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It was the Clio RS that stopped people in their tracks. Which was a surprise. In the cold light of day, the five-door, pencil-sharpened hatch looks a bit strange, oddly unadorned; but at night, city-lit from above in a pool of orange sodium, the Renault looks steely, chiselled, clean and crisp, wide and low, its headlights glinting.

Ipoh’s nightlife stopped with unexpected regularity, and looked, pointed, and said ooh and ah, look-at-that-what-is-it?

Meanwhile, the Ford Fiesta ST, in a lighter shade of red – probably one of the greatest, most satisfying, most perfectly balanced and tuned driver’s cars to be built this decade, if not this century – was ignored. Maybe they couldn’t see that it was an ST. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

No, sorry, I’m going to have to stop you there. It matters.

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The same goes for the Peugeot 208 GTi. This 200 hp pocket-rocket could roll along through a crowded street without anyone batting an eyelid. Its squat stance, chrome-rich grille and arch-extensions wouldn’t register with passers by, just like the Fiesta ST’s model-specific three-door body was largely ignored.

Looks account for a lot, then. That’s a given now, and it’s the Renault that comes out on top. But that’s just on visual appeal alone, and we all know there’s so much more to this trio than meets the eye.

Knowing what these hot hatches are (if you’re reading this, I’d assume that you do), you would, wouldn’t you? As more and more people are satisfying their long-held automotive ambitions, this is where a lot of the car enthusiasts like you and I end up: the practical end of the indulgence car market.

Desirable yet thoroughly common sense. Plenty of speed and thrills, yet with everyday usability still intact. I ask again: you would, wouldn’t you? But which one’s best? The whole paultan.org crew decides.

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Compared to their base models, they have each been modified, tweaked and tucked to different extents. This market segment doesn’t stand still, where the interested money tends to flow to the latest and newest. Hence, small hot hatches have grown prettier and ever faster through the years.

And predictably enough, they all come in red. Different shades, but red nonetheless. Seems to go with the territory these days, certainly if you’re looking for a sporty-minded hatchback. We took them to the twisty, mercilessly crested roads of Federal Route 1 to find out how much substance lies beneath the marketing promises.

Which brings us to the introductions. Firstly, the Ford Fiesta ST. The smaller sibling to the Focus ST, it finally adorns the keen-handling Fiesta the head-snapping performance it craved for from the start. It’s priced at a middling RM145,842 (OTR without insurance), making it more than 55% dearer than the Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost. How can it command such a premium, then?

Obviously, 182 PS and 240 Nm of torque (with 290 Nm available on time-limited overboost) from its turbocharged 1.6 litre engine blows the three pot’s 125 hp and 170 Nm away, while a six-speed manual transmission is installed in place of a dual-clutch auto’box. Zero to 100 km/h is down from 9.4 to 6.9 seconds, paired to a deftly tuned chassis to match. This is the Fiesta we’ve all been waiting for.

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Next, the Peugeot 208 GTi. Since newer, flashier rivals arrived on the local market, the Pug has been rather overlooked. Don’t. It’s still the cheapest of them all at RM136,116, and its timeless PSA 1.6 litre engine makes 200 hp and 275 Nm of torque, controlled through an honest-to-God six-speed manual gearbox. It’s more than brisk too, with a 0-100 km/h time of 6.8 seconds.

Compared to its timid base model (120 hp/160 Nm, four-speed auto, 0-100 km/h in 10.7 seconds), the GTi’s 45% mark-up over the 1.6 VTi seems more than fair. The performance difference here is far larger than in the Fiestas. It’s just a pity, then, that it takes a trained eye to spot a fast 208 next to a standard one – more so than with the Ford.

Which saves the most distinctive of all last: the Renault Clio RS 200 EDC. A lot of factors make this one unique over the other two. It’s the only one here without a base model (not here, at least), so Malaysians will only know the Clio in this form, and this form alone. No mistaking it for lesser variants, then, which is good as it’s priced at a rather heady RM168,270.

