Hillclimb Shootout: Ford Fiesta ST200 vs Renault Clio RS200 Lux [with Video]

It’s a pocket rocket battle for the ages as 2 of our favourite hot hatch makers go head-to-head on the same section of tarmac. Boasting identical performance figures, just one question needs to be answered: which 1 should you pick?

What do we have here?

The ST200 is the Ford Fiesta ST’s final swansong before a new generation arrives next year. To make sure it leaves a lasting impression, Ford’s engineers have added a dollop of extra power and torque, honed the suspension setup and sharpened the steering. Visual upgrades include an ST200-specific Storm Grey exterior paint colour and black wheels with red brake callipers.

Power and weight are identical. The Ford has more torque (30 Nm more) but the Renault has that RS magic that might be enough to counter the deficit.

Freshly facelifted in June 2017, the Clio RS can be had in two distinct flavours: 200 Lux and 220 Trophy. This one is the RS 200 Lux model which is slightly softer, detuned and less overtly sporting than the more track-biased Trophy version. With a healthy 147 kW at its disposal plus a marginally more refined dual-clutch gearbox, the Lux is still a full-fat RenaultSport model and, as such, still benefits from the brand’s almost unrivalled hot hatch engineering pedigree.

Cards on the table

Rarely do we get to compare two cars that are this closely matched. At 147 kW, 6.7 seconds, 230 kph and 1 170 kg respectively, their power figures, 0-100 kph times, top speeds and weights are identical. Only the torque outputs spoil the symmetry party, with the Clio falling 30 Nm short of the Ford’s 290 Nm. The big drivetrain differentiators are the two gearboxes – Fiesta uses a short-shifting 6-speed manual while the Renault employs a 6-speed dual-clutch ‘box with column-mounted paddles. And, if you’re being pedantic, the Ford has 3 doors to the Renault’s 5.

The task at hand

As part of our #CarsRaceday, the Ford and Renault were assembled at the foot of what’s known as Malanshoogte road. It’s a section of hilly tarmac that winds itself up and around the farms of Durbanville in the Western Cape. With the help of the traffic department, we closed off 3.1 km of stringy, spaghetti-like asphalt to form what could form a proper hillclimb course but for the short 300 m section that plunges down to a narrow bridge at the bottom.

The Renualt's foglight design is a trait built into all new RS models. 

As for runoff area, there’s isn’t any. No room for error here, though the choice of embankment or ditch in the first half seems less intimidating than the armco guardrail lining the upper reaches of the climb. This is definitely not a tight and technical hillclimb – speeds in these hatches will crest 180 kph before being forced to tap off for a few fast, almost blind corners. As a test, our up-and-down-hillclimb is an excellent examination of the rivals’ acceleration, high-speed stability and turn-in, not to mention driver bravery.

Initial impressions

Prior to dispatching the hatches up the hill, we thought it a good idea to get a feel for them in ‘normal’ conditions. A few nights in the Fiesta reminded us of what a traditional hot hatch is meant to feel like: pointy, agile and heaps of fun. I’m sure, given enough time to become properly familiar with it, that the rear of the Fiesta would be your primary turning device. It’s really easy to generate lift-off oversteer into corners thanks to the additional suspension travel. It’s also quite simple to hold the slide and then correct the entry. There isn’t an insane level of grip from the tyres either – enough to maintain confidence at speed, but also slidey enough to keep you focused and involved.

In the looks department it's hard to pick a winner, the ST200's black wheels make it stand out from the Renault's familiar RS design.

The Renault is almost an exact opposite to the Ford in terms of its skillset. Instead of being fluid and slidey, the Frenchie has a taut and grip-focused chassis that astounds with the way it turns in and maintains traction. It feels faster than the Fiesta but doesn’t require as much driver involvement. The Clio is about G-forces and cornering speed. You can turn it in hard and fast and it’ll stick to the tarmac like glue as it tests your core’s ability to hold you upright. Who needs gym when you’ve got a Clio, boet?

Making it feel special

Clambering into a pepper-sprinkled hatch only to encounter a crummy, standard interior would be a huge disappointment. Happily, both cars are also spicier inside. The Fiesta’s cabin gets a set of Recaro bucket seats and an array of ST badges dotted throughout the cabin. The infotainment system is a letdown as it still features Ford’s button-heavy Sync 1 system that looks about as complicated to operate as the cockpit of a Boeing 747.

ST badges are strewn around the cabin, but it's not enough to take your eye away from the mess of buttons on the infotainment system.

The Clio gets special seats too, along with red stitching around nearly every visible surface. The infotainment system is leagues ahead of the Ford’s and includes an RS monitor app that tracks lap times, acceleration, G-forces and more. The data’s downloadable too, so you can partake in a little trackside analysis, just like the pros.

