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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 12, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    Hot hatch hot-spot

    Neil Briscoe

    I am excited, giddy like I never was even when I was a school-boy. It’s not quite that all-encompassing, pounding-heart-and-sweaty-palms experience of running downstairs (actually along the hall – I grew up in a bungalow) on Christmas morning, more that late-September, early-October excited awareness that Christmas… is coming.

    Why? Because whatever mess the economy gets itself into, whatever destruction Michael Noonan wreaks on our wallets in the next few weeks and whatever bit of Greece Angel Merkel next decides to poke with a pointed stick, 2013 is going to be the year of the hot hatch.

    Now, you might have assumed that this year, with the arrival of cars like the Ford Focus ST (250bhp) and Opel Astra GTC OPC (276bhp) that 2012 had already assumed that mantle. Not quite. Watching the Astra and Focus duke it out is like watching George Foreman and Sonny Liston fight. Impressive, sportsmen at the top of their game, landing hammer blows like you’d never survive, but not quite the headline acts. In 2013, Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson are returning to the ring, and Joe Frazier will be right behind them…

    OK, enough of the torturous boxing analogies, I’m talking here about the Peugeot 208 GTI, Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Renault Clio… well, actually let’s save the Clio for a moment, shall we?

    The 208 GTI is in serious danger of being outrun by its own hype already, and the worrying sign is that more than a few of us enthusiasts have noticed that in the official press release about the car, mention of the chassis dynamics and steering doesn’t come in till four or five paragraphs down. For a car hoping to live up to the legacy of the likes of the 106 GTI and 306 Rallye, that’s bad enough, but when drawing direct comparison to the glorious original 205 GTI, that’s heresy. If it’s going to be as good as that, steering and chassis should have been line one, para one.

    I well remember the look of shock on a Peugeot engineer’s face at the launch of the enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming 206 GTI 180 when I asked him about how the car compared with the God-like original 205. “But we just couldn’t” he spluttered. “If you put a car with a chassis like that on sale today, you’d get sued…” True enough, original 205 GTIs were a touch wayward on a trailing throttle, and the common thought amongst owners was “I hope whatever’s on the other side of that hedge is soft” but still, reactive, informative and just plain fun like almost no other car.

    The good news is that I’ve just this minute stepped out of a Citroen DS3 Racing, the updated version of which has been released to celebrate Citroen’s roughly 2-millionth World Rally Crown as won by the unstoppable Sebastian Loeb. And while you couldn’t describe it as being as fleet of foot as the eighties Peugeot tearaway, it’s still fast, fun and engaging, with the added bonus that the cabin is well made and practical and you can easily get it to do 45mpg on a long run. Why is it good for the Puegeot? Because mechanically, the DS3 Racing and the 208 GTI are all but identical and if Peugeot’s engineers can convince the chassis to give up just a smidge more front-end grip and lapse into understeer a little less easily than did the DS3, then it’ll be little short of peachy.

    As for the Golf, well, given how classy and effortless the stock version of the new Golf Mk7 appears, there seems little doubt but that the subtly mean looking GTI version shown at the Paris motor show two weeks ago (VW called it a concept, officially, but come on…) is going to be really rather wonderful. With an increase in power to almost 230bhp on the hottest version, a classy cabin and (hopefully) those lovely retro tartan seats still in situ, the Mk7 Golf GTI is just going to be the king of the hot hatch hill, the The Mohammed Ali to Peugeot’s Joe Frazier.

    But then, what about Sugar Ray Robinson? Ali described Robinson as “the king, my master, my idol.” Quite some praise and to get (in this continuing analogy) VW”s Ali to dole out that kind of respect is going to take some car.

    Enter the RenaultSport Clio 200. Well, almost. We already know that the hot version of Renault’s strikingly-designed new small hatch is going to have a new 1.6-litre 200bhp turbo petrol engine, a dual-clutch gearbox and (one hopes) the same brilliant chassis that the past four generations of hot Clios have displayed.

    Now though, it could have an even bigger punch, a metaphorical horseshoe in the glove. A new Renault Clio Williams. When, in 1993, to celebrate winning the 1992 F1 world title with Williams, Renault produced the original Clio Williams, we all swooned just a little. Gold wheels and blue paint long before Subaru ever thought of using them were just the icing. The fact that it wasn’t all that much quicker than the standard 16v Clio wasn’t the point, it was just better, even if only a little, in every department. Better steering, gripper, more responsive and thanks to the association with the Williams F1 team, just that little bit cooler. This week, Autocar magazine has reported rumours that Renault is keen to big-up its newly rekindled association with Williams (together with which it won the Spanish Grand Prix this year). Allegedly, the car will this time have Williams’ direct involvement in the chassis (the original was just a badge job) and will have around 220bhp. And blue paint and gold wheels? Please?

    So, if I should run downstairs (I do live in a house with stairs now) this Christmas morning to find Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Robinson holding the keys to three brilliant hot hatches, then I shall know that my 2013 is off to a good start. Or just that I put a little too much brandy in the pudding mixture…

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