Other than having five doors, the Renault is also the only one here to swap a clutch pedal for steering-mounted shift paddles. That’s right, a six-speed dual-clutch transmission is forced on you in the Clio, which is not very RenaultSport now, is it? To be fair, it’s the fastest of the bunch, with its 200 hp/240 Nm, Nissan-sourced 1.6 litre turbo getting it to 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds.

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The most superficial question first: which looks best? Malaysia is not a market that tolerates ugly cars. Ask anyone of their buying influences, and most would put style as the most important factor. Yes, even in an enthusiast-driven class such as this.

As established at the start, the Clio RS is the top dog in this aspect, at least to the onlookers. It’s by far the most original design here with a bold nose, ultra sexy curves over the rear wheelarches and of course, twin tailpipes with a serious-looking diffuser round the back. Yet, it’s not without faults.

The six of us (Danny Tan, Anthony Lim, Jonathan James Tan, Jonathan Lee, Gregory Sze and yours truly) all felt that the Clio’s face is a bit too bulbous for its own good. “It wouldn’t look out of place on the Espace MPV,” we agreed. That, paired with fussy details (F1-style front “wing”, hidden handles on long rear doors) meant that Greg alone chose it as his personal favourite.

Add to that the lack of red-painted brake calipers – a definite faux pas in Anthony’s books – and the rest of us were split between the Ford and Peugeot.

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The 208 GTi’s looks still divide opinion. Danny, for instance, couldn’t stand the way the front end is shaped, while others baulked at the fact that it looks too similar to its lesser models. Its only distinguishing features are its unique headlights, chequered-flag grille, two-tone wheels, rear bumper insert, bigger top spoiler and GTi badges – no bespoke bumpers here. And that’s not enough when you’re asked to pay so much more.

Still, Jonathan James Tan and I both thought the Peugeot to be the most handsome car here. It may not look as outwardly sporty as the Ford, or as aggressive as the Renault, yet the 208 GTi looked to be the classiest choice by quite a margin. It’s the only one here without an OTT factor that would get the taste police taking a turn around the block.

The Clio has its huge face, while the Ford has its polarising windowline, which, alone, was enough for me to look elsewhere. That aside, the Fiesta ST received the most votes here as Danny, Anthony and Jonathan Lee favoured it over the rest.

Its snake-like intake, sharp skirtings and body-coloured diffuser address its sporty intentions well. Add to that the fundamental attractiveness the Fiesta’s shell and Ford has itself a winner in the looks stakes. One caveat though: get it in blue and you’ll have a blue diffuser. Now that’ll have the taste police all over your back.

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Inside, it’s a different story altogether. Despite its brash exterior, the Fiesta ST feels like a rather dull space to spend time in. You’re clamped tightly by oversized Recaro seats, but the colours are gloomy – it’s all back and grey in here – and the impression of long-term durability isn’t high (the flimsy manual air-con controls – familiar from the standard pre-facelift Fiesta – being the biggest offender).

The ST-specific add-ons are limited to the aforementioned seats, thicker-rimmed steering wheel (which looks no different to a regular Fiesta’s), alloy pedals, manual shifter, and a set of overstyled, hard-to-read instrument dials. It’s worth noting too that the top Fiesta loses out on the standard variants’ piano black trim and automatic climate control system.

In contrast, the Peugeot’s passenger accommodation is excellent. The interior imbibes a sense of quality, with a well-constructed dashboard of good-grain plastics and quality leather inserts. It’s the only car here that can claim to have a “premium” feel to it.

Next to the Ford’s sombre cabin, there’s a lot of red in the 208 GTi – a bit too much around the air-con vents and door handles, to be honest, not to mention the naff 12 o’clock strip on the small steering wheel. Unfortunately, it goes without a keyless entry and start system, which is a glaring omission in this class.

The Renault, meanwhile, has a real extrovert interior that rather overwhelms the nicer detail touches such as the chrome bezelled dials and classy RenaultSport highlights. Overall build quality, too, falls short of the standards set by the Peugeot and Ford (which, in ST form is built in Germany, and has soft-touch dashboard materials).

