• Ma Petite Voiture Bleue

    Every evening, without fail, six or seven cars parked up in the town square. Often more. Hell, I think there were six different Peugeot 106 GTIs alone, including one in that ludicrously rare Sundance Yellow colour and another Cherry Red car with 306 GTI-6 Cyclone wheels that looked just perfect. Tonnes of JDM stuff, too. Integras, AE86s, Imprezas, Glanzas, S-chassis. This was before the recession really hit, and before the raft of “Agri Spec” and IS200 muck invaded. I was 18, working in a SuperValu at weekends during college, driving an Avensis (the automotive equivalent of a damp sponge), utterly broke and utterly jealous.

    As 8pm approached, I’d head out the back of the shop to take out the rubbish and lock the gates. This often took a little longer than it should have, because I’d try to eke out a glance and see what was around the town. If I was lucky, someone would be turning to head up the road at the side of the square – slowly, really slowly, so as not to catch a splitter or low exhaust centre box on the lip of the road. Then, as often as not, full beans in first and second up the hill. Growl and rasp from the N/A cars, whoosh and tish from the turbo machines. The envy would just grow stronger and stronger. All I wanted was a Series One 106 Rallye or a Mk5 Fiesta Zetec-S and I’d be happy.

    Fast forward a while, and having got my first real job I immediately set about trying to make up for the lost years in the dependable but terrifyingly boring Toyota. A Clio 197 (preferably an F1) was on my mind, though there were none in this country that were anywhere near the spec or condition that I desired. A yellow one would have been perfect, a blank canvas to which I would have added some tasty R3-specification bits like a carbon airbox, white Speedlines and a roof scoop. So, naturally, I went and bought a Clio 182 instead.

    There was a genuine reason for this. See, the Avensis’ condition had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer reliable. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I broke a Toyota. In my defence, there were several contributing factors that weren’t entirely my fault. I might go into these in more detail in future if I can be arsed. Anyway, I needed something quickly, and didn’t see the point in buying another boring hack. A plan was hatched to buy a Clio 172 for handy money, keep it and drive it for a few months until I could organise a 197.

    Renault Sport cars never sold well in Ireland, to the point that many of them weren’t actually offered officially through the main dealer network. This is in stark contrast to the UK, which is arguably the French firm’s biggest market for badly-built but brilliant-handling hatchbacks. The 172 was one of the models sold in Ireland for a time, and it was one such car that I went to view on a cold January Saturday morning. It even had “172” on the numberplate, which is about as close to a personalised reg as you can manage with the Irish system. The car was in Dublin, and I’d arranged to look at a Galway-based 182 in Mondello on the same day.

    Long story short, the 172 was a wreck. Cheap tyres, patchy history, looked like it been hit, all the usual danger signs. It was warm when I got there (despite my having expressly requested that I start it from cold), the driver’s seat was loose, and the auxiliary belt looked ready to snap. I must admit that I got rather frustrated at the dealer for wasting my time and made that fairly clear. This then escalated back and forth up to the point where he invited me to get out of his establishment. As I sat parked down the road on the phone to Mr 182, he tore out of the garage at full pelt in the Clio, tyres squealing. Bullet dodged I reckon.

    Luckily, the 182 was a peach. A really, really well-minded car that had obviously been pampered by its previous owners. I couldn’t leave it behind. After one of the most nervous weeks of my life while I begged the seller not to let it go to someone else, I picked it up in Galway and set off home on one of the most enjoyable but simultaneously nerve-wracking journeys in any petrolheads existence: the first drive in your new money pit.

    It’s probably worth explaining the various details of the Mk2 Clio RS’s existence, lest I totally lose you with references to different features. The first 172 came out in 2000 and was based on the “Phase 1” Clio, with that and all subsequent 172s and 182s built in the old Alpine plant at Dieppe, away from the normal Clio production lines where people were experimenting with how to make all the different bits of trim rattle at different engine speeds, and how to get glovebox lids to sag after six months. The name was derived from the claimed engine output of 172PS, so in real money it had around 170hp. It had lovely 15-inch OZ Racing wheels, wider front wings and an aggressive-looking front bumper. Side skirts and some colour coding completed the look, while the interior got an aluminium gearknob and Alcantara trim on the wheel and various surfaces. The seats looked good but were set far too high for normal-sized humans. I’ve never driven a Ph1, but apparently they’re not quite as sweet or as forgiving as the later models. They look the business, though.

    With the whole Clio range getting a face-and-arse-lift in 2001 to become the Ph2, the 172 also changed. New colours were introduced, along with 16-inch wheels that weren’t nearly as nice as the old OZs. It was heavier, too, though increased refinements like cruise control towards the end of 172 production helped sales. However, it’s important to note that the 172 or 182 aren’t on the same planet as something like a Golf GTI for refinement and comfort. A VW engineer would have nightmares about some of the interior plastics, though they do seem to be quite durable all the same.

