Note: I owned this car for two years, from 2007 to 2009.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley, The Go Between
Human memory is a peculiar thing. The more time that passes after a particular chapter of life ends, the less linear the narrative seems to be, every time you try to revisit that chapter.
Instead, you find that the mind has ripped that chapter into little polaroid snapshots, creating a compartmentalised, non-linear version of what took place. It’s with a sense of bittersweet longing that we pull out these snapshots, to flick through and reminisce about a time long gone.
That girl I dated in high school – there’s a polaroid for the way that the left corner of her mouth curled up asymmetrically every time she smiled and one for how her hair smelt during English class. But I can’t remember exactly how it all started with her, or how it ended… or why. That house from my childhood – I remember the big fireplace and the vegetable patch that grew those giant pumpkins, but I don’t remember the linear sequence of events between the day we joyfully moved in and the day we tearfully moved out.
I owned my RenaultSport Clio 182 Cup about a decade ago. I don’t think that writing an objective, linear review of that ownership experience would be a true reflection of how I think about it now.
So this review is nothing but a simple collection of some of my favourite polaroid snapshots from that time.
The best hot hatches pole-dance.
As I approached the suburban roundabout, I knew that I was carrying a tad too much speed. So I lifted off the throttle.
Immediately, I could feel the rear end get a bit light. I flicked the thick-rimmed steering wheel to the right, then got back on the throttle. The little Clio’s front end bit, and bit hard. What felt like an invisible hand of God then speared a pole through the stubby engine compartment of the car, and I held on as the whole body rotated in an arc around this pole’s axis, with the inside rear wheel in the air.
The best hot hatches pole dance, and the Clio’s dance was amongst the best, and it became thoroughly addictive. It was so different to the rear-wheel-drive experience that I had been used to up until this point, and for that, I loved it.
A decade ago, those ‘in the know’ were well aware of the little RenaultSport’s capabilities. But to the vast majority of the motoring public, the Clio 182 belonged in a column marked ‘don’t know what it is… but it’s probably a Barina’.
It was the most under-estimated car that I have ever had the pleasure of owning. There was this particular onramp to the Tullamarine freeway, where if the traffic light gods were feeling generous, you could approach at 60km/h, heel and toe downshift into second and feed the throttle with intent while turning right, all the way up to the speed limit, riding the surprising wave of torque.
I never tired of seeing the bamboozled looks on people’s faces as this little ‘beep beep Barina’ roared past them.
Through the particularly twisty bit of tarmac between Marysville and Lake Mountain in the Yarra Valley, the Clio had no trouble keeping up with the Porsche Boxsters, Nissan 350Zs and WRXs of the era. This was especially the case in inclement weather, when it almost felt like an all-wheel-drive car, so high were the grip levels from the chassis and the factory-spec Michelin Pilot Exaltos.
The Clio introduced me to the special joy in owning something so capable yet at the same time, so unassuming. It too became addictive.
The Clio originally came from its French factory in Dieppe with two offset white racing stripes. The original owner (I bought this car from him when it was only a year old) had felt that these stripes were a bit over-the-top, so he had them removed. When I came into possession of it, I wanted it as it had left the factory, so had them re-applied. When I sold the Clio in 2009, the new buyer of the car was of the same opinion as the first, so he too had them removed.
Earlier this year, after owning it for nine years, he decided to sell the car as he was relocating to Hong Kong. I sometimes find myself wondering on what side of the stripe/no stripe fence the fourth owner of the car sits on… (If you're out there, owner number four, get in touch! - Ed.)
Before the Clio, the only car ownership experience I had was a 1985 Mazda RX-7, which I had daily-driven for seven years. I loved the little Mazda sports car with all my heart, but armed with a new job, and a bit more cash in the bank account, I was yearning to drive something different. Call it the automotive seven-year itch.
The budget was $35k, and I was keen to stick to the used car market, and take advantage of the cruel hand of depreciation. I test drove both an RX-8 and a 350Z. I liked them both but ultimately felt that I wanted to experienced something that wasn’t the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive set up that I was so familiar with.
Ever since reading an article in Wheels Magazine when the Phase I Clio 172 had first been brought into Australia, I had developed a soft spot the little French hatchback, as it seemed to be the Peugeot 205 GTI of the era – a car that I absolutely adored.
By all accounts, the Clio 182 Cup had since improved on the original Clio 172 formula, and given the outstanding value-for-money proposition, I decided that it was the car for me.
The Clio was, of course, not perfect – far from it actually. The ergonomics were wonky – the steering wheel was too big, and was angled away from the driver – like you might find in a bus. The driver’s seat (while being wonderfully supportive), was mounted too high, so you always felt like you were sitting on the car rather than in the car. The gear lever was mounted too far down (and away) from the driver.
Speaking of the gear lever – the shift action was too long, vague and rubbery for a genuine driver’s car, and the sharp and somewhat heavy clutch was totally incongruent with it. It was no Porsche-like consistently-weighted experience in beautiful tactility. But then again, as it was one-third of the price, forgiving these foibles was always quite easy.
The two-litre inline four under the stubby bonnet of the Clio (dubbed ‘F4R’ by Renault) was an absolute gem. Developing 131kW, it was decently torquey at low revs (especially considering it was naturally aspirated) while still being very happy to sing all the way to the redline. Midway through the rev range, there was a noticeable ‘kick’ – so it was a bit of ‘VTEC just kicked in yo!’, delivered with a French accent.
Still, I wished that it had the more powerful and turbocharged engine from the RenaultSport Megane. No, not because it needed the power (in fact, I’m pretty sure it would have ruined the car), but because the engine code for that was ‘F4Rt’.
I don’t care how old you are, nothing is funnier than a F4Rt joke.
Any time you dare to mention French car ownership, there will always be that one person who is quick to tell you a horror story or two about the supposed lack of reliability and high maintenance costs.
Yes, the Clio had interior plastics from a Cadbury Milk Tray box, plenty of rattles and squeaks and a steering wheel which featured thumb-grips that simply disintegrated, but you always got the sense that the underlying mechanicals were very strong. In the two years that I owned it, I took it to a local Renault Specialist (shout out to Virage Motors in South Melbourne), who maintained the car for minimal outlay. It never let me down, and given the amount of driving pleasure on offer, fuel economy was simply outstanding.
Now, a decade on, you still see plenty of high-mileage RenaultSport Clios running around – some of them doing quite a bit of trackwork – and yet, major failures are virtually unheard of. I think it’s a true testament to RenaultSport’s engineering capabilities.
I eventually sold the Clio to fulfil a long-standing dream of mine to own a Citroen DS. If you’re interested, you can read that story here.
I sold it to a guy who lived in the same suburb as me, for a price that was probably a little below market because we formed a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that I would still get to drive it from time to time – something I did on occasion until he sold it earlier this year. During his ownership, he made some modifications to it, so every time I drove it, it was a little different to the snapshots I held, but that warm sense of familiarity always brought a smile to my face.
As with all the cars I’ve owned in my lifetime, I find myself daydreaming and browsing the classifieds from time to time… reminiscing nostalgically about what it was like to have a RenaultSport in my life. Perhaps there will be a point in my life where I’ll own another Clio – maybe as a dedicated track car.
If that day ever comes, I will be primed to make some brand new memories, while at the same time visiting that foreign country nestled deep within my soul.