Our Cars: 2009 RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup

Part One: Received Wisdom

Renault Logo
If you want to know how low perceptions of the French car industry have sunk, try telling people that you have bought a Renault Clio. Reactions vary between pity and incredulousness. “ARE YOU MAD?” people shout, grabbing you by the lapels. “WHY DID YOU DO IT?” they scream into your upturned, spittle-flecked face, shaking you roughly in the hope of reawakening some neglected sense of self preservation. Suddenly you are not the well adjusted and vaguely handsome man they thought you were. Clearly for all this time you have been a self-hater or a masochist. Or worse, a socialist.

In my case, it didn’t help matters that I had traded in something eminently sensible: a Honda Civic. Being an FN2 generation model (often referred to as “the spaceship”), it boasted inspired styling and a Gundam interior. Everyone loved how it looked. Furthermore, I would be hard pressed to find a more unflinchingly reliable car. Like a faithful Japanese robotic manservant, it was practical and never let me down. And I had traded it in for something that was conceivably none of those things.

Before I attempt to explain the inexplicable, I should mention the specific models involved. The Civic was a Type R; the Clio is a RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup. Ah, the penny drops. Yes, I am the kind of squalid deviant who buys “hot hatches”.

Silver was one of the more demure colour choices.
Silver is one of the more demure colour choices the RenaultSport Clio III was made available in.

I will concede that, on the face of it, the swap appears baffling. (Boredom and impoverishment has a lot to do with it, as does browsing Autotrader whilst drunk. All of those things are interlinked to a larger degree than I would care to admit.) The FN2 Type R is indeed a hot hatch with many virtues. Although outpaced by modern turbo-engined contenders, wind the Honda 2-litre beyond the 5000rpm VTEC cam lift and it remains alarmingly fast: one of the last great naturally aspirated performance engines. The brakes are superb. And without a doubt, the clutch and gearbox interface is the finest I have sampled.

The poverty spec Cup interior is enlivened by yellow fabric inserts.
The poverty spec Cup interior is enlivened by yellow fabric inserts and not a lot else.

But one crucial aspect of the FN2 Civic is distinctly below par: the chassis. Lacking the double-wishbone suspension of its predecessor and US/JDM contemporaries, the European version made do with a simpler torsion beam. Heavier and with a carry over drive train, the only way Honda’s engineers could make the FN2 faster against the clock was by opting for a track biased damping setup. As a result the ride on the road is stiff beyond distraction, banging and crashing tediously into every pothole and over every manhole cover. Up the pace and instead of finding some finesse, the FN2 Type R simply bangs and crashes even harder. Driving it reminded me of riding a tea tray down the stairs as a child: exciting, painful and uncontrollable.

Wheel arch extensions make all the difference to the blandly styled Clio III.
Wheel arch extensions make all the difference to the blandly styled Clio III.

This lack of chassis polish, so at odds with the rest of the package, spoiled my experience with the FN2 Type R. And like anyone with an itch going unscratched for any length of time, my attention began to wander.

The RenaultSport Clio 200 initially crossed my radar when it (and its predecessor, the 197, both variants of the Clio III) began receiving enthusiastic reviews in the British motoring press. The chassis in particular was singled out for almost ecstatic praise, and with time a consensus of opinion began to build. Indeed, by the end of its run, some reviewers were tentatively suggesting that the RenaultSport Clio III could possibly be one of the finest handling front wheel drive cars, full stop.

In that respect, as with many others, the RenaultSport Clio III appeared to be everything that the FN2 Type R was not. And thus my interest was piqued: not just in the RenaultSport Clio 200, but in the conformity of journalistic opinion surrounding it. One of my aims in purchasing the car (and in sharing my findings here) is to challenge this “hack consensus”; to prove or disprove the received journalistic wisdom about the car through the trials of ownership, with all the pleasure and/or pain that experience will entail.

I also aim to silence the doubters, those who believe with every fibre of their being that buying a French car can only lead to unmitigated disaster. Vive la France!

Wish me luck.

In Part Two, the Clio rewards my faith by destroying its gearbox.

Author: chrisward1978

Professional pixel pugilist and word wrangler. Unprofessional pub snug raconteur.

10 thoughts on “Our Cars: 2009 RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup”

  1. I’ll try very hard not to do the well-trodden thing of comparing the quality of plastics on your Clio to the packaging of the pictured Pot Noodle … Oh!

    More seriously, fantastic choice of what will surely be seen as a classic small hot-hatch. Well done and I really hope in this case that fortune favours the brave. Enjoy yourself!

  2. As a serial masoch … French car owner, and someone who ultimately shied away from buying its Clio II based predecessor, I can only admire and envy you for taking the plunge Chris.

    1. Cheers. I had considered a 200 before I bought the Civic, but couldn’t get a removable child seat through the Clio’s paltry gap. Three years on and that is less of a consideration, hence taking the plunge.

  3. What was it with the French manufacturers and those RCA audio inputs instead of a simple stereo minijack aux in? I remember encountering them in 2011 on a new Peugeot 207. Although by 2011 you could get USB and a semblance of iPod control on a Renaultsport Clio so that might be something that an owners forum search, a trip to the wreckers and a spare weekend might be able to resolve?

    Honda takes a fair amount of flak for the Civic ‘euro’ torsion beam rear axle versus those twin titans of the family hatchback world, the Focus and Golf. I don’t like the loss of ‘four wheel double wishbone’ suspension from the Civic either but Renault use the same thing in the equivalent Megane and Clio and it hasn’t stopped the Renaultsport suspension wizards from creating legendary performance cars.

    Also, I’ve just realised that Sean’s Cube is a platform relative of this car? Which once again leads me to imagining a Cube or a Renault Modus with RS suspension…

    1. I had intended mentioning the kinship of Chris’s purposeful hotshoe and my little white cooler box, but I thought it might be the final straw before the relationship had really started.

      At least the Clio sound system gives you an audio input of some sort. Specifying our work Kangoo in a hurry a few years back, I assumed that “MP3 compatible” CD/Radio meant it had some sort of input socket. Silly me.

    2. Although Nissan have given the far more popular Juke the Nismo treatment, they left the Cube 3 alone. Of course, others have tried …

      … though my preference would always be for it to be as externally unmodified as possible.

  4. Great car, I wish you every happiness with it. I like the grey colour scheme too, although slightly upset that the red brake calipers on the outside clash with the yellow highlights inside!

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