May 5 2009 Andrew Knight
New Clio hot off the mark
AFTER racking up some ten million sales over the past two decades, Renault's cheeky city runabout doesn't need much introduction.
But when the latest incarnation of the French favourite slips into British showrooms later this month, it's likely to be the high-performance versions which will be hogging the limelight.
Forget the credit crunch and concerns about the size of your carbon footprint, our Gallic friends are eager to tempt you into the fastest and flashiest models in the line-up, including one more suited to the racing circuit than the morning commuter rush.
Clearly the hottest newcomer is the Clio Renaultsport 200 Cup, an aggressive-looking low-slung racer drawing its styling and performance from the world of Formula 1.
With an aerodynamic blade built into the front bumper, plus air extractors in the front wings and a rear diffuser helping to reduce drag, this is a 2.0 litre 200hp V6 replacement for the Renaultsport 197 designed to hug the road like a limpet.
Slung through the tight bends on a racing circuit in Portugal, it's immediately obvious that this is one hot hatch which is not just paying lip-service to the world of chequered flags and popping champagne corks.
Yes, it looks the part, with chunkier curves, race-car colours and more visible twin exhaust tailpipesbut with the air diffuser sucking you to the ground, stiffer dampers and springs, more responsive steering and more low-down torque delivered through a slick six-speed box, it's been tweaked and tuned with true enthusiasts in mind.
The low ride height and thicker front anti-roll bar are complemented by more sophisticated damping and steering to deliver an uncompromising road stance with minimal weight transfer and a very precise, secure grip of the road surface through those chunky 17-inch alloys.
Some 70,000 Clio Renaultsport models have been sold worldwide since 2000, so there's no shortage of engineering expertise or fan feedback to tap into - and the result of this midlife makeover is an appealing 141mph flash of colour that can propel you to 62mph in under seven seconds and packs a formidable punch in the tighter lower ratios.
All this at £15,570 is a minor miracle if you dream of lapping Jenson Button, although the Cup version may seem light on luxuries for some tastes, despite the red brake callipers, aluminium pedal facings and leather steering wheel setting the right tone.
A third of Renaultsport customers will stump up the extra £1,000 to get climate control, cruise control and other goodies, along with softer damper settings, while another third will combine the best of both worlds by shelling out a further £400 for the Cup chassis dynamics.
The company's 'id' programme provides plenty of scope to personalise your purchase with a range of grey, yellow or carbon interior trim, while body colour options include the Liquid Yellow finish formerly reserved for the F1 Team R27 limited edition of the 197.
Inside, the yellow rev counter and body-hugging seats create the illusion of taking your place on the starting grid, with power peaking at 7,100rpm and both CO2 emissions and fuel consumption slightly down at 195g/km and 34.4mpg on the combined cycle.
All in all, it's a formidable little hatch where the focus is very firmly on driver satisfaction - and all those suspension and steering tweaks will give the purists plenty to chat about on track days.
Faced with Britain's pot-holed back roads and congested city centres, of course, those with more need of essential luxuries than rally-style cornering characteristics are perhaps more likely to favour the standard 200 version.
Ordering for the sporting models opens on May 15 with the first deliveries expected by the end of June.
Those less worried about out-and-out performance, meanwhile, might find other models in the Clio 2009 range worthy of closer inspection.
With three body styles, seven trim levels and no fewer than 38 versions of the little car to choose from, drivers looking for the nimblest and smoothest of the newcomers may be tempted by the GT 'warm hatch' and flagship diesel, the 1.5dCi 106.
Externally there's a more angular front grille replacing the familiar Clio 'moustache' designed to give the car a more dynamic personality and betraying a clear family resemblance to the new Megane.
From the manufacturer's perspective, the 2009 models offer a chance to wax lyrical about the car's eco-friendly credentials, growing reputation for reliability and increased capacity to offer space, comfort and equipment levels more usually found in larger cars.
Die-hard web forum commentators have been less than kind about the revamp, finding it lumpy, unimaginative and lacking in cohesion rather than reaking of French flair and sporting élan.
But in the three-door GT model, the assertiveness of the front end is matched with an exclusive Malta Blue body colour, 16-inch aluminium alloys, twin exhaust tailpipes and rear lip spoiler for a racier look, with white gauges, aluminium pedal covers and carbon, chrome and leather touches enhancing the interior spec.
It's still got that remarkably spacious boot area, a slick six-speed gearbox, precise suspension and, on a twisting Portuguese mountain road, demonstrates the ability to deliver a swift, comfortable ride with a minimum of unwanted vibration or exterior noise. The trim and equipment feel pretty substantial too, from the wide, solid doors to the extra side support for the front seats.
Prices range from £13,495 for the new 1.6 VVT 128hp petrol version to £14,445 for the 106hp diesel, the latter engine also making an appearance in the more luxurious five-door Privilege and Initiale editions.
Overall Clio prices start at a whisker under £10,000 and soar up to £16,895 by the time you're looking at a five-door diesel with all the trimmings.
Big news for those who like to know where they're going is the availability of an affordable £450 integrated Carminat TomTom satellite navigation system with an easy-to-read 5.8 inch colour screen, which can be specifed either as an option or as part of a model in its own right.
The large screen sits on the dash close to the steering wheel for a quick sideways glance and although web critics have been quick to query the price, it's likely to be seen by many Clio fans as a welcome alternative to more fiddly portable sat-navs, with their associated security risks.
Prospective buyers will get to see it for themselves when the range hits the UK showrooms on May 15, but whether they see the new shape as chunky or lumpy, the latest makeover is more than likely to maintain the enduring longevity of one of Europe's most popular small cars.=