New Renaultsport hot hatch has sophistication, but can it excite when direct rivals like the Ford Fiesta ST have perfected the formula?

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Few cars have reigned as class leader for as long as the Renault Clio Renaultsport.

Every previous iteration of it has been our hot supermini of choice for a simple reason: each was an enthusiast’s dream.

The Clio RS is no longer a manic machine, and will attract different customers as a result

Fast, light, cheap and adjustable, with a heady 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine and twangy Cup chassis, past versions positively clamoured to be driven hard and devoured track duties just as readily as they spiced up a commute.

To anyone lucky enough to have spent a decade and a half behind its oversized steering wheel, the Renaultsport Renault Clio was a formula of devilish perfection. But apparently not one immune to change.

With an all-new Renault Clio comes a seismic change to Renaultsport’s established approach. Like the standard model, the RS 200 must now be bought with five doors. Its engine has been downsized and turbocharged. And the gearbox has been automated. Although a more track-focussed RS 220 Trophy has recently been added.

These changes are intended to make the former tearaway a more appealing prospect to a broader cross-section of buyers.

But can a softer, more sensible Clio RS live up to our lofty expectations?

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Renault Clio RS headlight

The Clio RS 200 EDC has a 197bhp 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine that drives the front wheels through the six-speed ‘Efficient Dual Clutch’ gearbox that lends this model its initialised suffix, alternatively if you want a bit more overall power there is 217bhp RS 220 Trophy available too.

The powertrain difference from the previous Clio couldn’t be more marked. Offered with a six-speed manual only, its 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine wanted revs to give results and it produced its 197bhp power peak at 7250rpm. This time around, peak power arrives by 6000rpm and, significantly, peak torque of 177lb ft starts at 1750rpm.

Anyone who doesn't get on with dual-clutch 'boxes won't be driving one of these any time soon

The chassis – a steel monocoque – is more familiar. It’s a five-door-only, 4062mm-long, conventional supermini shell. There are MacPherson struts at the front and a rear torsion beam. It’s available in two settings: standard chassis and the Cup variant.

Our test car was the Cup, which has 3mm lower suspension, 15 percent stiffer springs and a quicker steering rack. Both models have what Renault calls an RS Diff, an electronic differential, although its technical bumf reveals that it works on the brakes rather than through the diff.

It monitors differences between front wheel speeds, and differences between rear wheel speeds, and applies light braking to a spinning front wheel accordingly, without affecting power delivery (thus acting on the differential, which will apportion more power to the outside).

It works independently of the traction and stability control systems, which can be reduced in their intrusion or switched off entirely.


Renault Clio RS dashboard

Repeat buyers will take a while to come to terms with the Renault Clio’s cabin. There’s an incongruous awkwardness to finding your fingertips on paddle shifters and left foot dangling in the space where a clutch pedal ought to be.

Renault would have done well to eliminate the stick shift entirely. Shunting a cheap-feeling lever between letters is a guaranteed way of yearning for a manual ’box right out of the gate.

The Clio Renaultsport's a civilised and relatively smooth-riding hatchback when you want it to be

As in the standard model, nothing about the surroundings is overtly pleasant to touch – unsurprising, since it shares the same basic architecture – although one would have thought that greater attention might have been paid to differentiating items like the column-mounted paddles, which are too flimsy to squeeze with any real satisfaction.

Give it time, though, and the Renault Clio proves habitable enough, especially for passengers. Make what you will of the styling impact, but no one destined for the rear bench will miss clambering across the front seats.

Five is better than three when it comes to doors, just as bigger is better when it comes to legroom, and the RS now has more of that. Enthusiastic drivers will find themselves sitting a little high (not unusual for the class) but the standard sports seats comfort and cradle in about the right amounts.

The Clio RS 200 comes with LED headlights, a F1-inspired front blade, rear diffuser and an aggressive bodykit as standard on the outside, inside there is air conditioning, cruise control, auto wipers and lights, and Renault's MediaNav infotainment system complete with 7.0in touchscreen display, DAB tuner, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and sat nav. 

