The car community is one of the most inclusive, accommodating and friendly groups you will ever come across. People from all walks of life come together for the love anything with four wheels and an engine. Saying that, in certain corners of this diverse society, there are constant feuds between rival factions. Some supporting one manufacturer against another, some fighting the corner of a certain philosophy, be that, lightweight, AWD, turbo, NA… they all have their loyal fans who will argue their case until the sun goes down. At Rush magazine, there has been a bit of war going on around hot hatches, albeit tongue in cheek. You see, Craig is a self confessed Renault Sport fan. He prioritises chassis balance over everything and his newly purchased Renault Clio 200 feeds that craving. Myself however, I’m a bit of a Honda fan and having recently acquired an FN2 Civic Type R, will not accept the notion that I’ve bought the wrong car.
Having previously driven a Clio 172 and been desperately underwhelmed, a part of me was wondering what the fuss was about Renault Sport cars. That was until a cold and windy New Year’s Eve, when I met up with Craig just outside Lancaster. He was looking forward to getting me behind the wheel of his lovely white Clio 200 and proving what he’d been saying all along, this little french terrier could take the scalp of my Type R.
Immediately after sitting in the fantastic lightweight Recaro bucket seats and familiarising myself with a driving position that puts the FN2 to shame, I was getting a bit nervous. The wheel falls to closer to hand and more naturally than the civic, likewise the gear lever. The only negative with the entire driving ergonomics being the odd two step throttle pedal that feels like kick down on an auto. First blood to the Renault.
If ever there was a test of how easy a car is to drive it’s a hasty three point turn right after jumping in and that’s exactly what happened, it struck me just how sweet all the control weights were, a sign of things to come. As I powered away I felt that in isolation, the engine would be fantastic, like any NA unit it comes to life over 4-5000rpm and keeps pulling all the way to the redline where you hear a very motorsport inspired beep to let you know when to change gear. However, it was only the day before I was hitting the 8600rpm limiter in my FN2 and the K20 in that thing revs with an eagerness the Clio can’t match. The engine internals in the Honda feel lighter, like there’s less inertia and in my ears at least, sounds better too.
Back in the Renault though and it responds to the K20 with its sublime steering feedback. The weighting as you turn the wheel off centre is fantastic, you know exactly what the front tyres are doing and how far you can push the car. Better still, it gives you this sensation no matter what speed you’re doing. It’s communicative in a way the electric rack on the Honda could never hope to match. No amount of Polybushing or geometry tweaks can achieve the perfectly weighted feedback that Renault got out of the Clio. The Civic fights it’s way off the ropes with it’s gearbox though. It’s not there’s anything wrong with the one in the Renault (reliability aside), it’s just that the one in the Japanese car is one of the all time greats. Despite lacking the drivetrain drama of the Honda, after a few miles you start to see just what a complete and rounded package the Clio is. Nothing really stands out in isolation as either good or bad, that in my opinion, is testament to the skill of the engineers. Creating a car that has a consistency throughout like very little else I’ve driven. It’s one of the few cars I’ve got in and not left with a mental list of things I’d like to modify.
I was lucky enough for Craig to give me a decent amount of time behind the wheel but it took me about a minute to get into a nice flow. Once at speed, you swear the already small car shrinks even further around you the faster you go, a trait only the best cars achieve. The last car Craig was kind enough to let me try was his Toyota GR Yaris, a car that has had no shortage of praise from everyone who’s driven it. Yet nine times out of ten, I’d be reaching for the keys of the slower, older and less grippy Renault. Where the Toyota pounded tricky sections of tarmac into submission with its WRC grade suspension, the little Clio let’s you do the work. Constant minor corrections with both the pedals and the wheel make you feel like it’s you who achieved that perfect line through that set of corners not the car. That’s not to say it’s unruly or you’re fighting the car, quite the opposite. It talks to you, gives you the required information you need to make a decision as to what inputs you want to give back and then it responds instantly.
Some people will complain at the lack of torque in the Clio’s 2.0 naturally aspirated engine and the fact it needs to be above 4000rpm to really sing but to me, that’s part of the appeal. Modern turbo power units sound awful, even with artificial noise coming through the speakers and quite often, there’s a drop off in power at the top end meaning there’s that whiff of disappointment just when the Clio would be reaching a crescendo.
To say the Clio is good is an understatement, it’s great. My only two concerns are, firstly, for how long would that fine, well rounded balance keep you entertained before you crave for more drama? You can always look at aftermarket modifications but then are you undoing all that hard work the guys at Renault sport put in? Secondly, and you have to mention it, there’s the questionable reliability of a decade old french car but that’s not what we’re here to discuss. Taking all things into account, the Clio probably gets the edge over the Honda on your average B road. Speed not being the marker here, it’s about driving pleasure, the interaction between man and machine. However, if you do take potential modifications into consideration, I feel it would be easier to get the Civic’s slightly inert chassis closer to that of the Renault’s than it would be the Renault’s dulled down engine to that of the K20. The fact that ultimately, the Clio loses to a modified car the class above it, is testament to the engineers at Renault. They’ve managed to build a remarkable car with very few remarkable components and in doing so, have given a bloody nose to my Type R.