Renault Clio 197 Cup
For many years Peugeot's 205 GTI bestrode the hot hatch
world like some kind of poorly assembled, flimsy, but
ultimately indefatigable, colossus. No manufacturer,
including Peugeot themselves, could hope to launch a sports
hatch without the inevitable negative comparison with the
205 being wheeled out of the closet by journalists. It
didn't seem to matter that the little Peugeot had the build
quality of an African kit car and was about as safe as one
too. It didn't even matter that it was hopeless to drive in
traffic due to the overly light flywheel, which made
stalling and kangarooing a regular occurrence. None of these
things mattered, because the GTI handled so well.
By the beginning of the new millennium, though, a new
champion had emerged, and, unlike previous contenders, this
car finally achieved the unthinkable, and wrestled the
mantle of 'best hot hatch ever' from the 205 GTI. This car
was the Renault Clio 182.
But this is not the model that is the subject of this
article, primarily because the later series 3 Clio 197 Cup,
although heavier, and slightly slower in a straight line, is
a vastly better all-round machine, thanks to improved build
quality and much sharper looks, and the one that we think
will eventually gain classic status.
The 197 built on Renault's growing reputation as a builder
of hot hatches par excellence, with a number of improvements
over the outgoing model. The engine gained an additional 14
BHP, the transmission an extra ratio, and a large diffuser
gave the 197 useful downforce at speed. Unfortunately, it
also gained a significant chunk of weight, although this was
offset by the shorter gear ratios that were enabled by the
installation of a new six speed gearbox.
The model in which we are most interested is the 197 Cup.
This dispenses with some of the niceties of the normal 197,
such as air conditioning (which we personally would tick as
an option) and curtain airbags, and has the cheaper dash
assembly from the entry level Clio. This saves a little
weight, but, importantly, allows the Cup to be priced
significantly lower than the standard 197. It also gains
'Cup' suspension, which stiffens the springs by around 30%
and the dampers by 10%.
This all adds up to a driving experience that, whilst not
vastly different to the standard 197, is just that bit
sharper, and is enough to elevate the Clio from very good to
Steering is light, but feelsome for a front wheel drive car,
and there is an enormous amount of grip available before the
onset of gentle understeer. When this happens, a small lift
will tuck the nose back in, or a larger one will trigger
eminently controllable lift-off oversteer. In a 205 GTI,
either option would normally result in the car taking the
shortest route backwards into a different country, but the
Cup is so much more benign, and can be easily held in a
slide until the rear wheels regain their grip and normal
service can be resumed. In fact, it barely requires any
opposite lock - just a straightening of the steering wheel,
combined with the application of some power, will pull the
On bumpy roads the suspension can seem rather hard, but
there is a suppleness to the damping that ensures that it is
never overtly crashy; only a particularly poorly surfaced
back road would cause the driver to back off.
Take the engine to its limiter in the first few gears and
you will be treated to decent acceleration, and a mini
touring car soundtrack, as the four pot motor screams its
way to 7500 rpm. It may lack the torquey feel of some of its
forced induction rivals, but it compensates for this by
being more characterful and by providing a more linear
delivery of power.
Ultimately, and this is where it wins out over its
predecessor and smaller, lighter rivals, the Cup has a depth
of ability that is often lacking in the hot hatch market. It
looks great, and handles superbly, but also offers the kind
of versatility that is usually only found in much larger
cars. And for possessing all of these qualities, we grant it
Bonne Gauche Future Classic status.