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Car reviews - Renault - Clio - RS 200 Cup Phase II

Our Opinion

We like
Great handling, ride, performance, chuckability, refinement, comfort, uniqueness, brakes, practicality, exclusivity, desirability, improved steering, quicker acceleration, lower emissions, better fuel economy
Room for improvement
Some cheap cabin bits, largish turning circle, firm ride, 98 RON fuel requirement, expensive metallic paint options, more anonymous front-end styling

9 Jun 2010

CHOOSE life.

Not the Wham! bubblegum pop or coldly satirical Trainspotting varieties, but in the actual ‘joy of living’ sense.

Twee to some perhaps, but this is a mantra worth remembering every single day if striving for happiness is a priority.

Here at GoAuto we choose to live and breathe cars because it is our passion, and right now we cannot think of a new model that personifies this attitude more than a little front-wheel-drive hatchback from France that is – when considered objectively – the size of a Fiesta but with a Territory price tag.

The latest Clio Renaultsport 200 – a sing-from-the-rooftops and dance-in-the-street hot hatch experience like nothing else out there right now – has us in a spell.

Like most Australians, if you weren’t fortunate enough to drive the first Volkswagen Golf GTI or the Peugeot 205 GTi that supplanted it for a decade from the mid ‘80s in the hearts of enthusiasts, then the Renault represents another tantalising chance.

The firm has form here too – the R5 Turbos, Clio Williams and the X65 RS 172 and 182 all have a justified huge following around the world.

However, the RS 200 simply has no peer for now.

The fab Mk6 Golf GTI is a towering grand touring all-rounder with almost everything the French car offers except for smallness (surely a hot hatch essentiality) while BMW’s hardly-mini Cooper S’s self conscious celebrity is increasingly cloying. And all others fall short.

Yep, we’re truly madly deeply in love with the small and refreshingly unassuming (but never bashful) Renault.

For us, even its in-your-face foibles somehow edge the quickest Clio closer to greatness – cheapo plastics and an plain fascia that betray the Renault’s Kia Rio-esque economy origins inside, along with an occasional bumpy ride (it’s generally quite smooth but things like railway lines sometimes sends sharp shocks through to the cabin) and a large turning circle.

The latter items help the RS to focus intently on being fantastic fun to drive. And, frankly, after even a moment on the move, most people will forgive the Tupperware treatment inside anyway.

That’s a good thing too, because – despite the Phase II facelift of earlier this year that has brought a new nose of dubious visual merit – the French have not made it easier to U-turn in an RS, or included slush-moulded cupholders finished in pure platinum in order to achieve VW standards of interior glamorisation.

Instead, Renault has forsaken the base RS for the more sinewy Cup and Cup-that-overfloweth-with-some-non-performance-related-extras known – perhaps tautologically – as the Cup Trophee.

Cup is RS shorthand for harder springs (27 and 30 per cent stiffer respectively front and rear), stronger shock absorbers (up 15 per cent), and fatter anti-roll bars (up 1mm to 21mm).

Being a Renaultsport creation, this is no Clio in superhero tights either. RS cars boast a 10mm longer wheelbase, 48mm wider front track, 50mm wider rear track, and 15mm lower ride height compared to the boggo car we will never see in Oz.

Additionally, the front subframe is nicked from the old Megane RS 225 with beefed up rigidity. Stiffer suspension mountings are fitted, and aluminium replaces steel in the double-axis front suspension for a 7.5kg saving and improving steering responses. Renault also separates the steering axis from the damping’s to quell torque steer.

The misunderstood and misused term ‘torque steer’ never entered our punch-drunk minds during our 10,080 blissful minutes with the bébé from Dieppe.

More importantly, compared to its RS 197 predecessor (b: 2005, emigrated to Australia three years later – hence its short time in the spotlight down under), the steering ratio is 7.5 per cent quicker.

That’s a crucial development because it emphatically addresses one of the few bugbears we had with that car the fact that the wheel didn’t feel direct enough was heresy in a hot hatch.

No longer. Now the sheer hands-on interactivity that the old-gen RS 172/182 were famous for is (more or less) back, thanks to a tiller that turns precisely how and where you want it to go – without loading up, feeling sloppy, rattly or filtering out any of the stuff you need to feel.

Find a corner and the Clio glides through like one of those magna-rail trains, and the driver completely in the picture with the what and where of the surface underneath. It is an invigorating and uplifting experience.

Add a body that feels as if an invisible girdle is holding it all in together tight, and you realise just how chuckable the Renault is. Tilt the tiller and the taut little car tips into a turn with utter precision and poise. We found ourselves gasping and squealing like excitable teens the whole time. Why can’t all small cars be so completely controllable?

We do advise restraint though – switching off the revised stability control (now with higher threshold programming) can lead to some hairy snap-oversteer moments, so the driver needs to be in maximum concentration mode – but the limits of adhesion are incredible. At the launch and in the safety of a cordoned off racetrack nobody less than a current F1 driver demonstrated how throttle-controllable – and catchable – the Clio is in extreme speed manoeuvres.

More delight comes from the brakes – measuring in at 312mm in the nose (ventilated discs paired with four-piston Brembo callipers) and 300mm behind (solid discs with single-piston TRW callipers).

Together with the Continental Sport Contact III 215/45 R17 tyres, they dig in deep and with a red-alert rapidity – yet progressively too somehow, without the jarring suddenness of many a VW and Audi.

That’s the thing about the way the Clio RS 200 drives – every response has been calibrated with a satisfying and measured flow.

Which brings us neatly to the biggest single flaw of the old RS 197 (its missing acceleration mojo), and how Renault has effectively addressed that too.

