People need shopping cars. Small hatchbacks that get driven into the ground on weekday nights, loaded with groceries, dogs, children and other everyday paraphernalia. Appliances, not objects of pride, they wear their scratches, dents, stains and odours as a Curriculum Vitae of family achievements. For whatever reason, when I think of shopping car, I think of the Renault Clio. Small French cars are built for this kind of abuse and absolutely lap it up. It’s as if they all still carry a few vestiges of DNA from the Citroen 2cv and Renault 4, a certain utilitarianism that just doesn’t come from other countries.
For the narrow-minded, and up to this point I would, ashamedly, have listed myself among them, the Renault Clio never scored too highly on my Must Drive list; too big to be a go-cart, too small to be a cruiser. Last week I had to nurse a slightly wretched, shabby, non air-conditioned 2003 Clio 1.4 Dynamique along the A12 and couldn’t get out of it quickly enough. This was a car that wasn’t class leading when new, for whose designers’ quality had never been job one, and which in today’s light looked like the car that time forgot. And I was probably in a bad mood, too, suffering as I was Essex's afternoon traffic.
Today, though, my feelings for the Clio have been shaken up, pummeled, whipped and thrashed. Just as I’ve known girls with beauty and wit far beyond that of their parents, which lead me to suspect hospital mix-ups, this particular Clio bears little comparison with its less than illustrious range-mates. This confusion and “what’s going on?” disparity is at once the magic and the misery of the Clio Sport 182.
Presented as this one is in subtle metallic black, there is precious little on the outside to differentiate it from any of a zillion lesser Clios being hooned around as Daves first car, from the front three-quarters only the body coloured bumpers and the anthracite-finish alloy wheels are any real clue. You only properly detect its further appeal when you clock the twin exhausts jutting awkwardly from below the rear bumper. Then there’s the Sport badge, but that’s become irrelevant since Halfords started selling replica emblems for £4 each. To back up its sporting credentials there is also a plaque by the door embossed with “2.0 16v”.
Let’s think about that. Two litres, in today’s urban-runaround stakes, is a pretty big engine. And for a normally aspirated engine, 182 hp is a pretty serious number.
It's difficult to explain, but the 182 doesn't actually feel that fast until you reach a given speed and realise it took you several seconds less to get there than you were expecting. It's the nature of its engine, the 182 has big lungs which lug the car forward right through the rev-range, with nothing like the two-stroke-esque zinginess that some fast superminis exhibit.
You would expect this ability to gather speed to catch out the unwary if it wasn't for the extraordinary road manners the 182 exhibits. Not realising how quickly I was covering ground, I carried far too much speed into the roundabout and had an “Ohgodohgodohgod!!!” moment, realising I was on course for Olympic understeer and to plough straight onto the island. But no, my salvation came in incredibly quick steering and sudden grip found between road and tyre. It just tracked round with hardly any fuss. I felt sick, but alive.
Later today, it rained. All the water held in the sky above East Anglia plummeted earthwards in a single enormous slab. This should be a disaster when it comes to driving viciously powerful front-wheel-drive superminis, but in this case it was a revelation. The 182 drives incredibly well in the rain. It becomes playful, delicate. Returning to the roundabout that had me clenching my arse so strongly this morning, the Clio proved to be in its element. Yes, there was understeer when the front wheels broke loose on the wet tarmac, but only a wristfull of it. Almost immediately the rear wheels will lose grip too, but in a controllable, predictable way. In the rain you can four-wheel drift this car as if it were all wheel drive. I'm impressed.
The steering is helped by the colossal wheel, with a centre boss big enough to eat a steak and chips off. It may look a little daft but provides extra leverage to reduce effort without upping the power assistance and sapping feedback. As a result, corners can be dispatched with a flick of the wrist. Unfortunately, somehow the leather rim on my test vehicle appeared to be dissolving and was less than pleasant in the palms of my hand. If ever there was a time to use driving gloves, this was it. Nevertheless, only a hatch in the floor so I could run my hand over the road surface could offer more information about what was going on beneath the car.
Chief of my issues against the bog-basic Clio was the way it felt inside. Unlike German, or in fact Japanese products, the Renault felt as if it was designed to keep reminding you “hey, I only cost eight grand.” It served its purpose but didn’t exactly feel that it would last long enough to delight further generations. Well, architecturally the 182 is little different from the cooking versions, but the little extra efforts they have made do actually go a long way towards making it a pleasant place to spend time. The seats, depending on the option pack, can be covered in a combination of suede and leather that spreads onto the door panels and dashboard so you you’re surrounded by RenaultSport-ness. Just to prove the point, the kick-panels, the seatbacks and the center spoke on that enormous wheel all bear the RenaultSport legend.
Crucially, though, if you suspend disbelief for a moment, and contrary to Mr Clarksons findings, it doesn’t immediately feel cheap. It isn’t wanting for equipment either, with automatic air conditioning, cruise control and even Xenon Headlamps. There was, of course, a slightly lighter, slightly more hardcore Cup version that omitted most such trinketry, without being quite as mean on the spec as with the old 172 cup was. However It’s hard to imagine there being any point in buying a Cup as a used car. The 182 in its regular form makes a pretty effective GT car, albeit one badly affected by engine boom at motorways speeds. The extra perceived sportiness of the Cup model is likely to increase its likelihood of being at the receiving end of severe back-road punishment through its life.
Hanging up the keys, grabbing a coffee and reflecting, the 182 has impressed me in a way I hadn’t imagined. It has done something to reduce my contempt of the basic Clio, I’ve now seen what can be done with it. All the poverty-spec Clio bangers I have driven had shaped my contempt for it and I gave it no credit for having any real talent. Well, it has. It’s practical, it rides acceptably and, with 182hp up its arse it can go like the wind. It actually is all things to all men.
Now, I have a confession to make. I haven’t ever driven a Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9, a failing that I put down to my age and generally moving in the wrong circles. But I am going to put it out there that this is my favourite hot hatch. I even prefer it to a Civic Type-R, not specifically because it’s better; it’s too different in character to be directly compared, but because the Honda carries slightly too much emotional freight. Everybody expects a Type-R to be fast, years of playing Gran Turismo and the burgeoning craze for Japanese imports are responsible for its image as the definitive banzai hatchback. The 182 scores hard with me for being such a surprise package, a cute little French hatchback that can bite your feet off.
It can be used for the weekly supermarket trip, sure. But anybody habitually using it for that and nothing else should have it immediately confiscated.