Every segment has a benchmark. The first choice. The one that best suits its purpose. The one us motoring hacks would steer you to if you asked our advice.
Take, for example, the latest version of the Volkswagen Golf 7 GTI which we evaluated last week. In the performance end of the C-segment hatchback category, one would battle to find a more complete product.
But if we look at only one aspect, driving engagement, things get a little trickier. And this is an area in which the performance offerings from Renault have generally excelled.
Look no further than the outgoing Mégane RS, particularly in 275 Trophy guise. It panders unashamedly to the hardcore enthusiasts. Ride quality? Who cares? Comfort? Not interested. Practicality? Shove it.
And yet, in a track battle we staged last year with the Honda Civic Type R and Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport, this aged athlete still garnered affection from the entire panel.
The raw and engaging Renault endeared itself to us by relishing lap after lap of hard driving around the punishing surface of Midvaal Raceway in Meyerton, Gauteng.
Hot versions of the Clio had a similar charm. Remember the third-generation Clio RS (200) model? Now that was Va Va Voom!
I recall trying to trade up from my old Modus into an example of this feisty terrier. The salesman used interesting adjectives (not fit for publication) to describe just how much fun one could have behind the wheel. He was right.
And imagine what a blast that second-generation Clio V6 must have been to pilot? The RS lineage boasted a rich pedigree indeed.
Then the fourth-generation Clio RS came along and it was decidedly… bleh.
Renault had decided to take a more practical route, offering five doors and a smaller engine with a turbocharger.
That was not the mortal blow, but one of the elements that ruined the car was the adoption of a dual-clutch transmission. It felt dim-witted, to say the least. And the overall experience was a far cry from the immersion offered by its predecessor.
For 2017, Renault has given the Clio RS a mild makeover. Can we really say this marks a return to form? More on that later.
For now, let’s focus on the bits Renault has changed — which won’t take long. The usual aesthetic tweaks have been made, with new bumpers and changes to the lights. The RS now has fog lamps designed in the pattern of a chequered flag — which is quite cool.
But the Clio’s technical constitution is mostly the same as before.
The model is still powered by a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, paired with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. This is available in two outputs. Opt for the regular Lux model and you get 147kW and 250Nm. Go for the more focused Trophy model and you get 162kW and 280Nm, in addition to a sportier chassis and an exhaust system from Akrapovic.
Look, the Clio RS is a rapid little thing. The Lux has a claimed sprint time of 6.7-seconds and the Trophy is 0.1 of a second quicker. Getting to fine-worthy speeds (and beyond) seems easy to do.
And it barks (mildly) on upshifts, a trait which we all love in anything vaguely sporting these days.
The handling of the regular car is a bit stodgy, but the firmer suspension of the Trophy is horribly unforgiving. I cannot say the RS truly welcomes scruff-of-the-neck abuse or encourages mettlesome playfulness.
That gearbox, while a slight improvement, is still nowhere near the level of responsiveness of Volkswagen’s DSG offering.
Sadly, one comes to realise that this Clio is happier driving briskly in a straight line. In fact, far from returning to its form of old, the latest Clio RS lets you know that it would prefer to be something more grown up, rather than a juvenile thriller.
Which is fine, perhaps. Until one remembers that the Volkswagen Polo GTI pulls off the sophistication act far more convincingly.
And, get this: the German car costs slightly less, with prices from R376 000 for the DSG model. Know what costs even less? The Ford Fiesta ST at R325 900. Shoddy customer-relations issues notwithstanding, the blue oval product is far truer to the genre than this French connection. It would be the one to have if you want a B-segment hot hatchback that truly tickles the senses.
2017 Renault Clio RS Pricing:
Clio RS 200 EDC Lux: R379 900
Clio RS 220 EDC Trophy: R419 900