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First drive: Renault’s new Clio RS a winner

Pump up the volume: Higher volume expectations for the expanded fourth-gen Clio range give Renault Australia greater bargaining power with the factory.

New Renault Clio RS is as sharp as ever, and looks set to be cheaper as well


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8 Mar 2013


WE ARE behind the wheel of the new Renault Clio RS at the Gaudix Circuit, a short, twisty, technical three-kilometre sliver of bitumen on the outskirts of Granada in southern Spain.

The circuit is drenched in rain, and under the hands the Renault Sport hot-shop, this faster fourth-generation hatch has transformed into something more potent than the car it replaces while becoming eminently usable on a daily basis.

From under the bonnet a feisty 1.6 turbo engine emits a delicious burble at low revs then transitions through a rasp followed by an unfortunate boomy mid-range before emitting a feral, afterburner-like whoosh at the top end as the turbo crams air into the cylinders.

The whump from the tailpipes on full-bore up-changes is addictive, and the pop and crackle during down-changes or on the over-run are positively class-A (although, the annoying beep to advise of an up-change is a massive come-down.) Depending on the outlook of the driver, piloting this conceptually different Clio RS on wet roads is either bowel-loosening or a barrel of laughs as the rear end is twitchier than a teenager on a Red Bull binge.

Keeping the wayward tail in check meant never taking the foot off the accelerator in bends, as this thing bites like the notorious 1980s Peugeot 205 GTi.

We said ‘conceptually different’, and we mean it. The old Clio RS was a three-door, naturally aspirated manual, while the new is a five-door turbo with a standard dual-clutch automatic.

Thankfully, the engine – a Renault Sport tuned version of the unit that will power the imminent Nissan Pulsar SSS – is tractable, the automatic is snappy, and the ride quality is surprisingly compliant.

Furthermore, the attractive interior and impressive R-Link system make this an everyday hot hatch to rival the Volkswagen Polo GTI.

But take it onto a race track – even in drenched conditions as we did – and the Clio RS proves it has a lot to give, making it all the more frustrating that we were not able to fully exploit the car in drier weather.

Even better, Renault Australia is confident it will be able to bring the new in at a lower price than the outgoing model, which is significantly costlier than rivals at $36,490 plus on-roads.

This is despite the new car coming with more content, such as the standard six-speed dual-clutch transmission, Renault’s internet-connected R-Link infotainment system with sat-nav and second-generation RS Monitor telemetry.

Renault Australia managing director Justin Hocevar told GoAuto the potential for price cuts comes from a stronger bargaining position with the factory, brought about by the decision to expand the Clio range beyond the niche RS models in this country as well as wider appeal of the new RS.

However the 147kW/240Nm Clio is still expected to carry a premium over less potent rivals like the 132kW Volkswagen Polo GTI ($27,790), 141kW Opel Corsa OPC ($28,990) 132kW Skoda Fabia RS ($27,990) and 115kW Citroen DS3 Sport ($29,740).

An extended drive program through the Andalucia region of Spain revealed the new RS to be a more ‘usable’ proposition than the third-generation car while losing none of the fun factor for which it is famous.

Part of this versatility is due to the three-mode RS Drive selector that, much like Alfa Romeo’s DNA or Audi’s Drive Select systems, alters the car’s response to driver inputs, firms up the steering and alters – or fully disables – the stability control parameters.

One of the most tangible effects is on the transmission, which progressively sharpens shift times from 200ms in standard mode to 170ms in sport mode and 150ms in race mode – the latter claimed to be the quickest for a non-exotic road car.

In addition to increasing idle speed and causing all sorts of exhilarating pops, bangs and burps from the exhaust that conspire to encourage the driver into wild fits of hoonery, Sport and Race mode both enable a highly effective launch control system.

It is one of the easiest to engage simply pulling back both paddles, holding down both pedals and then letting go of the brake delivers perfect race starts every time, with little torque-steer no matter how much or little traction is available.

Race mode also enables the driver to quickly select the lowest available ratio by holding down the left paddle, a truly race-bred feature rarely available on road cars, let alone at this price point.

While the engine is a peach, it never feels neck-snappingly rapid, 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds is more than adequate and zipping from 80-120km/h for overtaking takes just 4.5s. When not tearing around like a lunatic, combined fuel use is rated at a commendable 6.3 litres per 100 kilometres.

Commitment is key to getting the most out of the Clio, especially in race mode where there is no safety net.

Sport mode is a good compromise as it allows a large degree of lairyness before saving the day when it feels as though all is lost, but even in normal mode it turns a blind eye to a surprising amount of slippage.

The delightfully quick, accurate and weighty steering makes corrections to tail slides easy while communicating what the front wheels are doing in a way we thought lost in the digital fug of modern fuel-saving electro-mechanical power assistance.

An innovative electronic front diff is effective for quelling understeer by gently braking the inside front wheel without cutting engine power, but when pushing too hard in the wet this system sometimes caused the tail to step out.

Renault Australia is pretty sure it will offer only the more focussed Cup chassis here, but we were only able to evaluate this setup on track, while road sections of our test route were done in cars with the softer Sport chassis.

Although understandably firm, the Sport is a revelation compared with the third-generation Clio RS, as it is comfortable and compliant with well judged damping and decent body control – it makes the car a bit of a miniature grand tourer like the Polo GTI.

Our best efforts to test the Cup chassis for compliance by hammering at kerbs on the otherwise smooth and slippery circuit revealed a lack of the current model’s tendency to slam – both audibly and through the buttocks – which we put down to the special race-bred dampers with hydraulic bump stops.

Compared with the Sport chassis the Cup is noticeably sharper and nimbler, and combined with the sport or race modes, this Clio RS is a proper little go-kart.

Back in the real world, tyre noise is well suppressed on all but the coarsest surfaces but at times, the level of wind noise at freeway speeds was borderline unacceptable.

Inside, the new Clio has a better, far cleaner dash layout than recent Renaults and we loved the driving position, as well as the comfortable and supportive seats, the chunky steering wheel and clear instrumentation.

The R-Link system has an excellent iPad inspired interface with beautiful graphics and a sharp display, the sat-nav is fast and accurate.

Renault’s RS Monitor telematics system is by far the most comprehensive of its type, with a fantastic datalogger function able to store lap information on a USB stick for later laptop analysis through Renault’s brilliant complimentary software.

Like many Renaults, the cruise control switch is still oddly located on the centre console and its activation unintuitive our car seemed to want to drive at 140km/h when all we wanted was 120km/h.

That said, it felt comfortable, rock-solid stable and relatively relaxed at 140km/h and beyond, even in the rain, wind and fog we experienced.

The brake pedal can feel a little firm and wooden at urban speeds but we did not notice this during other driving situations.

In the dry, or even driven with more finesse than we could generally muster in the wet, the Clio promises big rewards with a chuckability and accuracy worthy of the RS name.

Renault has not given the Clio RS so much grip that it monsters dry roads like its Megane RS265 big brother, and there is plenty of margin in which to have some fun.

But quick reactions are needed to tame it when it gets wayward.

For this reason we can forgive the little Renault its few minor flaws, such as the rubbery long throw of the gear selector – more than made up for by the beautiful large metal paddle-shifters straight from a Nissan GT-R – and the awful rear visibility that we are promised will be countered by a standard reversing camera on Australian-delivered cars.

We can’t wait to try it on our favourite – dry – Australian roads and look forward to the inevitable Trophee and Gordini variants.

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