The recipe for a hot hatch is a gratifyingly simple one. Take a small front-wheel drive car, such as the type your mum might take shopping, fill it full of weapons-grade componentry and the result is something that’s more fun, and frequently faster, down a twisting, bumpy back road than anything with a Prancing Horse or Raging Bull badge.
Volkswagen usually gets the credit for creating the genre with its Mk I GTI, but the Renault 5 beat the GTI both to the showroom – by a couple of months – and down the drag strip. And while the VW became fatter and less involving over the years before rediscovering its mojo with the Mk V of 2003, Renault never took its eye off the ball.
Following the 5 was the Clio and, starting with the iconic Clio Williams of 1993, enthusiasts have been treated to a steady stream of ever-more powerful variants, culminating in the car we have here; the third-generation RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup. It may have a body shape more suited to the city than the circuit, but make no mistake, this is a serious bit of gear.
The hot hatch recipe was not, however, followed by everyone.
In the late-’70s, two cars appeared that approached the hot hatch theme from, literally, the opposite direction; the Vauxhall Chevette and our feature car, the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. The stuff-a-shopping-car-full-of-
That’s why we’re here today: can we find any links between two such disparate takes on a common idea? Rear-drive vs front-drive; old vs new; technology vs tradition.
I start in the warm, comforting confines of the Clio. You sit perched high, the steering wheel tilted away from you at the top like a bus. It doesn’t take long, though, maybe a kilometre, to be amazed – or reminded, if you’ve driven one before – just how good this car is.
Unusually for a car that’s meant to be all about handling, the engine is the initial star. In an age where 200kW hot hatches are normal, the Clio’s 147kW/215Nm atmo four-pot doesn’t stand out as anything particularly amazing. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s the way power continues right to the 7750rpm cut-out; the razor-sharp throttle response that allows you to meter out exactly the amount of power you need; and the noise that wouldn’t be out of place on a rally special stage that makes the Clio’s 2.0-litre engine as special, in its own way, as anything from M Division or AMG.
Any deficit in low-end urge – like any good atmo engine, it needs revs to do its best work – is compensated for by ultra-close gearing. Highway speeds are achieved at a faintly ridiculous 3500rpm in sixth gear, which makes for rather painful long-distance travel, but all is forgiven on a gnarly, writhing bit of road. The ‘box feels race-honed, each successive gear merely dropping the engine back into the meat of its power band.
The powertrain eggs the driver on bit-by-bit until you find yourself automatically adopting the Clio’s favoured attitude to making progress – maximum attack. There are seemingly no questions that the chassis isn’t able to answer. Our test car has the optional Cup chassis, meaning it’s been sharpened from kitchen knife to samurai sword. This can lead to a slightly rodeo-like experience on bumpy roads, but the car never loses composure; just be prepared to hang on tight.
Lateral grip is so impressive that you have to be super-committed to get it moving around on a public road, but the way it whispers ‘faster, faster’ in your ear means that soon the rear-end is wandering slightly under brakes and there’s the occasional rev spike as an inside front wheel briefly unloads exiting a corner. It’s manic, but massively good fun.
After the sensory assault of the Clio, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Sunbeam. Will its age betray it, or its competition breeding shine through?
The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus was a star of the World Rally Championship, Talbot capturing the 1981 Manufacturers’ Championship largely thanks to the efforts of Guy Frequelin, who would narrowly lose the Drivers’ title to Ari Vatanen. The late Henri Toivonen also tasted success in a Sunbeam, becoming the youngest-ever winner of a WRC round at the 1980 RAC rally, a record that would stand until Jari-Matti Latvala won Rally Sweden in 2008.
But enough history lessons. I swap cars with the Sunbeam’s owner, Glenn, and my initial pre-drive thoughts are interrupted by the soft ticking of the Jaeger clock. Slim pillars and the elevated driving position – higher even than the Clio – give tremendous vision and the steering wheel tilts away at the top, just like its newer sibling. A twist of the key, the two 48mm Dell’Orto carbs dump some fuel into the 2.2-litre slant-four and the world erupts! GOD THIS CAR IS LOUD, GLENN MUST BE DEAF. The five-speed ‘box has a dog-leg first, so push away and down and we’re off.
Glenn isn’t afraid to drive his car hard and has made a few choice modifications to facilitate that. There are height- and rebound-adjustable Gaz coilovers which, despite being set to the softest setting, provide a ride so firm that bits of interior trim start to rattle.
The stock outputs of 112kW/203Nm are a bit healthier as well thanks to some choice engine tweaks; quite a lot healthier if the way the Sunbeam takes off above 5000rpm is anything to go by. A throaty roar – part induction, part exhaust – builds as the revs rise but that’s nothing compared to the fireworks that occur when you back off the throttle. A cacophony of anti-social pops and bangs exit the Sunbeam’s exhaust on the over-run as unburnt fuel is disposed of – what AMG would’ve spent weeks tuning into its GT S supercar has been achieved with a couple of Dell’Orto carbs.
As mentioned earlier, the Sunbeam Lotus won the 1980 RAC rally and the weather is decidedly Welsh as we find some more corners to carve. This makes approaching the Talbot’s limits a little easier. Super-light and feel-free steering doesn’t inspire confidence, but it weights up a little with lock and lightens again as understeer builds. The rear-end is surprisingly planted and traction is strong, aided by a mechanical limited-slip diff.
Chasing Glenn in the Clio through a series of uphill second-gear curves soon uncovers one trick the newer car will never have in its arsenal – throttle steer. In these greasy conditions, the steering wheel is simply used to introduce the car to the corner then the accelerator pedal does the rest. It’s not oversteer per-se, more like neutral-steer. That said, it’s a far cry from the lock-to-lock antics of Frequelin and Toivonen, as the slow steering and short wheelbase means you’d need to be on top of your game to throw it around like the rally heroes of old.
So, to answer our original question, can any similarities be drawn between this unlikely pair? In some respects, it would’ve made more sense for the Clio to be one of the mad mid-engined V6 variants, as then we’d have two very unorthodox takes on the hot hatch theme. Unfortunately, Clio V6s are sadly absent from Australian roads… Instead, we have two cars that perfectly demonstrate the paradox of the hot hatch genre.
The Clio is designed to be an undemanding urban runabout, yet Renault Sport has turned it into a hard-riding, highly-strung adrenaline fix, while Lotus took a humdrum, relatively unpopular hatch and turned it into a spitting, growling, tail-swinging motorsport hero. The hot hatch: What a ridiculous concept; what a wonderful concept.
Images by Joel Strickland