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Car reviews - Renault - Clio - Renaultsport 197 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Handling, ride, performance, chuckability, refinement, comfort, uniqueness, brakes, practicality, desirability
Room for improvement
Some cheap cabin bits, steering a little dull in feel, ‘jack rabbit’ acceleration of predecessor gone

6 Aug 2008

AND the winner of the coolest new car for 2008 is ...

Jaguar’s XF is up there. So is the latest Smart ForTwo. And the BMW 135i Sport Coupe is absolutely divine.

But one French supermodel eclipses all of these emphatically, and it is known as the Renault Clio Renaultsport 197.

This car is not for everyone, which makes it even cooler.

For some, the Clio RS 197 is as out-there as a Michel Gondry video, offbeat as a Fellini film, and acquired a taste as Lee Lin Chin’s choice of haute couture on the SBS weekend bulletin.

Frankly, you will either get this Froggie or you won’t.

A Toyota Yaris-sized three-door hatchback that is the price of a Honda Accord Euro or Mazda CX-7 won’t speak to everybody, you understand.

But, believe us, believers will realise that this terrific little car is the antidote to dull motoring just as surely as, well, its predecessor, the Clio RS 182.

Fun, full of vigour, frothing with verve, and feverish in its passion, Renault’s hot little hatch is an uplifting driving experience.

Tragically for Renault, though (but great for those keen on exclusivity), many potential buyers will walk away nonplussed after a test drive, since a fast blast around your dealer’s block won’t reveal this car’s deep underlying talents straight away.

As with a Doves album or perhaps a show like Skins, this is a sleeper. Time is the essential ingredient for the driver to truly realise the Renault’s true colours, like pouring water on a Mogwai or feeding it after midnight.

Unfortunately, that’s not always possible these days, and if you are familiar with the old RS 182 then the new car’s decidedly less frenetic character will surely be its biggest disappointment.

The old-timer’s addictive chomping-at-the-bit acceleration, coupled with a lithe and darty feel, is forever gone – unless we’re talking about something mad like a Caterham or Lotus Elise.

In lieu of lightness are strength, solidity and rigidity in this age of five-star safety and refinement. It is what has neutered all the great little hot hatches of yesteryear. That’s why a Peugeot 206 or 207 are no patch on the 205 GTi.

But the 1221kg Clio RS 197 is a much, much livelier companion than its arch rival compatriot despite weighing about 200kg more than before, because while the darty off-line acceleration is gone, the rest of the Renault’s set-up is seriously honed, toned and taut – like a mouse pumped full of muscle and Olympic-strength steroids.

Being a French take on Mercedes’ AMG or BMW’s M-Sport, Renaultsport takes it work extremely seriously, and you are actually always aware of the engineering depth of this car as you fly through a corner with a negative camber road surface, in full control and with the RS 197 constantly planted.

Whether you’re driving at low or high speed, the handling and roadholding qualities of this car are incredibly – and reassuringly – high. You won’t swing the tail around if you lift off the accelerator mid-corner unless you are driving recklessly, yet there is enough progression for the car to be caught and corrected if snap oversteer does occur.

This car centres on the driver. Torque steer is minimal and road bumps are pretty much inconsequential as the RS 197 tracks to wherever the nose is pointed.

Trick suspension tuning is at play here, thanks to Renault’s aluminium double-axis front suspension that virtually eliminates torque steer through the separation of the steering axis from the damping elements.

Sadly, however, this also seems to have dulled steering feel. So while it remains highly geared for instantaneous response and fluid, predictable handling, a slight numbness prevails. As we said at the Clio’s launch in the middle of 2008, the R56 Mini also suffers from this affliction, revealing a trend towards trading tactility for refinement.

On the other hand, consider this: While the latest Clio is a development of the Renault/Nissan Alliance B Platform that also underpins scores of other models as dynamically mundane as the Tiida and Micra, the RS is further down the evolutionary trail, thanks to Renaultsport’s widespread revisions to the structure and componentry that sees a 10mm increase in wheelbase, as well as a 48mm and 50mm wider front and rear track respectively, compared to the regular X85 Clio III hatch that Australians are never likely to be able to buy.

