly rewarding. And for that reason it’s our winner. So that’s it, there’s a new world order in the Superminis section of the Knowledge. Everyone happy? Spec panel here
Renault Clio GT 128
The exterior gets petite front and rear spoilers as well as side skirts, twin tail pipes and new 16in alloys, while inside you’ll find seats that don’t look extraordinary but which grip you like an amorous octopus. Under the bonnet is a 1.6-litre petrol four-cylinder that produces 126bhp at 6750rpm and 114lb ft at 4250rpm, which through a six-speed gearbox jollies this Clio to 62mph in 9.3sec.
It’s a more refined car than any of the contenders in Wales, quieter, softer and a little gentler in its sensibilities. The steering weights up nicely with speed but never feels very lively and the front tyres squeal when pushed hard rather than the chassis indulging in any firecracker tail-led antics.The GT goes from grip to slip progressively and didn’t frustrate when we stumbled upon a gloriously sinuous and deserted road. Ultimately, however, this Renault is smooth rather than scintillating. GT are probably the right initials. Henry Catchpole