This is a tale of two cars.
On the one hand, it’s a story about a car that’s thrillingly fast and uncompromising in its pursuit of performance.
And on the other, it’s about a car with a degree of docility and practicality that makes it enticing to a new audience.
The new Clio RS achieves this balance by moving away from the hard-edged models that went before it.
It still has the prerequisite number of spoilers and diffusers, complete with a chunky pair of rectangular exhausts and 17-inch alloys with low-profile rubber as standard. It’s even available in a particularly lurid shade of yellow paint.
Under the body, there’s a typically well-tuned Renault Sport chassis which, for this fourth generation model, boasts suspension technology derived from the company’s rallying exploits, plus the option of the further optimised Cup chassis set-up with 3mm lower ride height, 15% stiffer springs, a quicker steering rack and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Inside, there are suitably sporty seats with chunky side bolsters, plus a smattering of red trim on the doors, gear lever, seat belts, air vents, and steering wheel. There’s also a prominent central touch-screen with a built-in telemetry system.
And, under the bonnet, there’s a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine with an enthusiastic 200bhp and 240Nm of torque which arrives at a grin-inducing 1,750rpm and hangs around until 5,500rpm. That gives the Clio RS a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds, and a 143mph top speed.
There are, however, two aspects to the new Clio RS that are proving to be a little controversial.
Firstly, it’s available as a five-door hatchback only. While Renault have done an admirable job of hiding the rear doors with disguised handles, many will irrevocably link the five-door shape with practical family transport, mentally reserving three-doors for more sporty fare. Of course, this factor stems from Renault’s decision to engineer the entire Clio range with five doors, and the company was unlikely to build, crash test and homologate a three-door body just for the RS.
The second and perhaps more divisive aspect is the gearbox. All Clio RS models are fitted with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, dubbed EDC (Efficient Dual Clutch). There’s no manual option.
Some may dismiss it out-of-hand as an automatic transmission, but to do so is to miss the point. ‘Automatic’ implies the presence of a sloppy, power-sapping torque converter and a lazy tendency to casually blend one ratio into another in the interests of making gear changes as imperceptible as possible.
By contrast, the EDC ‘box is a DSG-style dual-clutch unit and features direct drive in all gears, plus a more hurried approach to cog-swapping. In Race mode, shifts take less than 150 milliseconds.
The reasoning behind the EDC transmission is to make the engine’s not insubstantial power reserves more accessible, and on that score, it’s entirely successful.
The new Clio RS is very easy to get along with. Dunk the gear lever into ‘D’ and let the gearbox do the work. In Normal mode, the ‘box will calmly swap one gear for another, with some degree of manual control afforded by the steering wheel-mounted paddles and the tip function on the gear lever.
Continuing the civilised attitude, the ride is surprisingly compliant, the steering precise if not quite as edgy as before, and the engine note – which is literally piped into the cabin – can be further augmented through an ‘app’ in the media centre that makes the RS sound like an Alpine A110, Renault 8 Gordini, Clio V6, and a few others.
On a traffic-riddled commute with the odd dual carriageway and an occasional burst along a favourite back-road, this is probably all the involvement you could ever need.
However, stab the RS Drive button and there’s yet more on offer: the throttle response sharpens, the engine idles a touch higher and the induction noise grows slightly. Gear-changes are executed more briskly, steering weight increases, the traction control backs off a tad, and launch control becomes available.
Give the button another prod, and the traction and stability control systems are deactivated, gear-changes are at their most rapid, and you now have entirely manual control over the gearbox.
It’s a shame Race mode pairs both full manual gearbox control with the removal of the various electronic safety nets – the former should be available in Sport mode, too.
But, no matter which mode you’re in, the new RS isn’t quite as gnarly as the previous models. It’s much more grown up, and to our minds that makes it better.
It’s cheaper to run, too, with a jump in fuel economy to 44.8mpg and a drop in CO2 emissions to 144 g/km (VED Band F, £140 pa).
Starting at £18,995, standard equipment is respectable and includes Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, manual air conditioning, and electric door mirrors. An optional £1,000 Lux pack adds the R-Link telemetry system, TomTom navigation, climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, electric rear windows, and folding door mirrors.
For three generations, the Clio RS asked its owners to live with its uncompromising character traits so that, for the 1% of the time when the right road arrived and traffic conditions permitted, it could prove just how exceptional it could be. For some, that compromise was part of the appeal.
For the rest of us, however, the fourth generation Clio RS offers a breadth of performance that can be enjoyed even by unexceptional drivers on unexceptional roads. It’s now a car for the 99%.