On a more positive note, the RS Monitor 2.0 is a well thought out gimmick that offers a lot of information for driving enthusiasts, though admittedly most of them are not of any use to anyone. The seats, as unassuming as they look, offers good support and are mightily comfortable, shaded only by the 208 GTi’s terrific leather/fabric thrones.

In terms of day-to-day practicality, none of these cars is going to out-do a Perodua Myvi. All of them have cramped rear quarters, and the Clio’s extra doors only aid access, with no space benefit whatsoever. But even so, there are degrees of badness.

Faring the worst here is the Fiesta ST. Access to the rear is the poorest, no thanks to its bulky front Recaros. And once in, rear occupants get no grab handles, and can only look out through tiny windows. You can blame the steep rising windowline for the latter. So if you have, or are planning to have kids, give the ST a miss.

Next up is the Clio. Yes, it has five doors, so access to the rear seats is a lot simpler, not requiring front passengers to get out first. But yet, it offers less legroom than the Ford, and the rear bench itself gives little to no support.

Surprise, surprise, it’s the three-door 208 GTi that has the most hospitable rear quarters. Its relatively small front seats are easier to manoeuvre through, and inside, you get nice grab bars on each side. Better yet, the centre tunnel intrusion is much smaller than it is in the Ford, plus the added visibility through bigger side windows and panoramic glass roof make it the clear winner here.

Posing over, it’s the driving that really split the pack. The Peugeot appears initially enthusiastic thanks to its lovely engine. The familiar PSA lump – here in THP200 form – allows the GTi to do everything from purr to growl (silently), with plenty of smooth, glutinous torque on tap, regardless of the revs.

On paper, all three cars’ 0-100km/h times are rated within 0.2 seconds of each other, but they couldn’t feel any more different on the road. The Pug’s big torque advantage (275 Nm vs 240 Nm) is apparent throughout the entire rev range, as it pulls away more cleanly in higher gears, without screaming for a downshift or in the Ford’s case, maybe two.

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Keep the cars off the boil, and the 208 GTi will (quite literally) comfortably outpace its rivals. Pushed harder however, and it suffers slightly. Its engine becomes breathless about a grand under the 6,000 rpm red line, and the gloopily damped gearshift also radiates slightly ponderous vibes.

Not so the Fiesta ST, whose straight line speed deficit couldn’t be felt by anything other than a stopwatch. The EcoBoost engine is superbly smooth, though not exactly tractable from low speeds. Its clutch uptake is far sharper than the GTi’s, and it demands more from the driver to really show its full potential.

The controls are those of a sports car: accurate and proportional, challenging you to slot everything together smoothly. The position of the gear lever in relation to the steering wheel – a tad too low and far away from the wheel than is ideal – however, interrupts the flow slightly.

At all speeds, the ST’s eminent noise makes itself heard. Its snarly mid-range and big-cube exhaust note is an acquired taste, to say the least. I for one, found it much too loud when pootling around, though Anthony and Jonathan Lee – both strong advocates of the ST – disagreed. To each their own.

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The mechanically-offbeat Clio RS 200 is often criticised for the lack of passion and driver involvement with its flappy paddles setup. It’s undoubtedly effective – it is the quickest here, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Performance is rapid, though not quite as frantic as the Fiesta ST at full pelt, but the choice of gearbox is controversial.

It is more accessible than the other two here, but at the expense of both tactility and involvement. Fast as it may be, the action of just planting your foot down and seeing the world pass by will never be as engaging as being part of the process, i.e. dipping the clutch at the peak of revs, slotting in the next gear, etc. The Renault is quick, but nothing more, and nothing less.

From here on out, the Clio RS is already fighting relegation; its title tilt derailed as soon as it started.

And it’s not due to a lack of commitment from the chassis, that’s for sure. Dynamically, the Renault is technically superb. Ride quality is good, not getting rid of dips and dives but flattening them to give a stable deck from which to aim. Mid-corner crests and pips fail to fluster the Clio RS, which stays clean and clinical through and through.

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Given an empty stretch or better yet, a track, there’s little doubt at all that the Renault would categorically murder its two rivals here. But one would argue that a hot hatch is all about purity. And the Clio RS isn’t quite pure enough.