Lots of red stitching denotes the Clio RS. Its infotainment system is more modern and much easier to use than the Ford's.

Time to send it

First up the hill is the Fiesta. The temperature sensor outside the car registers 10 deg C. As the fog lifts, the sun begins to dry out the residual dew on the ‘track’. Being a public road, there’s no rubber in the surface to aid traction and the Fiesta lights up the front tyres on launch. A slight lift is required to regain the traction required for maximum acceleration. Aurally pleasing induction and exhaust sounds accompany the climb in revs as the engine pulls cleanly to its redline. Although there’s a hint of lag at the bottom as the turbo begins to spool, the torque spread is impressive and the motor pulls strongly in higher gears.

The first section of left and right sweeps are all taken flat out as the Fiesta plots the path of least resistance. As we crest the top of the first climb, a glimpse at the speedo needle reads 180 kph. The farm workers at Fair Cape Dairies appear to have been given the day off to spectate and they aren’t shy about indicating exactly how much throttle to apply as I approach the dip across the narrow bridge. The Fiesta’s chassis lifts a little over the bump and the rear starts to wander. Keep it pinned and it settles just in time for the hard uphill braking point that signals the 90 degree left into the steepest section of the hill. The tarmac is still cold but with a little trail braking and then a big lift off the brakes, the Fiesta’s rear end seizes the opportunity to take over the steering duties. But even hostile takeovers are easily countered with a touch of throttle. It’s this beautiful balancing act between front and rear that puts a wider smile on your face than any other hatch in the class. Those who think front-wheel-drive cars can’t be fun clearly haven’t driven the ST.

The Ford has a more thrilling driving experience. Its chassis is more lively and entertaining but it's not as fast through a bend as the Renault. 

While immense fun, the sliding and balancing act is not the fastest way through a corner as it compromises exit speed. The ST200 clearly loses time as it carries the loss of speed up the hill and through the final bend to the finish. The result, no doubt also influenced by the colder tarmac and slightly damp surface is 1min 22.48sec.

It’s the Clio’s turn next. Not more than 5 minutes after parking the Fiesta, already the damp patches have dried significantly while the rubber laid down by the Ford provides yet more traction for the Frenchie to exploit. Both may share the same official 0-100 kph time, but the Clio is the more consistent thanks to its electronic launch system. It immediately feels more planted than the Fiesta, faster too, as it holds tighter lines through the first set of sweeps. The chassis allows you to feel more confident in its abilities but the lack of steering feel is something that disconnects you from the car and the road.

Over the bumpy bridge, the Clio stays flat where the Fiesta lifted its rear end. In the braking zone there’s not even a hint of lift-off oversteer. It turns in rapidly and the chassis falls into line immediately but it's difficult to tell how much more you can push it as there’s little feedback through the wheel. A stab at the throttle produces a graunchy sound from the tyres as it starts to understeer wide, even backing off the power to shift the weight around doesn’t change the angle of attack or upset the Clio’s chassis. Nothing to do but spot the exit, floor it and flick a paddle – if you can find it. They’re fixed to the column, so searching for a paddle with a touch of steering angle dialled in is near impossible. Fresh air shifts are a common occurrence. Sliding your hands on the wheel mid turn to grab a gear is not ideal. Given the choice, I would have them turn with the wheel as they do in ALMOST every other car.

The Clio RS has incredible grip and traction from its chassis but the driving experience is let down by the lack of driver feel.

The Clio’s chassis, cornering grip and balance certainly makes it feel faster and the result at the top of the hill confirms it as the RS200 records a hugely impressive 1min 19 sec. The Ford is solidly beaten, but the gap is probably overstated somewhat by the conditions the Fiesta had to deal with by going first.

Is it about the time?

Probably not. Bragging rights belong to the Renault for sure, it is the faster car after all. For us, the more pertinent issue is whether the extra speed adds more driver involvement. It doesn’t. There’s more to the Ford ST200 than just a hot hatch label. It allows the driver to feel the limit better through its steering, the suspension is set up to tip the car into corners from the rear. The Renault falls short of the Ford’s fun factor, something that the previous generation (Clio 3) had in spades. This Clio 4 is quicker than before but somewhere in the development stage when the RS team were trying to make it faster, they forgot that not all driving is done on track or with a lap timer. The Fiesta is the more playful car, the one that puts a bigger smile on your face and the one that won’t leave you wondering if you’ve made the right decision. Despite losing out in the stopwatch race, the Fiesta ST200 is the car we’d spend R20 000 less money on to own.

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