Our Cars: 2009 RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup

David and Goliath? This question springs to mind in this report of life with a RenaultSport Clio 200 Cup.

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The modern SUV. Image: thisiswhyimbroke.com

I once shared a university house with a man who studied Physics. He was tremendously good at it. As a lazy English student, I envied the clarity of his thought processes, of his ability to harness complex mathematics to make sense of the forces that shape our world. Meanwhile, I struggled to marshal the energy to make a toasted cheese sandwich. (And this despite me keeping a Breville sandwich toaster on my bedside table. And my bedside table being a mini fridge liberated from a caravan, filled with cheese and booze.)

I digress. In his pocket this house mate invariably kept a Swiss Army Knife. He loved to pull out that Swiss Army Knife and brandish it at life’s myriad small problems. The bottle opener was tremendously overused, of course, as was the knife, for cutting cheese. Sundry other tools were employed at various junctures, although we did struggle with the tool for de-stoning horse’s hooves (although in those days I often required de-stoning, usually after making a tool of myself).

As much as my house mate loved his Swiss Army Knife, my hatred for that device was as hot as the greasy plates of a student’s bedside sandwich toaster. Like any undergraduate whose opinions go unsullied by experience, my antipathy was shaped by my naive conception of compromise. The Swiss Army Knife did a lot of things but none of them, so I thought, particularly well.

The bottle opener, for example, had to be carefully hooked under the ribbed flute of a bottle cap, otherwise it didn’t work: hard when you were semi-permanently inebriated. The stubby little knife struggled to cut the cheese. The driver was never commensurate to the screw, not that there was a lot of that going on either. The hoof de-stoner… was a hoof de-stoner.

To my mid-to-post-pubescent mind, the Swiss Army Knife was never as good at any one job than a single purpose-designed tool. For something so useful, the Swiss Army Knife was quite useless.

I was put in mind of the Swiss Army Knife the other day when I spied a BMW X5 parked outside a local preschool, the natural habitat of the SUV. Now here, surely, is a car that can be all things to all people. It has five doors and a hatch so it may carry many children and their interminable things with ease. It has four-wheel drive and increased ground clearance, so it can ford deep streams and leap tall buildings in a single bound. It has BMW sporting pedigree, a 3 litre diesel and the biggest wheels and tyres in Christendom, so surely to God it can go quickly and around corners. Right?

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A BMW X5 pounding a dirt road into submission. Image: mosselmanturbo.com

Parked alongside the Teutonic leviathan, my Clio looked tiny; so small in fact that it looked as if the mighty X5 would crush my car without noticing as it reversed out. But no, thankfully the Beemer had been specced with parking sensors front and rear. Unmoored from its birth, and with a cloud of particulates worthy of a startled cuttlefish or a late-model Volkswagen, the X5 made haste its exit.

My son duly dropped off for another morning of acquiring diseases at playgroup, I also hit the road. Between preschool and the main artery to work is a gem of a country road I always look forward to driving. Lightly trafficked and with two lanes throughout, it begins with a series of flat and well-sighted medium to fast sweepers perfect for putting a car through its paces. Here I caught up with the dawdling X5.

Another inky blast from the cuttlefish indicated that the BMW had upped its pace. By virtue of our shared departure point I guessed that both of us knew the road. Soon enough we were travelling at a reasonable lick, me a few car lengths behind, both of us well within the respective capacities of our vehicles — “six-tenths” as a journalist might have it.

As the road progresses, it threads between an active quarry and a flooded former pit, now a nature reserve. Buckled, twisted and tortured as the earth to each side, the road becomes narrower and throws up a complex series of technical dips, crests and turns hemmed between verges and stone walls. This section of the road shows RenaultSport’s fettling at its best, the Clio’s light weight allowing it to dart into bends, its tiny footprint letting you place the car just where you want it.

And yet, as the road’s width diminished and the corners grew tighter, the X5 began to lose its composure. The pilot was visibly having trouble marshalling his Bavarian barge through the rapids, clipping verges and jouncing out to straddle both lanes, with nary a long enough straight in which to tame the maelstrom of forces being enacted upon it. Play time over, the Clio followed behind at an idle lope.

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Unable to bear its own mass, the X5 collapses in on itself to create a black hole. Image: NASA

It transpires that, despite their undoubted talents, BMW’s engineers are no magicians. The X5 is as prey to the laws of Physics, of gravity and inertia, as any other weighty object in this world. No doubt my Physics studying house mate would have expressed this state of affairs with an elegant equation. With my fuzzy simian cranium, I simply think back to his Swiss Army Knife. The X5 wants to be a sports car and a utility vehicle, yet its size and weight prevents it from being the former, whilst its firm suspension and road tyres preclude the latter. By trying to be all things to all people, the X5 ends up being a tool inappropriate to both jobs.

