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It's been five years since Renault turned its back on its own naturally aspirated, manual gearbox Clio RS providence and lobbed with a comparatively weapons-grade third generation hell-bent on reformulating compact grocery-getters with lofty performance capabilities.
Whereas hot hatches French and otherwise were once all-chassis, low-powered propositions that you could chuck at the most mundane driving experiences and would reward with ten-tenths hilarity, 2013 unveiled powerful turbocharging, dual-clutch (only) and launch control trickery, poise, grip and the sorts of pace and performance unheard of for rocket-fuelled city cars.
Whether RS version three – based off Clio IV, confusingly, though some call this gen-four Clio RS – was a better breed depends largely on your definition of what 'hot hatch' means. This new era of faster certainly didn't negatively impact the ever-growing cult following of slower, simpler, more 'conventionally' hot and increasingly loved first, second or however many generation forebears.
If this new, facelifted 2018 Renault Clio RS update is anything to go by, there's been no need to raise the levels of power and pace we've become accustomed to for the past five years. That's because, in this new version, there's no extra on show. Instead, the three-strong line-up makes do with some aesthetic and equipment fettling in the otherwise familiar mix to add a little newfound lustre to the compact hot hatch's already shiny halo.
There's some nomenclature fiddling, too: the numerals (200, 220, et al) have disappeared from official literature, though RS methodology still confounds (is the base car, in expanded form, really called a Renault Clio Renault Sport Sport?).
No matter. On test here, resplendent in Renault Sport signature Liquid Yellow paintwork, is the mid-range Cup which, at $32,490 list, is flanked by the regular Clio RS Sport, at $30,990 list, and the tree-topping Trophy that lobs for $42,990, albeit drive-away rather than MRLP. For clearer pricing differentiation, Renault Australia currently advertises the trio as starting from $33,990, $35,990 and $42,400 drive-away respectively for the Sport, Cup and Trophy.
Differences? Essentially, the Cup is the same mechanical package as the 147kW/260Nm 1.6-litre turbo four-powered Clio RS but with lower, 15 per cent stiffer 'Cup' suspension and one-inch-larger (18-inch) black alloys as fitted to the Trophy rather than the base car's 17s – essentially called the 'Cup' chassis. What the Cup lacks, though, is the Trophy's bespoke suite of tune-up including a higher-boost 162kW/280Nm engine, closer-ratio transmission, a louder/lighter exhaust system, even harder-core suspension tune, quicker steering rack and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres (the Cup gets Dunlop Sport Maxx). Unlike the base Sport, the Cup (and Trophy) get red-painted brake calipers.
Our mid-ranger bridges the gap to the Trophy a little closer by way of the Leather and Entertainment packs, $1500 apiece added to the Cup but fitted as standard on the all-singing, all-dancing flagship. Add an extra $750 for the heroic paintwork and our tester is $36,240 before on-roads for what appears, on paper, to be an amalgamated, highly specified example skewed towards focused on-road performance if without the Trophy's bone-jarring, circuit-centric ride quality. A go-fast street variant as it sits, then.
It's a smart looker, even if facelifting doesn't go beyond those neat new rims and the addition of those questionable-looking 'chequered flag' driving lights. In the flesh, it's nicely squat and purposeful without appearing too garish.
Inside, there are few surprises. The chunky steering wheel and funky instrumentation – it's digital speedo only – remain, and the slightly nicer soft-touch material across the dash and binnacle lifts presentation a little from a design half-full of hard, shiny plastics. The mechanical-adjust, black leather seats present well, complete with red double-stitching, though they're quite rib-hugging under the shoulder blades. Buttons and switches are a mixed bag, ranging from nice and tactile (climate control), cheap and clunky (mirror adjustors) to clumsy (boxy audio control tacked onto the steering column).
The seating is low slung, ergonomic, quite driver-centric, and the amount of seat and steering adjustment is exceptional – even the tallest drivers should be comfy – but, in true French style, there are quirks. For instance, the stagger in height between the pedal demands a big lift from the accelerator to reach the brake. And those short, column-mounted paddle-shifters render themselves utterly useless at even the smallest turn of steering lock, defeating much of the advantage of their purpose. At least the console shifter presents the upshift/downshift motion in the correct backward/forward orientation.
