Part One: Received Wisdom
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”.
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.
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.
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.