As the Imperial brake horsepower name implies, ‘200’ is more than ‘197’, but that translates to a meagre 2.5kW power rise (now 147.5kW) while the torque max remains the same at 215Nm.

Yet all is not what it seems because the latter now occurs 150rpm sooner, at 5400rpm.

In fact, Renault has heavily revised the 2.0-litre twin-cam F4R RS unit with changes to the cylinder head, continuous variable valve timing gear, ECU and exhaust, while the camshaft’s calibration has been modified so valve lift rises from 9mm to 11.5mm for a larger valve aperture and better breathing … (zzzz – talk about wake me up before you go-go!).

OK. It all means that there is now 20 per cent more torque available at lower revs than before, and that fully 95 per cent of it happens at 3000rpm. Power, too, tops out 150rpm sooner.

The (company) figures not only show a 0.4-second slide in the zero to 100km/h sprint (to 6.9s) but – in the real world – the Clio has morphed into quite a livelier machine off the mark.

Rather than the almost tardy response of the RS 197 (which required plenty of revs and the patience of a Saints supporter before it felt like a fire was lit beneath it) the RS 200 leaps into action with some of the jackrabbit vigour of the old-shape Clios.

Better still, the Honda VTEC-style second-cam scream half way up the rev range pretty much remains, so this thing pulls all the way up to the 7100rpm red line with the same smooth and oh-so sweet second wind thrust beyond 4000rpm as before.

To further enhance step-off acceleration, Regie’s engineers shortened the first three gear ratios on the Clio’s TL4 six-speed manual ‘box while top is now higher for reduced engine noise at speed.

Yet the addictive exhaust beat had us swapping the OK stereo for open windows time and again, so there’s another sensual sensory pleasure provided by the RS 200 Cup.

Alert engine plus chassis alacrity equal massive smiles all round.

And get this – driven as if a large spider had suddenly scaled down the back of our shirts, we still managed sub-10L/100km fuel consumption averages. The official figures record a 0.2L (and 4g/km CO2) drop, to 8.2L/100km (and 195g/km), which is praiseworthy indeed (although 98 RON premium unleaded petrol is required).

Now, surely all of these virtues justify the $38,990 Renault charges for the Cup Trophee? As long as the rest of the car holds together then everybody will be happy, right?

Well, even if you answered in the negative, it isn’t all toxic shock Big W plastics inside – far from it, in fact.

For one thing, road noise levels are not bad for this type of car, and on some surfaces the Renault is quieter than the standard three-door Golf GTI we fawned over a few months ago.

Our Trophee’s carbon fibre effect centre console is, ahem, ho-hum, but we really dig the new signature yellow tacho (with the red line bit beginning at a heady 7500rpm), that matches the yellow stitched pointer on top of the steering wheel.

Matt silver metallic-like trim bits and superb yellow-trimmed black Recaros also elevate the ambience – as well as the Clio’s seat comfort and support – even if they do lack the anti-submarining airbag that the standard Cup seats boast. They also imbue a sense of racing car excitement.

Otherwise, two years on from the RS 197, the 200 version is almost identical inside – brilliantly legible instrumentation, a great driving position, a decent amount of storage and cupholders up front, a fairly decent stereo, and ample ventilation from the digitised climate control system. We didn’t test the air-con this time, keeping in mind that the old Clio struggled in temperatures much above about 33 degrees.

A freedom of squeaks and rattles came as a bit of a surprise in our obviously used-and-abused press car, so maybe the French are learning how to screw together vehicles properly from partners Nissan and Samsung?

The Clio provides adequate rear access (thanks to Recaros with a memory setting so when they tip and slide forwards they can return to the preset position), and sufficient seating accommodation for two in the back. Only the bare basics are there like a pair of seatbelts, headrests, and a split-fold backrest, while the trim material borders on that nasty sheeny material. And don’t expect cupholders, overhead grab handles (only the front passenger gets one), or a centre armrest either.

Having no spare wheel is understandable for the same weight-saving reason why the cabin is no match for a Lexus.

But though the exceedingly deep boot can help accommodate a full-sized mountain bike when the rear seats are folded down (creating a stepped 1038 litre cargo area to augment the puny 288 litres under the parcel shelf with the rear seats in situ), we really do hate the idea of a can of puncture-repair goo. Surely Renault should consider runflat tyres?

What you do get is a five-star European NCAP crash-test result, ESP, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, eight airbags (including two anti-submarining devices underneath the front seats in non-Trophee Clios), climate-control air-conditioning, cruise control with speed limiter, Bluetooth connectivity, front fog lights, electrically adjustable and heated rear view mirrors, auto-on headlights and wipers, remote central locking, power windows, a multi-function trip computer, 60/40 split-fold rear seats, 17-inch alloys, reach and rake adjustment for the Renaultsport leather steering wheel, MP3/USB/aux media and drilled aluminium pedals.

The Trophee adds those brilliant Recaro front seats, keyless entry and start, electrically folding rear mirrors, different alloy wheels to the 1kg lighter newer items on the standard Cup, faux carbon-fibre trim and an anthracite finish to the exterior trim.

So the RS 200 is quite the well-equipped little runabout after all. Relatively refined too. We were not expecting that.

Renault hopes that maybe 150 will end up coming to Australia in the next two or so years before a new-generation Clio finally surfaces to replace the now ageing design.

That’s less than one month’s worth of Golf GTI sales, and there in lies yet another reason to love the little Clio so much – exclusivity comes guaranteed.

We’ll have our Trophee (the Recaros are worth the $2500 premium alone) in Alien Green, but would be rapt to have a Cup in Technicolor Dream Coat if that were our only choice, because the Clio is simply the most satisfying new car of its type available in Australia today.

The best hot hatches have always been life-affirming propositions, and the Renault is our choice hands down.

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