A series of pentameric “Polyamide Amino Acids” (PAAs) compounds derived from the same trimeric precursor have been synthesized and investigated as HIV TAR RNA ligands, in the absence and in the presence of a Tat fragment. All PAAs bind TAR with similar sub-micromolar affinities but their ability to compete efficiently with the Tat fragment strongly differs, IC50 ranging from 35 nM to >2 μM. While NMR and CD studies reveal that all PAA interact with TAR at the same site and induce globally the same RNA conformational change upon binding, a comparative thermodynamic study of PAA/TAR equilibria highlights distinct TAR binding modes for Tat competitor and non-competitor PAAs. This led us to suggest two distinct interaction modes that have been further validated by molecular modeling studies. While the binding of Tat competitor PAAs induces a contraction at the TAR bulge region, the binding of non-competitor ones widens it. This could account for the distinct PAA ability to compete with Tat fragment. Our work illustrates how comparative thermodynamic studies of a series of RNA ligands of same chemical family are of value for understanding their binding modes and for rationalizing structure-activity relationships.