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Car reviews - Renault - Clio - RS200 Cup 3-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Performance flexibility, handling, roadholding, brakes, refinements, comfort, safety, overall character and charm
Room for improvement
Practically perfect as driven on a racetrack

26 Mar 2010

FORGET Ashes To Ashes, Lady Gaga and skin-tight jeans – the ’80s revival we have really, really longed for is finally with us in the welcome shape of the GTI wars.

And this year is shaping up as one of the best for fans of the hot hatch genre.

In one corner we have the evergreen Golf GTI that has been remodelled and improved for 2010 in Mk6 mode, while Germany’s traditional foe France has entered the fray again with a challenger of fierce repute and disarming charm.

But don’t expect to see the long-awaited successor to the 205 GTI putting up its dukes against Deutschland’s finest, because Peugeot’s cross-town rival Renault has been flying the flag pretty much solo since the crushingly disappointing 206 GTI sashayed into view about a decade ago.

No, the Renaultsport 200 Cup is here to represent the Gauls and … and … we are simply spellbound by its force-of-nature abilities. Speechless even.

Renault says it has listened to the car’s formidable fan base by bringing in only the Cup chassis model, in two equipment level variations that are designed to both stimulate and soothe the keen driver in equal measure. Both have more kit for the cash and cost less to boot, so already the RS 200 is off to a flying start.

When we drove its lovely RS 197 predecessor in 2008, we revelled in the chassis’ ability to entwine the driver with the action in a seamless and effortless way.

Yes, we lamented the inevitable safety legislation-driven weight increase compared with the iconic 172 and 182 Clio II RS cars that helped neuter their jackrabbit-like jumpstart sprinting characteristic, and wished for a quicker steering rack, but long-term exposure to the RS 197 revealed a toweringly talented hot hatch of almost supernatural handling and poise. We grew to love that car unreservedly.

Now there’s slightly more power, but a bigger wad of torque at lower revs, so the RS 200 feels significantly more alive at take-off velocities than before. Not mid-2000s Clio 182 quick, but getting there.

Aiding this is more sympathetic gearing, so the Clio is quicker up through the ratios too. And the engine still revs frenetically past the second-wind point of about 4500rpm to really launch the rapid little Renault into orbit. The cracking pace – and a crack-like addiction to the circa 7100rpm red line – left us wanting more.

However, two things need to be remembered here: 1. We only drove the RS 200 Cup on Melbourne’s Sandown racetrack, and 2. There are huge differences between a car’s circuit performance and regular on-road behaviour.

On the track the Clio’s steering felt telepathically tuned into our thoughts, flying through the chicanes and peeling past apexes like a laser-guided missile. And while we have little doubt that the same will apply on regular roads, the degree as to which the Renault’s tiller provides us with weight and feedback is still unknown.

Nor is the French runabout’s ride quality a known quantity since Renaultsport has altered the suspension compared to the old car. But we can’t wait to try …

Actually, we were so entranced by the whole Clio racetrack experience (Renault brought out its F1 team drivers to demonstrate the RS 200’s incredible G-force grip at high speeds during a ‘hot lap’ that left us with some internal organ displacement) that we failed to notice the spruced up interior – other than the Recaro seats are brilliantly supportive in Trophee guise, the gear change is as sweet as we remember it to be, and the brakes are brilliantly effective.

So there you have it – a tantalising taste of what we suspect is the world’s best hot hatch. Nothing remotely close for the money can possibly be so chuckable.

Recently when we road tested the latest Golf GTI in base three-door manual spec, we brought along an RS 197 for the ride, and concluded that – while the VW seemed amazing value for money and the better all-rounder for the majority of buyers out there – true hot-hatchists would still prefer that older Renault because of how joyously alive it felt in your hands. Incredibly, the Clio also rode better and felt more isolated from road noise than the German car as well.

Only a rematch would reveal where the latest RS stands, but on the evidence of our all-too-brief burst at Sandown, the hottest Clio seems to have what it takes to scorch the current GTI king. The Brits are going gaga over the Renault and we believe you may too.

Ahh, some ’80s comebacks are worth being old and nostalgic for!

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