Cup's a prize worth winning

Renault chose Manchester airport as the slightly unusual launch venue for the new Clio Renaultsport 182 Cup. It’s the final resting place of one of the British Airways Concordes, and nestled under its elegant wings is a compact ball of nuclear-orange hot-hatch energy that threatens to upstage this graceful old bird. The Clio Cup looks like it’ll hit Mach Two.

Once away from the Concorde and out into the surrounding countryside, the Clio completely kidnaps your consciousness. Renault believes the Cup to be two tenths of a second quicker to 60mph from rest than the regular 182 Sport. We achieved a staggering 6.4sec for that car, so factor in ideal conditions and a near-perfect getaway and you could be looking at a 6.0sec car. For £13,800.

This is the second Cup version of the Clio. The original Cup – based on the then range-topping 172 Sport – was a homologation special designed to allow Renault into Group N rallying. The new car is nothing more than a nice sales idea, and that’s worrying in itself: performance cars that lose their original competition raison d’etre can lose their focus with later iterations. Consider the relative normality of the 1600cc Peugeot 106 Rallye against the original, bespoke 1300cc screamer; the battle-hardened and deeply scary Porsche 993 GT2 versus the slick but soulless current GT2.

Reading the bumf on the 182 Cup isn’t encouraging, either. The old Cup shed 80kg from the standard car. This time the weight saving over the standard Sport is a paltry 20kg. That’s because anti-lock brakes make a welcome return to the standard-fit equipment list along with air conditioning. Eighty-five per cent of 172 Cup buyers opted to add air-con to their cars, so making it standard is an understandable decision by Renault UK, although one that goes against the pared-down ‘Cup’ ethos. Has the Cup, I start to wonder, gone a bit soft?

Not a chance. Even from the very first throttle application it’s clear that this is a very angry engine trapped within the confines of a small, light and once-innocent supermini bodyshell. There’s a delicious lack of inertia about the Cup that makes any sort of progress effortless and immediate, but it’s what happens above 5000rpm that demands your full attention. Above this line the Cup goes crazy, spearing forward with savage intensity until you throw another gear at it, and then again, and again. On an open dual carriageway it feels genuinely ‘grown-up’ quick; on a B-road it feels ballistic and really intense. All this from a freshly prepped car with only 400 miles on its odometer, too, so heaven knows what it’ll be like with a solid 20k under the wheels.

And it’s not just the Cup’s performance that’s raw – the sound of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is fabulously rorty, with a pure induction bark overlaid with a subtle tappet-ish noise like the rustle of autumn leaves. Just like real engines used to sound. As to whether the Cup feels any quicker than the regular car it’s hard to say. Subjectively it feels marginally swifter, and even if this is purely pyschological it matters not – as long as it feels quicker, who cares?

If the Cup’s straight-line performance is full-on, then its behaviour in corners keeps the wick right up. As we said in our road test of the 182 Sport, the latest version of the hot Clio really is an absorbing and capable car to drive. The Cup gets the additional handling pack (that was fitted as an option on our road test 182) as standard, which means the gorgeous 205/45 R16 anthracite alloys, lower ride height, stiffer springs and dampers, strengthened hubs and revised suspension geometry.

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There’s so much grip on offer it’s hard not to drive the Cup quickly, revelling in the lack of body roll and almost neurotic agility; geometry tweaks have improved the steering feel to an acceptable level, with only a little over-eager self-centering clouding the picture. With the ESP system disengaged a well-timed lift of the throttle can produce wild angles of oversteer. Certainly the Cup is a demanding car to drive smoothly and it takes time to learn how to get the best out of it with confidence. Hot hatches don’t usually have that edge.

On-road ability – and the fact that it really does look as if it turned the wrong way at the start of a Tarmac rally stage, are the Clio’s strong points. Interior quality, and ergonomics in particular, are still some way behind the leading standards in this class. Hopefully, the over-elevated driving position should be sorted when Renault launches some Renaultsport options that include already-confirmed Recaro seats, and rumoured go-faster bits such as engine management chips, air filters and exhausts. There’s even talk of a roll cage.

A standard Clio 182 costs £14,700, the Cup £13,800. For this £900 saving you must put up with only manual air-con, no xenon lights, only a single-disc CD player and a list of other minor equipment omissions. Doesn’t seem like such a great deal, does it? Nevertheless, were you to add the suspension and spoiler packs (subtle but very effective and both standard on the Cup) to the standard 182, the price difference between the two would grow to a not insubstantial £1295. Save money and go faster, then.

The Clio Cup is the sort of uncompromising drivers’ hatchback that for years doomsayers have been telling us is a dying breed. For that reason alone a purchase would seem wise. I’d have mine orange and definitely take the Recaro seats. If you’re looking for a genuinely hot hatch that’s small in size but big on the driving experience, this Renault is the only choice.

Adam Towler

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