Renault takes on Peugeot in the battle of the best city-sized French hot hatch
The French have a strong reputation for hot hatches.
Ever since the original Peugeot 205 GTi arrived on the scene back in the 1980s, small, spiced-up city cars with a penchant for the backroads have been the European country’s domain – at least in conjunction with some well-resolved offerings from over the fence in Germany and Italy.
The tradition of French hot hatches is continually upheld, no more so than in the form of the Peugeot 208 GTi and Renault Clio RS Cup.
The bulbously-shaped yet unassumingly punchy Peugeot has been largely unchanged since its introduction in 2013. However, it now fends off renewed competition from its countryman, the slightly more overt Renault, which has just undergone a mild facelift.
Cue our French comparison test. The Peugeot starts at $29,990 (plus on-road costs), while the Renault starts at $32,490 (plus on-road costs, a cheaper Sports version is sold but wasn’t available for our comparison test).
Why are we comparing them?
The hot hatch market is in overdrive at present. Look at some of the newcomers: Civic Type R, Hyundai i30 N and the upcoming Renault Megane RS.
That said, the shake-up among the smaller city-sized hot hatch is yet to come, thanks to the impending arrival of the Volkswagen Polo GTI and the Ford Fiesta ST, which aren’t due for a few more months.
Those highly-promising models aside, the Peugeot and Renault give us something altogether different – French personality and cachet. Both are set to be overshadowed by newer, incoming competition. But they exude their French flair with pride and loom as a fair dinkum contest.
In addition, both cars are supported by five-year warranties and capped-price servicing programs that boost their appeal.
Who will they appeal to?
Being strictly in the market for a French hot hatch says you are willing to make some compromise, and not surprisingly, both these offerings impose some restrictions and aren’t without their quirks.
In the case of the Peugeot, it’s a three-door, manual proposition only. In-car infotainment is strong, with features including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, however an oddly small steering wheel with even quirkier steering wheel positioning spoils the car’s everyday amenity, obstructing the driver’s view of the instrument cluster (unless you’re really short or really tall).
The Renault is a five-door proposition, but can only be had with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox. While it has two extra doors, it has a smaller boot opening and the interior layout is confused by unnecessary buttons, a dinky infotainment system, unusable incidental storage and paddle shifters that are fixed to the column.
By virtue of their downsides, neither the Clio nor the Pug are practical family cars and are best suited to those who prefer their daily drive with a sporty edge. This is particularly the case of the Renault’s sportier and noisier ride, but can be equally applied to the Pug because of its manual gearbox.
How much do they cost?
The Peugeot is the cheaper of the two, priced at $29,990 (plus on-road costs).
For that you get the regular equipment of the 208 city car, built on by upgraded springs, dampers and a Torsten mechanical differential. Power comes from a 1.6-litre turbo four that makes 153kW and 300Nm, mated solely to a six-speed manual that drives the front wheels.
Officially, nought to 100km/h takes 6.8sec – 0.2sec slower than its countryman – and fuel use is rated at 5.4L/100km combined (versus 5.9L/100km).
Conversely, the Renault Clio RS line-up starts at $30,990 (plus on-road costs) for the entry Sport. The Cup model driven here ($32,490) sits at the middle of the line-up with 15 per cent stiffer springs and dampers, one down from the Trophy ($38,990) which gets an Akrapovic exhaust and higher tune of power from the same engine.
Like the Peugeot, power is sourced from a 1.6-litre turbo four, with peak figures rated at 147kW and 260Nm. Drive is again sent to the front wheels, but this time via a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Another point of difference from the Peugeot is the Renault’s three drive modes (Normal, Sport and Race), along with paddle shifters and launch control. You see the fun-factor case building.
The Renault features a five-star ANCAP safety rating on account of its 2013 date stamp. Were it re-tested today, it would be severely impacted by the absence of automated emergency braking and rear curtain airbags.
The Peugeot also features a five-star ANCAP safety rating dating back to its 2013 date stamp. It misses out on automated emergency braking, which would instantly cost it points in today’s framework.
What do they do well?
The Peugeot’s smoother ride, more favourable cabin acoustics and modern day infotainment system make it the more comfortable tourer of the two – so long as you don’t mind doing the shifting for yourself.
The Pug isolates bumps and road noise adeptly, while its figure-hugging buckets and plush materials imbue it with a genuine sense of occasion behind the wheel.
Conversely, the Renault’s biggest party trick is through the corners – and this was no more apparent than during our short stint on circuit at Goulburn’s Wakefield Park. Turn the Clio’s three-mode driving system to Race (which, it must be said, requires the driver to turn the electronic stability control suite completely off), and it transforms into a lively, enjoyable and rewarding hot hatch.
There is an element of skill and playfulness in the Renault that is not readily evident in the Peugeot. It slides through corners, plies down its power tenaciously and comes to life – even withstanding its Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber, which didn’t seem to stand up to the adhesion levels as the Peugeot’s Michelin Pilot Sport rubber.
Moreover, while its 1.6-litre turbo-four is down on power, it feels the more spirited of the two engines, revving freely past its meaty mid-range well into the high 6000rpm mark.
The Peugeot also enjoy middling to high revs, but doesn’t seem to pack the same punch or aural drama as the Renault, which crackles on the overrun and thrusts under full acceleration.
What could they do better?
The Pug’s biggest fault is a virtue of its design. Two doors and the cutesy styling are likely to limit its practicality and therefore, its reach among buyers. Ditto the slick-shifting manual gearbox, though there were strictly no complaints from this correspondent.
The Renault’s single biggest downside is its interior and infotainment. Even if you option the $1500 entertainment pack, which affords access to Android Auto but not Apple CarPlay, there are big limitations including the finicky menus, sub-par screen resolution and a slew of unnecessary exterior buttons, often placed in quirky spots.
Which wins, and why?
Clichéd as it sounds, you could happily live with either of these French hot hatches.
Both arrive at the same end point, the Peugeot adopting slightly more sophisticated and comfort-oriented tack while the Renault plays to a more overt and unhinged song sheet.
The Peugeot is a sound choice, but as for which one you’d pick if you have a handy backroad, or in this case a track such as Wakefield Park in Goulburn at your occasional disposal? It’s hard to look past the Renault; it better resembles the hot hatch brief and is the car that puts a bigger smile on your face.
How much is a 2018 Renault Clio RS Cup?
Price: $32,490 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch
Fuel: 5.9L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 135g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP
How much is a 2018 Peugeot 208 GTi?
Price: $29,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 5.4L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 125g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP