If you’ve blinked in the last few weeks, then you could be forgiven for missing the arrival of the new 2004 Clio. But it’s good news for drivers who like their hot hatches with a bit of spice because, apart from the arrival of a sparkling new 100bhp dCi version, the big news is a selection of changes to the range-topping – and Autocar favourite – Renaultsport, headlined by an extra 10bhp.
From outside, the most obvious differences to the still-subtle 182 are the rather half-hearted central exhausts and more successful 16in eight-spoke alloys. Look closer and you’ll find a slightly different front bumper, too. Inside, there’s new two-layer perforated leather and Alcantara seats and a plethora of Renaultsport logos.
But never mind the cosmetics, the tweaks to the oily bits are the most interesting. A tubular exhaust manifold and a new catalyst have liberated the extra horsepower. Torque remains unchanged at 148lb ft, but is now produced 150rpm sooner.
Better stability is claimed from the 12mm wider front and 16mm wider rear tracks, along with an extra 13mm in the wheelbase and a castor angle increased to the same 3deg as the old Cup model. Ten per cent stiffer front springs, revised rear dampers, a stiffer rear anti-roll bar and bespoke 205/45 Michelin Exalto 2 tyres sitting on gunmetal alloys complete the changes.
Opt for the £200 Cup suspension fitted to our car and you get even stiffer springs, a 3mm lower ride height, strengthened front suspension and stiffer sidewalls for those tyres. Yet for all its stiffness and fine body control, the 182 remains beautifully damped and rides comfortably over most surfaces.
Although peak torque is at 5250rpm, 80 per cent is available from 2000rpm. The 182 feels really flexible, not to mention quick, getting an extra kick past 4500rpm thanks to the variable valve timing. By the 7200rpm red line, the engine is singing with the perfect hot-hatch soundtrack – overlaid on our car by a slightly disconcerting metallic chatter. The gearshift is quick, but the lack of sixth gear seems an oversight as the Clio can feel busy at speed.
Off the motorway and on a dry and sinuous route, the 182 excels. Those new tyres give super-sharp turn-in and virtually eliminate understeer, leaving just progressive lift-off oversteer, but on a wet road, the loss of grip can be sudden. Trying to feed in the power has you constantly fighting the new ESP system, too; and trying to put power down while there’s steering lock on is a fruitless task.
With its starting price unchanged from the outgoing car’s £14,613, the 182 is within a few pounds of the Mini Cooper S and it makes a compelling case for itself. It lacks the Mini’s sense of quality and the large wheel and perched seat make it harder to find the ideal driving position, but it now feels more special than the V6 model inside and is packed with kit including a six-CD autochanger, climate control, cruise control and xenon headlights.
Sadly, Renault has no plans to introduce a stripped-out Cup version of the 182, which seems odd when you find that sales of the quicker, £1400 cheaper and 69kg lighter Cup matched those of the costlier Renaultsport 172 model last year. As it is, my money wouldn’t be Cooper S-bound, but you can’t help feeling that a cheaper Cup car would make the decision even easier.