(Pocket-lint) - Pocket-lint is quite fond of the RenaultSport Clio. In fact, we’ve owned two of the previous versions, one of which is still in our possession.
But we come to the new 200 Turbo Clio - or 200T as we refer to it - with some trepidation. Taking it out for a brief spin back in February and not everything was well. There wasn’t the immediacy of the previous versions and the new dual-clutch gearbox did seem to get in the way of the driving experience.
But 45-minutes with a car isn’t enough to assess it properly. And two things had us wanting to go back for seconds: first, lurking somewhere under the yellowy mass of Clio was clearly still a very good chassis, which we wanted to fully explore; and second, the trade-off Renault has made with this new Clio needed longer exposure to understand.
Bigger, more comfortable, more economical and more refined - but has Renault forgotten the fun bit? And now we've had plenty of time with the new Clio, does it deliver on its promise of being easier to live with even when you’re not in the mood?
Vive la difference
In case you’re coming to the Clio afresh, a little reminder of just why this new Clio is so different from the old ones: it doesn't stick to the fairly simple formula of three-door body style, large capacity, non-turbo charged petrol engine and manual gearbox. As the 200T's nameplate implies, the new car is now turbo charged - with a 1.6 litre turbo engine that’s a similar unit to the one used in the Nissan Juke.
But the really big change is that you can only have a dual-clutch, 6-speed automatic gearbox - or EDC in Renault speak. Just to complete the full-scale upset of the RenaultSport faithful, the 200T only comes as a five-door, thanks to Renault’s decision not to produce a three-door derivate of the latest Clio body style.
Why the five-door thing is a problem is beyond us. The new Clio is a fine shape and with the rear door handles recessed in the pillar, there’s a "blink and it’s a three-door" look from some angles. Just because hot hatches have forever been moulded as three-doors, doesn’t mean a 5-door can’t be a good hot hatch too. We never put people in the back during our week with it, and yet at no point did we wish it was just a three-door either.
The old Clio used to love revs. In fact, you had to hammer it to get it to really fly. So the fear with the new Clio, and its turbo engine, is that it will somehow be more boring to drive. Because it’s got a bias towards lower rev pull rather than high rev fireworks. While the old Clio 200 used to rev all the way up into the 7000s, the new Clio 200T is all done in the 6000s.
The reality is that on the road we didn’t find this a big problem. The engine undoubtedly changes the Clio’s character though - it’s more flexible, less rev-hungry and generally easier to drive when you’re not in the mood to engage.
The big surprise is the sound. At 2000-3000rpm, the Clio now makes a make great, rorty burble - that reminded us a bit of old Subaru boxer engines. It feels fast too, whipping through the rev range when you flatten the accelerator. But that lower rev limit does strip out some of the fun of old, because you seem to run into the limiter really early. This is not helped by the fact that the Clio is quite short-geared in second and third gear.
And unless you’ve got the most aggressive "RS Race" drive mode selected, the gearbox automatically changes up at the limit for you. This annoyed us, as it almost reduces the Clio to a driving game of old, making you one step removed from the interaction as a driver.
A gearbox full of moans
And we’re not done with our gearbox moans. Renault’s decision to offer the sporty Clio with just an auto box still seems like a strange one, but it’s the only option we’re getting for now. It’s not all bad. It’s quite smooth and slurry if you’re not in a hurry. And the higher gearing in the upper gears makes the 200T a much happier motorway cruiser than its grandfathers.
But sooner rather than later, if you’ve bought a fast Clio you’re going to want to wring its neck and it’s here where things get a little bit muddled. The first problem is that, and while the gearbox shifts more quickly in the first of the two RenaultSport drive modes, it’s still not quick enough and - as we mentioned - it’ll automatically change up for you at the rev limit.
Put it in RenaultSport race mode, and the shift speed is actually pretty fast and you're left in complete control. It will bounce into the rev limiter all day unless you intervene. Problem is, in this mode there's no stability or traction control.
You’ll also probably be driving using the steering wheel paddles, which have a stupidly long throw and a nasty feel and action which makes the gearshift feel even slower than it is. During our week with the 200T, we were continually frustrated by them.
