Fun vs Fast: Hatchbacks
Can horsepower translate into happiness
Several years ago I was gifted the opportunity to get a back to back drive in a couple of left field hatchbacks. Colour me the unusual member of the dealership’s sales floor precisely because a drive after work to deliver a car excited me more than seeing my next customer. Probably why I eventually left, loving cars will always be second to loving the sale in the mainstream motor industry. On the outbound journey, I have a second-generation Mazda 3 MPS, at the time a new vehicle. The inbound would be in a seven-year-old Renaultsport Megane 225. Having read the title you probably already can see where I’m going with this but before pulling the parachute and floating off somewhere else, you may want to join me in this free fall thought a little longer.
The Mazda was a car that made you work for fun, but it could deliver, mainly because it would squirm like a trapped coyote when pushed through a corner. The front would eventually wash wide, sadly the chassis wouldn’t translate a precipice, leaving you unable to be confident in your actions. Although fear is usually part of the equation of fun, the feeling of crocodile jaws awaiting to snap you off the road when talent and tyre grip no longer intersect maybe a little more than anyone, but those who think free climbing up mountains isn’t risky enough, would enjoy. This meant that whilst the car was incredibly quick and able to really challenge a fast road, you end up driving without finesse. Hard on the throttle out the corner, and scrubbing off more speed than necessary before the road kinks again as you don’t dare challenge the front end grip, not because it isn’t there, but because of the punishment for overstepping the mark will come suddenly and with zero warning. Once a road really opens up and second and third lanes are added, this is the hot hatch of the two you would want to be in. The trouble is, pouncing through the gears in a car that won’t stop its surge until well into the speeds that result in an instant driving ban, is a little one-trick pony. The challenge, and in so, the fun, is the chase. This is why modern cars with driver aids interrupting you at every opportunity are necessary, almost all of us have less talent than we believe but result in the training wheel syndrome. When you first rode a bike it was great, but the day you got the training wheels taken off and managed not to graze a knee, it was a day to remember.
When you do finally find its limits it translates remaining grip with a whisper
The Mazda just felt so serious most of the time, despite its smiling front bumper, it rarely left an expression of frowning from behind the wheel. The fun was fleeting, like an old drill sergeant grandfather. He’s a hard ass most of the time, but every now and again he lets his hair down. The Mazda needed a little more development time on a backroad rather than the brochure figures, sadly a 3rd generation didn’t appear for us to see where the platform could go with new architecture. The third-generation Focus RS did, however, using some of the bones of the engine. Pumping it up further just resulted in even less time of on throttle fun. Not that it wasn't an enjoyable car, but the challenge, well, let's go back to that evening after I changed over the MPS for the seven-year-old Megane.
Key out the ignition and swapped for a card key of the Renault. The Megane immediately felt older than its license plate. The dashboard, seat, and steering column all had a squeak that couldn’t be remedied with poking and prodding. The vibration through the car was noticeable harsher, and the gear change was vague in comparison. Some of these could be put down to age and mileage. What really mattered though was how this car made you feel only five minutes from stationary. Going back along the exact same road was a discovery. All the terror of overstepping a corner was gone, the Megane goads you to push harder. When you do finally find its limits it translates remaining grip with a whisper. You can push a little more, a little more, a little more, and now back off. The engine isn’t a masterpiece of sound, but somewhere in France, a few engineers are smiling. It has the exact amount of power to make you work for speed, without feeling desperate for more. Could it do with another ten horsepower, every car could, do you want it, no. Ten less wouldn’t be right either, then it would need too much thrashing. The gearing, despite the poor lever placement, is excellent. Usually rocketing through the gears would feel forced, this box wants you to attack it over and over, drop a gear, leap a gear, whatever you need it always delivers the revolutions you need. The Mazda relied too much on brute power to worry so much about timing. The Renaultsport doesn’t have the power to sit back and rely on the turbo stepping in, instead it’s quick through the revs. Best of all, you can drive it quick, you can mess around driving slow, and you can be laser-focused on stripping a corner of every excess millisecond, this car delivers a smile whatever you want.
On arrival back to my start point, I remember how I felt before setting off. Enjoy the MPS, it will be so powerful, I’ll have lots of fun. Drive the Megane back, it will probably feel slow afterward. How wrong I was. I didn’t track the speeds of either car on any particular road, but the return leg felt faster when I know it was slower. Why? Time flys when you’re having fun.
Stepping into even faster machines today makes for even more amazement of what can be squeezed from two litres of displacement. A recent drive of an A45 AMG was a masterclass of speed, just stroking the throttle would send it into the sort of speeds where handcuffs, rather than fines lingo. Yet, I still linger on with my though of that Megane, or the first generation Focus RS. Perhaps, this says a little about progress in the car world, or maybe it says more about me, I'll leave it with you to decide.