By James Wong

2012-09-28-10-44-06

A non-Cup Clio 200 parked next to me, which made me ponder a fair bit as the non-Cup car reminded me of my old VWs with its wider wheel gaps – how different has my French hot hatch experience been compared to my VW hatches (specifically the MkV GTI today) of the past? I decided to distill the key differentiators in a few points:

1) Mobile rear end vs understeer bias
With a modicum of embarrassment, I never knew how a hot hatch could have a mobile rear end when I had my GTIs. They were just capable – you don’t get to taunt its edge of grip till you are driving quite hard, unlike the lesser cousins like basic Golfs, for example, which understeer much earlier in a cornering scenario. I concede that this could just be down to tyres, which is a worrying thing for the GTI – what exactly makes it handle differently from a basic Golf?

To be honest, very little. It still rolls considerably, and anything more than a public road would show that it is definitely not built to be a sharp tool. If anything, it is the extra power that makes most of the difference and that is probably the main draw for most people who bought into the MkV and later GTIs. Turbocharged power with a dual-clutch gearbox was, back then, a privilege for the masses but is something we see in almost every new hot hatch now. So on the handling front, the GTI is nothing to write home about. It has an understeer-bias setup that simply would not react to being provoked (especially with an ESP that cannot be completely switched off) – which is a stark contrast to the Clio.

On a wet B-road, I quickly found out for myself what a mobile rear end was. Even with ESP on, the rear wheels felt like they didn’t have a lot of weight over them at all – and it was true! On hard braking, there is a slight sensation of twitching of the rear. Further, with a bend taken at speed, the car doesn’t feel secure like the GTI – but neither did it feel inert. With a eagerness akin to a hungry puppy, you can feel all four wheels working, and the weight transfer happening when you lift off the throttle, removing weight from the rear and consequently getting it quite mobile. With enough space, I think the rear actually helps turn-in – a mild sort of oversteer that I really enjoy. So on this front – the French handles vastly different from the German, and I prefer the French.

2) Special vs Ordinary
I know the Clio isn’t a special run-out model – but it certainly feels like it. More overtly sporty than the GTI, it has a bodywork that is vastly different in dimensions to the standard Clio, and its hunkered down stance is beautiful in a purposeful way. I think the GTI is far more restrained, more daily driver focused – but consequently it also feels less special.

3) Exhaust note
The Germans have always been rather conservative with their exhaust notes, and with the GTI it’s no different. It does sound good, but it doesn’t get your heart pumping like the Clio does. Of course, it’s partially because the GTI’s turbocharged while the Clio is N/A.

4) Build quality
If we’re talking about the MkV GTI, there is little between the Clio and the Golf. The Clio has surprisingly tolerable materials for its interior, and I have no complaints at all. One noticeable difference though is the bodywork. The Clio is indeed quite a bespoke body and it shows: the front panels don’t fit quite perfectly, and a keen eye can tell that it wasn’t put together well. It doesn’t affect how the car functions, but it is a bother nonetheless. Nothing of that sort for the GTI, although it does suffer from above average problems relating to its coil packs and engine oil consumption (the latter of which also plagues the Clio). One thing about the GTI (and VWs in general) that annoys me – some part of the car will always rattle, no matter which VW you are in. I realised that was not the norm for cars (finally!) when I owned the Clio.

All’s said and done, the GTI is a quick family hatch, while the Clio 200 Cup is a sports car first and then a hatch later. Although both fall under the same category of hot hatch, the differences are plain to see when you’ve owned both. And what a difference it is!

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