As you’d imagine, this is the Ford’s section of the test, and it steps up enthusiastically. Despite being down on power compared to the rest, the Fiesta ST feels ruthlessly quick on the road.

It demands to be kept boiling, but when it is, the accelerative pressure that feels and sound like it has been building suddenly pops like a cork from a bottle, releasing a spine-tingling growl and a burst of new speed right to the red line. The satisfaction is very similar to enjoying an old-fashioned VTEC engine – you have to work it hard, but the work adds to the effect.

Where it really scores over the rest is in its steering response. It can bite a big chunk out of a corner the moment you turn the wheel with such alacrity and poise, giving it a kind of instant swivel-about-its axis response. While the Renault and Peugeot may be good at tackling corners, the Ford is outstanding.

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But on the flipside, the Fiesta ST’s ride bordered on being appalling. It picks up bad heave and pitch on roads the other cars read as absolutely smooth, and the hard springs transmit major road bumps directly to the base of your spine, turning your backside into the primary suspension component.

Its 17-inch wheels and low profile tyres may not have helped, but the other two seems capable of wearing rubber band profiles with impunity.

Which leaves the 208 GTi. Unsurprisingly, ride versus handling is a home win, and occupant comfort is excellent, with upper middle-class refinement. Undulations get parried nicely by the soft-ish setup, only extra viscous bumps getting through to score a short shimmy through the chassis.

Happiest grand touring, the Peugeot is still willing to have a go in the twisty bits. Unlike the Ford, though, it feels like it has finite grip, and it is surprisingly easy to drive up (or even slightly over) the limits. Hard cornering loads up the car nicely, the chassis tensing and sending messages in a way the Renault doesn’t care enough to.

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One part of the verdict is easy: placing the Renault Clio RS a distant third. It may demand the most attention on the road, but one person it fails to thrill is the driver. As a hot hatch, then, the Renault is a pretender – clinically competent, but not a particularly pleasant drive.

Not one of us six rated it anywhere other than plum last. In the end, it does everything it is asked of with nary a complaint nor drama, yet it offers an all too sterile experience, which, next to the two stalwarts here, commands respect but not love.

But while the Renault was lapped several times, deciding between first and second was the closest of photo finishes. For the Ford Fiesta ST and Peugeot 208 GTi are two pretty exceptional cars.

We almost declared it a draw. But that would be a cop-out.

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So we argued and argued and ultimately voted. With a final tally of two against four, we were forced to place the Ford runner-up – a decision that physically hurt both Anthony and Jonathan Lee. They’d probably go as far as to offer a couple of their own limbs to see the Blue Oval take the win. And supply their own hacksaw too.

Yet despite all that, and the fact that the Fiesta ST is the purest hot hatch here (all six of us unequivocally agreed that it was the best handling and to be driven hard), it still comes second as an ownership proposition. Not because of any big failings on the car’s part – the hard ride and gloomy interior could just as easily be regarded as character enhancements as niggles. But as a car to be used everyday, it asks for a lot of sacrifices.

The Peugeot’s strength is that it doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t need to. When the roads are clear, the 208 GTi can hold its own, but the rest of the time – and let’s be honest, in Kuala Lumpur it’s most of the time – the Pug does a near faultless impression of an everyday hatchback.

The Ford doesnt. It’s always serious, always demanding to be spanked, to be treated the way it should be.

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Meanwhile, you dictate how you want to enjoy the 208 GTi. It offers more than enough sparkle and general passion to the business of motivation. It’s mid-rangey character is also particularly well suited for Malaysian roads, and whereas it never quite reaches the same highs as the Ford, it allows for significantly more involvement than the robotic Renault.

The Peugeot manages high-speed cruising or back-lane surfing, town or country, at ten-tenth or anything below. It’s a good-natured, adaptable car, digging in gamely and having a go when it need to, allowing you a clear view of its accessible limits.