In turn, following the X5 solidified my thoughts about the Clio. By any yardstick it is a poor car: cramped, truculent and bereft of comforts. The X5 should crush it, and not just in a botched preschool car park manoeuvre. And yet, RenaultSport set out to create a single purpose tool: a car for going around corners as quickly as possible. For that one task, the 200 Cup is a remarkably capable device.

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A dusting of snow nearly doubles the Clio’s kerb weight.

I hoped to report on a month where something had not dropped off or gone pop on the Clio. Sadly as I write this, the passenger side headlight bulb, already replaced under warranty, has again failed. As the dealer’s warranty has elapsed, I will have the matter investigated by my trusted local garage. No doubt a new cluster will be on order before the month is out.

Miles since purchase: 1650
Miles since last report: 300
Expenditure since last report: £300 (insurance)

Author: chrisward1978

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

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

    1. The hack consensus suggests the X5 is the best of breed, as long as you are looking for the most car-like drive. Note the typical journalese descriptor of “car-like”, which is not the same as “like a car”, because none of these things can be. Although I have never had the pleasure of an X5, I have enjoyed stints in both a mark 1 and mark 2 Range Rover Sport in top supercharged specs. Both were like piloting a leather-lined tug: plenty of power and manoeuvrability for a boat. I can see the pleasure there, but it’s not for me; I would rather have the Jaguar equivalent. That puts me at odds with the market, it would seem, but my opinions aren’t a democracy and the world is wrong, not me.

  1. As I see it, these vehicles really only serve one purpose: to boost the owner’s ego, bear witness to his bad taste and give him a false sense of safety and overview. And they are really good in that. But I think it’s not the X5 that can do it best, but an X6 with black 22″ rims.

    1. If I want a lofty view, I’ll get an Espace (a real one, not the current wannabe SUV). And besides that, my C6 is intimidating enough; I don’t want anything more imposing or aggressive.

    2. The roominess of SUVs is often an illusion. Much of the height is obtained by increasing ground clearance so, although the higher view makes everything seem more roomy, the actual measurements don’t bear it out. Whereas the Espace (until last year) and similar MPVs have ordinary car ground clearance combined with SUV height which gives a genuine increase in interior dimensions.

  2. That Chris, that was a splendid read. Ta.

    The other end of this is an article I read in an Autocar (I think) some time ago, where the journalist in his Porsche was following a Citroën C15 van going at “nine-tenths” and having a ball, compared to him going at “two-tenths” in his Porsche, barely stretching its legs. Was the C15 leaning on its door handles in every corner? Yes. Was the X5 all over the road? Yes. Did either driver have fun within the limits of their car? Yes. Does the fact that both did it differently to your Clio mean either of these vehicles didn’t please the driver? No. Would an early ML class driver been able to go as fast as the X5? No. So all in all I think the X5 is a good Swiss Army knife after all. Which is what Richard was saying too I think. For its ilk the X5 is good. Until the swirl flaps are digested by the engine of course. Then well, ask any owner, it certainly ain’t a Swiss Army Knife at all.

    1. Thanks, and I would agree with you on all points raised. An SUV can indeed be a fine device, as long as your expectations do not extend to hammering country lanes or ease of parking.

  3. Although I’ve never really wanted any SUV, except a Series 1 Range Rover (when they were new), a recent drive in a rental Insignia made me realise that, were I to be in the market for a new mid-sizer, the claustrophobic nature of modern saloons would drive me into the arms of something taller and airier. So, the fact that the X5 put on at least a half-respectable show being harried by Chris’s purpose-tuned hatch is reasonably impressive.

    Another factor when assessing other cars on the road is driver ability. Whereas some drivers can be flattered by their cars, there is a type of driver who makes such a meal of deviating from the straight that they make their car look unjustifiably clunky. I’ve hassled both an M5 BMW and a Lancia Integrale on damp winding roads before now … and I was driving a motorhome in both cases! Possibly they were borrowed and being driven by cautious friends or relatives but, if the drivers owned the things, why did they buy them if they had so little understanding of their abilities?

    Lovely piece by the way. And I’ve never got Swiss Army Knives either.

    1. Thanks. I did consider driver ability and I certainly do not wish to trumpet my own. The abilities of the Clio massively exceed mine. I also have no doubt that I would have made a hash of driving that X5 between two dry stone walls, but then again, it wouldn’t have been my car.

  4. Great piece, Chris.

    My take on SUVs is that most people have little interest in driving and can’t do it very well. They want a vehicle to bludgeon the road, not flow along it. They have little interest in the mechanics of their car, they just want it to respond to their commands. Nuances like being able to feel the available grip or keeping the engine in its power band are lost on them. But they do care what their car says about them. SUVs make them feel secure and maybe project an image of success, too.

