Dear Renault Sport,
I didn’t want to write this. I didn’t think I’d ever have to write this, but now I feel that I must make some racket. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
There was a time when if someone wanted a hot hatch that prioritised driving enjoyment above all other qualities, they went and bought one of your products. For over a decade (longer if you include the non-Renault Sport badged Clio Williams), a series of quick Clios and Meganes appeared that could seemingly do no wrong. Taking a quick flick through the back pages of evo magazine, the publication I trust above all others, the ratings speak for themselves. Five stars in abundance.
“The most fun you can have on three (sometimes two) wheels” – Clio 182 Trophy
“One of the true hot hatch heroes” – Megane R26.R
“As absorbing as a 911 GT3 RS on the right road” – Megane 275 Trophy-R
These cars were serious bits of kit. Now look at what’s said about the current Renault Sport models:
“Awful paddleshift gearbox” – Clio 220 Trophy, 3.5 stars.
“Four-wheel steering effect feels unnatural” – Megane RS, four stars.
Paddleshift? Four-wheel steering? Why are these things even issues? Why did you change from being the creators of the hardcore hot hatch to merely making up the numbers? Honda has taken over the superhatch crown with the sublime Civic Type-R, Ford has the fabulous Fiesta ST leading the way in the smaller category and it seems that every manufacturer has a seriously competent fast hatchback among its line-up. Hyundai came out of nowhere with the i30 N, and a couple of years ago Volkswagen gave us the brilliant Golf GTI Clubsport S, a Golf with no rear seats. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that VW were offering the bloated Mk4 “GTI” at the same time that you had the riotous Clio 172 and downright mental Clio V6 on your books. I’m not saying that the roles have been completely reversed, but there has been a huge shift.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Your competition heritage is impeccable. You won Le Mans, brought turbocharging to Formula One, and were at the forefront of racing engine development for years. You gave multitudes of fans delight by allowing Jean Ragnotti behind the wheel of your creations. You were hugely influential in the development of front-wheel drive rally cars with your Clio and Megane Maxis and the raucous Clio S1600, cars that proved wrong-wheel drive didn’t have to be boring.
I grew up lusting after your road cars, and all I wanted as a teenager was a Liquid Yellow Clio R27. I settled for a brace of 182s, one of which is a Trophy that I will own forever. In my eyes, it’s the ultimate iteration of the classic hot hatch formula; over-engined, light, flimsy, chuckable and rewarding, and with its trick suspension feels like it was designed especially for Irish backroads.
I’ve driven most of the highlights of your back catalogue, and the sensations are consistent throughout all. They feel like they were designed for drivers, by drivers, and to hell with all the superfluous stuff. I remember the hoohah when you launched the Megane R26.R, with its plastic windows and bucket seats and half-rollcage and semi-slick tyres, along with a sticker boasting of its Nurburgring record time. No-one else was crazy enough to do that back then, but you did it with beautiful style. Now they’re all at it.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve got out of my Trophy shaking and grinning like a madman, incredulous at how a Clio could carry so much speed down a road and provide such a pure driving experience. I remember going into my local Renault dealership, fully prepared to lash myself to a fierce hire payment scheme to get a Megane 275 Trophy on my drive, only to be told that Renault Ireland weren’t importing them. I remember epic drives in a Megane R26 and a Clio 200, totally immersed in the experience and not wanting to stop. Did I care about the crap stereos or rattly pieces of trim? Did I care that the plastics weren’t from the same planet as those used in a Golf? Not one jot.
Unfortunately, I also recall reading the initial reviews of the Clio 200 EDC and feeling a little sick at what was being written, a feeling that got so much worse when I drove one. I remember genuine disappointment when the Clio R.S.16 was canned, and when details of the current Megane RS were revealed. You were the masters at providing 911 GT3 thrills at affordable prices, the ones who made the only cars that mattered to those who really love driving. Now you’re just the same as everyone else, an also-ran, a bit-player.
Real drivers don’t want their hot Clio or Megane to have a semi-automatic gearbox, four-wheel steering or driving modes. They don’t want their Renault Sport car to be the same as all the others. They want feelsome steering, brilliantly-judged damping and a playful and adjustable chassis. They want to feel like their car has been designed and built by people who really, really know how to make something special. They want a Renault Sport car, and at the moment they can’t have one.
A disillusioned fan
Written by Maurice Malone. Photos by Renault Press and Kevin Cahill