Car reviews - Renault - Clio - Sport 3-dr hatch
Styling, performance, handling, equipment, integration
Room for improvement
Price, lack of cruise control, tight rear seating
23 Apr 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
THIRTY-FOUR grand is a lot to pay for a pint-size three-door hatchback. But, then again, where else but Renault can you buy such big punch for such little money?
The company claims its Clio Sport will cover the standing 400 metres in just over 15 seconds - sheer impudence from a car that's about the same size as a Holden Barina.
Along with its direct rival, Peuogeot's 206 GTi, the mini Renault is among the hottest hot hatches sold here - a sort of latter day Cooper S. In fact, as a hyped-up version of a cheaper car, it is more aligned to the qualities of the original Mini than is the latest upbeat, supercharged, BMW designed version.
The Renault Clio Sport belongs to a family of light hatchbacks that begins at 1.4 litres and $20,000. Justifying the pricetag for the Sport version is not easy when judged by size, and even equipment levels, but such astonishing performance is nowhere else as cheaply come by.
The Clio Sport uses two litres of normally aspirated twin cam, 16-valve engine to wind out a pretty reasonable 124kW, and an even more reasonable 200Nm of torque.
Couple that with the weight, which at 1035kg is not much over a tonne, and it's already off to a good start. In terms of power/weight ratios, it is certainly more than decent by any standards - better, for example, than Subaru's WRX and certainly in front of today's Cooper S.
And it has that normally aspirated thing going for it. No idiosyncrasies, no waiting for the turbo to spool up - just plenty of instantly available punch right from the start.
Yet the Clio Sport does not feel as if it has been shoehorned with a bigger engine than it would normally have any right to expect. Torque steer is not a major issue.
Undoubtedly because the engine's mid-range does not wind in with the same sort of gusto as a turbo, there's rarely the feeling that the car is about to challenge the driver to a wrestling match.
Obviously well sorted suspension and steering help, but the Clio tames the normal front-drive characteristics particularly well.
Naturally it is all too easy to break traction on full-bore take-offs, but the combination of a nicely unobtrusive traction control system and a competent chassis minimises the effects.
The Clio Sport has an always eager feel to it, but this does not mean it's at all flighty. The engine is smooth, delivers its power progressively and is eager to stretch out to a red line just over 7000rpm.
The fact that maximum torque does not come until well on the way to that, at 5400rpm, is offset by the car's light weight.
So it is usually a matter, when you've a mind for a little fun, of letting the car do most of the work. The five-speed shift action is fine and the clutch is light and progressive.
Even though it has a better power-weight ratio than a WRX, the Clio Sport lacks the grip of four-wheel drive and lacks the turbo-induced mid-range torque that makes the Subaru so rapid from point to point.
The Renault eschews all the high-tech aids and relies on its lovely chassis balance, smooth power delivery and its outstanding power-to-weight ratio.
The chassis, more tied down than lesser Clios, is aided by wider rims and low-profile tyres to give the required road grip. The steering uses hydraulic power assistance where 1.4 and 1.6-litre Clios use an electrically assisted system it offers more feedback to the driver and seems to operate more smoothly and progressively, while also being quicker to respond.
The Clio's small size and light weight mean it is as eager to change direction as it is to accelerate. The limits of grip are well up to the capabilities of the engine.
For the money, the Clio Sport buyer gets virtually everything you'd expect traction control, four-wheel discs (solid discs at the rear, where other Clios use drums), ABS with electronic brake force distribution - but no brake assist as with lesser Clios - dual front and side airbags.
The seats are better shaped up front and trimmed with leather inserts, there's climate-control air-conditioning and a decent sound system with a CD stacker under the front passenger's seat.
A trip computer is part of the deal, as are a leather-trimmed steering wheel and aluminium-face foot pedals, and you can see your way clearly at night with the recently added Xenon headlights (incorporating washers).
But while at this level you probably would not expect something like electronic stability control, surely cruise control could have been factored into the local specification? The little Renault is so willing at highway speed that it runs away from you at every given opportunity.
Like other Clios, the Sport looks after its front-seat passengers well with adequate legroom, good shoulder room and a reasonable degree of seat adjustment (plus lumbar adjustment for the driver).
The back is somewhat tighter of course and the boot is small, although the best can be made of it via the split-fold, double-fold rear seat. As a gesture to the car's price, the rear luggage area is fitted with a restraining net.
For sheer performance, nothing comes near the Renault Clio Sport even though it is an almost frighteningly expensive light car (but so are the Citroen Xsara VTS, Mini Cooper S and even the GTis from Proton and Peugeot - the Satria and the 206).
Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that the Clio Sport feels so integrated. There's no suggestion, as we said earlier, that this is merely a big engine stuffed into a small car.
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