Vans. You probably think they’re just for plumbers, coppers and kidnappers – but that might not be the case. We’ve got a hunch that they’re hiding some tremendous track-day potential. Think about it. Some of them, like the Punto-derived Fiat Fiorino we’ve spent a week in, are based on squirty little superminis, and have already had the hard part of track preparation done. They could be the ultimate stripped out, two seat, VAT free track-weapons.
But, we could be wrong… maybe they’re just rattly, flimsy, underpowered cart-horses. To find out, we’re twin-testing the Fiat Fiorino 1.3 Multijet diesel van against our favourite track-ready hot hatch car – the recently departed Renault Megane R26.R. Just out of curiosity really. You never know, we might unearth a miracle. So, let’s begin.
Price + Spec
The first step in buying a track-car is deciding how much you can spend, and what you want for your money. In producing the R26.R, Renault stripped the air con, CD player, back seats and sound deadening from a normal R26 and replaced a lot of the glass with Perspex – spec wise, it’s thread bare. And so is the Fiorino. The evolution from Punto to Fiorino has seen similar kit chucked out, but crucially, you still get a CD player – and no matter how focused you are, a road car needs a stereo. For that reason, as well as the fact that the Fiat costs less than half the Renault’s £23k, the Fiorino wins.
Handling + Performance
Again the Fiorino impresses, being 130kg lighter than the Megane. It’s also free from ESP constraints, having nothing more than a throttle pedal and skinny Pirellis applying horse to course. The Punto chassis is well balanced, and without any weight over the back wheels is delighted to offer some three wheeled tail shimmying around squirmy little hairpins. Unladen, it’s a bouncy affair, but it’s a tight, responsive bounce instead of a loose springy one, so we won’t complain. We will moan however about the lack of steering feel and the weediness of the 75 bhp 1.3 litre turbo-diesel engine.
The Megane R26.R shares the Fiorino’s balance, agility and willingness to shimmy round hairpins, but adds an infinitely bigger dose of slap and tickle, with more power and a lot more feel. The slap comes from the standard R26’s 226bhp turbocharged two litre four pot, which whooshes and screams through the barely insulated cabin. It’s a noise unique to the R26.R – get past 4,000rpm and you’ll swear a Ghostbuster is sucking up baddies through the titanium exhaust. Frightening and tremendous – possibly the weirdest, brilliantest noise to come from a four cylinder car.
But the tickle far outweighs the slap. With the optional roll-cage and sticky Toyo track tyres, the R26.R is as agile as a kitten in a hot bath; turn in, grip, feedback and all the other things track cars should do well are top of the class. Perhaps the steering is a little too light, perhaps the gear-change too closely related to a mum’s Megane, but let’s be honest – it’s tighter to drive than a Focus RS, so it’s miles better than a van.
Practicality + Ownership
This is where the Fiorino does rather well. While both machnes are lacking rear seats, they deal with the problem in different ways. The Megane refuses to raise a smile about the situation, remaining intensely focused on the track-day task in hand. Welded across the back is a full roll cage, which takes up the whole of the boot. What you gain in rigidity, you lose in not being able to take a spare set of tyres to the track.
In the Fiorino however, all the space is given over to track-day essentials like wheels, oil, cambelts and brake discs. The R26.R might think it’s a track car for the road, but you’ll be buggered if you try and drive it home on threadbare tyres after a hard session. The Fiat? It might not be quite as much fun when you’re there, but at least you won’t be stranded at Castle Combe on a rainy Sunday.
So, there you have it. The Fiat Fiorino 1.3 Multijet diesel is a better overall track-day proposition than the Renault Megane R26.R. It’s cheaper to buy, easier to exploit and more practical to run. Which makes it perfect.
Except obviously that’s all bollocks. Because a track-day car should be marriage wreckingly expensive. It should be near impossible to explore the limits of, and so impractical that every minute that isn’t spent clipping apexes and hitting rumble-strips feels like a life sentence in stupidity. You don’t get oily hands, calloused fingers and a stiff neck from a van. If you can get a flat pack Ikea bed in the back of your track car, it doesn’t matter how good you think it handles, you’re just not doing it properly. In fact, get off the computer and go and buy a Caterham.