I am a fervent fan of the previous third generation Renault Clio RS and when I attended its launch back in 2007, I was rather impressed by its stability on the highway but, moreover, its incisive handling and appetite to devour road kinks with relish.
Since then, various iterations were introduced including the R27 variant that commemorated the company’s F1 team winning the championship season and even a Gordini version resplendent in its blue hue and white racing stripes evoking the spirit of the Renault 8 race cars. Both featured the track-ready Cup chassis, but it was the former that was deemed by many, including this scribe, as the best handling vehicle in its class.
It also featured a zesty 2.0l normally aspirated engine that thrived on revs and together with a slick six-speed manual transmission, offered a fun factor that would delight the enthusiast and have them rubbing their hands in glee at the prospects of thrashing one.
Times are changing and last year the manufacturer introduced the new generation Clio RS based on the fourth generation model replete with a downsized (1.6l from 2.0l) turbocharged engine and a dual clutch automatic transmission. My initial reaction — unfounded at that stage — had me thinking of a neutered model that had fallen from grace in contrast to its predecessor.
The styling is purposeful at worst, with a model-specific lower front valance, sticky Goodyear F1 tyres wrapped around 17-inch black alloys in the instance of our Cup variant test car, a rear spoiler and a diffuser housing dual rectangular exhausts. Overall differences to the models are subtle and it takes an eagle eye to distinguish them.
Nonetheless, what truly matters is what lies beneath that bonnet and the move towards a turbocharged engine is clearly a sign of the times. All of the players in this space — including the Opel Corsa OPC, Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTI and Volkswagen Polo GTI — offer force-fed power. Frankly, the new motor is not only more efficient but also offers excellent drivability at much lower revs than its predecessor. Refinement is also markedly improved with a less raucous effect than the outgoing model.
There is an RS Experience button between the front seats that recalibrates the engine, throttle and gearbox mappings for a sportier and sharper response. It is a two-stage affair, where jabbing it once switches to sport, while pressing it again and with the transmission in manual mode you get into full-attack race mode, which deactivates the traction control altogether.
Once you get your mind past the flappy paddle transmission and into the crux of driving the vehicle, you find that the RS sparkle still remains.
I took the vehicle on some of my favourite test routes to which I have managed to subject the model’s predecessors, as well as many of its rivals. Point it through a series of left-handers and this thing sticks to coiling tarmac like Velcro to wool. It is certainly a trait that underscored its predecessors and I am glad this attribute has been successfully preserved in the new model. It also sounds the part with its whooshing exhaust note and burps between gear changes.
However, things are not all rosy with the model. For starters, I felt that the steering column mounted gearbox paddles were not ergonomically set as they felt a tad too far off one’s fingertips. Also the gearbox’s dexterity is a little suspect as it is not as incisive nor as responsive as that in the Polo GTI, for instance. I occasionally found myself bouncing off the limiter while changing gears, even while shifting concurrently with the shift buzzer.
However, in some instances, things seem to come together and you begin to feel one with the car. Alas, it is a hit or miss behaviour that lacks consistency. Also, the build quality is not up to par with rivals as I found the vehicle creaked and flexed during some parking manoeuvres, which is a pity, particularly when you look at the slight premium it commands over its rivals.
That said, the Clio RS Cup is easily the most focused and best handling vehicle in the segment. It genuinely feels like it was conceived and built solely for the race-track as it brakes, steers and handles like a pukka performance car.
It even has an RS monitor that gives the driver all sorts of telemetry ranging from lap times and G-forces to oil, engine and gearbox temperatures. You can even change the synthesised engine sound in the cabin to reflect that of a classic Renault Alpine A110 or even a more modern Nissan GT-R. I found this to be a bit gimmicky, though.
However, at a price of R274,900 the Ford Fiesta ST offers a great deal of thrills and spills with looks befitting a junior hot hatch. Were it my hard-earned dosh, then the ST would be my first port of call.
Engine: 1618cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 147kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 1750rpm
0-100km/h: 6.7 seconds
Top Speed: 230km/h
Fuel Consumption: 7.6l/100km
Price: R314 900