By James Wong

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As it were, it’s appearing quite possibly that I like my hot hatches a lot more than I thought.

Having had a string of them, you’d think I had enough. But the truth is, I made some good choices, but I haven’t nearly made the best of them. The MkV GTI gave me an insight to modern, turbocharged and efficient motoring, but ultimately gave a safe and very conservative handling appetite. Surely a very polished hot hatch, but not something that’s adjustable or playful. It was just quick point to point; very, very quick.

The next was the Mk2 GTI 8v, which is probably what I would call a different formula. It has a nice off-beat exhaust note which evoked a welcome 1980s nostalgia, had a conventional 5-speed manual gearbox and a characterful naturally aspirated engine that punched above its black and white figures. I loved its easy torque access, its stunning visibility and looks that would attract the right sort of attention. But alas, it too was denied greatness by its all-round polish – it was great at doing nearly everything, but it didn’t feel playful, like how an old French hot hatch like the 205 GTI would feel. And so I moved on.

I considered many cars before the Clio. Probably too many to list down and friends I have harangued for advice would probably consult the same. I wanted something rather modern this time – because I’d be doing a lot of long-distance driving to the continent, across the UK and I needed something that wouldn’t risk breaking down every 200 miles or so. Yes, I had that much faith in modern French cars. I think – think – they’re a shed load better than years before.

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Above all, I wanted practicality for a road trip, yet the last word in handling prowess when called upon. It came down to a M duo – the E46 M3 and the E39 M5 – along with the Clio. I know you will probably choose any of the Ms in a heartbeat, but insurance pretty much sealed the deal for me (it will cost me as much to buy the M3 as it would be to pay for its insurance). So no Ms – maybe another time, in another country. I bought the Clio.

It’s no M. It’s not a limited edition model, neither is it particularly rare or hard to get. But is it a hoot to drive? Well, let’s just say I’ve found another formula of hot hatch yet again. This time, instead of a torque-rich delivery, I have a high-revving engine that needs hard work from the driver. I have extremely short gearing, so every gear change feels like loosening the chains off a bulldog’s collar. I have super stiff suspension that my friend says can make him think erotic only with the world ‘jiggling’. All that combination culminates into a new experience. So yeah, it’s FWD. So what. It’s a whole different ballgame here, and I am loving it.

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Well, covered about 600 miles so far and I’ve got little complaints – chiefly over the ride over broken London roads (does seem to fade away with more usage though). The other is a rattle from somewhere in the boot. Does seem to be as French as baguettes. Otherwise, this is just about one of the very best handling hot hatches I’ve ever driven. Surely, at least 2nd or 3rd place. It has the spirit of the Type-R, which I adore very much, and that comforts me because I’m finally experiencing the new ‘formula’ which I have dreamt about for so long.

Let’s see what the next year throws up with the Clio. Watch this blog for updates as the weeks progress!

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