Thursday 14 December 2017

How to plan a hatch . . .

Renault is yet again right on the mark with its new hatchbacks, Shane O'Donoghue recently found

There's a quirky graphic between the speedometer and the rev counter of the Renaultsport Clio that reminds me of arcade games. I'm showing my age here now, as I'm talking way before even the likes of Mario Kart. No idea what it was called, but I do remember dropping 5p pieces into a machine and using a huge metal steering wheel to navigate a car around a circuit seen from the air.

I can even remember the synthesised screeches from the tyres and the drone from the virtual engine. If you think I'm leading up to a comparison between the Clio and video games you're only partially right, as the Renaultsport car is the antithesis to the latest raft of technology-laden performance cars and nothing at all like a video game.

The French have a good record in this regard. The Peugeot 205, 306 and 309 GTis come to mind, as does Citroen's Saxo, while the Clio name has always been associated with a sporty number (and I'm not referring to 'Nicole'). First up was the Clio 16v, then the -- almost mythical -- Clio Williams, which marked the introduction of a 2.0-litre engine to the lithe hatchback. The second generation Clio spawned a Renaultsport 172 version, with power being upped further later in its life.

Today, the Clio III is available in Renaultsport 200 guise, but the blue car you're looking at here is a little more special again. It's the Gordini 200 model, which, you guessed it, has 200hp at its disposal -- and it's a limited edition. You can read more about the Gordini heritage in the sidebar, but in terms of this Clio it means an eye-catching blue paint finish with big thick white stripes, special wheels, other detail exterior changes and a stack of extra equipment inside. I know, I know, I did start this article by alluding to the fact that the Renaultsport Clio is the antidote to anodyne modern motoring, but believe me when I say that auto lights and wipers, cruise control, Bluetooth and a decent stereo don't detract from the experience one little bit.

You'll soon forget the gadgets when you find an interesting piece of road. The firm ride, relatively heavy steering and loud engine suddenly make a lot of sense. Needless to say, it clings on like the prime minister of a European country with serious debt problems, but lots of cars can do that.

Where the Clio differentiates itself is in the level of driver involvement. This is not a posing car. It roars at you to try harder, to up your game to a new level to keep up with it. That's no mean feat. It may have 'only' 200hp, but it's relatively light and the 2.0-litre engine has no trouble shoving the car along at an indecent pace.

Another party trick of the Clio is that it's rarely necessary to back off when you arrive at a tight corner. The front tyres dig in, you turn the beautifully weighted steering more and round she goes. Lift off mid-corner and the weight transfer to the front helps the nose tuck in further. Do this too sharply and you can feel the ESP dabbing the brakes to help you stay on the road. It's a nice reminder that there are boundaries and we should stick to them.

Driven well there are few cars that would outrun the Clio Gordini on a challenging mountain road. But wait. What's that in the rear-view mirror? It's wide, low and very black and it wants to get past. That'll be the Clio's big brother, the Renaultsport Megane. Not just any RS model, though, this is the Trophy 265. You don't need to be a complete car anorak like me to know that means it has 265hp. That's not the only ace up its sleeve. The engine is turbocharged, so it has much more go even at low speeds than the rev-happy Clio and the Megane also comes with something called a limited slip differential. If you think that sounds like a medical term then you've probably realised you're reading the wrong article.

It's not difficult to understand what a limited slip differential (LSD) does. Most cars have an open differential on the driving wheels, which allows the wheels at each side of the car to turn at different speeds to each other.

The reason for that is simple enough: if the wheels always turned at the same speed you could never steer the car.

The downside of this set-up is that when a tyre loses grip, more of the engine's output is sent to it and hence wasted. The LSD, however, can remedy that. The result is a car that has quite phenomenal traction in all situations. That sums up the Megane Trophy's ability. The way it tackles corners -- wet or dry -- is simply astounding. In most front-wheel drive cars, even good fast ones, there is the possibility of the front end sliding on (it's called understeer), but apparently there's no French word for that.

Like the Gordini Clio, the Trophy 265 is a limited edition, with just 500 examples made. If you want to attract attention you can have it in 'Liquid Yellow i.d.' metallic paint, though the menacing gloss black 19-inch wheels are standard and they look even bigger than that thanks to a sharp red line around their circumference.

The Trophy is based on the Renaultsport Megane 250 Cup, which has a significantly uprated chassis to appeal to really keen drivers. Obviously the power has been upped, but that's virtually the only mechanical difference.

Usability is a hallmark of good French hot hatches and the latest Renaultsport models, extreme as they are, have not lost that. What's more, they're analogue cars in a digital world. I mean that in a positive sense. Some day I'll be an old(er) fart in the corner of a pub recalling cars like these. Hopefully, I'll remember what they're called.

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