Part Two: Crunch Time. It was driving between two rows of terraced houses, windows wound down, when I first heard the noise. Graunch.
I could hear it when changing into third or fourth gear; sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, but consistently those two gears. Graunch. As the journey wore on, I noticed that pedestrians were occasionally turning to look for the source of the sound assaulting their ears. Crunch. Graunch. Ouch.
For some reason, the Lotus Esprit’s notoriously flaky Renault-supplied gearbox came to mind. Gingerly, lest an expensive and vital part decided to grenade itself, I piloted the Clio home.
A quick web search confirmed my fears. My fabulous new car, bought not two weeks before, was likely exhibiting the early symptoms of gearbox failure. Forums are filled with stories of RenaultSport Clio 3s lunching on their synchromeshes at around 20-25,000 miles, most commonly those for third and fourth gears, although other speeds can be afflicted. Failing units had been replaced by Renault within the three-year warranty, usually with no further problems. Thanks to the meagre 22,000 miles on the odometer, my otherwise pristine six-year-old example had only just strayed into the danger zone.
(Incidentally, it would seem that Renault was fabulously tardy in addressing the fault, considering that both pre- and post-facelift 197s and 200s were similarly afflicted. One wonders if adopting a policy of wait-and-fail was Renault’s best course of action in terms of reputation management.)
Wonderful. At this point the Clio was still covered by the dealer’s three-month warranty, so my problem was about to become theirs. Indeed, the fault had manifested itself within the 28 day post-purchase cooling off period, so I was quite within my rights to demand the dealer take the car back. Friends and relatives counselled me to do exactly that. It’s French, they said, what did I expect? Best to get rid of it now while I still could.
A few factors stayed my hand in this regard, my belligerent nature being foremost. Also at play was the fact that it was a known fault, the otherwise pristine nature of the car, plus the not inconsiderable hassle of being left with no vehicle. Credit also the attitude of the dealer, who immediately poured oil on troubled waters by taking full ownership of the situation. The failing synchromesh formally diagnosed, the Clio was spirited away for a full gearbox rebuild, with an additional year’s warranty on the affected parts. I was given the unlimited use of a courtesy car, an excellent 1-litre Fiesta which I have written about elsewhere in these pages, which proved handy when the estimated one week turnaround ballooned to a fortnight.
And thus the Clio was returned, clean and shiny, with a rebuilt gearbox and various other little snags fixed. A headlight bulb had failed and been replaced (a bumper-off job, would you believe), and a wayward mirror cover reinstalled. Minor stuff, granted, but sorted nevertheless. The Clio was back in fine fettle and we set about bonding once again.
A couple of months later, I was indulging in a spirited drive down a country lane, as one does, when the nearside front wheel dropped into a drain gully. Thump. Suddenly the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. The engine warning light was on; check emissions the dashboard declared in dot-matrix type. The engine immediately began to misfire, stuttering under power. Turning the engine off did not cure the malady. Great, I thought. Once again the Clio and I limped home.
Within minutes of searching the forums I found the likely culprit: a failed exhaust emissions sensor, another common fault it would seem. Back to the dealer the car went for diagnosis.
Yes, they said, the Lambda sensor in the exhaust had indeed gone pop. Oh and by the way, they added, as the car is six days out of warranty a new one will be £180 for the part, plus £100 labour. And the MOT is due next week. And you will definitely need the part to pass.
Not taken with the potential sight of a grown man crying on his dealership floor, the manager took pity and offered a compromise. Would I pay for the part only? No, I said, tears visibly welling up, I’ll pay for the labour, you pay for the part. On that we shook hands. One of the customer service girls even gave me a cuddle.
This is what buying a Renault reduces you to: the verge of hysteria, requiring comfort from strangers.
So this is where we are now. The Clio is back once again and is running as well as it ever has, but my feelings towards it remain ambivalent. This represents a distinct improvement from the days immediately after the exhaust sensor failed – then my mood could best have been described as abject. I was once again minded to challenge the dealer to take the car back, even though it was out of warranty, lest I left the blasted thing parked on his front doorstep with expletives written across it in shop window marker. And yet I relented.
The RenaultSport Clio certainly remains an exciting device, a facet which I will hopefully elaborate upon in a later report. Thus, despite its patchy record, a part of me still feels compelled to defend the car from the naysayers. The grounds for mounting that defence however grow shakier with each new fault. It is one thing to indulge in stereotypes of French flakiness; it is quite another to have them serially confirmed at your own expense.
Still, like a rough stone caressed by a warm summer river, time has the effect of smoothing away the edges and I find myself once more enjoying the Clio’s talents. Until it suffers another expensive failure, that is; in which case the damned thing will be gone.
Miles since purchase: 1350
Miles since last report: 1050
Expenditure since last report: Exhaust Lambda Sensor plus fitting, £280; MOT, £40; offside front tyre, £80