    Driving standards haven’t declined much, in my view. But 20 odd years ago, when I was a student, the roads were dominated by Sierras and Cavaliers with mundane petrol engines. Most drivers didn’t anticipate the road, so making swift progress was merely a question of catching people off guard as the road tightened or a gap opened up and the driver in front of you was stuck in the wrong gear. Nowadays, any moron with a turbo diesel can bully their way into the fast lane on a motorway or surge along a straight with impunity.

    Back to the X5 – less a swiss army knife, more a swiss-style chalet in an executive housing estate. By trying to be all things to all people (handily placed for commuting, yet also trying to invoke a glamorous lifestyle), it ends up being an ugly compromise, out of place nearly everywhere. A 5 series Touring whallops it on all the important metrics, yet those big wheels and low-pro tyres do nothing for its off road ability.

    But like I say, people don’t care.

    1. I absolutely agree with you that for the most part, people are simply not interested in how a car drives. That is not to say that they cannot tell the difference between a poor car and a good one, just that they aren’t that bothered; as long as the car has a good badge, some nice kit and no major vices, then they are happy. I suppose that we are interested in a vehicles finer nuances is why we read this web site and others, whereas they don’t.

      This being the case, the average car buyer’s interest is piqued by what they happen to see on the road. SUVs and CUVs are highly visible and come loaded with signifiers (what I would term the “Three S’s” – size, styling, specification). They are the Eldorados and Bel Airs of our time.

      Nice comment about the mentality of the turbo diesel driver, by the way. A serial diesel driver friend was massively underwhelmed when plopped behind the wheel of my Type R. My exhortations that he needed to wind the engine towards the red line and keep it above 5500rpm fell on deaf ears. It all seemed like too much hard work.

    2. The world of drivers is more complex that we think. My Dad was generally disinterested in cars and, although when he had a job with a good car allowance he indulged himself at his company’s expense, he’d never have bothered putting his own cash down for anything that I’d consider a ‘driver’s car’. But he was actually a very competent driver, which is different from an enthusiastic one. And, whereas I’m sure this applies to no-one on these pages, I’ve met car enthusiasts who were pretty lousy drivers.

      I don’t think driving standards are worse or better these days, but they are different. Modern cars have a whole raft of touch-screen based distractions on offer, which can explain the many people in London traffic who can’t seem to anticipate lane filtering. Also, sophisticated electronics mask what is happening a lot of the time. Drivers get used to having aids which look after them in normal weather conditions so that locking wheels and sliding tails in snowy or icy conditions come as a complete surprise.

    3. That is a worthwhile distinction. My wife is not a car enthusiast by any means, yet I would regard her as a better driver than I am.

  5. Now I dislike the X5 more than almost any car on the road, they are too big, too vulgar, frequently badly driven and many would have problems off road with their low profile tyres, but I am going to put in a word for SUVs and swiss army knives, basically because I own both. I drive a Subaru Forester and it is just very useful. It has been all over the west of Ireland, north west Scotland, the Hebrides and Orkney, it tows a 19′ fishing boat, goes down deeply rutted tracks, launches on slippy slipways, carries two outboard engines plus plenty of gear, potters around town, easy to park and our springer spaniel loves it. Mrs M finds it an easier car to drive than her Golf. I have transported the contents of my daughters flat from London to Edinburgh with ease. Of course there are cars that handle better, have higher top speeds, carry more and are better off road but I want just one car not a fleet. So please give the smallish SUVs their place, which is not beside an X5 or Q7.

    I agree completely with the points made about dwindling standards of driving skills but I think the cars are deskilling us with electronic aids and engine management. Yes cars are probably too easy to drive quickly but that is a genie that is out of the bottle.

    On to the swiss army knife. I never go anywhere without mine, well except for flying with hand luggage. I have used it to strip a carburetter in the middle of Lough Mask, to assemble furniture in my daughter’s hall of residence in N. Carolina, to trim the hackle on dry flies, to repair leather with the bit that ISN’T for taking stones from horses hooves and of course opened cans, beer bottles and wine bottles. Naturally I have sliced saucisson, cut quiche and carved cheese. Of course there are tools that would have been better but the point of a swiss army knife is that it will do the job and that you have it with you. Buy one tomorrow!

    1. And what you haven’t mentioned Barry, is how often you have had to lend it to fellows like me who make glib put downs of the Helvetic utensil, but suddenly find themselves in dire need of one. Possibly my antipathy is that I was given one as a present in my youth, but it was ‘Swiss’ only if Taiwan is a canton. It looked the part but everything was stiff to open and easy to bend. I never seemed to have it when I needed it (an ongoing problem I’ve found in life regarding everything) and when I did, it could be sure of exacerbating the problem rather than fixing it. I guess I should try the real article, but then there are so more variants that Porsche 911 options.

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