It was 10 July 2006. A moment of madness from Zinedine Zidane sees him head butt Italian defender Marco Materazzi in extra time of the 2006 World Cup Final which cost France the title...
Photos: Low Fai Ming
Even though Italy won the 2006 edition of the FIFA World Cup, we felt compelled to revisit this rivalry of two European romance countries that has produced two interesting "hot-hatches" in recent times...
In the world of hatchbacks, the line between “hot”, “warm” and “pseudo performance” types have long been polarized. Long ago, a hot-hatch is simply a no-frills three door hatchback with a powerful engine and a stick shift. A bare interior with only basic necessities and two rear seats - that was meant to be there only as a joke – was also part of the deal. But over time, the hot-hatch category morphed into something more user-friendly and practical, even turning mass market. You get cars like the current crop of Golf GTIs/Rs, Sciroccos, Focus ST, 135i, Cooper S… Well you get the drift.
On one end, spirited drivers loathe the thought of the ever-changing landscape. On the other, you see gleaming new fast hatchbacks roaming the streets and gaining interest yet once again. Which should explain the introduction of the Alfa Romeo MiTo with a new twin clutch transmission and a Citroen DS3 THP that shares similar mechanical bits with the Mini Cooper S.
Let’s start with the Alfa Romeo MiTo. First introduced here almost two years ago, it was sold only with a manual transmission. After all, the Italians always trusted manual transmissions over a self-shifting slush box — unfortunately, just not at this side of the world. In a nutshell, sales figures were rather dismal simply because of that. To further underline our local consumer mentality, even the MiTo's cousin, the Fiat Bravo T-Jet which shares the same engine, comes with an auto transmission which fared better. And it took the local distributor some time to figure out, before the MiTo arrived with a fully automatic transmission with manual shifting capabilities. And thankfully, it is not the Selespeed transmission of old. Smartly, the engineers over at Alfa figured it’s better off with its own twin-clutch transmission - called “TCT” - to keep up with the current trend.
Now some might wonder why on earth did we decide to pit Citroen’s DS3 THP against the MiTo, right? Well we did want to put the MiTo TCT next to the Mini Cooper S initially, but the vast $36k price difference makes it a tad unfair. Plus, we want to see how this TCT works when compared to a conventional manual transmission… Anyway, moving along.
The Citroen DS3 THP is, to put it rather frankly, a competent performance hatchback. After all it has all the elements pretty precise — three doors, unique and easy to swallow exterior styling, lively and contemporary interior and rear seats that at best accommodate only two. But that’s not all though. Here’s the more important bit — a 1.6-litre turbocharged lump. To make it a sweeter deal? A six-speed manual transmission to put within reach as an entry level car in hot-hatch territory.
On paper, the DS3 is the more powerful car between the two. It churns out 156bhp at 6,000rpm and 240Nm from a rather low 1,400rpm. The MiTo on the other hand, is good only for 135bhp at 5,500rpm and its maximum 206Nm worth of torque comes out at a higher 1,750rpm. In a zero to 100km/h drag race, the Citroen DS3 THP will be the one off the line first, taking only 7.3 seconds. Its Italian counterpart does it slightly slower, at 8.2 seconds.
Not all is lost for the MiTo though, as it does have several advantages over the DS3 THP. To begin, it is 95kg lighter, 115mm longer and sits nearer to the ground. It also boasts of a better fuel economy figure (5.5-litre/100km versus the DS3 THP’s 6.9-litre/100km).
In the real world, both feel equally sprightly on the road. Especially out on the expressway and Orchard Road traffic, where both doesn’t seem to have any issues keeping up with traffic or overtaking.
But operationally speaking, the MiTo has the advantage thanks largely to the TCT box that is a hoot to operate particularly via the solid steering mounted paddle-shifters. To be really honest, if I may, the MiTo is best driven when you manually shift your own cogs. The reason? Left to run on its own, there’s that apparent hesitance to downshift when the need arises. Not only that, the TCT box doesn’t seem to utilize all that power, choosing to upshift earlier than expected. Also rather surprising is the fact that it prefers to be operated just like a Selespeed — lift your right foot off the accelerator when swapping gears and you will be duly rewarded with something smooth like that of a CVT transmission.
If you are the sort who longs to go back to a manual transmission, the DS3 THP might be a good option. Ok, so the shifter might come across as long, but the actions are precise and spot-on. For someone with feet sized 10 (like mine), the pedals are nicely spaced apart from each other as well, giving you that option to play WRC driver (eg. heel-and-toeing) even on a normal weekday.
The Citroen DS3 THP might appear silly and bulbous, and probably tickle your humour when the word “handling” is mentioned, but lo and behold, the DS3 THP does have lots of tricks up its sleeve, thanks partly to the 17-inch alloys wrapped in 205/45 R-17 Bridgestone Potenza RE050 rubbers which does provide relatively positive steering feedback when driven hard. And on top of that, body control is definitely excellent despite the obvious body-roll. Come to think of it, that all adds up to a really fun driving experience… The MiTo is not far behind though, like the DS3 THP, you will get positive steering feedback when driving it hard, with the car under steering controllably for added character. The plus point is that you get less body-roll compared to the DS3 THP, but with the wrong set of 16-inch alloys shod with Bridgestone Turanza tyres, there’s less grip when charging it hard and fast into corners. Fortunately, it goes where it’s pointed at.
At the end of the day, there is no real winner or loser here. The MiTo should go down well with drivers who are keener with a self-shifter, while the DS3 THP will find interest from those who seek a quirky set of wheels that can perform the task when required. But if you were to ask me personally, the DS3 THP would be my pick — besides that exterior, it is a well-packaged deal and has better driving character. Finally the lower asking price seals the deal.
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