Until now, most modern cars with fewer than four cylinders were either eco-comical Japanese buzz-boxes or a Smart. But, as with your Ps and Qs, I learnt early that it pays to mind your threes and twos.
My first drive of one was as a teen delivering pizzas in a Daihatsu Charade with a naturally aspirated triple. Sure, this Bon Jovi-era featherweight with permanent odeur de anchovy and a spine-shaking ride screamed like a demented wasp. But I revelled in its thrummy three-pot point-and-squirt thrustability. Perfect for the job.
Back to today, in the space of six months we have seen a trio of fresh sub-four-cylinder players – Germany’s Ford Fiesta Sport 1.0 EcoBoost (via Thailand), France’s Renault Clio TCe90 (made in Turkey) and the Alfa Romeo Mito TwinAir (bred and built in Italy). And, trust me; none are interested in playing charades.
All three cars are technical marvels with premium pricing to match from marques that are more than 100 years old. What they lack in cubic inches – the biggest is just 999cc – they make up for in sparkling performance, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and ultra-low fuel consumption potential. Or so the promise goes. For buyers, then, they represent a real upside to downsizing. That’s why they are here.
Inspiring this comparo after our initial launch drive in February, the facelifted Mito attempts to add the brio that was absent from the underwhelming 2008 original. Changes include some minor titivations to the nose and tail-lights, a trifling interior spruce-up – not enough, though, because that slabby dash still looks bulky and old – and Alfa’s first application of parent Fiat’s terrific TwinAir turbo twin-cylinder. And all for $9K less than before.
Priced from $22,500, the Mito is $1975 more expensive than the Fiesta Sport – reigning category winner in the Wheels Gold Star awards – but that gap is halved in this test because of the Ford’s Sports Exec Pack grab bag of climate control, reversing sensors – a necessity since rearward vision is so restricted – auto headlights and wipers, alarm and push-button start.
Neither of these cars can touch the $16,790 Renault Clio TCe90 Authentique, though Renault reckons most buyers will spend another $1000 for the Expression – sat-nav, fog lights, better audio and bigger wheels – and then some, since Mini-like personalisation options are big business. Ours arrived with divisive glossy trim accents inside and out ($500), 16-inch alloys ($750) and an Electric Pack that adds auto lights, wipers and push-button start, as well as keyless entry, rear power windows and electric folding door mirrors ($300). That takes the tally to $19,340, so it’s still the cheapest here.
All three include air-con, cruise control, central locking, Bluetooth connectivity, stability control and five-star Euro NCAP scores – though the Clio’s deliberate lack of rear-seat airbag protection means the local ANCAP peeps subtract a star, even though the Euros won’t. Renault Oz is fighting this, claiming bureaucratic box ticking for the sake of it.
Interestingly, the Alfa attempts to offset its higher asking price with a few worthwhile features neither foe offers. For instance, the Mito brandishes coupe-like frameless front doors – an important distinction to the style-savvy younger clientele all three are targeting. It’s also the only one with lumbar support (and on both front seats), a rear cushion that tips forward for a deeper cargo floor when the adjacent backrests are folded (the pre-2009 Fiesta used to do this, too), a foldable storage bin/armrest between the front seats,
key-fob remote control window activation, solid discs instead of drums at the rear, and six instead of five forward gear ratios.
Conversely, like the Clio, the Mito misses out on map pockets, but matches the Fiesta in providing rear-seat reading lights (a literal oversight in the Renault – and one partially offset by having this group’s only overhead rear grab handles).
Nevertheless, the far-fresher Frenchy wins hands down for interior space and appeal. Almost as roomy as cars from the class above a decade ago, the Clio comes on strong with big-car-like front seats and a wide rear bench offering what is easily the airiest feel. Furthermore, the thoroughly contemporary Renault’s driving position is flawless, the instrument display a triumph in modern clarity, and the central tablet-style touchscreen an exercise in user-friendliness. But the glovebox is small and the air vents don’t offer enough face-level upward adjustment.
Who remembers when the Fiesta included steering reach and rake adjustment? Since going Thai in 2010, it only moves up and down. The dash top also used to be a solid rubberised item instead of hollow plastic. And there were trim colour options. Why Ford ditched all these, yet retained the laughably outdated Nokia handset-style buttons, when the facelifted WZ arrived last August is perplexing.
Still, the Fiesta’s familiarity fits like a well-worn glove, with the trio’s most supportive front seats and the comfiest rear bench, despite not being the roomiest.
All contenders offer sufficiently sizeable cargo areas, with deep floors, long load areas and convenient
child-seat anchorage hooks, but the design-driven Clio’s aperture is narrower in parts, betraying Renault’s decision to sacrifice practicality at the alter of style.
If you desired utility in a car this size, though, you’d be driving a Honda Jazz.
But it’s what’s beneath the bonnet of these bolshy little babes that bind them and us together. And nothing is as intriguing as your first turn behind the wheel of the TwinAir. Half the cylinders, twice the fun – that should be the Mito’s calling card. Oddly lumpy when cold – and ours stalled a couple of times, too – the turbo twin settles down to a bubbly burble, ready to pounce forward at a mere prod of the throttle.
The Mito was driven almost solely in ‘Dynamic’ mode, which improves throttle response, weights up the electric steering and loosens the stability control’s vice-like grip on the chassis. In contrast, ‘Normal’ feels like the handbrake is on.
The TwinAir screams off the line like it sat on a scorpion, ripping up through its limited rev range with an invigorating, intoxicating rasp, bowling along at an unexpectedly rapid rate. This is a properly perky little powerhouse, with incredible tractability for pottering around in higher than typical ratios, and with acceleration being more forceful than its 77kW/145Nm and 875cc capacity suggests.
