THE HOT hatch formula has always been a simple one. Take a diminutive chassis, plonk a relatively large engine under the bonnet, and let the good times roll.
In recent years hot hatches have been in a renaissance, growing into brawlers with flared haunches and fire-spitting attitudes. Power has skyrocketed, with some next-gen models rumoured to be 350kW+ all-paw monsters. The physical size, and prices, of the enthusiast main stay have also become bloated, seemingly locking more budget orientated buyers out of the market.
Fear not, for there are still affordable options, which are arguably more true to the original hot hatch formula than their headline-grabbing siblings – enter the Volkswagen Polo GTI and Renault Clio RS 200.
Both have a starting price of just over $30,000, and send power exclusively to the front wheels via six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions.
Play on, then…
Price and Equipment
Both of these cars start at $30,990, but our test vehicles had a number of options fitted.
As standard the Polo features adaptive dampers, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, an electronic diff lock, powered folding mirrors, cornering lights, paddle shifters, keyless entry/start, dual-zone climate control, an 8.0-inch touchscreen and one-touch electric windows.
For our comparison the Volkswagen also arrived with the $1400 ‘Driver Assistance’ pack bringing adaptive cruise, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and auto park assist; the $1900 ‘Sound & Vision’ pack adding Active Info Display digitised instrumentation, sat-nav, and an upgraded sound system; and a $3900 ‘Luxury’ pack with velour, heated front seats, LED headlights, panoramic sunroof, extra tinting and 18-inch alloys. Along with $500 metallic paint, the as-tested price was $38,690.
Facelifted in 2017, the Clio RS 200 Phase II remains similar to its 2013 specification, with the addition of LED lights and updated multimedia.
Read next: 2018 Volkswagen Polo GTI performance review
Renault fitted the Clio RS 200 with a $1500 Leather Pack with Alcantara upholstery and heated front seats, a $1500 Entertainment Pack with sat-nav, enhanced multimedia offering Android Auto (but not Apple CarPlay), RS Monitor performance telemetry, and BOSE audio, and $750 metallic paint. All up, the Clio RS came to $34,740.
For the same base price, the Clio can’t compete with the features provided as standard with the Volkswagen. However, once you start ticking option boxes with the latter, the final price can rapidly rise into Golf GTi territory.
Interior and Connectivity
In an age of rapid technological advancements, a six-month lag can make a stark difference in infotainment. Five years? That’s a lifetime.
Even with its 2017 update, Renault’s infotainment system is severely outclassed by the Polo, in terms of look, functionality, and speed.
The same goes for the cabin design and materials, with the Volkswagen providing a premium look and feel, while the Renault feels dated, with hard piano black plastics dominating the cabin.
Ride and Handling
The French certainly know what they are doing when it comes to chassis tuning, and the Clio RS 200 is a perfect representation of this.
Read next: 2018 Hot Hatch Megatest: Introduction
Steering in the Renault is tactile and confidence inspiring, and when the RS Drive mode is selected, the chassis is as faithful as a golden retriever, holding the road with vigour, egging you to become ever more ambitious with your corner speeds. At the same time, the ride remains supple and refined, all without the need for adaptive dampers.
The Volkswagen requires a deeper dive to find a rewarding drive, with the initial feel of the steering being a touch light, and missing the required feedback for a true driver’s car. But push harder and the Polo starts to reveal itself, with fluid steering and a confident and controlled ride bubbling to the surface. Adaptive dampers allow the GTI to remove some of the tuned-in firmness of the chassis on harsh roads.
Helping the Renault in the fight is its 155kg weight advantage over the Polo, tipping the scales at 1200kg compared to the VW’s 1355kg. With power at a premium in this segment, every kilo counts.
Both cars come with a six-speed dual-clutch auto, and while the VW’s falls into clichéd trap of low-speed jerkiness, on the highway and twisting backroads the self-shifting unit seems to always have the right gear selected, ready to deliver great gobs of turbocharged torque. The Renault’s DCT is an overly energetic thing, always wanting to rush toward redline, encouraging crisp upshifts to keep the thrills coming.
Performance and Economy
Looking at the engine and power stats for both of these cars, the pecking order becomes predictably clear.
In the Clio the 1.6-litre turbo under the bonnet produces 147kW and 260Nm, while the Polo has the same amount of power, but an additional 60Nm of twisting force from its EA888 2.0-litre four-pot.
That torque advantage in the Polo GTI makes it the straight-line hero of this pair. During independent performance testing we recorded a 6.4 second 0-100km/h sprint (0.3 seconds faster than the official claimed figure), with a 14.6 second quarter mile at 158.8km/h.
Meanwhile, the Clio was three tenths slower than its claim, with a 7.0 second flat 0-100km/h sprint, and wasn’t able to break out of the 15 second bracket during quarter mile runs. In its defence, hot hatches are more about feel than instrumented numbers, and the Clio kept on pulling all the way to its 6500rpm redline with a voracious appetite. You may lose the race at the traffic light grand prix, but you won’t stop smiling.
Fuel economy during our testing for the Polo was 9L/100km, while the Clio sipped 9.3L/100km. That’s a close enough average to be negligible in our books.
Almost clean sweeping each category, a cursory reading of this comparison would appear to be a dominant victory for the Polo GTI. Not so, with the Clio RS putting up an admirable fight for a car which is now half a decade old, compared to the still newborn VW.
It’s that age which lets the Renault down, with its dynamic prowess and performance still enough to have the Polo sweating, but inside the cabin the materials, design and refinement fall short at a time when the Polo is breaking new ground for the segment.
Throwing a spanner in the works for the Polo is its as-tested price, which is only $1300 less than that of the Hyundai i30 N, our reigning hot hatch king, and a car Wheels rates as a Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS, and Golf R Grid killer.
But none of the options are ‘must-haves’, allowing the Polo to remain convincing for many budget-focused customers, and keeping the true spirit of the enthusiast hot hatch alive.
For everyday use, the Polo GTI is the clear winner here, with a comfortable and refined ride, mated with a plush interior and gutsy drivetrain. It’s hot hatch credentials are impressive on twisty roads, but for those that put corner carving above all else, the Renault is the more endearing option.