Hot Renault hatchbacks have been in my blood for almost as long as I can remember. There was the white Renault 5 Turbo 2 that I used to fill up with fuel as a teenage petrol pump attendant, the 5 Turbo Raider my parents bought new in 1990, my very first overseas press trip to the launch of the original Clio Williams in Corsica, and the multiple Renaultsport Clios I’ve been lucky to live with as long-termers. All along, these snorty little French rockets have unfailingly had me hooked.
In recent years, Renaultsport has climbed to an unassailable position of credibility when it comes to building hardcore hatchbacks. There’s a great deal to admire and enjoy about the diminutive Twingo 133 and the Ring-conquering Mégane 265 Trophy, but for me the mid-sized Clio 200 is the essence of the RS brand’s everyman magic. Fierce, feisty and fearlessly uncompromising, its brilliance lies in the way it sucks you into a world of maximum commitment where you have to work the car hard for your kicks and are rewarded accordingly. For that reason it’s commonly regarded as the ultimate contemporary analogue hot hatch, and is therefore a very tough act to follow.
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All of this explains my uneasy mix of excitement and foreboding for the imminent arrival of Renaultsport’s take on the all-new fourth-generation Clio. Excitement because the new Clio 200 Turbo promises increased and more freely given performance, and should strike a less fundamentalist balance between high-performance thrills and everyday life. Foreboding because it does so by making a radical departure from the great Clios of the past, swapping a hard-edged, rev-hungry naturally aspirated engine and manual transmission for the more accessible combination of a smaller-capacity turbo-assisted motor and a dual-clutch paddle-shift transmission.
We’ve travelled to Granada in southern Spain for the launch drive, which is divided between road testing in the standard Sport-chassis car (basic price £18,995) and track driving at the Guadix circuit 30 miles to the east in the more aggressively suspended Cup-chassis car. (The ‘Cup’ name is now used solely for the chassis option – priced at £450 – and not a separate, stripped-out model.) The weather’s not great, in fact it’s pretty miserable, but the sight of a car park filled with Flame Red Clios is enough to brighten our mood.
When I first saw this new Clio in pictures I wasn’t sure about its styling, and first in-the-metal impressions remain mixed, to be honest. It’s a bigger, bulkier-looking car, dominated by those oversize headlights and the giant Renault diamond badge, but there’s no denying it has presence, and plenty of complex curves to keep your gaze wandering. It disguises the fact that it’s a five-door car surprisingly well, but much like the hardware it conceals, the styling is a big departure from what we’ve grown used to.
It’s equally striking inside. Fillets of bright red plastic plus contrast stitching on the seats create slashes of colour around the sporty black interior. The overall look and feel is of a higher quality than in the old Clio, and more than a match for the Mégane, which we know to be durable and resistant to the squeaks and rattles that can plague firmly sprung hot hatches. It’s also comfortable and generously equipped, which tallies with its intention to offer more habitable surroundings for less hardy sorts.
As is the norm with Renault, you get a credit card-sized ‘key’ that you either keep in your pocket or push into the slot in the dashboard, leaving you to simply press the starter button and bring the engine to life. Developing 197bhp (200PS, hence the name) and 177lb ft of torque, the new car’s headline figures aren’t that different to the old model’s. That is until you compare where the power and torque arrive, at which point the new car’s increased tractability becomes blindingly obvious. In the outgoing car you needed 7100rpm to find all 197bhp, whereas its successor delivers the same power 1100rpm earlier. However, it’s the relative torque delivery that’s the killer: the old 2-litre nat-asp motor needed 5400rpm to find 159lb ft, whereas the new 1.6-litre forced-induction engine hits 177lb ft from 1750rpm, and stays there for another 3750rpm, only tailing off for the last 1000rpm run to the 6500rpm red line.
This more generous spread of torque is immediately apparent, even as we gently head away from Granada airport in search of some entertaining mountain roads. As you’d expect, the paddle-shift EDC (‘Efficient Dual Clutch’) transmission is simple to use: slot into ‘D’, squeeze the throttle and you’re away. There are progressively sharper modes to choose from (more of which later), but for now I’m keen to see how convincing the 200 Turbo is when it’s been asked nothing more than to shuffle gears for itself and cope with some low-speed lumps and bumps.
The answer is very, for not only is the gearbox smooth and the engine tractable, but the suspension (Sport, not Cup-spec, don’t forget) has decent pliancy that rounds off the sharpest edges of a poor road surface. It makes for a refined and grown-up experience, one that genuinely lifts this RS above previous generations in terms of day-to-day comfort.
Our route takes us out into the sticks, with faster, more open roads spiced with knotted combinations of corners to challenge the Clio’s core ability. At this stage the essential differences between the previous model and the new car become clear, not least because you now have an ‘RS Drive’ button, which offers a choice of three distinct modes (Normal, Sport and Race) to tailor the car’s behaviour to the road you’re on and the mood you’re in. The engine response, gearshift speed, traction and stability control thresholds and steering assistance are all massaged accordingly.
Not that long ago, this was the preserve of high-end cars such as the Ferrari F430, so to have it filter down to a £19k hot hatch is an impressive demonstration of how such technology is changing the driving experience for everyone. How you feel about it depends largely on whether you’re an old-school purist, techno-geek or a sucker for marketing. In truth I guess most of us are a little bit of all three, although I personally tend to prefer cars that try to do one thing very well, rather than promise to be several cars in one thanks to the voodoo of systems such as RS Drive.
