Johannesburg - The previous Clio RS, from 2009, was a memorable car. Not only because the test unit we drove was finished in a scorching yellow, but because it was sprung like a shopping trolley, its transmission was a rushable, snickity manual, and its 2-litre engine revved like a dentist’s drill. It felt naughty. Like you were driving a legit race car illegally on the road.

The new one, which launched around three years ago but was facelifted in May, is nothing like its predecessor. For starters it’s a five door now, instead of three. Its screamy naturally-aspirated engine has made way for a quieter 1.6 turbo, the manual box has been replaced with a dual-clutch auto, and the ride is much easier on the spine. Not necessarily bad things, especially if you like a less high strung variety of hot hatches.

As with the pre-facelifted version, the Clio RS comes in two flavours - Lux and Trophy (the latter replaces the Cup). The Lux, as given away by its name, is the more liveable of the two. It rides on higher profile 17” rubber, its suspension is tuned a little more pliantly and it’s a bit more hushed because it doesn’t get the Trophy’s free-flow Akropovic exhaust system.

Besides the exhaust, the racier Trophy sits on firmer springs (20mm lower at the front and 10mm lower at the rear), tyres are less forgiving 18-inchers and, strangely, it gets heated leather seats which in our opinion would be better suited to the Lux. The Trophy’s also quite a bit more powerful at 162kW and 280Nm versus the Lux’s 147/260, but even with its extra oomph it’s only marginally quicker with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.6 seconds to the Lux’s 6.7.

On test here is the Lux, which besides being the more realistic daily driver, is also 40 grand cheaper at R379 900.

It might be the plusher option but you’d never guess by the seats. The side bolstering of the front buckets is borderline absurdity, and though my smallish frame tucked neatly between them, I wonder if anyone north of 90kg would even be able to sit in there. Clearly Renault Sport isn’t playing around when it comes to holding bodies in place when roads get twisty, but perhaps they forgot not everyone’s built like Nico Hulkenberg.

If the seats suggest a sense of hardcore hedonism, the rest of the car doesn’t really follow through. There’s just not enough of a differentiation between this and the far less expensive Clio GT-Line, especially in handling. Remember, I’m speaking for the softer Lux model only, and to be fair the tauter Trophy might rectify some issues; but it’s hardly playful enough at full tilt in corners to justify an RS badge.

In a bumpy mountain pass the car delivered a good mix of handling sharpness and suspension compliance. But driving in real anger around a smooth test track revealed a tendency for the nose to wash away from apexes, rather than tuck into them. An electronic front diff-lock tries to correct some understeer, and it works to an extent, but because it’s essentially just braking the spinning inside wheel the sensation is more deceleration than added traction. There’s gobs of torque steer when hard on the throttle, and while this is often considered a complaint in high-performance front-wheel drives, it’s a compliment in this case because working the wheel distracts from otherwise dull handling.

Renault’s six-speed EDC (Efficient Dual Clutch) gearbox is also a let down. In normal drive mode it falls asleep, defaulting to the highest possible gear, presumably to optimise fuel consumption. Wake it up with a kick of the gas pedal, and it stutters, yawns, has a stretch, clears some sand from its eyes, and then drops a cog or two when it’s ready.

Opposite problem in sport mode. Push the RS-labelled button just ahead of the handbrake, and the transmission tosses a double espresso shot, rages on a caffeine high, and becomes reluctant to let the tacho’s needle leave the red zone. Some happy middle ground would be nice, Renault.

It’s often best to take control and change manually with the steering paddles, if anything just to avoid frustration. On the plus side, there’s a cool (albeit unnecessary) throttle blip feature on each downshift when in RS mode.

The car’s quick, I’ll give it that. Deceptively quick. Besides the ubiquitous series of blurps from the tailpipes between gears, it accelerates rapidly but without much fanfare. Its impressive figures are mostly down to an effective launch control system, activated by tugging both shift paddles simultaneously before bolting off the line. You’ll know it’s working, not only by a bright orange light in the instrument cluster, but by the hilarious fart noises it makes as the revs rise and the turbo spools before takeoff.

We couldn’t match Renault’s 6.7 second claim, but we came close with a best 0-100km/h of 6.99 seconds, and the quarter mile came in 15.1. These times slot it smack in between the slightly quicker Polo GTI and slightly slower (manual) Fiesta ST, according to our Vbox test equipment. (See it in action in the video below).

The Playstation generation will go knees weak for the Clio’s RS Monitor, a function housed within the 17.8cm touchscreen where drivers can scroll through numerous so-called telemetry displays.

Most are useless to be honest. Who needs to see steering angles or individual wheel spin in real time, and who has time to glance at these while driving? But, it is possible to store all recorded data from a track session, and upload it to a USB stick for later review. 

Gimmicky, yes. Useful, perhaps ... if you’re Nico Hulkenberg.

One RS Monitor screen records acceleration performance figures, which, by the way, were way off what our satellite-based Vbox registered. Unless you believe the Lux can beat claimed acceleration times by half a second or so.

VERDICT

An RS badge, regardless of brand, is accompanied by high expectations. In Lux guise the Renault Clio RS disappoints somewhat. It’d be easier to forgive its mediocre on-the-limits handling and schizo gearbox if it were labelled as a Sport and positioned between the GT-Line and the RS Trophy.

Renault Clio RS 200 Lux

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cyl, turbopetrol
Gearbox: 6-speed automated dual clutch
Power: 147kW @ 6050rpm
Torque: 260Nm @ 2000rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng):6.99 seconds
Top speed (claimed):230km/h
Price: R379 900
Warranty: 5-year/150 000km
Service plan: 3-year/30 000km

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