A new Clio RS? This had better be good...
We know what you're thinking. Can this new RS, with its 1.6-litre engine (turbocharged, nowadays), paddle shifters and five mandatory doors really give us the same thrills as the last version? That thing felt like a little touring car, with its bucket seats and bespoke bodywork with flared arches and no more doors than necessary. And it had heroic energy, clinging to every gear and high note of its naturally aspirated, 2.0-litre engine. It was classic hot hatchery.
Have they tried to make this one even more appealing, then?
Depends how you see it. Renault's business people have spotted the steady growth in hot hatch sales and, rather than concentrating on the core, decided instead to work out towards the edges. In other words, they decided that the old car was too specialist. It lacked versatility. And that the new one must appeal to more people.
This doesn't sound promising...
It's unsurprising to find that, sure enough, this feels like a completely different car to the one it replaces. It's more visually bloated, sharing essentially the same shape as the regular new Clio, with the main exceptions of the front spoiler and rear wing. It's fractionally longer, and you always feel like you're carrying around the extra pair of doors, with no option to shake them off.
See more pics of the Renault Clio RS 200 here
And we really can't have a manual gearbox?
No, sorry. Out goes the satisfying, short-throw manual of the old RS, in goes a double-clutcher. Renault claims the cogs physically tag-team in 150 milliseconds, but it's the command-to-obedience time we're interested in. And guess what? It's just a touch too slow... even when you've selected Race mode and reduced shifts to their minimum time. And unlike some really sharp DSGs, you have to stay one step ahead of it. At one point on our drive, while braking hard from fourth gear for a hairpin, the display screen showed it had preselected fifth when third was obviously inevitable.
You sound upset.
Disappointed, really. There's even an irritating beep when it's time to change up. You can raise the point at which it patronises you by burrowing through the menus, but... this is an RS! We don't need endless sub-menus or a million driving modes. The Sport setting is good enough thanks, if slightly lacking in genuinely natural steering feel. Just set it up like we know you can, Renault, and leave it there...
It can't all be bad. Is must be quick?
Correct. And here we hit upon a strong point: a deep trench of torque: 177lb ft from as low as 1,750rpm. That may not sound like an awful lot, but the turbo swells up early, letting you drive harder out of corners, or from zero to 62mph in 6.7 seconds. Sounds good too, whipping up a white noise that zips down the car - into the cabin via a sound pipe - and out the other end with a ripping cough.
What about other road-testy things?
Let's start with the Sport chassis. It's softer than the last version: both the front springs and rear beam are given an extra few millimetres of travel per 100kg of load. This makes it more comfy than before, but perhaps less eager to nose into an apex. But we're not talking about some total softie here: it's still playful, and a new set of clever hydraulic bump stops help control each damper's full extension.
See more pics of the Renault Clio RS 200 here
So there's still a Cup version?
Yes. It's firmer than the Sport, and the anti-roll bars are 15 per cent stiffer than the old car's. From what we could tell during a few laps of a very smooth track, it's certainly more aggressive, but a good drive on a British road will reveal more (even the kerbs were smoothly blended on the track, so we couldn't judge behaviour over sharp edges).
Should we be in mourning, then?
In isolation, this isn't such a bad car. It's rapid, and at least it feels like a proper product inside now, with touchscreen entertainment plus shapely dashboard and dials. It's certainly more livable than the old one, even if doesn't leave you longing for more. But you can't help thinking they could've separated the Sport and Cup more, reaching to both ends of the market. Maybe they could've kept the deep Recaro seats, or given the Cup a manual 'box. Anything to give a more noticeable point of difference between the two versions... and keep faithful RS addicts happy.
Average flappy paddles, softer suspension and extra doors mean the new RS isn't the car it used to be. It's still a bundle of fun, but we expected more. Is that so wrong?
1618cc, 4cyl, FWD, 197bhp, 177lb ft, 45mpg, 144g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 6.7secs, 143mph, 1204kg