Motoring: Plenty of fun to drive but not hot enough to steal: Roger Bell finds a good GTi compromise in the Renault 19 RSI

REPORTS of the performance hatchback's death have been greatly exaggerated. The GTi is alive, if not flourishing as it was in the late Eighties. Joy-riding thieves have damned the breed, downgrading what was always a poor insurance risk into a terrible one. Only mature drivers with a 'safe' address and a full no-claims bonus are likely to find premiums on the right side of prohibitive.

Under a 20-tier insurance rating system (Fiat Panda 1, Ferrari Mondial 20), most serious performance hatchbacks - Citroen ZX 16V, Ford Escort XR3i, Honda Civic VTI, Nissan Sunny GTi, Renault 19 16V, Vauxhall 2.0GSi - are penalised by an expensive 15 rating, though the Peugeot 205 1.9GTi and Golf GTi (two of the best) are favoured with a 14.

For many people, to save on insurance costs - perhaps to get a quote at all - means dropping down to group 12 or below. It is in the 10-12 range that you will find most of the so- called 'warm' hatchbacks, the junior GTis that lack the fizz (and perhaps the excesses) of their senior role models but are more fun than cheaper runarounds. Renault's group 12-rated 19 RSI is one of the warmer contenders.

I rather like the Escort-sized 19, priced from pounds 8,150 to pounds 15,900. It belies its sober looks with oodles of charm, civility and comfort, if not great spaciousness - rear-seat leg-room is far from generous. The big-booted RSI, saloon or hatchback, projects a discreetly sporting image with its incongruous rear wing, mock-alloy wheels and plastic addenda.

Power comes from a 1.8-litre engine that is as flexible and sweet as it is technically unsophisticated. No matter. The acceleration is brisk enough for the most impatient driver and the handling stays firm at high revs - not always the case with the fastest GTis. With the engine at full throttle there are no nasty side-effects, such as steering 'tug' or wayward weaving.

Although no sports car, the 19 RSI is not short of driver appeal. It goes well, handles niftily - the adjustable steering wheel is power-assisted - and corners with precision and composure. Tyres and suspension have not been uprated to a pseudo-sports specification, so the ride remains supple. The heavily bolstered seats, lifted from the faster 16V, have the snug fit of a sports saloon's. Standard equipment includes an engine immobiliser and remote radio controls within fingertip reach of the wheel. The gearchange is fast and precise, instruments and switchgear well deployed, brakes firm and progressive. Dynamically, there is little wrong with the RSI. It is a pleasant, spirited car.

If the Renault's group 12 rating is still too high, consider instead the group 10 RSI turbo-diesel costing pounds 255 less than the petrol version. On top speed and all-out acceleration, the 1.9-litre diesel is slower. At low revs, however, it pips the 1.8's pick-up - and always beats it on economy. Anyone unconvinced about the idea of a sprightly diesel should take a test drive in the 1.9 RSI or (even better) its Citroen ZX Volcane rival. Fortunately, diesels are a turn-off to light- fingered yobs. They have yet to discover there is dexterity in derv.

COMPARISONS

Citroen ZX Volcane turbo-diesel pounds 12,995. Strong acceleration mid- range, where it's most needed, belies group 10 insurance rating. Fine handling, a cracking driver's car. Diesel engine clattery when idling. Excellent economy.

Fiat Tipo 2.0ie SLX, pounds 11,950. Crisp- handling five-door hatch powered by gutsy 2.0-litre engine that bridges gap between 1.6 and 2.0 16V. Performance similar to Renault's, insurance (group 13) more expensive.

Nissan Sunny SR, pounds 11,230. Bland three-door squareback poseur that looks like a full-blown GTi but isn't. Twin-cam 16-valve engine has right credentials, but modest capacity and oomph.

Renault Clio RSI, pounds 10,695. Smaller than its 19 RSI sibling, but cheaper to buy and insure. Chic group 11 Clio is also quicker and more entertaining. Strong contender for warm-hatch crown.

SPECIFICATIONS

Renault 19 RSI, pounds 11,650 (four-door saloon pounds 11,835). Engine: 1,794cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 113bhp at 5,500rpm. Transmission: five- speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 9.6 seconds, top speed 120mph. Economy: 33-38mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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