There is a secret to be revealed, that we have kept for perhaps too long. There is a region north of Verona, where the hills slope gently and narrow streets wrap around small villages and houses. Through the snowy winters and sun drenched summers, every road is a revelation. Lessinia is the best kept secret of Italian roads; it is never outright mentioned, but is an extraordinary place for those who love to drive. It is beauty and adventure combined, with its long straights and mixed curves.
We’ve been here before, with an Aventador S, with a Supra, with a Bmw M8 and with a 037 Group B, but for this test we have chosen perhaps the funniest hot hatch in the new car market: Puma ST, Hyundai I20N and Toyota Yaris GR, the road versions of the models that are competing in the World Rally Championship. 3 or four cylinders, all turbo, all with small 1.6 and 1.5 engines and all with nowadays super rare manual gearbox. It sounds fun, a great way to spend an afternoon behind the wheel.
While traditional light and small passenger cars are gradually being replaced by big SUVs, if you love driving, and thank god many of us still do, the hot hatchbacks remain a practical and affordable choice, combining everyday versatility with the right dose of performance.
We arrive at the first stop where we begin to see the aesthetic differences between the three hot hatches. The i20n seems ready to face a rally stage, with all the wings, the bright colors, the racing diffuser… Not exactly the height of elegance. Its 1.6 four-cylinder turbo engine makes 201hp, it’s mated with a six-speed manual gearbox with rev-matching function, and drives the front wheels through an electromechanical limited-slip differential. I get on the South Korean immediately. The sound on the exhaust is magnificent, how do they homologate it? The set-up in “N Mode” is stiff and the engine pushes hard, it really pushes hard. This car covers the Nordschleife in 8 minutes and 33 seconds, I repeat 8 minutes and 33 seconds! Is it more engaging to drive than the Fiesta ST? Yes, and it definitely goes faster. The limited slip differential pushes you into the curves and the handbrake seems made for the hairpins, with a chassis that for sure would be ready to carry more horsepower.
From an aesthetic point of view, however, the black Puma ST, despite the gigantic 19-inch rims, is the most pretty and understated of the group. Yes, of course, it’s not like the original Puma, and is also pretty far from the one that won this year’s “Montecarlo” Rally with Sebastien Loeb. This Puma looks like a small SUV with few sporty details, but everyone says it drives well and so let’s get on board. The sound of the 3-cylinder is not at all comparable to that of the Hyundai, but the driveability it is and I must say that after the first corners the Puma is even more enjoyable than the i20N. The engine, that develops 197hp, pushes very hard from low revs, pulling cleanly and without a hint of protest from just 1250rpm, revving all the way beyond 6000rpm with smoothness and linearity. Despite the obvious limit of traction to its front wheels, the overall dynamic of the car is great, with the rear end having this fantastic feature, also common to the Fiesta ST, of dancing from one curb to another. The more I go through curves and hairpins, the more I don’t want to stop, this Puma is really an interesting toy. The set-up is just right, the gearbox is as fantastic as the steering. Truly an experience that I would not have expected from the outside, especially in this black configuration, that would not betray such a sporty car to the limit. Ford technicians, you have all my respect!
But I’m sure these two front-wheel drives can’t do anything against the Yaris GR. Developed with input from Toyota Gazoo Racing’s WRC team, the GR has a 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine making 257bhp, and a four-wheel drive system with optional mechanical torque-vectoring diffs. More powerful, more grip, ability to transfer 70-30 torque to the rear, short wheelbase, Toyota’s experience, the GR must be the most fun of the group. But no, actually not as I was expecting. Or rather, the Yaris is definitely a beautiful product, the engine pushes strong (mostly in the high range of the rev counter) but you find yourself regretting the sincere “ignorance” and immediacy of the other two. It is well finished inside, the steering is very nice, the visibility is bad (you have to remove the rear view mirror or the screen to see where you are going), the gearbox is hard and precise while the sound is too subdued. It is quite hard to put it sideways, at least on tarmac, even in the 30-70 mode, it is simply not as joyful then the other 2. The front wheel drive cars play more with the rear. On the track it is certainly the fastest, but on a day like this, with roads like this, it doesn’t shine as it should.
We would have expected a different “verdict”, but for us, on the green hills of Lessinia on this wonderful end of summer day, the Puma ST wins almost tied with the Hyundai i20n and lastly the Yaris GR. Strange, we know, but overall the Ford and the Hyundai better embody the philosophy of the Hot Hatches born in the 80s. What’s not strange, is how fun a little car, with the right amount of power and a manual transmission, still is today! When it comes to balance performance, cost and usability, no other type of car does it better than a hot hatchback!