The year was 2005 and I stood scruffy-haired, fresh license in hand, starting to ponder what first car I would get. Unfortunately, reality hit like a freight train and I soon realised that the hot hatches I had been seeing on TV and around town would be out of reach, mainly due to the price of insurance (in the UK at the time). I often wonder if I missed out not having something a little more fun as a new driver.
But to quote the movie Step Brothers: "Better - we have them as adults!”
That is, I don't think I would have truly appreciated the gem that the usually mundane Clio could be in Renault Sport Guise.
It's not the first time that I've unexpectedly made a cheap, mini-project car purchase; I was actually searching for a Megane R26 F1 Team. In Yellow. Again, a dream hot hatch from the day I got my licence but that’s another story. When typing in "F1 Team" didn’t return any Meganes, I stumbled across an ad for a "French Racing Blue Clio Cup F1 Team Clio". As luck would have it, I also came across one with the plate "Clio" for sale at more or less the same time - sometimes you can't ignore it when the universe speaks. Or so I tell myself whilst crunching the man-maths through my head. Plus I’ve always been a fan of French Racing Blue which seems to take on a slightly different hue depending on the lighting conditions.
The "F1 Team" moniker is perhaps shrouded in less glamour than it would imply. It is basically one of 30 Clio Cups sold which feature the V6-style rear wing and gunmetal alloys, as well as a signed plaque in the headliner.
The test drive was at a snail's pace, as this 165,000km example had sat idle for a little time. It was well due a service and the tell-tale signs of a required cambelt and possibly de-phaser were ever-present. A clackity rev-matched grumble lingered, but the car was priced accordingly. I took her home and she sat idle for some six months, leaking from the water pump.
I have now finally had the cambelt changed (for a cheaper car, the cambelt change seems extremely intricate with huge scope to 'muck it up' - so it was one of the rare occasions that I sent it to a professional) as well as that pesky water pump that had now stained my flooring a tint of red. Back home for a 5am oil change and back out on the road.
The first thing I notice thumping into the driver's pit is the still rather bus-like steering wheel position. It's quite a large wheel for a small car, and it dominates the driver’s view.
Seating position is next in the firing line as it is perhaps a little high. A set of lower-slung Recaros such as those in the Trophy does remedy this a touch, but in absence of such refinements, I find pulling the seat a little closer and rather upright - wannabe rally driver style - seems to be one of the better remedies to the slightly awkward position.
Finally, on driving position, there are the offset pedals which swing to the right. They take some getting used to and the almost mix-match medley all combines into a bit of confusion before you take off.
All in all the interior seems a little barren amongst hatches of today, all of which seem to be embroiled in an everlasting battle of power output and higher quality interiors. By now, the LCD display adorning the air conditioning controls has missing pixels, some of the plastics are past their best, including the faux-aluminium trim. It does feel quite yesteryear. It all feels very "French hot hatch". Speaking of which - the driver's side window is fused shut thanks to a ceased window regulator. Quips and stereotypes aside though, there aren’t actually a lot of electrics to go wrong in the 182. My example doesn’t have the optional sat-nav, and the aftermarket Bluetooth stereo still works as it should. The cruise control, xenon lights, washers and fog lights retain their simple functionality.
I started to wonder whether I'd be listing the car on the closest free-ads pages shortly. But still lustful of the idea, I take off for the hills - my local proving grounds. It might have seemed like I've been on a bit of a negative crusade at this point, but after having the car sat there for months, flirting with me in French from across the garage, I'd never actually had enough time to jump in.
The 182 basically adds 10bhp to the old 172 as well as ABS and upgraded suspension, which is appreciated when road conditions get a little slick and wet. The rear end is given a sporty touch up with twin-exit pipes which cut through the spare tyre well, and if you do manage to get a Trophy you even get race-spec suspension. That’s not to say you miss it at road pace.
Prod the accelerator - which feels like it sits somewhere out near the wing-mirror - and the perky 2.0-litre 16-valve motor will spool up to the redline that sits up around the 7250rpm mark. That's enough for a 0-100km/h sprint of around 7 seconds in a car that has around 162bhp / tonne.
The motor is continuously excited, yearning to be wrung at every opportunity, and I find myself quickly regressing into a teenager again. It rides surprisingly well over distance. Bumps are absorbed without too much drama, and the upright seating condition is unexpectedly easy on the back. Even the initially wayward pedal configuration soon somehow aids the level of engagement that you can extract from this little machine, flicking your heels and toes across red and green feels effortless. The five-speed gearbox is still slick, notchy and with a reasonable yet appropriate throw.
Throwing the Clio into the first couple of corners, I instantly start to understand the love people have for these things. It's just got so much character. Really start to throw it around like you're running a hot-lap of Mario-Kart and you might even start to feel one of the rear wheels lift under heavy breaking and cornering. The rear end is playfully controlled with the right foot, with lift-off oversteer shuffling you through corners.
And that's where the Clio starts to make its case. It's such a fun, throwable little hatch that echoes hot hatches of old. It’s just such an enjoyable blend of uncomplicated fun and liveable practicality. After a few hundred kilometres, it feels not unlike any commuter hatchback when you need it to. It is a different proposition from the same-era Megane 225, with the lack of a turbo making for less torque, and the longer wheelbase and lower driving position giving a different, more – for want of a better word – mature dynamic. Contrastingly, the Clio has a much more playful, fun disposition.
Whereas more modern and, let’s face it, expensive (if I remember rightly, the Clio came in at around $35k) cars strive for more power, more comfort and more luxury, the Clio has a simple, easily attainable thrill that is somehow irreplaceable, especially given that it only weighs in at around 1090kg.
On a heavy track day you might find that more powerful machinery will quickly pull you into check on a decent straight, but for sheer bang-for-buck, I’m not convinced you can have much more fun. Although prices can vary given that there simply aren’t many of them that pop up on the market at any given time. There’s a tuning market in the UK and Europe in particular that can see you add anything from slightly more free-flowing, raspier exhausts and cold-air induction kits to individual throttle bodies and piggy-back ECU’s. The results of such modifications can be stark but you start to go away from what the car is really about. I have since driven one with a ‘sportier’ (read: boy racer-ish) exhaust since getting mine and the extra little bit of rasp does really add to the fun if you get one that isn’t too over-the-top.
Recently, my usual source of motoring adrenaline is from a modified GTR, which after a recent track outing I’m even more in love with. I only really mention that to put things into a little context – because after a bit of seat time in the Clio which isn’t a million miles from half the weight, it is still an entirely enjoyable experience. Since getting her back on the road, I find myself reaching for its keys more and more as a daily – yet still opting for the scenic route home.
Without wanting to end on a complete cliché, it has a je ne sais quoi that I just love. Like the ads, it does what it says on the tin, it is “the French for Va-Va-Voom”.