As well as riding some 15mm under that car, its sub-frame is the same as used on the (slightly larger) Megane RS 225, and employs transverse strengthening for greater front-end rigidity, according to Renault. Its bushes, front shock absorber mountings and rear suspension mountings are also stiffer.

The rear also features a 25 per cent stiffer torsion beam while the 30mm-in-diameter anti-roll bar is 5mm wider than on regular Clios.

So, with all this go-faster gear engineered in, how hard does this car ride then? The answer is astonishing: brilliantly!

Regardless of conditions, we are in awe of how supple the suspension’s cushioning qualities are, especially in the light of the fact that leeches are less well planted than the Renault is on the road. Neither the vehicle nor its occupants are shaken, stirred, phased or thrown. For this reason alone, the Renault rocks.

Turning the front wheels via a new six-speed manual gearbox is a development of the old RS 182’s naturally aspirated 1998cc 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve variable-valve-timing four-cylinder petrol engine.

Requiring plenty of revs to really come alive (past the 4000rpm mark, actually) the performance piles on right up to the 7500rpm rev limit.

Here are the raw figures: 145kW of power, achieved at a high 7250rpm, with 215Nm of torque topping out at 5550rpm, for a 0-100km/h-sprint time of 6.9 seconds.

For the record, the Focus XR5 Turbo manages 166kW/320Nm Megane 225 165kW/300Nm Golf GTI 147kW/280Nm Astra SRi Turbo 147kW/262Nm Mini Cooper S and 207 GTi 128kW/260Nm Colt Ralliart 113kW/210Nm and Polo GTI 110kW/220Nm.

But these are all turbocharged. Like Honda with its wonderful Civic Type R, Renaultsport has eschewed this, electing instead to optimise the engine’s intake, exhaust port length and profiling for greater efficiency, while it worked on the valve seats, improved air intake and gas flow, increased valve lift from 9mm to 11.5mm to create a longer and wider valve aperture, and redesigned the combustion chamber and piston heads for a high compression ratio of 11.5:1.

Besides higher performance, lower emissions are a welcome outcome, with carbon dioxide outputs hovering around the 199g/km level, while the combined average fuel consumption rating is 8.4l/100km. Using 98 RON premium unleaded petrol, we managed about 9.2l/100km over some hard driving courses.

The Clio RS is also a sweet engine to punt along at the limit, in no small part due to it employing eight counterbalances in the steel crankshaft, thus improving balance and rigidity.

Widespread soundproofing measures designed to cut mechanical and exhaust-related noise transmission have also been implemented in the reinforced sub-frame and several specific floor areas, according to Renault, while a 3Y-type exhaust manifold is said to offer a happy compromise between acoustic performance, power and emissions.

An exhaust silencer sits in the spare wheel well (you get two tyre repair aerosols instead) for improved harmonics, while the dual exhausts are integrated in the underfloor area for better under-car aerodynamics.

Renault has done its homework on optimising the six-speed manual’s gear ratios. Aided by a brilliant short-shifting (though long levered) gearbox, every one does its part to ensure that the Clio thrusts forward as emphatically and seamlessly as possible.

With the engine buzzing in its erogenous zone north of 4000rpm, acceleration is pretty instantaneous no matter what gear you’re in.

So while the RS 197’s power-to-weight ratio is not as good as in the old RS 182 (117kW per tonne versus 127kW/tonne), the Renault has a large set of lungs to draw on to keep the keen driver happy.

Yet this car is not too noisy or annoying at highway speeds either, even though, at 100km/h in sixth gear, you are almost nudging 3000rpm, and on a few occasions early on in the test we went for the non-existent seventh gear.

Braking is just superb, thanks to Brembo-supplied callipers and four-wheel discs (312mm cross-drilled at the front 300mm at the back), while the 17-inch lightweight alloy wheels are shod with 215/45 tyres for great grip.

The latter are housed in a body which, compared to the regular Clio III, is significantly wider to accommodate them. Side skirts and a semi-rigid under-bumper splitter further differentiate regular from RS, and the result is an imposingly appealing stance.

Extractor vents and an active rear air diffuser have been devised to aid stability and prevent rear-end lift by creating a zone of low pressure beneath the car in order to achieve suction, for a 40kg down-force rating at high speed, while lift is lowered by around 65 per cent, eliminating the need for a rear spoiler, and improving aerodynamic flow over the car.