That said, the increased urgency you feel when switching from Normal to Sport is most welcome. The engine gains some edge, the gearshifts some snap and the steering some additional weight. In terms of outright feedback and connection the Clio’s steering feels filtered, but the rate of response is natural and progressive, so you never feel as though you need to calm your inputs down. On tricky wet/dry roads you get plenty of information from the front tyres (here mounted on optional 18in rims) about available grip, so you can turn in with confidence and commitment, which is a sure sign the chassis is a good ’un. There’s also a feeling of greater depth and control to the damping on poor surfaces, thanks to the incorporation of a secondary damper within the main damper unit. Called Hydraulic Compression Control, the system complements the solid polyurethane bump-stops to contain rebound and bring tighter, more linear control of wheel movements later in the stroke of the main damper. It’s a neat and effective solution.
That extra low-down and mid-range torque really helps pull you out of the corners, and the EDC gearbox maintains your forward momentum in a way you’d struggle to match with a manual. It also allows you to focus solely on picking the sweetest line through the corners, the effortless up- and downshifts enabling you to readily find your groove. There’s strong traction too, courtesy of Renaultsport’s electronic ‘RS Diff’, which monitors the difference in rotational speed of the front wheels and compares it to that of the undriven rears. It works to counter both understeer and wheelspin by micro-braking whichever front wheel is threatening to lose grip. Intervening before the ESC traction control, the RS Diff is much more subtle when active, and avoids the car leaning heavily on the ESC and the resulting restrictions in torque it would impose to restore grip and stability.
It works very well, to the point where you simply think you’re driving brilliantly, which is how all these systems should be. Of course there are occasions where you do get caught out and have to rely on the more aggressive intervention of ESC, but those moments are few and far between. Consequently the 200 Turbo is an extremely rapid and impressively capable car in point-to-point terms. It’s certainly a more flattering car to drive hard than its predecesor, and its performance is much easier to extract for sustained periods of time. Given Renaultsport’s objectives, you’d have to say it’s hit the spot, but it’s still impossible not to yearn for the previous model’s urgency and love of revs. It seems you always want a little of what you can’t have.
Next morning, we head to the track. It’s frustrating that we don’t have the opportunity to drive the Cup car on the road, but it’s hard to complain too much when you have a Liquid Yellow Clio and the tricky twists and turns of Guadix at your disposal.
It’s hard to spot the 3mm reduction in ride height, but the 15 per cent increase in stiffness and quicker steering rack are easier to detect. It makes for a more energised feeling of alertness in the car, which is welcome, and you get a greater sense of bite from the front end. With RS Drive switched to Race there’s no ESC safety net, which almost proves my undoing into Guadix’s deceptive downhill right-hander at Turn 2. Cold tyres, the wrong line and a closed throttle make for a rather extreme (nearly backwards!) corner entry and a heart racing off the limiter, but with the throttle pinned the front tyres somehow drag us straight and the gravel is avoided.
Such exuberant handling comes as a bit of a surprise, as on the road the Sport felt poised and light on its feet, but also neutral rather than being prone to big slides from the front or rear. With space to play with and a damp, slippery surface, the Cup is hilariously, brilliantly lively. The brakes prove very strong as they did on the road, with progressive feel, terrific stopping power and impressive resistance to fade. Rather as expected, the engine is less compelling thanks to a modest 6500rpm red line (complete with infuriating warning buzzer) and a delivery that’s dominated by that big, fat plateau of torque. It thumps you out of the corners well, and it’s easy to see why this car would post a quicker lap time, but it doesn’t get your adrenalin flowing like the old rev-munching 2-litre. Likewise the gearbox is effective and quick (with sub-150ms shifts in Race), but it isn’t as satisfying as a snappy manual gearbox.
I’ll admit that prior to a night’s sleep and a track session that allowed my thoughts to percolate, I was pretty lukewarm about the car. Now, with more miles driven and more questions answered I’ve warmed to it a lot more. It’s definitely a Renaultsport car in spirit and chassis set-up, but with an added layer of sophistication to the ride that doesn’t seem to harm the dynamics. But there is something missing: that final ten per cent of sensory connection and immersion you get from operating a machine that relies on the sweet co-ordination of hands, eyes and feet to make it sing. It’s an all-too familiar cry, and one that I’m getting increasingly self-conscious about making, but if you – as I – regard driving as a skill, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that cars that erode the need for such hard-won knowledge and ability feel somewhat two-dimensional as a result.
The 200 Turbo’s driving experience is more than just a thin veneer, though. There’s genuine depth and breadth to the dynamics, and the way the engine and transmission up their games via the RS Drive modes is worthwhile and impressive. There’s no question that it’s a car that’s been honed by hardcore drivers, but in gaining bandwidth to appeal to drivers who until now have felt the RS Clio was too uncompromising, the style of performance is totally different. That doesn’t prevent it from being a very good car in many respects, but it’s not yet a great one, at least by evo’s exacting and unashamedly singular criteria.
Considering this new car is made to a fresh recipe using all-new ingredients, many of the flavours are reassuringly familiar. It’s just the seasoning that needs tweaking to add a little more heat. Knowing the skills that exist within Renaultsport, that will come. Renault boss Carlos Tavares has also hinted that the strategy to broaden the abilities of the regular RS models will give the freedom to create more extreme derivatives to cater for the headbangers. Whether that means more cars like the R26.R remains to be seen. We can but hope.
For now, the new Clio 200 is unquestionably faster, more refined and easier to drive to its limit in Sport specification, and genuinely expressive and exuberant on track with the optional Cup chassis. But we need to drive the Cup-spec car on the road (and try both in the UK) to definitively gauge how good the new car is, and we need to compare our favourite of the pair directly with the all-new Fiesta ST and Peugeot 208 GTI to learn where it fits in the new-age firmament of mid-sized hot hatches. Your inner Luddite will resent the arrival of flappy paddles and a softer-edged engine, but on this early evidence it’ll still take something pretty special to outperform the Clio.