    In 2002, Renault Sport wanted to take the 172 rallying in Group N (showroom spec, basically), and so came out with the 172 Cup, or Ragnotti as it was known in its home market after the infamous handbrake turn enthusiast. No aircon, thinner glass, a front splitter and rear spoiler, suspension revisions, no ABS or traction control and silver Speedline Turini rims were the big changes, culminating in an 89kg saving and the car being known internally as the “Light”. You could be forgiven for terming it the “Scary” on a wet road, with the lack of ABS contributing to a rather old-school hot hatch driving experience.

    Then in 2004 the 182 came along, with a different exhaust manifold and other engine mods that released ten extra pferdestrake, a new exhaust design with twin tailpipes that necessitated the deletion of the spare wheel, loads of new paint colours and the useful options of the 172 Cup’s suspension and body bits for a few hundred quid extra, keeping the higher-spec interior. There was also a 182 Cup, but its 20kg weight saving was offset by the poverty interior and few chose to endure the hardship. As an everyday car, a “full fat” 182 was the best option of the lot, and luckily that’s what I ended up with. The hallowed 182 Trophy came in 2005 with its trick suspension and habit of making motoring journalists worry their underpants. I’ll go into much greater detail on that car in a future article, because I’m fortunate enough to have one in the shed.

    So, my first “real” car was an Arctic Blue 182 with the Cup body styling and suspension packages. And I adored it. I really did. All those years of waiting and wishing and wanting were over at last. Did it break my heart? Of course.

    Flicking back through old forum posts I see that it lunched an alternator within weeks of my taking ownership, ate several auxiliary belt idler pulleys, failed the NCT on emissions, went through exhaust mounts as if they were made of butter and decided that the only cabin ventilation that it would provide would be boiling hot. This was a bit of a shock to the system after years of spending literally no money on a Toyota, but at least parts weren’t massively expensive. One of the first things I did was fit a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 3s to it, as the combo of Goodyear rubber on the front and Kumho plastic on the back caused lots of lift-off oversteer. Nice when you’re provoking it, not so nice when it does it of its own accord on a wet roundabout on the way to work…

    Hot hatches are ideally suited to Irish roads, as you can use the available performance a lot more of the time compared to something more powerful, and they’re still quicker than most of the dross around. The 182’s motor is torquey, not a rev-hungry screamer like a Type R Honda but still has plenty character and a lovely deep induction noise that brought a smile to my face every time the throttle butterfly opened. The F4R engine’s inherent inability to rev as high as other NA motors of note means that top end power isn’t its forte, but the gearing is very well judged and throttle response is crisp. At any speed in any gear, you just touch the throttle and off it goes. It’s a wonderfully over-engined sensation, one that the Clio RS lost with the Mk3 197 and 200.

    Steering is hydraulically-assisted, quick and full of feel, though the standard steering wheel is far too big and a lack of reach adjustment coupled with a bus-like rake angle forces you into a strange hunched-over driving position. As mentioned already, the seats are set too high and don’t actually secure you all that well during cornering, meaning you’re bracing yourself against the footrest and wheel a lot more than you’d like. The gearchange is quite vague and rubbery, and the clutch is preposterously heavy for a small French hatchback.

    What a hoot of a car to chuck around though. Strong brakes allow you to stand the thing on its nose and get the rear moving a little, then it’s a case of adjusting throttle and steering inputs (sometimes more the former!) to scurry around a corner and off to the next one. The speed you can carry on a smooth road is laugh-out-loud stuff, as you marvel at the grip and poise and lack of inertia, and owners of more powerful machinery try and fail to shake you off. It’s redolent of a 205 GTI with some of the rough edges ironed out and a bit more power. Fantastic.

    In total, I had the car for less than a year, because a Trophy came up for sale and once I drove that I knew I’d either have to buy it or spend a lot on the blue car’s suspension to get it to the same level. To be honest, the Cup suspension isn’t optimised for Irish roads, and the Trophy would leave it for dust once the going gets bumpy. So, my Dad took custody of it for a while, and though he loved it too and had some good fun harassing much more powerful machinery it wasn’t getting the use it deserved due to his schedule. With a heavy heart I put it up for sale, and it went to a very good home not long after. I still see it regularly, and knowing it’s being used as intended and kept immaculate is fantastic.

    Despite the unreliability and stiff ride and terrible stereo, nearly every memory I have of that car is a fond one. It felt special, even though to most onlookers it was just a slightly loud blue Clio. In a way, that was a good thing, as it meant that it drew no negative attention from either police or joyriding scrotes. I learned a lot of stuff during my time with that car, from driving technique to small things like the two-bucket method. I miss it, but the red Clio that took its place is even more special.