Nature or nurture? I come from a family of decidedly motoring non-enthusiasts, but have been mad about cars and anything mechanical since before I could speak. My father recounts with a great deal of humour how I would jump up in the back seat of the HQ as a two-year old and point at cars and make all sorts of excited noises when I saw a car I liked.
Whilst I’ve owned a few cars, the ones fondly recounted have been of the turbo six variety, one a mighty Barra and one a heavily boosted TD42 that went through several iterations of lift/boost/tyre size in 18 years of ownership. But good as the turbo sixes were, I craved the burble of a nice V8.
The engineer in me loved the pragmatic engineering present in the LS Chevy V8. Lightweight, compact dimensions, 6 bolt mains, a big cam core, and standard heads with massive flow capability had me looking at second hand VE Commodores and Calais’. But after driving a couple, they just felt like taxi’s with a nice sound.
Wasting time one night on Gumtree, I came across a Renault Clio RS200 Gordini, locally. Despite being mad about cars, I must admit to having never understood the appeal of hot hatches. My inner bogan could not understand the appeal of anything with such a small engine, unless it had two wheels. A bit of Youtube “research” noted a comment from Chris Harris on a related model (the slightly less powerful RS197 Clio) that, “This is the car I’d like to be buried with.” I live regionally and it was five minutes from my front door, and if Harris reckons it’s good, gee, maybe I should pull my finger out and have a look.
First impressions were actually pretty good. The wheel arches were pumped (via different stampings rather than add-ons), it had Brembo brakes, front splitter, rear diffuser and functional side vents, unlike the tacky plastic add-ons that I’d been seeing on Commodores.
The interior, whilst basic, had beautiful black and blue leather seats that properly supported you, a nice thick leather-rimmed steering wheel, a nice metallic gear knob and metallic pedals. After the tackiness of VE Calais’, it felt functional but special.
And then I drove it… wow. At the time it had a pod filter on it, and the noise as you went through the rev range (deep burble at 2000rpm… with a scream at 7500rpm) was just addictive. The direct steering and turn in was as close as I have ever found to a go-kart in a car, ever. After that fifteen minute test drive I had to have it.
My wife sitting in the passenger seat was equally enamoured. She’d been underwhelmed by the Calais’ we’d driven (“noisy, not as nice as our XR6 Turbo, just feels cheap”).
So, that was two and a half years ago. What has been the ownership experience since?
I’m still in love with the handling. My wife, who prolapsed a disk soon after we got it, still likes the ride….yes, true. When her disk was prolapsed, she preferred to ride in it than our lifted Pajero. “My back feels supported”.
What about the engine? After coming out of turbo sixes, it unsurprisingly feels quite doughy down low. It starts coming on cam about 3000rpm, and at 4000rpm it just takes off. It doesn’t feel like the push in the back that my XR6 turbo gave (even though 0 -100km/h and quarter miles times are similar), but it sounds way faster, and is far more engaging.
The brakes (Brembos) are faultless. Interestingly, such big brakes in such a small car mean than pad wear is extremely slow. Tyre wear is also quite slow, even though the compound is quite sticky. Light weight has its advantages.
Anything I don’t like?
God, it's never quiet. Road noise is ever-present and on a long run when you are not having a fang, it's just annoying. After Covid-19 hit, and my 500km airplane ride became a 500km drive to work, I got rid of the pod filter to try and quieten it down. I shouldn’t have bothered. Most of the noise is not induction noise. For long runs I now wear noise cancelling headphones.
The lack of anything fancy like VTEC and a set of cams that are built for 4000-7500rpm means she’s a bit grumpy for the first couple of minutes of driving (until it warms up). Interestingly, whilst the water only takes a couple of minutes to warm, the oil takes longer. It won’t let you have the full 7500rpm (limits revs to 6500rpm) until the oil is properly warm, which seems to take six to seven minutes of driving.
Well, I bought it with 94,000km on the clock, and it was due a timing belt change. That single-minded focus on engineering to make this fast around a race track did not extend to ease of maintainability. $1400 later, the timing belt was done. Interestingly, the Clio 200 in Australia has recommended timing belt intervals of every 4 years, the exact same car in the UK is 6 years or 72,000 miles (115,200km). A bit of a dealer subsidy at play here I think.
The Clios are known for being difficult to get into gear on a cold morning. Changing the combined (brake-clutch) fluid and bleeding the clutch fixed that issue for good. They are also known for having poor quality synchro rings, particularly 3rd to 4th. The gearbox in the 200 is better than the 197 in this regard, but it's still no Tremec. Even with the 200s, the gearboxes generally get rebuilt by 100,000 miles, so mine (currently 120,000km) will likely need a rebuild sometime in the next 30-40 thousand kilometres. Pity I’m not in the UK, a drive in-drive out gearbox rebuild is a 750 pound job over there. Renault is not on their lonesome here. The new Civic Type Rs are known to crunch (even with very few kilometres on the clock). The 2018 Mustang GT that I test drove the other day (a 2018 FN model) was badly crunching on 3rd to 4th (with 40,000kms on the clock).
Would I recommend buying one?
Absolutely. Whilst “Covid tax” seems to have pushed prices to ridiculous levels (there are two over $20k being advertised online), once things are back to normal and prices settle back to the $9-$12k range, the lack of major depreciation means that even with some hefty servicing, it’s still a very cheap ownership proposition for a car that is big on thrills. Just don’t use it for long trips.