There are a few new players on the way but for the moment the hot hatch battle is played out between the Renault Clio 172 and Peugeot 306 GTi-6
Out it in the real world thrills often come cheap out of necessity. Not all of us can afford serious track day fodder and most of us have to put up with front-wheel drive. Oh, the shame of it.
There are members of the track day community who sneer at us hot hatchers. They don’t like having a strung-out GTi on their tail. If it’s not rear-drive then it’s just not a real drive. That is, of course, cobblers. Granted rear drive is the desired option but, when it comes down to it, there’s just not a lot on the market at a sensible price. In fact there’s not a lot on the market full stop.
So a hot hatch it is then. There's no shortage of them these days but if your serious about front-drive thrills then inevitably something French will take your fancy. Which is why we have drawn together here the Renault Clio 172 and Peugeot 306 GTi-6. Their reign might be short-lived because others are on their way, but for the moment they are the best around.
Not that there is anything short–lived about the 306 in any of its guises. It’s Peugeot’s best selling model ever and since its inception, some seven years ago, there has been a snorty one in the range. Since 1997 that model has been the GTi-6 and since its introduction it has ruled the hot hatch roost, only relinquishing its grip when the even more talented, but limited edition, 306 Rallye came along. This is the GTi-6’s swansong year. The 307 is on its way and with it comes Peugeot’s opportunity to continue its domination.
So what makes the Pug so good? Well as a package it is near flawless. The chassis combines remarkable suppleness with outstanding control. Cornering is virtually flat until the tyres start to drift. Feedback through the meaty power steering system leaves you in no doubt about what the front tyres are doing as they sniff out the apex, a process aided and abetted by a quicker than average steering rack.
Point the Pug nose first down your typical pockmarked and rutted ‘Brit B road and let it rip. You’ll be amazed at how it copes, seemingly shrugging off the lumps and bumps. You know the suspension is working but remarkably the body remains almost flat. The competition, meanwhile, would be banging and crashing from bump-to-bump as the combination of oversized, rubber band tyres and rock hard damping sends shockwaves through the shell.
Interestingly the GTi-6 makes do with 15in wheels and a relatively tall tyre profile. The same applies to the Clio 172 proving that size doesn’t actually always matter, despite what that saucy lady in the advert might say. If you’re going to change the wheels on a Pug then do not go over 16in or else you will destroy the stunning chassis balance.
Motivation for the GTi-6 comes from a 167bhp, 2-litre engine, which combines brawn with a rev happy top end. It’s not a class leading power unit now, but it does get the job done. It is, of course, hooked up to a close ratio six-speed gearbox. Sensibly Peugeot have kept sixth relatively tall for motorway work while closing up the first five ratios. The result is a very flexible combination with devastating mid-range punch particularly in third and fourth gear.
Interestingly plenty of people rave about the gearbox in terms of its operation. Personally I’ve always found it average at best and baulky when it wants to be. That aside, though, it is the combination of gutsy driveline and stunning chassis that makes the 306 GTi-6 such an accomplished car.
Since the demise of the near legendary Renault Clio Williams, Renault has been absent from the GTi market. However, in the shape of the Clio 172 they’re back and they want the hot hatch crown back too.
Compared to the Pug the Renault feels positively hyperactive – like a small child that’s imbibed to many E numbers. Where the 306 can feel quite languid until you start pressing on, the Clio is eager to please and scitters around from the word go. Hardly surprising given the combination of short wheelbase and potent 172bhp, 2-litre engine upfront tugging away at the front wheels.
Like the 306, the Clio rides the bumps extremely well allowing serious speed to be carried. On the right road both the Clio and the Pug will demolish the average supercar thanks to weildy size and excellent hot hatch visibility. In the wet, too, these cars are almost as effective as an Impreza.
The Clio’s engine does feel peakier than the Pug’s but then it doesn’t have the benefit of a six-speed gearbox to keep it on the boil. That said it is still remarkably tractable and torquey given output and capacity. The gearbox too is very positive and certainly more precise than the 306’s occasionally awkward shift.
The Clio will cover the same ground as quickly as the GTi-6 but you’ll find yourself working a bit harder. The chassis doesn’t quite have the composure and the steering doesn’t have the same feel or bite. It doesn’t get the power down quite as well either. It is more of a hooligan, more unruly, more of a hot hatch in fact.
It looks the part too. Where as the Pug is almost conservative looking, the Clio looks pumped up with a deep front spoiler, spotlights and pulled out arches.
Ultimately though it just doesn’t quite have the depth that the Peugeot does. The Clio does one thing and one thing only – fast. The Peugeot is a classier act. It has the outright speed and the sublime handling, but it also has the ability to cruise and take it easy – an important commodity in an everyday car.
But then isn’t that what you would expect. The Pug is a size up class wise and a few grand more expensive at £18,300. The Renault fills its boots perfectly and at £15,500 it is keenly priced. You pay your money you take your choice, and we’ll take the Pug.