The Renault Clio Renault Sport 200 is by and large one of the best hot hatches on the market.
Here's the deal: you've got about $40,000 to spend on a performance car and you're over the whole WRX, Lancer Ralliart, MPS3, Focus XR5, etc. scene and you want something out of the norm. Well then, the French may just have the answer.
Model Tested: 2010 Renault Clio Sport R.S. 200 Trophee, 2.0-litre four cylinder, six-speed manual – $38,990.
I'll be straight up with you, the Renault Clio Sport RS 200 is not cheap for its size. Prices start at $36,490 and that's not that much less than the larger and more sophisticated Volkswagen Golf GTI ($38,990 for manual three-door).
So why would you buy a Clio RS 200, which is noticeably smaller than its similarly priced competition? Because it's ultimately a race-car at heart and you can't say the same for its direct rivals.
Renault has been actively involved in the world's ultimate race series and last year won the Formula 1 constructors' championship with Red Bull. That means it beat the likes of Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes. In case you think that means nothing to the development of real-world cars, you'd be rather wrong.
If you need any more proof as to why this car demands its price tag, just go drive one and see for yourself. I am not going to argue with you on the price, it's not cheap if you have practicality in mind. But as an affordable sports car, it's unbelievably good.
Powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre 16V four-cylinder engine with 147.5kW and 215Nm of torque, the 1281kg (kerb weight) Clio RS 200 sure knows how to move. It's not all that quick in a straight line (0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds - top speed 225km/h) but drive it into some twisty mountain roads and my God, is it fun!
From the outside it's hard to miss this little hot hatch. Not only is it unique (Renault sold just 130 Clios of all variants in Australia in 2010) but it exudes a rather menacing stance.
The front design is very French, simple but elegant. The Clio RS 200 gains an aerodynamic blade which Renault says helps reduce the car's drag. The rear on the other hand is modified to accompany a sexy diffuser that houses two big exhausts.
I can talk about its exterior look all day but it's best to see it in person. The review car certainly attracted a lot of attention wherever it went. Those that know their cars can instantly tell this Clio means serious business. It also helps that Renault doesn't actually sell any standard Clios in Australia, so if you see one driving around you can be certain it's a sports model.
It's also only available in a manual. If that bothers you, this car is not for you. The six-speed manual is a near-perfect match for the engine and makes driving this little beast an absolute joy. Renault Sport engineers have ingeniously designed the engine so that it delivers 95 percent of its entire torque from as low as 3000rpm. So while you can still rev the guts out of it for maximum enjoyment, this little Clio gets up and moving very quickly.
Around the heavenly roads of Mount Glorious in Brisbane, the Clio Sport brought a sense of surrealism to driving. Unlike the Golf GTI, Impreza WRX or Lancer Ralliart that all feel a tad underdone when it comes to seriously enthusiastic driving, the Clio RS200 is an entirely complete package made to be driven as hard as one's willpower allows.
The main downside to this car is that it's not licence friendly. Given that it looks fast standing still, the French have made a car that begs to be driven at 10/10ths at all times. Consequently you'll find yourself finding any excuse to flatten the accelerator and try to pull the maximum G-force out of every corner. Soon enough the friendly men in blue might notice.
Despite being a front-wheel drive, the chassis handles the power and torque incredibly well and there is minor torque-steer at best even when accelerating hard out of a corner.
As far as handling goes, the closest affordable sportscar I can rate this against is a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Which is a good $25,000 more expensive. No doubt the Evo is a quicker car overall, but the incredible thing is how much more fun the Renault can be.
Cars like the Evo X tend to nearly defy the laws of physics because their onboard computers and mechanical systems work out the best way to go around a corner, all you really need to do is point the steering wheel in the direction and not fall asleep. The Renault Clio RS200 is totally the opposite.
That's not to say it's a dumb car, but that it wants you to do the driving. It makes you find the perfect racing line as you scream up a winding road on a Sunday morning. It rewards you if you find the optimum braking point, the correct cornering line and acceleration point. It blasts an aural soundtrack from its magnificent engine that makes you wonder why it even comes with a stereo. It's like a drug to any wannabe racer that appreciates a car that loves to go faster and faster.
This is a serious sports car, so you can, and definitely should, take it on a race track to find its limits. Its light weight and competent brakes (Brembo four-pot front callipers and single-piston TRW rears) make it the ideal weekend race car.
From the second you open the door you'll know the Clio RS 200 means business. The standard version comes with nice sports seats, drilled aluminium pedal facings and a Renault Sport leather steering wheel with centre marking in case you happen to be going so fast you haven't got time to check.
Despite its race pedigree, creature comforts are aplenty. Air-conditioning with climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming are a godsend. You also get automatic headlamps and windscreen wipers plus a four-speaker audio system that will take iPod and USB.
If you really want the ultimate, you can always go for the Renault Clio RS200 Trophee ($38,990) which gains Recaro seats that hold you tight as you force the will of inertia around corners. The seats can be a bit of an issue if you're a little on the large side, but then again, this is a car that makes no compromises, even for its potential customers.
The extra $2500 for the Trophee also gets you Renault's hands-free keycard (essentially a smart key that looks like a thick credit card), folding and heated door mirrors, 17-inch Renault Sport BeBop alloy wheels, fascia with simulated carbon fibre gloss finish to the centre binnacle and other minor upgrades to the interior. For the seats alone, the $2500 is worth it, but the alloy wheels really seal the deal. It's a bargain upgrade, really.
The standard RS200 comes with eight airbags (driver and passenger, lateral airbags, full length side curtain airbags and anti-submarining front seat airbags) but the Recaro seats on the Trophee variant means there is no anti-submarining front seat airbag.
If that's not enough, the clever French company is currently selling a special edition called the Renault Clio R.S. 200 Gordini Edition, in the honour of Amédée Gordini, who was instrumental in the developent of nearly 200,000 Renault vehicles over 20-year period. This variant commands a mere $150 over the Trophee and for that you get black and blue Gordini embossed leather seats, unique floor mats, white stripes and unique badging.
Whatever your taste may be, if you want a proper affordable sports car that will bring a smile to your face with every drive, it's hard to look past this offering from Renault. If being different is your style, you'd be happy to know that less than 150 of these cars have been sold in Australia so far (making the new Clio Sport about as unique as an Aston Martin Vantage).