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Hot Hatches

Renault Sport Clio RS
Base price : $18,000 (est.)
Engine : 4 cyl., 1998 cc, 16 val.
Output : 170 hp, 147 lb-ft
Transmission : 5-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : strut / torsion beam
Weight : 2277 lbs
0-60 mph : 6.8 seconds
Top speed : 138 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.90 g
Pros  Unbeatable handling, soft ride
Cons  Small interior, body roll
At the lower end of the spectrum is the Renault Sport Clio RS, also known as the Clio 172 in Britain. The French carmaker left American soil eons ago, but it continues to dominate certain European markets with their highly capable Clio. Considered by some critics as the best handling hot hatch in production, it actually has less power output than most of its direct rivals. It's cornering abilities are so good that it makes the more powerful British-built Honda Civic Type-R seem lifeless in the twisties. With a controversial face but conservative packaging, the Clio looks funky but not overly aggressive, due to the absence of huge wheels and body kits. At first, it seems that the suspension is tuned for comfort, soaking up road imperfections with ease. There is also body roll in the corners, but once you start exploring the limits, the car just stays glued to the road, defying the laws of car physics. With its inherent body roll and front-wheel-drive, you'd expect to fly of the road, understeering all the way, but instead the Clio's front tires go where they are pointed, even letting the tail out ever so slightly to help with the turn-in. Short overhangs and small overall dimensions make the Clio very tossable indeed. With its standard 170 hp engine, it competes in a class lower than the 200+ hp compact monsters tearing up motorways, but the Clio so light that it can keep up with many of them in initial acceleration, before running out of grunt at the top end. No other hatchback in its own category even comes close. Not even the Ford Focus ST170 (the European version of the SVT Focus). It is even said to be capable of outrunning the Impreza WRX at the racetrack. The Clio RS truly is the Miata of hot hatches.

Peugeot 206 RC
Base price : $20,000 (UK est.)
Engine : 4 cyl., 1997cc, 16 val.
Output : 180 hp, 149 lb-ft
Transmission : 5-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : strut / torsion beam
Weight : 2425 lbs
0-60 mph : 7.0 seconds
Top speed : 137 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.88 g
Pros  Decent handling, soft ride, looks
Cons  Slow steering, cheap interior
Another French car maker, Peugeot, has recently launched the sportiest version of their tiny (by American standards) 206 two-door hatchback. Dubbed the 206 RC in mainland Europe, and 206 GTI 180 in Britain, it features some aggressive design cues such as flared front fenders, rear spoiler, huge wheels and what not. It is supposed to be the successor to the critically-acclaimed, but redundant, 205 GTI. Based on the attractive edgy-bubble design of the base 206, the new RC packs a modified 180 hp engine under its small hood, developed in conjunction with Lotus Engineering. Main features of the engine include Honda-style variable valve timing, which, unlike Honda, makes 80% of torque available at just 2000 rpm. Top end power is also raised, with the engine able to rev up to an eye-popping 7400 rpm. The short-throw shifter is better than the standard Peugeot piece, with lower gear ratios helping the engine to respond better under acceleration. Stiffened suspension components and 17-inch wheels with low profile tires improve handling, and the rear spoiler is actually functional. Cornering grip and braking power are top-notch. Lift-off oversteer is also possible, and can be controlled with ease. But more emphasis has been placed on comfort more than sportiness. For instance, the steering feels slow and the ride is actually quite pleasant. Standard features in a 6-disc CD changer, ESP, traction control and more. But the interior quality is third-rate, so luxury goes out the door. The driver also sits quite high and the foot pedals are places all wrong. Losing the weighty "luxury" features would have made the 206 RC a proper enthusiast machine, but Peugeot seems to think differently.


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