The boyracer overtones inside include aluminium pedals, perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel with red centre-point stitching, RS logos on the instrument faces, doorsills and front seats (which are of a bolstered ‘sports’ design) and a chrome-zinc finish for the centre console.

Are they enough to lift the Clio’s cabin above the ordinary?

We think the Renault’s biggest problem is convincing people to part with their hard earned while they’re assessing this car’s interior.

Don’t get us wrong: For a light car, it is quite a nice place to be, thanks to attractively presented dashboard, finished in quality soft-rubberised plastic and smartly trimmed with metallic-like accents around the centre stack, gear lever, door handles, speaker surrounds, steering wheel and across the length of the fascia.

The instrumentation is a model of simplicity, elegance and functionality too, since the markings are large and a cinch to read at a glance and easy on the eye.

And the steering wheel! Perfectly sized, fantastic to grip, gorgeous to behold with the world’s best cruise control buttons operated by the driver’s thumbs, and backed-up by Renault’s superb speed-limiter function that won’t allow you to crawl past your designated limit.

If you’re familiar with the old Clio Sport you will appreciate that the wheel is much better positioned, with its tilt (but sadly not reach) functionality to help the driver find a comfy position.

Frankly, and despite the simply excellent front seats with the driver’s myriad height and angle adjustment options, your 178cm correspondent never truly settled into the ideal spot. But then there was never any discomfort or irritability experienced, just a nagging feeling that the perfect driving position was always just one more twist of this knob this way or a millimetre more that way.

However, what might put potential buyers off inside the Clio is the fact that the lower-placed plastics – and the small glovebox especially – do seem too cheap for a $40,000 vehicle that the radio header unit in the rather austere centre console adds to that penny-pinching feel, while the less said about the carpet, the better. Don’t forget, this car’s pricing is only within five per cent of a Golf GTI, while a sub-$20,000 Fiesta Zetec’s cabin quality runs rings around this Renault.

And, while overall ventilation is more than adequate, the air-conditioning system struggled to keep all five occupants cool once temperatures topped 35 degrees.

Yet ... much of the concern about the RS 197’s light-car-sourced bits and pieces that undermine the Clio’s pricing positioning vanish on the move, since nothing in the Renault – shockingly – squeaked, rattled or broke, while the general level of refinement belied this car’s origins and rorty hot-hatch genealogy. This is a relaxing place to be if that’s what you want.

Rear seat access is good, and there is enough space for two moderately sized adults (and a third if everybody squeezes in).

But that rising window line creates some claustrophobia back there (and hinders the driver’s vision), while – nicely trimmed seats aside – there is nothing to remind you that this car costs as much as it does.

There’s also only a single cupholder, and not a very deep one at that. At least the build quality seems good, and Renault’s idea of placing the front seat release mechanism at shoulder height is a good one, as is the fact that said chair returns to its chosen spot.

Being a B-segment hatch, the cargo area is large, deep and hungry, with the rear seats splitting and folding down to increase this car’s practicality. But there’s a price to pay for that deep load floor: your ‘spare’ is a pair of ‘goo’ spray cans. Hmm ... how about a set of runflat tyres, Renault?

The RS’s standard features include air-conditioning, cruise control with speed limiter, remote central locking, power windows, a multi-function trip computer, a single CD/radio player, 60/40 split-fold rear seats and 17-inch alloys.

More money buys metallic paint, high-intensity discharge headlights, a six-stack CD player and a panoramic electric glass sunroof.

On the safety front, the Clio III has earned a five-star European NCAP crash-test result. Present are anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic stability control (ESC) that is sports-tuned with higher threshold programming and can be disconnected, ASR traction control and eight airbags – including two anti-submarining devices under the front seats.

So the latest Clio RS is far safer, roomier and more refined than before, but not as raw or ready to pounce off the line.

Yet it is still a crisper driving experience than any of its rivals – be they light or small-car in size – and, after several weeks living with one, we really did not want to part with it.

Everything seems to come together brilliantly in the latest Renault pocket rocket.

That you are unlikely to see iPhone flouncing, Dexter or Mad Men-obsessed, Kings Of Leon-loving tryhards smugly showing off in one just makes this unique and invigorating little car many, many times cooler than competing hot hatches – or any other new car released in 2008 that we can think of.

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