As a car, the 208 GTi is almost flawlessy competent, but there’s sense of fun that the Clio RS lacks, and enough of it to at least be compared to the Fiesta ST. For Danny, Jonathan James Tan, Greg and myself, that makes it the King of B-segment hot hatches in Malaysia.

But don’t take my word for it. Read what they have to say themselves:

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Gregory Sze says:

I’ll be the first (or second) to admit that the Ford Fiesta ST was my pick to come out top in this comparison. After a weekend of monumental moments, I can still say it is by far the best car to drive when one’s inner hooligan decides to make an appearance. Everything about the car – from the way it builds speed particularly in the mid-range to the sheer heft of the steering itself – shouts high-performance.

With that said, if I were in the market for a hot hatch, my pick would be the Peugeot 208 GTi. Given one car to ferry me back and forth from my house to the office, day in, day out, the 208 fits the bill. It’s easily the best car to live with day-to-day that at the same time, possesses enough pizazz to keep things interesting over the odd Sunday morning drive.

Don’t get me wrong, the Renault Clio RS 200 EDC is a capable car but it is exactly just that. A tool, a weapon that one might use to demolish other cars on a track but that’s it. It’s a tad too clinical in its delivery, too sterile in its presentation. The saving grace? It’s the only car of the trio that would catch my attention from an aesthetic point of view.

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Jonathan Lee says:

I really wanted to like the Renault Clio RS 200 EDC. And it very nearly did win me over – it’s a gorgeous car with funky gizmos and by far the most balanced and capable chassis here. Some would call its approach clinical, but I think there’s actually some fun to be had through its sheer grip and iron-clad unflappability. But the slow, uncouth transmission proved to be the Clio’s downfall. It’s such a shame, because this is a great car screaming for a better gearbox.

The Peugeot 208 GTi makes a more determined stab at things, being the classiest, most understated car to look at. It’s also the easiest to live with every day, with the nicest interior (by an unassailable margin), the plushest ride and the most accessible performance of the three.

When push comes to shove, however, it runs out of talent the quickest. It robbed me of confidence to drive it quickly, and I just couldn’t enjoy it as much as I did the others. It’s unfortunate that the condition of this particular example was not ideal, because I’m sure it would’ve had a better chance of winning over my heart, as it won most of my colleagues’.

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Instead, it was the Ford Fiesta ST that did it for me. Yes, it’s the most Brothers of the lot, has the most barren interior and the ride is truly stiff. Yet, in my view, the gulf in everyday usability between the 208 and the Fiesta pales in comparison to the chasm in driver enjoyment, and it’s in favour of the Blue Oval.

Where the GTi was mute, the ST felt talkative, alive. And whereas the GTi began to fall apart the faster I drove it, the more I pushed the ST, the more I felt I could trust it, the more it begged me to drive it faster, harder.

At the end of the day, it was the ST that got me tingling when the roads got twisty, and that sealed the deal for me. But I can completely understand why anyone would pick the GTi instead, and they wouldn’t be wrong at all.

Jonathan James Tan says:

I had in fact already taken each member of the thriller trio on a date prior to this – at different times, and for relatively short durations. Certainly, I knew a second tryst – with all of them back-to-back – would clear all doubts of which one I would take home, and not to meet the parents.

Yet I pre-determined a winner – the Ford Fiesta ST was the one that wrung the most beats per minute out of me last we met, so why shouldn’t it do so again now?

Oh, but it did. This is a car you drive by the ST of your pants. You won’t find a steering this sharp and articulate anywhere in the segment, and the gearchange is slick and crisp. Throw in an unyielding chassis and a naughty engine note, and you find yourself taking some shocking liberties with this party girl and athlete rolled into one.

By stark contrast, the Renault Clio RS 200 EDC is the class geek, which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. Lots of stuff, from its diamond-like carbon cam followers to its front bumper and rear diffuser, are F1-derived, and then there’s that information-overladen RS Monitor.

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Immensely rapid and capable though it may be, the RS’ track-biased nature makes it less suited to public roads than the others. Progress is very secure and fuss-free on the whole, and it can do so much more, but only on the circuit will its full prodigy be realised.