The RS 220 Trophy adds a little bit more equipment, namely Renault's full fat R-Link infotainment system, more powerful audio system, climate control, parking sensors, reversing camera and 18in alloy wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber.

Many will no doubt appreciate Renault's RS Drive and RS Monitor; easily confusable names that do quite different things. RS Drive modifies the mapping of the transmission and engine and adjusts the intervention of the stability control and traction control systems.

It’s switchable through three modes: Normal, Sport and Race. The last two reduce engine lag, even increasing the idle speed, and bring progressively faster gearshifts and firmer power steering.

The RS Monitor, meanwhile, is a kind of on-board telemetry system that can monitor temperatures, amounts of wheelspin, performance data, g-forces and lap times. There’s also a data-logging option that allows all of these to be downloaded for later viewing.

Aside from the odd dash of badging or colour, everything else is a carryover. Thus, the centre stack is something of a glossy sore thumb, the instrument cluster is rather snazzy and the R-Link system – although juiced up with an abundance of real-time performance data courtesy of the latest version of the RS Monitor – remains blighted by rudimentary presentation and a finicky interface, a criticism which could be levelled at the cabin as a whole.


197bhp Renault Clio RS Turbo

Renault’s decision to replace the old 2.0-litre tempest with a smaller, turbocharged engine would have been sufficient to noticeably alter the model’s temperament on its own, but coming as it does with the dual-clutch auto ’box, the new driveline imposes a radically different character on the car.

Driven in default automatic mode, the car is predictably and wilfully amenable to measured inputs, humming along with the civilised anonymity of any other modern automatic hatchback. This is obviously as intended.

When provoked enough the Clio turns in to a snarling, mildly wheelspinning hot hatchback

In a familiar effort to have its cake and eat it, Renault’s RS Drive system button must be pushed to access the jazzier Sport and Race modes.

The problems with this approach are twofold. Firstly, as congenial as it may now be, all the previous car’s impish zip has been sucked mercilessly from the bone.

Ricocheting through the cogs in an effort to make the lights/a gap/dinner in the old Renault Clio was one of its foremost about-town pleasures, but interacting with the latest version, even when manually shifting, is nowhere near as invigorating.

Which leads on to the second point of concern: the RS doesn’t feel quick enough, often enough. Progressive power hikes have not previously papered over the Clio’s tendency to grow in size and weight between generations, and with the car now bigger (and better equipped) than ever, it struggles to stimulate.

Perhaps the fact that it is nearly half a second slower than a Ford Fiesta ST to 60mph (despite an easy-to-use launch control system) will only disappoint the niche beyond which Renault is attempting to expand.

But the comparative in-gear times – always the go-to guide of a car’s ability to hasten its stride on the move – reveal a deeper impact on the car’s dynamic. The Clio is slower than the lighter ST in those crucial moments when it should be offering its driver a quick fix of spirited acceleration – in, say, third gear from 40-60mph (0.7sec slower) and fourth from 50-70mph (1.4sec).

Away from the hard data, the Renault Clio does still have its moments, and it’s ingratiating at least to find them very close to the 6500rpm redline. But even here, the gearbox is a split-second hurdle rather than a spine-tingling addition.


Renault Clio RS cornering

Those who come at the latest-generation Renault Clio armed only with experience of its predecessor are likely to be in for a surprise. It wasn’t that the old RS Clio rode harshly, but it certainly had a firmness and, ever alert, tiptoed with an agility that the latest model wouldn’t recognise.

The new Clio rides around town with an unexpected suppleness and maturity for a Renaultsport model. It shuffles aside bumps that would have elicited a full-body movement in the old Clio and would upset a Fiesta ST’s cabin to a greater extent than this.

It's good but it lacks the all-important involvement that you'll find in its predecessor or the Fiesta ST

You might detect that its steering follows a similar path. There is less response to small movements and more numbing of road feel. We can’t help but feel that some of the magic has been lost.

Up the speed on a more challenging road and you’ll find that these suspicions are, to some extent, confirmed. It’s not that the latest Renault Clio is any less capable – far from it. Back to back over the same stretch of road, in fact, it is more able at swatting aside cambers, crests and surface imperfections and going from remote village to remote village, across great deserted roads, with more pace and finesse than before.

