Can the new Clio RS200 deliver the unrivalled thrills of its predecessor without a manual 'box?
For years its predecessor had a monopoly on the pint-sized hot-hatch segment, but the new Renault Clio RS200 finds itself playing in a very different game.
The biggest goalpost shift for hot-hatches came recently with the introduction of the brilliant Ford Fiesta ST, which, at $25,990, undercut the old Renault Clio RS by more than $10K. The new Peugeot 208 GTi did the same, but by $6K.
Determined to not relinquish its control of the pocket-rocket class, the new Renault Clio RS200 returns fire, though as a markedly different car from the model it replaces.
The third-generation Clio RS had three doors, a non-turbo 2.0-litre petrol engine, a six-speed manual transmission, was offered only with the track-focused Cup chassis, and wore a $36,490 price tag.
By contrast, this fourth-generation Renault Clio RS200 gets five doors, a direct-injection turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the option of the softer Sport chassis, and an aggressive $28,790 starting price.
That new pricing sees the entry model undercut the $29,190 Volkswagen Polo GTI five-door, which also gets a standard dual-clutch gearbox, in addition to the manual-only $29,990 208 GTi. Although it’s still $2800 dearer than the Fiesta ST, Renault claims the premium is offset by the Clio’s standard dual-clutch transmission, launch control, touchscreen satellite navigation, and three-mode (Normal, Sport, Race) RS Drive function, all of which are unavailable in the baby Ford.
The harder Cup models – which feature stiffer springs and dampers and a 3mm-lower ride height, as well as larger 18-inch alloy wheels (up from the Sport’s 17s) and red brake calipers – cost $2500 over their Sport equivalents. The premium Trophy grade adds $5500 over the entry-spec Sport and Cup models and includes rear parking sensors and reversing camera, leather upholstery, heated front seats, climate control, and an upgraded infotainment system with enhanced audio, R-Link apps and the F1-inspired RS Monitor 2.0 data logging system.
The result is a new four-variant line-up that tops out at $36,790 – just $300 more than the old starting point. (Read Renault Clio RS200: pricing and specifications, here.)
While there may seem to be little in common between old and new, one number that carries over is the car’s 147kW peak power output (200hp, hence the RS200 badge), which is now produced 1100rpm sooner at 6000rpm.
Though no more powerful than the 2.0-litre non-turbo engine it replaces, the new 1.6-litre turbo churns out 25Nm more torque than its predecessor for a 240Nm peak. Most importantly, that figure is reached at just 1750rpm – 3650rpm earlier than before.
That added flexibility makes the new Clio RS200 skilfully versatile on the road. It pulls willingly from low engine speeds, and revs freely on the approach to its 6500rpm redline – though acceleration feels progressive rather than mind-bendingly quick, and less pacey than the Fiesta.
The controversial dual-clutch is likely to irk the Clio’s traditional fanbase – of which there are many, even in Australia. It’s not jerky at low speeds like some rivals, though it can’t match the overall crispness of the Polo GTI’s slick DSG.
Like the GTI, however, taking ultimate power out of the driver’s left hand and into the circuits of the electronics means the car, not the driver, has the final say on gearshifts; frustrating by auto upshifting at the redline and resisting more aggressive downshifts under braking until it decides enough speed has been wiped off the dial.
For all its anonymity with the RS Drive selector in its default Normal mode, the Renault Clio RS comes to life with Sport mode engaged, lifting the engine’s idle speed and eliciting all kinds of giggle-inducing pops from its exhaust. The physical ‘sound pipe’ adds even more drama at high engine speeds, amplifying the air intake noise and channelling a gravelly warble directly into the cabin for a sound that seems impossibly brawny for an engine of its capacity.
Sport mode also shortens the dual-clutch’s shift times (cutting them from 200 milliseconds to 170ms), encourages the transmission to hold gears longer under acceleration and shift down sooner under braking, adds weight to the power steering, relaxes the electronic stability and traction control settings, and enables launch control.
The last of that list is one of the easiest of its kind to use, requiring the driver to simply keep their foot on the brake pedal, pull and hold both Nissan GT-R-sourced metal steering wheel paddles until a display appears on the dash, depress the throttle, and finally lift off the brake.
It’s the easiest way to achieve the Clio RS200’s claimed 6.7-second 0-100km/h sprint, ensuring maximum traction, minimal wheel spin and surprisingly little torque steer.
The track-focused Race mode enforces manual shifting, cuts changes to less than 150 milliseconds and kills the stability and traction controls altogether – though the Renault fun police ordered us to leave this most hardcore setting alone on our drive from Melbourne through country Victoria and around the tight and twisty Haunted Hills circuit in Yallourn.
On both road and track, in both wet and dry, the Clio offers prodigious grip, sweet balance and impressive agility.
The softer Sport chassis still feels firm over less-than-perfect road surfaces but offers a level of compliance and comfort a world away from its hard-riding predecessor.
The Sport set-up is better suited to everyday driving than the stiffer Cup chassis, which is noticeably sharper, and realistically only asserts its superiority over the perfect tarmac of the hill climb track.
Despite their firmness, both suspension tunes are impressively resistant to crashing, thanks partly to the Clio’s new motorsport-derived dampers with hydraulic bump stops.
The steering lacks ultimate precision around the straight-ahead position, though is sweetly consistent and effortlessly light in Normal mode. Sport mode dials up the weight, making it feel meatier through corners without becoming overly or unnaturally heavy.
The wheel itself feels quite large in your hands, though the Clio’s driving position is praiseworthy. Rear visibility is compromised, however, by the Clio’s wide C-pillars and small back window.
The Renault Clio RS200’s cabin is among the best in its class, combining a modern, characterful design featuring large and clear displays with quality materials and plastics.
Splashes of red across the seatbelts, seats, steering wheel, doors, vents, gearlever and hand brake quickly distinguish the Renault Sport model from the regular range.
Another feature that sets the Clio apart from its pocket rocket rivals is the RS Monitor 2.0, which is effectively an F1-style on-board telemetry system that provides real-time data on everything from power and torque curves, brake and turbo pressures and g-forces, to GPS-linked lap timing and performance benchmark logging for 0-100km/h and 0-400m sprints, among others.
If that’s not nerdy enough, drivers can record their drives onto a USB and upload their data to Renault’s free RS Replay website for a detailed analysis of their performance and comparison with other drivers around the world.
From a more practical, day-to-day perspective, the Clio offers decent head and legroom for two back-seat passengers, and its generous 300-litre boot is deep and wide, and expands to 1146L with the 60:40 split rear seats folded forward. The cabin makes do with a tiny glovebox and small cup holders and door pockets, however, and no centre stowage bin or armrest.
A back-to-back test is the only true way to determine whether the Renault Clio RS200 can tame the feisty Fiesta ST in what shapes as a neck-and-neck battle.
Its lack of a manual transmission will frustrate the purists, but a cracking engine, super balance and grip, a smartly styled and well equipped cabin, and sharp pricing makes the latest Clio RS one of the best bang-for-buck cars on the market.