We try the Renault Clio RS16. Officially, it's still a concept car, but we dearly hope it doesn't stay that way

What is it?

Remember, the Renault Clio RS16 is a concept car, built to celebrate Renault Sport’s 40th anniversary, and the Renault Sport management are unsure whether they’re going to build a limited production run. 

Yep, they’re just still mulling it over, thinking money, while taking good care of the concept car. Just a concept. That’s why this RS16, a bit more than a Renault Clio RS with a Megane RS 275 engine, has had all the important engineering work done so that it didn’t make its debut on a motor show stand, but in full motion before the Monaco Grand Prix, driven at pace by Kevin Magnussen. 

That’s why it made its way to the Goodwood Festival of Speed a few weeks after that, where, again, it was driven, at speed, up the Goodwood hill climb, rather than sitting on Renault’s stand like a good concept should. 

That’s why there’s another RS16, a black car with the same mechanical underpinnings, being used as a development hack.

And that’s why they said we could make our way to northern France, to a quiet little test track they use a lot, called the Circuit Des Ecuyers, and drive the concept, as fast as we liked, without a chaperone. Because, of course, it’s a concept car. Because we’re just still quietly thinking about the money side of things, okay? Okay. 

If Renault Sport doesn’t build this car, I will be astonished. We could build a limited production run, Renault Sport boss Patrice Ratti admits. So how many would you need to sell, Patrice, to make it worthwhile? “It depends...” When will you make a decision on it? “There’s no timescale…” Move along. Nothing to see here.

Alright. I’ll play along because there are, in truth still two issues to be decided: both hinging, in a way, about money. 

The first is whether enough people want a 271bhp Clio RS with a manual gearbox. The first limited-edition Megane RS hatch, the R26.R, flopped. It was brilliant, but arrived just as the world’s finances crashed and the UK, a big market for mega-entertaining hatches, which had originally said it could sell 250 cars, eventually took fewer than 175.

But that was then and this is now. Now, special editions of special cars sell, no problem. See also: Porsche 911 R, Volkswagen Golf Clubsport S. Last year’s Megane Trophy R sold too, no bother – though given there were only 30 in the UK, that wouldn’t have been surprising even if it wasn’t brilliant.

To the second sticking point, then: the technical complexity of building the RS16. You can build two: obviously, because Renault has, and to an extent lots of bugs have been ironed out in the process. It has been hard to get an old 2.0-litre engine like the Megane 275s to talk to a more modern car like the Clio RS. 

But that done, there’s then the complication of fitting the changes to the Clio into the production process. The front suspension gets a double-axis strut, like the Megane RS does, to reduce torque-steering effects of all that power, but the Megane’s doesn’t directly fit. The engine wants locating in four places, not just three. Both front and rear tracks are wider by 60mm and the bodywork has grown to accommodate the Megane’s 19in wheels, which cover 350mm brake discs. 

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All this is easily done for two cars – especially when one’s just a concept, eh chaps? Guffaw - but when it comes to rolling two or three Clio RS16s a day down the same Dieppe production line that also produces the regular Clio RS and will soon make the new Alpine sports car too, it presents its own ‘challenges’. Or ‘costs’, as you and I know them.

What's it like?

Meantime, then, let’s just find out whether it’s worth the bother of making at all. After all, it could be a complete spudder.

It’s not. In terms of its integrity, fit and finish, it feels entirely production standard already. There are fixed back bucket seats with four-point harnesses, which are bolted to the floor where the rear seats used to be. Removing the rears only saves 20kg and the RS16 hasn’t yet been through a massive weight-loss programme. The 2.0 engine is heavier than the Clio RS’s 1.6 but the manual gearbox is lighter than the regular Clio’s dual-clutch auto. A race li-ion battery means that overall, weight is little different.

It idles purposefully, mind, thanks to a titanium Akrapovic exhaust, and control weights are light, easy; the gearshift is just as good as in a Megane RS 275, which means it’s less great than in a VW Golf GTI, but good enough. Once you’re locked in that seat with the steering wheel nice and close, ergonomics tend to take care of themselves anyway.

The Circuit Des Ecuyers is a small private test track, a handling circuit rather than a race track – they do track days, not race days – and most corners are second or third gear, with a one fourth gear one if this wasn't somebody else’s priceless one-off concept car. The RS16 is terrific around it. It has ample power through to a modest 6500rpm red-line and a linear spread of torque, accompanied by a turbiney-whooshing sound. Turbocharged supercars limit low-end torque to avoid this kind of ‘always-on’ feeling, but it works terrifically in the RS16, letting you lug out of slow corners in third with the same accelerative response as you’d have in second.

It steers lightly, but with nearly all the finesse of a Megane 275. Messages arrive discreetly, but you can hold a light touch on the wheel and feel the fronts scrabbling for grip. They find it well, though a fairly loose mechanical limited-slip differential means there’s not too much tugging at the wheel rim, and that an inside Michelin can slip so much on corner exit that it smokes up lightly.

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Overall, though, mid-corner grip is high, and the balance good. High-speed stability isn’t an RS16 strong point, and the rear is mobile under braking and on turn-in, in that delightful Renault Sport way; a way that made the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S test driver, who set the front-drive Nurburgring lap record, pretty uneasy when he got hold of a Megane Trophy R and tried to drive it fast around the Nordschleife.

The RS16 is less oversteery than that Megane, but that gorgeous adjustability, the feel of a car rotating around its middle, is still there. It’s a total dynamic hoot, and coupled with relatively pliant dampers that allow you to take big chunks of kerb securely.

Should I buy one?

Well, that’s the moot point, isn’t it: at the moment, you can’t, and there’s no indication that you could, even at the £40,000 that it’s expected a production version might cost you. And if there is a production version? Actually, Ratti and the Renault Sport team think the RS16 probably wouldn’t beat the Golf’s lap record anyway.

After all, the Golf has 306bhp, which is an advantage that the RS16 probably can’t compete with. Not that it matters. This still isn’t a production car yet, remember. And it may not ever be. Remember? Okay. I remember. Although it does beg the question of why, as I speak, another two RS16s are being built, so they can undergo durability tests.

Renault Clio RS16

Location Circuit Des Ecuyers, France; On Sale tbc; Price: £40,000 (est) Engine 4cyls, 1998cc, turbo petrol; Power 271bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 270lb ft at 3000-5000rpm; Gearbox Six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1205kg (est); Top speed 155mph (est); 0-62mph 6.0sec (est); Economy 37mpg (est); CO2/tax band 175g/km (est)

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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artill 11 July 2016

i looks like Renault could

i looks like Renault could make a car 95% as good as this, just by swapping the auto box for a manual, and there is no reason that shouldnt be cheaper than the current auto version, and therefore half the price of the 2.0 litre version (if they do make it).
_europa 11 July 2016

Will come is Renault Sport reliability (or lack of) as standard

As an owner of the prior model to this and had serious issues i have done some research and found the reliability and service of Renault at resolving these problems to be absolutely appalling. The Renault garages will tell you there's a very common fault and it's all over the internet forums..but Renault deny any knowledge.

There are decent manufacturers making better cars, my advice is go with them.

TegTypeR 11 July 2016

Yes, I understand the money

Yes, I understand the money side of things but with the current Megane going out of production and the RS version a way away, this leaves Renault Sport with just the lacklustre standard Clio RS.

If I were Renault, I would do a production run. Okay, if you don't sell the projected amount stash the rest because in ten, fifteen, twenty years time they are going to be worth a fortune.