I’ll make it clear off the bat, I’ve driven this exact 140,000 mile Clio 172 before… on the motorway. Predictably, I was left very underwhelmed. It’s not lost on me that forming an assumption of a leggy Clio during a long haul motorway journey, is like judging a penguins ability to cover ground without seeing it in the water. The Renault’s slightly awkward and uncomfortable driving position, drawing parallels with said penguin waddling across the Antarctic ice. Knees up by the wheel and arms extended wasn’t the recipe for a luxurious long drive back up north from Goodwood. Going off this short experience, I’ve been scratching my head as to why many a trusted friend and respected motoring journalists sing the cars praises, I was sure I’d missed something. Today, I took it on my local B road to find out if I’d been wrong all this time.
Unsurprisingly the driving position hasn’t changed. There’s almost zero lumbar support, giving you terrible posture as you sit hunched over and the pedal area, especially the clutch side, is far too cramped for my size 11’s. The clutch operation itself is on the heavy side too but once you’re away, you don’t really notice it and if anything, the stiffness reminds you there’s a big lump of an engine just ahead of you. Frustratingly Chris actually had some Sabelt Taurus, Renault Sport branded bucket seats fitted when he used it on track. This would most likely have gone some way to correcting the seating position but with the car being retired from track duty, they were sold. One thing I forgot about was just how big the steering wheel was, it doesn’t come close enough and is oddly angled away from you like a classic mini. This particular wheel has been retrimmed in leather with a yellow centre marking at the top and has a BMW chunkyness to it I think it could do without. I’m not sure if a standard wheel feels different in the hand but it is what it is.
Gripes out of the way then and once we’re on the move, I start to feel a sense of guilt come over me. For a while now I’ve been telling owner Chris to get rid of this little shed and buy a proper car. “If you want a fast Clio, the 200 is the one to buy” I’ve been quoted as saying. Problem is, Chris paid less than a grand for this 172, you don’t even have to look at the classifieds to know that a decent 200 is many multiples more expensive than that and he has enough outgoings with his Monaro VXR.
Thanks to time restraints, this test drive took place at midday on a Sunday, far from an ideal time to get a good crack at some empty roads but I needn’t have worried. The little Renault is more than happy to entertain within the confines of the speed limit, something that can’t be said for my own FN2 Civic Type R, which with Chris at the wheel, is currently filling the rear view mirror. Where the Honda feels at its best when it’s been bounced off the limiter and searching for the limits of adhesion round corners, the Clio has a larger window of playfulness. It’s F4R engine feels less like it’s fuelled on cocaine than the K20 and gives a good midrange punch for an NA unit, enabling decent progress out of corners throughout the rev range. That’s not to say it can’t do the frantic stuff either. Bury your right foot hard against the bulkhead and it’ll pull until it runs out of revs and with an induction kit fitted like this one, makes a purposeful throaty intake noise.
The Renault’s trump card comes with its lack of weight, I just can’t stress enough how that transmits into how it flows down a road. The suspension has a supplenesses that is quintessentially French, there’s no jittering or crashing, just a fluid composure that inspires confidence to attack the road with a lovely rhythm. I’m now desperate to try the 182 Trophy with its silly expensive Sachs dampers. Complementing the Gallic smoothness is the steering weight, it lacks the sharpness of other machinery and the large wheel feels a bit odd at first but there’s plenty of feedback and you’re never in doubt of what’s going on at the front axle. Unfortunately the conditions didn’t allow me to step beyond the limits and explore that traditional French trait of lift off oversteer but I can imagine a touch of trail braking would soon see the back end get mobile and you can take it from there how wild you want to be (see Camber & Combustion on YouTube). The great thing about this car is that you don’t need to get to that point to have fun. The gearbox is a weak point however, the throw is a touch longer than you expect and it’s not the most precise action but in no way does it ruin the experience. With this car having north of 140k on the clock, the box has possibly seen better days, I’m sure some new bushings and a short shifter kit will sort that out.
That brings me on to the potential ownership experience. The aftermarket parts support is almost second to none with this chassis and there’ll be endless ways to tweak the cars handling to your liking. You could of course just enjoy it as it is but I’d be tempted to make a few adjustments so you can really gel with it.
I still stand by my statement that the 200 is the best Clio I’ve driven, it’s just more me. On that right piece of road it becomes that clichéd extension of your body, all the control weights work in perfect harmony with each other and gives an ultimate thrill the 172 can’t match. Having said that, the older car offers a real world fun. Think of it like this, if you see someone barrelling down a road in a 200, you’ll see a laser focus, the driver concentrating on clipping apexes with millimetre precision. Then there’s the 172 driver, also making swift progress but with an expression more like Mr. Blobby than the eyes of Ayrton Senna. The 172’s eggshell like structure gives you a sense of speed and involvement that just doesn’t exist anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel like I’ve just climbed out of a McLaren F1, the internet has been telling me the 1*2 chassis is the hot hatch king and to even question that is blasphemy. It’s a deeply floored car and not just in the reliability department but I enjoyed it more than I remembered or thought I would. Just don’t drive it on motorways.
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