Petite heat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am


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Renault makes drool-inducing hot hatches - just look at the Clio Renaultsport 182, the Clio 197 and Megane Renault F1 Team - and when the marque's Formula 1 team won back-to-back World Championships, it brought out the limited-edition Clio Renaultsport F1 Team R27 for last year's Geneva Motor Show.

Named in honour of its R27 Grand Prix car and built at the Renaultsport factory in Dieppe, the new, limited-edition version of the Clio 197 is said to go like the clappers, so I'm thrilled to bits when the marque hands me the keys to its hottest hatch at its Boulogne-Billancourt headquarters, just down the road from Versailles and the red clay courts of Roland Garros in southwestern Paris.

The traffic in the area is heavy, probably for the tennis, but the location is handy for autoroutes to Normandy in the north and Brittany out west. Friday night rush hour promises congestion, but our timing's right and the A13 to Caen is quite clear. The test car is quite a looker in Sirius yellow and is said to be available on order in a few weeks at Wearnes Motors for HK$308,000 (standard red or black versions will apparently cost HK$10,000 less).

The driving position in the R27 is a big improvement on the stock version's, thanks to a pair of Recaro seats that position you 7cm lower than in the Clio Renaultsport 197. The interior is more practical than posh, but it's reasonably well built and everything is sensibly organised. Drivers are unlikely to be distracted by the dashboard's sprinkling of small switches but the interior does feature a small metal plate riveted onto the centre tunnel showing the model's factory number.

With six closely packed forward gears, the acceleration of the 197-horsepower, two-litre R27 is quick and the marque's claim of 100km/h in 6.9 seconds is about right. But the gear ratio is too close and too short for comfortable highway cruising. Most European motorways are the haunt of six-cylinder turbo diesels from the opposite side of the Rhine, and the Clio seems small among the powerful BMWs and Volkswagens.

But then the R27 is not built for autoroute driving or circuit racing. It's a practical car for quick flits from A to B. The strengthened Cup chassis copes well with the lumps and bumps of French country roads. The steering might lack the feedback found in past Clios, but it's precise and the grip of its Continental Conti Sport 3 tyres is simply the best I've experienced in the class.

The R27's cornering is superb, thanks to stiffening of the front springs by 27 per cent and rear springs by 30 per cent. With a 10 per cent increase in bending stiffness and more flexible bump-stops, Renault says, the double-axis strut suspension is more stable when braking and more precise through a quick succession of bends; it relishes the tight curves of Normandy and could equally enjoy Route Twisk.

The test car's rear air diffuser seems straight from F1, channelling airflow to increase downforce on the rear end and counteract lift. Extractor vents on the front wings also reduce drag and facilitate the outflow of under-bonnet heat.

The Brembo brakes - 312mm ventilated discs at the front and 300mm solid discs at the rear - are also the benchmark for hot hatches. Borrowed from the Megane, and with calipers painted red, they're remarkably responsive and their stopping power could compare to the laser-sharp carbon fibres in expensive sports cars.

On surfaces that require constant minor steering corrections, the R27 is a real contender for fun car of the year, regardless of the price tags on its rivals. Out on country roads, where boundaries and grip levels are best described as indistinct, the R27 feels agile, energetic and confidence-inspiring. The steering is a delight and matches the grip.

You have to rev hard to get real grunt sometimes, but that's when you appreciate the short ratios of the six-speed manual box. The R27 reaches Louviers in an hour and enjoys the hilly country roads to Caen. The whole trip should have taken a couple of hours, but village hopping in Normandy in the fastie is a delight, and the car could be a hoot at weekends in the New Territories.

Wearnes Motors is not expected to throw a big party for the little car's delayed arrival, however.

Despite its top-notch braking and body control, the R27 is destined to be a niche pre-order buy for the few drivers who value mechanical harmony and racing pedigree above the need to keep up appearances and the laze of an automatic gearbox.

Confronted by similarly priced competitors such as the excellent VW Golf GTI and Mini Cooper S, the Clio won't hog the spotlight on Gloucester Road. But the hot hatch will appeal to people who like to work and play hard.

It's a fine hint of Renault's well-deserved resurgence in Hong Kong.