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The Renault Clio Renaultsport is a fine car, even if competence replaces the usual impishness of a hot Clio

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We Brits have fallen behind when it comes to being world leaders, but we rule with omnipotence in one category of life: we buy more fast Renaults than anyone else – even the French. Ergo the new Clio 200 is a very significant car.

Ever since we got our hands on a Sport 172 back in 1999, Renaultsport’s piping-hot front-drive Clio has been a firm favourite at Autocar. Prodigious speed, bags of grip and an adjustable chassis gave it a place in our hearts alongside the Peugeot 205 GTI. And we liked the stripped-out Cup version even more – enough to pick it over the more expensive Mini Cooper S.

The Clio Renaultsport feels wonderfully old school

Delve a little more deeply into tradition, and it's not difficult to find hot Clios of worthy mettle. The Clio Williams line included a succession of hot hatches leading back to a 1993 original that was blisteringly quick, handled sweetly and, with its gold alloy wheels and blue dials, looked superb.

If your insurance broker baulked at the prospect of a group 17 rating, there was also the Clio 16v – a more ordinarily styled hatch that could run the hotter Williams surprisingly close on performance.

Look below that, and you'd find a 1.8-litre Clio RSi that, for its slightly tamer pace, still proved a real live wire – we rated it more highly than better-known rivals such as the Ford Fiesta XR2i, Peugeot 106 XSi, Citroën AX GTI and Vauxhall Corsa GSi.

So the latest incarnation of the hot Renault Clio ought to appeal to us. This Renaultsport Clio 200 is more of a mid-life refresh for the previous 197 than an all-new vehicle, but it does include some notable refinements, including a revised 2.0-litre engine, firmer suspension and some subtle styling changes. Are the tweaks enough for it to still reign supreme?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Renault Clio RS air vents

The Renaultsport Clio 200 is impressively removed from ordinary Clios. Its rear suspension and track width are so different that the wheelbase is longer and the front track wider.

The accompanying bodywork swells to cover these changes – vents are sited on the trailing edges of the front arches and a socking great diffuser (which actually works, believe it or not) sits under the modified rear bumper.

The Clio continues to get bigger

A Gordini model, which brought back the class performance name from Renault’s history, brought with it some Mini-style dressing up of the exterior and interior – including racing stripes and lots of blue and white trim – but it was axed as part of Renault’s sweeping cuts to its UK line-up in February 2012.

In chassis terms, Renaultsport has tried to widen the gap between the regular Clio 200 and the more hardcore Cup chassis variant. The normal car’s dampers are 15 percent softer than a Clio 197’s and feature what Renault calls ‘double-effect’ valves for improved ride during motorway cruising.

The Cup model, meanwhile, has 15 percent stiffer dampers than the 197 Cup, and stiffer springs (27 percent at the front and 30 percent at the rear) than the standard Clio 200. Cup cars are also 36kg lighter and feature a quicker steering rack, but they’re also less well equipped – the dashboard is made from a harder plastic, and even air conditioning is an option.

Like the standard three-door hatchback it is based on, the Renaultsport Clio has gained in size over its forebear, signalling a fundamental change of direction for the brand, for which small is clearly no longer beautiful.

However, we would have preferred better all-round visibility because the B-pillars and C-pillars are notably thick, perhaps to provide outstanding roll-over protection.

INTERIOR

Renault Clio RS dashboard

Dynamic improvements over the old Renaultsport Clio 182 in the 197/200 models have been matched by the cabin revisions. Gone is the terrible driving position of the old car, replaced instead by a steering wheel that adjusts for both rake and reach, a set of pedals placed at a better, if still not ideal, angle and a cracking pair of front chairs.

At last, this is a cabin in which you can take advantage of what’s underneath you. Different instrument faces, including a revcounter shift light, a swanky gearlever and some subtle logos, make it feel significantly more serious than the base car.

The boot is also big, although the bootlid is a little heavy

Overall, the car’s interior is bland but that’s where some of its appeal lies – it’s clear that the money was spent on developing the chassis and the running gear instead.

There’s no denying the space created in the front, back or boot over the old car in this a larger-than-ever Clio. Four six-foot adults can sit comfortably on board (although comfort may not be the word to describe how those sitting in the back will feel on a B-road blast) and access to the rear in the three-door model is excellent, with a simple handle on top of the front seat back pulling the chair forward and then returning it to its original position.

Lowering the rear seat is less satisfactory: for maximum room, you need to pull the seat squab forward and tilt it vertically before the seat back will collapse into the space it has just vacated. This still leaves you with two distinct floors in the boot, rather than the completely flat load area that would be ideal.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Renault Clio RS engine

The Renaultsport 200 features a revised version of the Clio 197’s 2.0-litre normally aspirated engine, now producing 197bhp instead of 194bhp (the 200 and 197 in the model names refer to metric horsepower).

Maximum torque stays the same, at 159lb ft, but peak twist and power are both produced 150rpm earlier than before, and Renault claims that a reworked cylinder head and ECU have greatly improved the amount of torque available beneath 3000rpm. Shorter first, second and third gears help low-end urge, too.

Peddling the Clio at speed requires effort, but the rewards are there

Using all 7500rpm and a decent level of initial traction, the Clio clips 62mph from rest in 6.9sec and will reach a top speed of 141mph, at which point that fully functional rear diffuser is really earning its keep.