The suspension has considerable compliance for a hot hatch, so there’s a little dive under braking, but it’s well controlled. Turn-in is brisk enough, and it pays to be smooth because the suspension’s relative softness allows some weight transfer that can unsettle it. If you get turned in early and on to a steady throttle, the balance is towards understeer.

A better balance is achieved if you trail the brakes into the bend, but mostly this is a front-led car. In longer curves, a mid-corner lift will give a bit of neutrality but not much more bias towards oversteer than that.

It takes serious provocation to make the Clio become anything like as tail-happy as its predecessor – or the Ford Fiesta ST in the right conditions. Mostly, the Clio is just composed, quick and sorted. With stability control engaged, not very much slip is allowed before it intervenes. As you move through the RS Drive modes, a little more understeer and oversteer is permitted, before it cuts in more discreetly, or it can be switched out.

It’s also extremely capable on a circuit, with tenacious grip and traction levels, high levels of agility and a balance that retains some throttle adjustability. But some of the feedback, response and sheer fun that marked the old Clio 200 out as one of the greats has been chucked out in the process, and that’s a shame.


Renault Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo

When the Renault Clio 172 was launched, just before the end of the millennium, it was said that you couldn’t go faster for less. Bought with the Cup chassis (and therefore no frills), the model was a bargain-basement battler of the highest order and put the majority of its bloated peers to shame.

There is a similar car on sale at the moment, but it isn’t a Renault. The Fiesta ST isn’t nearly as practical as the RS Clio, yet it’s substantially cheaper at the entry level. And daintier. And much more fun. And as far as superminis are concerned, that’s all it really needs to be.

It's a much more refined and usable car than its predecessors

Even the Peugeot 208 GTI starts at less than the Clio, and although it can’t match the RS’s mid-corner composure, it does feel far quicker in a straight line.

Get busy with options and things inevitably get worse. We tested the top-of-the-range Lux model, and with bigger 18-inch wheels, the Cup chassis and fancy metallic paint the Clio topped out at over £22k – more than the considerably faster and even more practical Ford Focus ST-1.

It's consequently a trim that's worth ignoring; no matter where Renault thinks the Clio ought to be positioned, hot superminis are best appreciated when they’re cheap. If added extras like climate control and auto wipers are that important to you, they can be accessed in the standard line-up far more cheaply than here.

It doesn’t excel in a running cost comparison, either. With CO2 emissions of 144g/km, it may look only very slightly behind its smaller rivals, but the Fiesta ST and 208 GTI are one VED band lower.

The Renault also lags slightly behind in the economy stakes. Despite its 44.8mpg combined claim, we could manage only 36.8mpg on our economy run, compared with 41mpg for the ST.


4 star Renault Clio RS

When it comes to small and fast, Renault’s history extends far beyond this and the previous Renaultsport Clio.

The 172 Cup gained almost instant affection upon its arrival in 1999, but Renaultsport had already covered itself in glory earlier in the decade with the special-edition Williams, a gold-wheeled masterpiece that helped to establish the template for future pulse-quickening Clios

A manual gearbox and more feelsome steering would improve the Clio considerably

If you were to remove the badges from this new car, replace them with, say, Hyundai ones, and present it to the world, it would be delightfully received. Agile, quick, smooth and capable, the Renault Clio is, without question, good fun.

But? But we’re not used to a Renaultsport being the second-best car in its class by a distance. We’re not used to it being significantly less engaging and enjoyable than its predecessor. And we’re unaccustomed to Renaultsport, of all hot hatch makers, leaving out some of the qualities that make its hatchbacks kings in their class.

Instead, we must get used to a different breed of Renault Clio – one as quilted for your comfort as it is honed for your enjoyment. That it is still good keeps Renaultsport in our good books, but it also leaves us with a slight sense of disappointment.

Ford's Fiesta ST, consequently, remains the best hot hatch on sale.

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Renault Clio RenaultSport 2013-2016 First drives