Model: Clio Renaultsport 182 Trophy
Price: £15,500, on sale now
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 182bhp at 6,500rpm, 148lb ft at 5,250rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 140mph, 0-60 in 6.8sec, 34.9mpg official average
This is wicked, probably in several senses. I'm splashing round a wet track at Pont l'Eveque, near Dieppe, in a Clio Renaultsport 182 Trophy and I'm having a fabulous time. Turn into the bends, feel the tyres cut through the water, play with the accelerator as I flick through a twist, feel the tail edge out when it's really slippery, correct the steering and accelerate again to pull it straight... it's the car and me, in touch with each other and with the track.
But nibbling away at the euphoria is the notion that I'm driving a kind of endangered species, because no-one else makes little hot hatchbacks as pure as this any more. The others are less inclined to let the driver take the lead or burdened with more luxury. Only Renault does it the way it used to be done, and soon even the Clio Renaultsport 182 will be no more. But what a way to go: this final Trophy version is as great a hot hatchback as you'll find.
Today things can't be what they were. There is a chassis and suspension development engineer at Renaultsport who keeps a little piece of history: not an old Renault but something from his company's arch rival, a Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9. He keeps it to remind himself of how a really good hot hatchback should feel. It was, after all, the most perfectly-honed driving machine a hot hatchback has ever been, which is why I, too, have one. A quick blaze around the lanes in my little Peugeot and all is right in my own little world.
Peugeot hasn't made anything as sharply focused since then. Renault is now the chief torch-carrier for the hot hatchback. But you do need the right version of the Renaultsport Clio 182: either a Clio 182 Cup, a little less luxurious than a regular 182 but fitted with lower, firmer suspension which still gives a decent ride, or the Cup suspension option on your plusher 182 (as most buyers specify). Or, now, spend £15,500, have a new Clio 182 Trophy and join just 524 other buyers. Five hundred Trophies are bound for the UK, because we love hot Clios the most, and 25 for Switzerland of all places. Not France, strange to tell.
This final flourish for the current-generation Clio marks the end of production before a complete new range - inevitably bigger, heavier, more sophisticated - arrives later this year. That range will, after a decent interval, include a new 200bhp Renaultsport model, but will it be as pure, as agile, as intimate as the 182?
The Trophy is designed to exaggerate what is great about the Clio 182 without spoiling the rest of it. The key to its sharper focus is its Sachs Racing suspension dampers, which cost about 10 times as much as the normal items and feature additional, separate reservoirs for the oil and pressurised gas a damper contains. This means, simply, that they work more efficiently for longer.
There's another advantage for the front ones, too, which is that the piston rod (which among other things helps hold the front wheel in position as it steers) is thicker and stronger, so the suspension's geometry can be maintained more accurately. And the dampers feature hydraulic bump stops (the objects the suspension contacts when the wheels can move no further upwards into the car) instead of the usual rubbery ones. This means there's less of a thump and no rubbery bounce if you hit a really big bump, and makes possible the fitment of shorter front springs to lower the ride height by a further 10mm over the Cup model.
What else? You can spot a Clio Trophy by several clues. It will be Capsicum Red, for a start, with dark metallic grey wheels. It has a slightly bigger spoiler above the rear window, taken from the mad, mid-engined Clio V6 and which - annoyingly - prevents the tailgate from opening upwards as far. Large 'Trophy' logos adorn the sills, and inside we find Recaro semi-racing seats which let you sit a little lower and clamp you more firmly. There's also a plaque to show which one of the limited run your car is, just as Renault did with the old Clio Williams over a decade ago.
Now I'm out on the road, where bumpy surfaces taken at town speeds show the only downside to these racing suspension components. It's getting quite agitated in here, although there are no rattles . Freed of urban constrictions the suspension starts to work at its best, keeping the Clio under tight control as the road ducks and weaves, making it feel keen and taut. It's no faster than a Clio Cup - its 2.0-litre engine takes it to 60mph in 6.8 seconds and on to 140mph, which is plenty - but it feels more responsive and the lower front end helps it hook into a bend without drifting.
Something is troubling me, though. The Trophy may be the most visceral hot hatchback you can currently buy, but our Renaultsport engineer knows it's still toned down. In fact, 205s are actually racier, mainly because the 205's rear suspension design has the effect both of bringing the steering into much sharper focus and of letting you really use the accelerator to alter the cornering line. It means there's much less safety margin if you have to brake in a corner, and unless you're paying full attention you might spin. That's why no-one makes road cars quite like the 205 GTI any more.
I still love the Peugeot way - I got a quick run in a Clio Cup racing car at Pont l'Eveque, which has a very 205-like feel - but I accept that time has moved on. And there's no doubt that the Clio 182 Trophy is a much better and more solid car overall, especially if you're going to have a crash.
There's another aspect of the Trophy that might help melt your heart, too. It's handbuilt to a remarkable degree, at Renault's Alpine factory in Dieppe that used to make rear-engined Alpine sports cars. The factory still has the Alpine logo outside and the line workers and master mechanics still wear Alpine tee-shirts. Might there one day be an Alpine sports car again, maybe called Alpine Renaultsport to keep a consistent marketing message? Don't rule it out.
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MINI COOPER S [£15,185]
The Mini success story is partly down to the supercharged, 180bhp Cooper S's great recipe of style, pace and entertainment. Not much cabin space, fantastic residual values.
SMART FORFOUR BRABUS [£17,195]
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