The dinky 7.0-inch touchscreen is the same hardware as the base Clio Life, but you do get proprietary navigation, a rear-view camera, and front and rear sensors as standard. There's nothing terribly flashy or slick about the $1500 Entertainment pack's upgrade R-Link software: the navigation is rudimentary, the RS Monitor onboard telemetry gimmicky and not terribly useful outside of a racetrack environment. Unless you're keen on real-time power, torque and G-force feedback en route to the express lane at the supermarket... Phone mirroring? I don't own Android, so I have no idea. Digital radio is nice, but again it can be had on the entry Life at half the Cup's price.
There's a lot of the same stuff, and much of it unchanged stuff we've had issues with at times with our pre-facelifted long-termer back in 2015.
The carryover turbo 1.6 has a nice raspy note at idle, and it gets better and bolder the closer engine revs soar to the 6500rpm redline. By hot hatch measures, it's quite a howler. Even in Normal drive mode, it pulls stridently off the mark without much in the way of torque steer, and the electronic differential converts traction into motion impressively.
Like any boosted small-capacity engine and dual-clutch gearbox combination you can name, it's not the most seamless powertrain, but in Normal mode it's amply tractable and generally cooperative throughout the balance of everyday driving. And you'd better like the so-called 'EDC' automated gearbox format: there's still no conventional cog-swapper on the Clio RS menu, and there isn't likely to be in the foreseeable future.
Sport drive mode struggles around town: it's too aggressive in clinging onto ratios and big engine RPM for dear life. Grabbing a paddle engages temporary manual mode, and while up- and downshifts are assertive they're not quite rapid-fire. It takes full launch control heroics to ply the Cup's 6.6sec 0–100km/h best, which is hardly a noteworthy figure by general performance car measures, if quite stunning for a humble compact hatchback.
Its pint-sized form – a smidgen over four metres long, a touch over 1.2 tonnes – pays handsomer dividends in the corners than it does on the straights. As expected, once you 'chuck it in' and start sawing away at the direction finder like a driver possessed, the shiny plaudits start gushing. Which is a good thing, because its firmly set damping can be punishing at times around town, and you'll expect some grin-inducing payback once you thrust the Clio's nose towards the wild blacktop yonder.
Dynamically, the Cup package is both impressive and utterly surprise free. Nothing's really changed for this evolution of generation three, a handling character markedly more measured, stable and benign than its feistier, pointier, generation-two forebear. A hot hatch is nothing without absolutely cooperative steering, and this middleweight Cup tune offers a handy balance of weight, point, measure and feedback that's fit for purpose if not quite rave-worthy.
Across the ever changing and occasionally hostile surfaces of most proper driving roads, the suspension tune is damn fine. The firmness provides a nice crispness in character, the tempered compliance allows the chassis to settle and track well over mid-corner bumps. The Dunlops grip up nicely carrying speed through sweepers, but lack a little purchase through tighter corners and fast direction changes. On balance, it leverages pace more confidently than it does playfulness, which won't be to every hot hatch lover's taste.
Essentially, the lofty point-to-point pace today's Clio RS can muster up on a backroad transcends the old bury-the-right-foot-and-steer-your-way-through hot hatch methodology of old. It's too quick. Stability and predictability – two of the car's strong dynamic suits – ultimately serve the package well. At least punting around with red mist in the public arena, that is.
Bar a one-off glitch with the stop-start system that stalled the car – we couldn't repeat the issue – it's a perfectly capable and rapid if stiff-riding prospect around town. If ride quality is a priority and backroad bombing isn't an ownership priority, you might be better off saving a couple of grand and swinging into the equally quick Sport. Conversely, if you're aiming to take your Clio RS to the track semi-regularly, the jump in, go-fast purpose the Trophy offers would serve you better if funds permit. (All are covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and get three-year/90,000km capped-priced servicing).
That said, the Cup's a nice middle ground. If it was our coin, we'd skip the two options packs and bank the three-grand saving – neither Leather nor Entertainment adds anything in fitness for purpose. It's a perfectly attractive prospect unfettered by options for its $35K on-road ask – if one that really doesn't bring much newness to brag about, or represent improved outright value for money, in 2018 face-lifted form.