Not many cars possess the capacity to really cheese me off, which is probably a good thing. But the first mid-engined Renault Clio V6, launched 20 years ago, managed exactly that.
It was like finally scoring your dream date, sitting down to dinner in a posh restaurant and then watching them launch into a stout defence of Donald Trump while casually picking their nose. Because of the enormous disparity between how you imagined the encounter might progress and how it actually did, you end up far more disappointed with your evening than had you just stopped off at the local for a swift half with a tedious colleague.
It was all there: an extraordinary appearance and a mid-mounted 3.0-litre V6 developed by TWR, the same bunch of people who had won two of three previous Le Mans races for Jaguar. How could they make a mess of that? Somehow they managed it.
The car was grossly overweight and therefore little quicker in a straight line than the Clio 172 hatch. But the real problem was its handling, or rather its absence thereof. On the limit, it was probably the trickiest new road car I’ve come across, and that includes the Ferrari 348, which would at least let you slide it a bit before making Pininfarina-shaped holes in the nearest hedge. The Clio V6 wouldn’t even allow that. Its approach to corners went grip, grip, grip, grip, gone. And that was that. At the time, I described it as “at its absolute best when parked”.
Whether Renault was surprised by the resulting hail of criticism isn’t remembered, but it certainly moved fast to sort it out. The entire car was, in effect, redesigned in two years, with the result you see before you. The entire suspension set-up alone was all-new, with different springs, dampers and geometry, plus revised kinematics, bespoke tyres and – get this – even a longer wheelbase. The fact that it had a little more power and shorter gearing was really neither here nor there.
And guess what? This is still not a good car by any conventional definition. It’s still not very fast, the interior is still rubbish, the turning circle remains a joke, the steering feels rather odd and – I had forgotten this – the gearlever is about a foot further forward than you would either expect or desire.
Except two things are now significantly different. First, I’m looking back at it as a recreational and probably a ‘classic’ car, not with the gimlet eye of the contemporary road tester. Allowances can and indeed should be made. Second, the car may be poor in many and varied respects, but it no longer wants to kill me. I’m not saying it would be above a little light mugging from time to time, were its mood and your disrespectful driving style to warrant it, but you no longer tip it into a corner wondering through which window you’ll be regarding the world by the time the exit arrives – if it arrives at all.
Here’s something else: there’s nothing like no longer being terrified for clearing the mind. If you’re being charged down by a bad-tempered rhinoceros, you don’t tend to take in the view as you flee; similarly, now that I was commanding a rather more compliant Clio, charms that might otherwise have gone if not unnoticed then certainly under-appreciated take centre stage.