However, while the Alfa’s aptitude for darting forward frenetically is infectious, the cliff-face performance drop-off once the tacho stretches beyond 5500rpm can be frightening. Overtaking on the open road demands concentration, given third runs out of puff at just 101km/h, so it’s best to drive the Mito like it’s a diesel. Mine the mid-range revs, and stay well clear of redline.
While a few detractors detested the Alfa’s buzzy, single-pitch exhaust note – the TwinAir is an acquired aural taste – the Clio’s 66kW/135Nm 898cc unit has a more subdued yet still unmistakable three-cylinder thrum that, like the resulting performance, reflects Renault’s softer and more eco-focused approach.
In isolation, the Renault TCe90 (for 90bhp) feels more than sufficiently sprightly. A determined right foot is necessary to get things moving along briskly, but there is plenty of mid-range flexibility to keep the Clio sailing along serenely. Introduce a hill, or extra passengers, and a fair bit of downshifting is necessary for continued steady progress. And, like the Alfa, the TCe90 can be caught flat-footed when off-boost. The Renault’s gearchange also has the longest and loosest throw here, though not unpleasant.
Then there is the Fiesta Sport. The clue to its character is in the name. As the badge suggests, the EcoBoost really turns up the wick for a healthy 92kW/170Nm from the 999cc turbo triple, figures not far off 1.8-litre engines of a few years ago. Accompanied by a taut five-speed shifter, this Ford’s punchy vitality makes it a worthy International Engine of the Year winner (in 2012 and 2013).
Tuned for performance, the Fiesta wastes no time, streaking forward with near-turbine intensity that will convert downsizing dissenters into diehards. Sitting on 100km/h at 2500rpm in top gear (100rpm less than the Mito), the Sport isn’t as quiet as the relatively refined Clio, but its sheer ability to so effortlessly pull away quickly is another trait the others lack. It’s the only car here that offers warm-hatch performance.
Not surprisingly, the TwinAir’s terrier-tugging-at-a-lead vigour eviscerates fuel economy. Since nobody could help but drive it all the time in Dynamic mode, our mighty Mito averaged 10.1L/100km against a claimed average of, ahem, 4.2L/100km. But it is in good company. The Fiesta, also constantly caned, was next best with 9.3L/100km (versus an official 5.3L/100km) – a good result given the Ford’s far-superior performance – while the Clio showed who’s boss of the bowser, returning 8.4L/100km (against 4.5L/100km), despite also being thoroughly thrashed. If they were driven more sedately, and with a touch more freeway cruising than our test loop provided (and without performance testing), expect to do around 2.5L/100km better in each.
Before the comparison, it was expected that the trio would fall into the warm-hatch category. Only one – the hard-charging Fiesta – delivers on that expectation, for it leaves the others behind from a dynamic point of view. The Sport ably straddles the fine line between excitability and discipline, feeding in steering feel (as well as some unwanted rack rattle) to the receptive driver with vivacity and zeal.
But while fluid handling, splendid cornering composure and beautifully modulated brakes give the Fiesta an edge, its ride quality on Continental 195/55R16 tyres is quite firm – still absorbent, but busy when you get away from smooth roads. Considering the Ford’s dynamic capabilities, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
The Clio’s incredibly absorbent suspension transcends light-car standards with remarkable insouciance. Its ride – on quality Continental 195/55R16 rubber – recalls the long-travel suppleness of old-school French classics like Peugeot’s 504.
If you hadn’t been exposed to the Fiesta’s taut alacrity, you’d likely enjoy the Renault’s linear steering, which provides a positive combination of grip, response and tactility. After the Ford, both the French and Italian challengers feel a little loose, with the Mito being a mixed bag.
Even in Dynamic (let alone the vague Normal mode), the Alfa’s steering at lower speeds seems artificial, especially in the on-centre position. The Fiat Punto-derived chassis isn’t a particularly inspiring basis. However, keep the wheel twirling, or step on the throttle, and the doughy feel evaporates for more involving handling, backed up by the most sensitive brakes of the lot.
On modest Bridgestone 185/65R15s, the Alfa also rides with satisfactory isolation. Stray onto rougher roads at speed and the steering column can be prone to rattles, making the Mito feel a little ragged and unsettled through tighter turns, and higher velocities over minor undulations may see the suspension bottom out. Finally, be aware that the Mito’s long, low nose is prone to scraping on gutters.
Still, like the Ford and Renault, the Alfa is far more fun than its sub-four-cylinder specification suggests. With one of the most technically advanced engines in the world, the Mito has the heart of a dwarf star, the spunk of a boy band, and the unconventional sass of a motorised Mila Kunis. It’s sophisticated yet accessible.
But the Alfa’s wrinkles show through in its drab interior, uneven steering and underdone dampers. It’s the most expensive and thirstiest hatch here and, while the TwinAir soars in congested Europe, Australia’s massive distances expose performance limitations. So the charming Mito scores an honourable third.
As for the Fiesta Sport, the front looks gormless, the dash is a dated mess and it irks me endlessly knowing that Ford’s ruthless cost-cutters have ravaged the Thai interior compared with the earlier WS models from Germany. But if the TwinAir is a dwarf star, then the Ford’s engine – just like its dynamics – is a supernova. For this one-time perpetually late pizza delivery boy from the western suburbs, growing up reading Wheels and relishing steering feel and sharp handling, it’s my kind of car.
However, the handsome Renault is the most complete – and so best – car here, and by some margin. Outstandingly comfortable, roomy, refined and economical, and with the group’s only five-year warranty, this Renault will reward the fuel miser, enthusiastic driver, bargain hunter and status seeker in equal measures. The turbo triple cries out for a bigger dose of boost, but the Clio TCe90 takes the gold convincingly.
This article was originally published in Wheels July 2014.