The Clio Williams is what is known in the trade as a 'homologation special'. According to the rules of international rallying, a production car is one of which at least 2,500 examples have been built; manufacturers who want to enter Formula 2 rallying for production cars - as Renault did with a 2.0- litre Clio - develop a special version in a limited edition to meet the rule and achieve 'homologation'.
Why is this Clio called 'Williams'? That is a marketing ruse. The Williams Grand Prix team, which won the world championship with Renault-powered cars, had nothing to do with the 2.0 Clio's development. The Williams logos on the flanks and seats are there merely to add kudos.
At pounds 13,275 the quick Renault is good value, undercutting Vauxhall's 2.0 Astra GSi by more than pounds 2,500; its insurance group rating, though, is a stiff 17, against the Vauxhall's 15. Another model in the Clio range, the 16V, emphasises both the keen price of the Williams and the harsh view the insurance companies take of it. The 16V has the same muscular bodywork as the Williams but a less powerful engine; it is only pounds 350 cheaper, but falls into insurance group 12.
The Clio Williams has a widened track, firmed-up suspension, and a 150bhp engine driving the front wheels through a close-ratio five-speed gearbox. Only available in metallic blue with gold alloy wheels, the car comes with a numbered plaque on the dashboard to emphasise its rarity.
Performance is strong, particularly at high revs, but not decisively stronger than that of the 137bhp 1.8 Clio 16V, which comes better equipped. To pare costs and weight, Renault has denied the Williams anti-lock brakes, electric mirrors, a sunroof, even the delightful fingertip audio controls fitted as standard to the 16V. You do, however, get powered steering, windows and locks, and an exasperating (but necessary) engine immobiliser.
Also standard are special seats that are sumptuous in their embrace. Although the driving position is flawed (you cannot adjust the steering column) those seats keep you comfortable for several hours at the wheel, even with suspension that is sports-car firm.
The Williams has a top speed of over 130mph, but it is not at its best on motorways because of the low gearing and high engine noise. On the twisty minor roads for which it was developed, the Clio is wonderfully entertaining, with a snappy, short-throw gear-change that encourages use of the gearbox, and tenacious, crisp handling.
The French have a good track record with performance hatchbacks, but the Clio Williams emulates even Renault's giant-killing 5 Turbo and Peugeot's evergreen 1.9 205 GTi. The car's joie de vivre is intoxicating, its brakes and grip reassuringly strong.
The blue of the exterior continues inside, to the instrument faces, seat belts, carpets, gearknob and badging. Although getting into the back seat is awkward, the Clio is a roomy and practical car by 'supermini' standards - if not by those of other pounds 13,000 models. If you want a Clio Williams, do not dither. Renault says it will make 5,000 of these cars, double the requirement of the rallying rules; but there will be only 400 with right-hand drive. And most of those have already been sold.
Renault Clio Williams, pounds 13,275.
Engine: 1,998cc 16-valve four-cylinder twin-cam developing 150bhp at 6,100rpm and 129lb/ft of torque at 4,500rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds, top speed 134mph, fuel consumption 26-33mpg.
Citroen ZX 2.0i 16V, pounds 14,995.
One size up from the Clio, so bigger and roomier. Sharp-steering, crisp-handling three-door that goes well but promises more excitement than it delivers.
Fiat Tipo 16V, pounds 13,694.
A roomy, vroomy driver's car, now available only in three-door form. Fine, no-roll cornering, firm suspension and bags of brio; the smooth engine is noisy but feisty. Deserves greater recognition.
Ford Fiesta RS1800, pounds 11,995.
Ford's smallest hot hatch is better than the patchy old Turbo it replaced, not as good as the Clio Williams it undercuts. Goes and grips hard but lacks handling finesse. Nicely finished, however.
Honda Civic 1.6VTi, pounds 14,560.
Crisp handling tearaway with startling performance: the high- revving engine yields 158bhp. Round-back styling and split tailgate look good but cut luggage space.
Vauxhall Astra 2.0 GSi, pounds 15,780.
Attractive and very comfortable. Ride and handling have been improved, but chassis dynamics still not up to the Clio. Vigorous performance from noisy engine. Nicely made, feel-good cabin a strong lure.