Moreover, being normally aspirated, the 200 needs concerted effort (in other words, a right good thrashing) to operate at the level its figures would suggest. But Renault’s decision to resist a change to light-pressure turbocharging in the hot Clio has been vindicated, because this is a fine hot hatch motor from the old school.

It demands work and fast gearchanges, but it rewards with exhilaration and the opportunity to have the driver’s skill level make a real difference. It sounds just the ticket, too – all induction blare and fizzing valve gear.

The 200 does feel a little more urgent at lower revs than the 197, and more forgiving of those who barrel into a corner and scrub off a little too much speed. There’s also an audible gearshift indicator that kicks in just before the redline. We doubt many owners will get benefit from this on the road, but it’d be a boon on track days.

RIDE & HANDLING

Renault Clio RS rear cornering

To appreciate the Renaultsport 200, you must disregard its apparent lack of grunt. Renault has taken a tangential approach with this car: it is the first entirely new hot hatch philosophy from Dieppe since the original Clio 16v back in 1991.

The difference lies in the chassis and, specifically, how the engineers have tuned its behaviour. The best news is that, of all the places it is sold, the 200’s quite brilliant chassis shines brightest in the UK.

The rear diffuser makes itself felt at speed

The 200 eschews much of today’s marketing-led nonsense – most notably huge wheels and slammed suspension – in creating the most sophisticated, capable and enjoyable chassis yet seen in a car of this size. In doing so, Renault has produced something that leaves the 200’s predecessors – and anything else in the class for that matter – appearing quite prehistoric.

And the weapons that provide such a crushing victory? Copious suspension travel, great individual wheel control and a large dollop of adjustability – just like the classic old-style Peugeots.

It takes just a few miles to enjoy these differences. This is a hatch with enough damping to run fast over treacherous surfaces and keep all four wheels on the ground. Crucially, it’s also one whose cornering line can be tightened with a trailing throttle as much as it can with the steering wheel.

This last fact characterised a generation of inspired hot Peugeots when that company was at the top of its game, and Renault admits that it deliberately emulated those characteristics with this car. What’s more, it is comfortable – supple in a way none of its rivals is.

There are barriers of entry to these delights, though. The first is the electric power steering, which couldn’t feel less connected to the front axle at parking speeds and which never allows the wheels to fidget in the way many would hope. But it is an unfailingly accurate system and complements the chassis well. Spend a few hundred miles in it and the electric assistance ceases to be an issue. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Renault Clio Renaultsport 2006-2012

Renault offers two distinct versions of the Renaultsport Clio: an entry-level (read stripped-out) Cup version, and a regular car more suited to everyday use. The most basic car starts at £17,000 the regular model costs £1000 more.

We'd recommend the Cup model if you’re a track day regular, but not so much for the road, particularly if you're intending to spec your 200 up to the nines. The Clio Cup may cost £1000 less than the regular 200 but, although you can specify as options a few things it loses over the regular car (such as air-con and curtain airbags), you can’t get back the regular Clio’s keyless entry and upmarket dashboard, which includes reach adjustment for the wheel.

Its easy to push the price of a new Clio to more than £20,000

Losing a traditional key is fine, but losing the reach adjustable steering isn’t. 

Fortunately, there is an answer: Cup suspension is available for £400 over the regular 200, too. We suppose you’d have to do the maths, tick which options you want (white with black wheels is, fortunately, available on both models) and decide which is more important to you: 36kg or sore arms.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most UK buyers choose to put up with a 36kg weight increase and opt for a regular 200 with Cup suspension. The regular 200 also has a better residual value.

Whichever hot Clio you chose, combined economy is 34.5mpg and CO2 emissions are 190g/km. Both sit in insurance group 30. 

VERDICT

4 star Renault Clio Renaultsport

As enthusiasts, we cannot help but lament that so much of the standard Clio’s charm has been lost in the creation of such a relentlessly sensible car. So it’s left to this Renaultsport version to prove the spark is still there. 

Some will complain that it lacks a few basic aesthetic requirements – there are slight gaps in the wheelarches and no brash exhaust outlets – but when they are replaced by class-leading suspension travel and a working rear diffuser, even the harshest critic will have to concede that the Clio 200 has credibility where it counts. Spend time with it and you will surely be converted by Renault’s new approach in the 200. It has created a great little fast car.

The Renaultsport is a great little fast car

On a circuit or your favourite B-road, the Clio is a delight to play with, and happy to cope with ludicrous mid-corner throttle lifts that would have many other small cars in the gravel. It’s quick to change direction when asked, but admirably slow to punish you when you mistreat it. Short of the late, lamented Mégane R26 or Focus RS, it’s hard to think of another hot hatch with such a high level of adjustability.

Although the Cup is great for making a statement, and we’ll applaud anyone for buying one, don’t feel bad if you, and your forearms, aren’t quite that hardcore.

In an ideal world, you should buy at least two Renaultsport Clios, but we would forgive you for taking just the one. However many you buy, what you will get is the most accomplished, dynamically proficient hot hatchback this side of £20k. It’s that good.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Renault Clio Renaultsport 2006-2012 First drives