Handling

Does the Ibiza have the cornering agility to worry the UK’s best hot hatches?

Strong driving thrills should be a key attribute of any hot hatch. While performance, practicality and style are all very important, if a pocket rocket can’t raise a smile along a twisty B-road, its designers need to go back to the drawing board.

On paper, the SEAT has all the right ingredients to challenge the class leaders in this respect. It’s mechanically identical to the Cupra model, which means its suspension is lower and stiffer than a regular Ibiza’s. Plus, it benefits from the firm’s XDS electronic limited slip differential, which brakes the front wheels individually to boost traction out of corners.

In practice, this hi-tech assistance works well, and out of slippery bends and junctions the Bocanegra puts down its power with the minimum of fuss and very little wheelspin.

As speeds increase, it remains composed, with strong grip and decent body control allowing you to make swift progress through bends. The steering is well weighted, too. The trouble is, you don’t get the level of feedback provided by the MINI. This is a criticism of the whole Ibiza package – a lack of involvement lets it down.

True, the seven-speed twin-clutch DSG transmission gives rapid-fire shifts via the steering paddles. But buyers wanting to take the SEAT on a track day will be frustrated that they can’t fully disable the ESP stability system.

In contrast, the Clio serves up the kind of thrilling driving experience that leaves models from the class above trailing. With its race-bred chassis, it never fails to entertain. From behind the wheel the Renault feels razor-sharp, with its front end responding instantly to steering inputs.

Grip is incredibly strong and the car inspires huge confidence. Plus, owners who want an even more hardcore experience can specify the £409 optional Cup chassis, which lowers and stiffens the suspension further.

Even with the standard layout, the Clio is extremely involving. The steering has plenty of feedback and you can adjust the line subtly through corners with careful use of the throttle. And while the ride is firm at low speeds, the trade-off is superb body control as the pace increases, allowing the 200 to flow effortlessly down bumpy roads.

This isn’t a quality the MINI shares, as the Cooper S can crash and hop over lumps in the road surface. And that’s not our only gripe. Accelerate hard in lower gears, and the tyres struggle to cope with the 1.6-litre engine’s impressive 240Nm of torque – the steering wheel tugs from side to side.

None of this detracts from the MINI’s engaging character, however. All the major controls are brimming with feedback, while the compact dimensions make the car extremely agile. As an overall package, it’s not as polished as the Renault, but the British baby is still great fun – and it delivers more smiles per mile than the staid SEAT.

Ratings Renault 5/5 Head along a favourite back road, and the Clio’s well balanced chassis comes alive. While the steering could do with more weight, it’s extremely direct and responds instantly, so you can place the car with pinpoint accuracy. There’s bags of grip, body control is strong and the Brembo brakes are hugely powerful.

MINI 4/5 For boisterous fun, the MINI leads the way. Its compact dimensions and wheel-at-each-corner stance serve up supreme agility. The steering is full of feedback, while the other controls are perfectly weighted. However, it’s let down by torque steer in lower gears, and the firm ride becomes a real issue around town. SEAT 3/5 On the face of it, the Ibiza Bocanegra has strong hot hatch credentials. Under the skin is an electronic limited-slip differential, together with lower and firmer sports suspension. But SEAT hasn’t been able to translate this into the driving excitement needed to match rivals – although the DSG gearbox delivers fast and smooth shifts.

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