The Renaultsport brochure features a hall of fame. The ten cars spanning 50 years, each one worthy of a place in the ultimate fantasy garage. Really, if the likes of the Renault 8 Gordini, Clio Williams, Clio 182 Trophy, Mégane R26.R and Clip 200 Cup fail to stir your soul, this isn’t the motoring blog for you.
The 2013 Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo needs pretty strong shoulders then. For as long as I can remember, Renault has been the default choice for those in search of lightweight, low cost hatches offering maximum involvement. Other manufacturers became mere bystanders. Heck, Peugeot pretty much gave up.
But the winds of change are blowing through the hot hatch sector and Renault no longer has things its own way. Over the Renaultsport Clio’s right shoulder sits the pesky upstart with the blue oval – the Ford Fiesta ST. Whilst on the left is the Peugeot 208 GTi – a hardcore hot hatch in soft focus. Yet this is no group test – the question we have to ask here is, does the new Renaultsport Clio 200 pick up where the old Clios left off?
In short, no.
But how could it? You’ll know already that the Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo is an altogether different animal. The clue’s in the name – this a turbocharged Clio. Surely we can look beyond this – after all, the Renault 5 GT Turbo remains a hero of 1980s hot hatch revelry.
Then there’s the issue of doors. By insisting you order your Renaultsport Clio in five-door format, Renault has – to some people at least – committed a cardinal sin. An unforgivable act from which the brand can never recover. Again, surely it’s not an insurmountable obstacle?
Finally we get to the big one – the new Renaultsport Clio’s transmission. Once again, there are no choices here. You either take the Clio with the Efficient Dual Clutch (EDC) six-speed transmission, or you don’t. There’s no manual option – none of that old school, backward-thinking malarkey. Tsch, get with the programme, lad. This is 2013, don’t you know?
But here’s the thing. Had Renault given the Renaultsport Clio an engaging transmission with a delightful pair of paddle shifters, it wouldn’t be a problem. I need only to think back to the delightful ’box in the BMW M135i as a reminder that an auto transmission can add to, rather than detract from, a driving experience. Sadly, in the Renaultsport Clio it just isn’t good enough.
The problems start as soon as you’ve plonked yourself in the Renaultsport driver’s seat. The interior looks and feels great and the leather steering wheel provides a strong initial feeling of intent. Then you reach for the transmission lever. At which point the rot starts to set in. The lever is unforgivably flimsy and has an action which is about as precise as a spade in a bucket. Seriously, it’s like something from Proton GEN-2 automatic, circa 2004.
Sadly the problems don’t end there. The temptation is to immediately switch the lever across to manual mode and make use of the flappy paddles. Only they feel similarly disappointing to use and, perhaps more importantly, are fixed to the steering column. Fine if the paddles are big enough to cover the entire steering wheel, not so good when they’re not.
You may argue that a cheap feeling lever and equally low-rent paddles is a small point and not worthy of four paragraphs of text. But changing gear is so imbedded in the hot hatch experience, it simply can’t be ignored. Changing cogs gives you a sense of involvement, a feeling that you and the car are working together. That feeling of changing down gears into a corner – it’s a central part of hot hatchery. And it doesn’t necessarily rest on a manual ’box. A brilliantly executed dual clutch transmission can be just as enthralling. Witness the Skoda Fabia vRS, Porsche Panamera and BMW M135i as strong evidence.
And if every time you reach for the lever or paddles you’re left disappointed, then the hot hatch has failed.
It’s not as though the transmission is any good either. The changes are too delayed, especially in standard ‘non-Renaultsport’ mode. Things start to improve when you press the little R.S.DRIVE button. The whole car feels more taught. More alive. The steering sharpens up, as does the responsiveness of the transmission.
But it’s not until you hold down the R.S.DRIVE button for a little longer that the Renaultsport Clio reaches anywhere near its full potential. At this point ‘Race’ mode is engaged and the Clio finally hints at its true potential, transforming from worrying to warrior. Suddenly you can take full advantage of gear changes of just 150 milliseconds.
This is where the fun begins and the Clio’s true potential starts to shine through. There’s a cracking car in there somewhere, it’s just a shame that you have to work so bleeding hard to find it.
Ah, I hear you cry, surely a little involvement is a prerequisite for any wannabe hot hatch? Well yes, but not to the extent that you need to disengage traction and stability control to achieve it. In my book at least, a hot hatch should immediately grab you by the shirt colours and not let go until you’re screaming for mercy. At which point you simply can’t resist another drive.
The new Clio simply doesn’t achieve this. An hour was enough for me, which is in stark contrast to the last time I drove a couple of hot Clios. The Silverstone and Raider were so damn good, I went out for another late drive and kept the transporter truck waiting. I could have driven the Raider all night had I been allowed.
Not so in the new Clio. It feels too grown up – too big. The intimacy and immediacy has been lost. I had similar thoughts about the diesel Clio on the international launch last year. This contrasted wildly with the peppiness and the zest of the 3-cylinder version. Sadly, the RS Clio has too much in common with the diesel and not the little petrol number.
Look, I’ll stop labouring the point now. I’m as disappointed as the next person that I’m so underwhelmed by the new Renaultsport Clio. Especially as it follows a similar conclusion following the Peugeot 208 GTi launch.
It’s not as though the Renaultsport Clio is a terrible car – far from it in fact. But when judged against its predecessors and knowing what Renaultsport could have done with the car, it must go down as a major disappointment. Is it a lost cause?
I don’t think so – there are many reasons to be cheerful. Take the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, which isn’t the big issue some people predicted. Whilst it lacks any real aural character, it offers a huge amount of pace and is delightfully free of lag. And – on the evidence of my hour with the car – I reckon the handling is pretty good. It’s a Renaultsport product that demands a different approach. It’s more grown-up, both physically and mentally. And the more you drive it, the more appealing it becomes.
And I’m not saying it necessarily needs a manual gearbox. Do away with the pointless ‘Normal’ setting, fit a pair of decent paddle shifters and perhaps offer a good six-speed manual ‘box and the Clio will be an altogether different proposition. Still too big and still lacking the charm of its forebears, but maybe we can look to the all-new Twingo to pick up where the old Clios left off?
What else can I say? It will accelerate to 62mph in 6.7 seconds, go on to a top speed of 143mph and emit just 144g/km in the process. Quite remarkable really, especially when you throw in a theoretical 44.8mpg on a combined cycle.
And as I much as I bemoan the loss of intimacy on the inside, the new Renaultsport Clio’s interior is a gigantic leap forward in terms of quality and ergonomics. And to some people, the increased size, two extra doors and 300 litres of boot space will be a bonus.
The Renaultsport seats are nowhere near as supportive as say the Recaros in the Fiesta ST and R-Sound – which allows you to change the noise of the engine to anything from a spaceship to a Nissan GT-R – is no more than a gimmick. Use it once, have a giggle and then never use it again.
Look, I’m going to reserve judgement on the Renaultsport Clio until I’ve had a proper drive. I’ve had a day in the Peugeot 208 GTi and am currently enjoying a week with the Ford Fiesta ST.
On the evidence of my first few days with the ST, there’s no contest – the Fiesta is simply brilliant. There’s no point in debating what’s second or third, because the ST is just so far ahead, it almost renders the French contenders null and void.
As for the Clio, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of it yet. The team at Renaultsport are magicians and they won’t take too kindly to a blue-collar upstart with a blue oval badge knocking the king off its throne.
In short – don’t write off the Renaultsport Clio.