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

Launch Story

6 Aug 2008

RENAULT may be late to the hot-hatch party that it has been the life of on many previous occasions, but we don’t care – as long as the Clio RS is around, there is always an affordable driver’s car for us to contemplate. Now in its third-generation guise, the French micro still scurries around with grin-inducing vim, but now there is also a deeper veneer of refinement to go with all the new-found space, comfort and safety. If you are in the market for a small hot-hatch, don’t do yourself an injustice by ignoring this brilliant little number.

We like:
Engine performance and flexibility, handling, road holding, brakes, refinement, comfort, safety, overall character and charm

We don't like:
Slightly detached steering feel, pricey, cabin lacks occasion, some dartiness gone, styling a little dull

THREE years is a long time in the car industry, and the wait for the ‘latest’ Clio Renault Sport has felt like an eternity.

But we should be grateful that it is even available for us to enjoy.

First thing’s first. This car is not like the old X65 Clio RS 182. It is larger (not far off a Megane, in fact), significantly roomier, more refined, and costlier to build (and, at $4000 more, to buy).

Plus, from 1240kg, new also weighs some 200kg more than old – that’s like hauling around one quarter of a Datsun 120Y inside.

However, Renault has still applied the same formula as the old go-faster Clios, with a hunkered-down stance, broader body bits, racier suspension, and – at the heart of the matter – a powerful (145kW) engine, to create a punchy little runabout with palpably more refinement.

Yes, the extra mass does mess with this car’s power-to-weight ratio (117kW per tonne versus the old RS 182’s 127kW/tonne). And there is no denying that the RS 197 has lost some of its predecessor’s amazing dartiness that brought back fond memories of the Peugeot 205 GTi. Those days are sadly gone.

But so has the latest Mini Cooper S. The 207 GTi is nothing like its granddad, and this is a new world in which responsibility takes precedence over recklessness. Nobody is going to offer a lightweight mass-market buzz box with snap-oversteer and no active or passive safety protection.

Don’t worry, though: the RS 197 still delivers huge spoonfuls of fun, thanks to an engine with real verve and flexibility. Step-off acceleration isn’t startling, but it is very brisk, and then the power just piles on with the revs, which results in a fast and quite feverish performer.

Low, close-ratio gearing helps out here, as does the smooth and quite definite six-speed manual gearchange that encourages you to row the Renault on. This is still very much a rousing little drive.

The thing is, EU noise regulations and the like have conspired to make the 197’s rorty 2.0-litre less aurally stimulating. Sure, revving past about 7000rpm does bring on the exhaust ‘bark’ (as Renault puts it), but that’s not where you’re at most of the time anyway.

Actually, there are many other noise-suppression measures that will have many of your occupants quietly relieved – so to speak – of the Clio’s new-found cabin refinement.

More on that later, for it’s the driving that matters most here.

Renault crows on about how its new double-axis front suspension design eliminates torque steer, and we can confirm that there is virtually no wheel tugging under acceleration or when applying power over uneven surfaces.

The downside, though, seems to be a loss of steering sensitivity. Yes, it is still sharply geared, for instantaneous response and fluid, predictable handling.

But there is also a slight numbness – a dull sense of sensory feedback – that defines the very best examples of this sort of car, which has gone AWOL. The latest Mini, again, also suffers from this affliction, so there is a trade-off for all this refinement.

So the Clio is now not as raw as before, but it is still a crisper driving experience than any of its rivals – be they light or small in size.

And the latest pocket-rocket Renault has new-found talents, like a brilliantly supple ride that somehow emerges from the firm suspension tune. The flat, tenuous road grip on offer doesn’t come at the cost of comfort or relaxation.

Equally soothing, too, is the Clio’s progress in the retardation stakes. This thing stops dead fast.

We mentioned the price increase compared to before - $36,490 versus $32,490 for the RS 182 – but you’d happily pay it for the advances this car has made over the old one in the aforementioned areas, as well as for cabin space and access, fit and finish, general overall ambience, and the fact that an ideal driving position is now possible for more people despite the fact the steering wheel still doesn’t telescope.

Nice details include the large instrumentation font, grippy little steering wheel and superb front seats.

Unfortunately, the interior – though functional and extremely easy to familiarise – is remarkably unremarkable for both a hot-hatch and any vehicle costing $40K. For an example of what we mean, take a look at the inspiring inside of the Honda Civic Type R.

And when will Renault rid itself of that ugly and fiddly audio head unit that looked bad enough in the late 1990s? Nevermind, they’re all pretty petty things to complain about.

What we are grateful for is that Renault Australia – after fighting its superiors in France – managed to get the Sport model despite not taking the more run-of-the-mill Clios that would have been uneconomic and distracting.

So it took longer than expected... but we finally got it. And we get it too.

The old version was one of our very favourite affordable cars, and the Clio RS 197 resumes its predecessor’s mantle with less edginess but more maturity and aplomb.

Perhaps very, very slightly more so than any other hot-hatch for the money, it also succeeds in straddling that extremely fine line between being a proper boyracer runabout and a genuinely capable grand tourer.

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