But the more I drove the Peugeot 208 GTi, the more smitten I became by it. This is a fast car that makes no claims to be one. Being little more than a 208 with a hot motor, the ride remains pliant and the cabin maintains its quirky, classy and airy qualities. It’s not as planted as the RS or as controllable as the ST at speed, but its thrust is the most usable and accessible in the real world.

So my verdict is thus. The ST is unquestionably the hottest hatch here, but it’s Miss Bardot I’ll be taking out to dinner tonight. At least, unlike the other two, she won’t look out of place in a hotel foyer.

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Danny Tan says:

The hot hatch unites driving enthusiasts like no other. You may dream of Italian exotica, drool over classics or drive JDM machines, but if there’s one genre all can nod in agreement with, it has to be the humble hot hatchback.

With the seniors looking bloated in size and power, it’s down to this crop of super superminis to keep it real. All three have evocative badges and are pretty evenly matched on paper, but each has a distinct personality – it all depends on how you like your hot hatch served.

The Fiesta ST arrives on a sizzling pan. Lowest figures, but the fizz more than compensates. Turbocharged it may be, but you’ll want to wring out every inch of rpm before changing gears (the right way, by stepping on a clutch). That enthusiasm is matched by the ST’s agility and feedback. Truly a feast for the senses.

Perfect for our stress-releasing weekend drivecation, but as a car to buy and live with everyday? I’m OK with the spartan cabin, but not 100% sure if I can keep up with its always switched-on character. The French cars ride and pamper better.

The Peugeot is everything the Ford is not – fat arsed, well-equipped, comfortable, understated in power delivery – but don’t be fooled, it’s very quick. The THP gives you a thump in the back while whistling away, but the entire process of driving fast is effortless.

The Renault goes one up. It does the daily hatchback thing very, very well (great refinement, good ride), but there are RS and Race modes for those Mr. Hyde moments, and you can even make it sound like a Nissan GT-R or Clio V6. If our test was done on the track, my money would be on an easy win for the Clio.

Back to the “buy one as your only car” question. The ST may be too hardcore for this ageing driver. The RS is well balanced, but I’ve never owned an automatic before and I don’t intend to do so as long as they keep making ‘em stick shifts. GTi’s glass roof and lowest price seals the deal.

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Anthony Lim says:

In an age where emotion is no longer measured by the sensations coming off the seat and steering wheel, and where efficiency largely defines efficacy, something like the Fiesta ST is simply pure, unadulterated joy.

Sure, the cabin feels a bit pinched and ordinary in light of the familiarity of the standard Fiesta’s interior, and there’s something about the rear half’s exterior lines as presented by the three-door layout that didn’t quite resonate.

But all is forgotten and forgiven when you gun the ST down a stretch of twisting, undulating B-tarmac – this is an extraordinary car, full of innate talent and outstanding ability. To say it appealed to the 10-year-old that I actually am would be understating it – it left me completely gobsmacked and, more importantly, wanting to repeat the process again and again.

That motor – almost NA-like in breathability when pushed hard – is an absolute standout midband on, and the chassis responds to input in such fashion that it made the other two feel inherently lazy. This was my second outing in the car (the first, in Melbourne), and though the firmness was again evident, the ST’s ride wasn’t even a consideration as it was to some of the team – I actually found it winsome.

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The Clio RS was a non-starter for me – sad, because it did track and place the best of the three, and as an experience, very grown-up, cultured even. But it is all served clean, utterly devoid of emotion, dull in both sense and feel. And that’s not what a hot hatch is all about.

The Peugeot’s more balanced approach appeals in a different way – it is quite the all-rounder, the one that will serve most the best, and I can see where the others are heading with their call on it.

But, in keeping true to the gestalt of the hot hatch and all that it stands for, there is only one clear and absolute winner in my books. The idea of a great driving, small tail-less car will always appeal to me, and the little Ford hits that particular nail squarely and firmly on the head. Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

For a more detailed look at these cars, compare their specifications and equipment levels on CarBase.my.


Ford Fiesta ST
Peugeot 208 GTi
Renault Clio RS 200 EDC