LIKE cheese making, champagne quaffing and general shoulder- shrugging, the French are good at certain things. Creating lovable hot hatches for example, and Renault Sport-fettled Clio efforts have been up there with the best available over the past two decades.
In 2013 the current generation Clio RS200 arrived to mainly positive reviews, but on the purist front it didn't score highly. It did away with its predecessor's naturally aspirated revvy 2.0-litre four-cylinder with six-speed manual gearbox, replacing it with a 1.6-litre turbo and dual-clutch automatic. No third pedal sends some French hot hatch buyers straight to rival Peugeot and its 208 GTi, a car which, rather amusingly, offers only a manual transmission.
Regardless, we Aussies love Renault Sport offerings. In 2014 we bought 689 Clio RS hatches, and last year an even more impressive 762 units were shifted. The range starts with the Clio RS Sport ($30,000), moving up to the Cup ($33,000), Sport Premium ($35,000), Cup Premium ($38,000) and the halo limited edition RS220 Trophy for $39,990.
The latter gains an extra 15kW and 40Nm over its stablemates thanks to a larger turbo, new engine mapping and revised intake and exhaust, while an enhanced paddleshift transmission makes gear changes 30% faster, the chassis is both lower and stiffer, while a faster rack makes the already sharp steering even more so.
Great on paper, so two hot hatch tragics, Iain Curry and Vani Naidoo, grabbed keys to the top-spec Trophy for a week each to see if it could steal their purist hot hatch hearts.
Iain: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, hot hatches need a manual gearbox. I'll admit it made me not look as forward to living with the Clio RS Trophy as I did the three-pedal Peugeot 208GTi 30th Anniversary (brilliant thing) or Ford Fiesta ST (nailed-on hot hatch bargain right now).
Once I got over it - I am a grown up, after all - the Trophy was a brilliant fun all-rounder. Quick enough, sublime chassis, made all the right noises and served as a comfy daily commuter when I left the RS Drive button turned off. But could I justify spending $40k - Golf GTI money - on buying one?
Vani: Well, you beat me to the punch on that one. The idea of a hot-hatch without three pedals is hard to get the head around, a bit like decaf coffee - looks and smells the same but can't deliver that same buzz. Yes, there are paddle shifters, much improved ones, but try as they might it is impossible to mimic the involving shifts of a manual 'box.
That aside, the Trophy is a fun drive, still beautifully balanced with excellent handling, zippy into and out of corners and enough torque and traction to get you out of sticky situations. It sits low and looks great too, but $40,000 does seem a bit steep doesn't it? It's more than a Focus ST or Subaru WRX and not much less than an Audi S1; difficult to justify even with its good looks and brighter interior. What did you think of the styling?
Iain: Love it. Muscular bulges in the right places. I'm a sucker for limited edition goodies too, like "Trophy" written across the front bumper blade and door trims, and the Trophy-only 18-inch diamond cut rims look pretty purposeful.
The cabin isn't too different over a normal Clio RS but despite the too-much plastic inside, the deep and clinging leather seats are winners in black with red stitching. Love a red seat belt too. More importantly, did you hunt out your favourite driving road and give the Trophy a whipping?
Vani: Yep, I did, and without kids in the car it was easy to remember a time when life was a little more carefree. Isn't that the joy of hot hatches though? For a brief moment you are 20 again with all the hedonistic pleasures that come with that age. You end up not caring a jot whether the shopping will fit in the boot (it will) or even if there are steering wheel controls (there are).
Iain: Look, it's not a truly quick car in a straight line (6.6 seconds to 100kmh is only 0.1 faster than a normal Clio RS) but like all good hot hatches it makes up for that in rapid nimbleness in the corners. I actually had few complaints about the suspension.
The RS Drive button on the centre console is truly transformative: with it off the ride wasn't too crashy at all, but roads are good around my way. RS button engaged the throttle and steering response noticeably ups the game and Renault Sport has done a top job with the acoustics. A really throaty rasp from the exhaust and throttle blips for up and down shifts almost make up for them robbing me of the chance to heel-toe.
On my favourite back road it was a balanced treat with sublime grip and turn-in. But sometimes I only needed a little hit on the daily drive home. Press the fun button coming up to a roundabout and do a quick lap around it and the nose tucks in exactly where you aim it: the chassis is a belter.
But real involvement? Not quite. The turbo's slight lag and no gearstick meant I didn't love the Trophy so much I'd make up excuses just to go and drive it.
Vani: Totally agree that it is a different beast once you press that RS button, but it could have been a touch more vocal for me.
So clearly we both enjoyed it without being awestruck enough to hand over our first-borns for a Trophy of our very own, but there will certainly be drivers for whom this car is a fun match, probably younger and more childless than us.
The auto box makes sense for more mass appeal so you can't blame Renault, and as an all-round package I am happy to bestow plaudits. Not for the price though, that may be a bit of a stumbling block.
Iain: Spot on. You've got to really want one to fork out $40k, but in fairness, limited editions with all this smart kit should and do command a premium.
The entry-level Clio RS Sport at $30k is fun enough to justify not spending the $10k extra in my mind, but I'd secretly pine for a Trophy if I owned one. But then if I were shopping for a new hot hatch right now, I'd still find it hard to look past a Ford Fiesta ST at $26k.
And speaking of cost, these Clio RS things drink Premium 95 or 98 and you left me an empty tank.
Vani: Good timing on my part. Could be because the Trophy was far less fuel efficient than the 5.9l/100km claimed.
Positively, the Trophy does comes with a 5-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and capped-price servicing, and the top notch inclusions are what you would expect at this price.
I really wanted to love the RS220 Trophy, after all I was a big fan of the 2012 RS200 Cup - the last manual special edition we had here. I liked it, a lot, but love…
Model: Renault Clio RS220 Trophy Limited Edition.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive small hot hatchback.
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder generating maximum power of 162kW @ 6050rpm and peak torque of 280Nm @ 2000rpm.
Transmission: EDC six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Consumption: 5.9-litres/100km (combined).
Performance 0-100kmh: 6.6-seconds.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $39,990.