The List




Future Classics 

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 excellent.

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 Cup straight.

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.