The perfect compromise for UK roads
Yet despite the gearbox, we grew to like this car much more than we thought we would.
Simply put, the suspension set up in the new Clio is a work of genius. It’s as if it’s been designed for our pothole-scattered UK roads. So while the chassis is brilliantly balanced and it turns in with real precision and resists understeer in all but extremis, it’s the ride that stands out.
So many cars these days in an effort to feel "sporty" just end up with a hard, crashy ride. The Clio’s ride isn’t like that - it’s very absorbent and comfortable and deals with the worst of your local council’s non-efforts to fill in potholes.
Yet it corners flat and with little body roll. Expensive dampers and some clever suspension bump stops see to this. Just make sure you tick the "cup pack" option, which lands you the lower suspension, black wheels and red callipers - all for an additional £650.
Into the bargain and helping matters considerably are great seats. We’d expect Renault to make Recaro buckets available at some point in this car’s life, as on every previous Clio they were an option you wanted to tick. On the new Clio, we wouldn't bother, as the ones fitted in this - and every sport Clio - hug you tight in the turns and keep you comfy on long runs.
A nicer place to spend time
The Clio cabin is a nice place to sit too. But we don’t love the red and orange detailing: the red seatbelts and orange-red air vents are 80s-tastic and clash horribly with the exterior "liquid yellow" paint of our test car. That paint job alone is an added £1,300 option. But some will doubtless love them.
The 200T is hardly a subtle thing, it's got an old skool hot hatch look you might say. But get it in black rather than yellow and it’s got much more of a stealth quality if that’s your thing. We think it splits the difference between the "hoody 'n' trainers" look of the Fiesta ST and the Prada-like bling of the 208 GTi.
READ: Peugeot 208 GTi review
On the inside the plastics are great for a car of this class; there’s plenty of room up front and the dashboard and instruments are clear and delightfully simple.
Helping no end is Renault’s navigation system - it runs TomTom Live with HD traffic through its 7-inch touchscreen panel. Not only does this work just like the TomTom you’ve probably got kicking round in a bottom drawer, but it helped us avoid traffic better than any other in-car system we’ve used recently.
You can also plug your phone in, play Spotify, and Bluetooth is standard too. The R-Link function our car had also gives you access to various apps Renault has developed for the car and a crazy sound generator to pipe in the fake sound of various other cars. Which made us feel sick after five minutes, so we turned it off.
When Renault redesigned the sporty Clio, it set out to keep the fun factor of the earlier models that a whole generation of buyers swore by. But it also wanted to add in everyday usability. No compromise you might say.
Jumping back into our 172 Cup straight after the new 200T, and it’s clear the blood line is alive. Yes the 200T feels bigger, heavier and more refined, but it’s still eager and keen to play.
The 200T's shifts from the classic Clio norm is Renault’s way of re-aligning this model. It’s much easier to justify as a family car, much easier to put up with - in fact it’s simply very good - on a long trip. It’s better in traffic, more economical (we got 33mpg average), more mature and there’s more space too.
But that’s not really the point of a hot hatch. So we’re pleased to report that the hot Clio still does tick the fun box. We cannot stress just how good that chassis set-up is for a front-wheel drive car, and for British roads.
But there are shortcomings. And if Renault would grant us two requests, it would be for some new gearshift paddles and to allow the gearbox to be put in its fastest mode, but to still have stability and traction control available - even if intervened in a limited way.
As it stands, it will be a brave - and ultimately frustrated - man or woman who tries to drive the new Clio quickly down a twisty wet road. You’re either driving round the gearbox in slow mode, or having to moderate your inputs carefully to avoid the handling getting potentially lairy.
We’re hopeful Renault might answer our requests some day. Because given RenaultSport’s history, we expect the 200T to be tweaked and developed over its lifetime. For now, it’s just a good car - one you should definitely put on your shortlist - and certainly not dismiss just because of its new format. But with a few tweaks, it has the potential to join the RenaultSport hall of fame as one of the greats. How about it Renault?