Looking leaner and sounding meaner, Renault's new Clio 172 Cup is aiming for the high-performance big time. The flyweight challenger is on a mission to crown itself hot hatchback champion, delivering a knockout blow to rivals such as the Honda Civic Type R and forthcoming Ford Focus RS, and even giving the V6-engined Clio a real fright.
The task of becoming a world favourite is not going to be easy, but the new Cup is well equipped for it - as we found out in this special first drive.
Based on the highly regarded Renaultsport Clio 172, the Cup combines decent value for money with plenty of power and unique looks. Priced from only £12,995, the newcomer has been built by the firm's competition arm, and many of these models will find their way on to race tracks. Unique alloys and bright blue paintwork distinguish it from lesser models, while closer inspection reveals a distinctive rear spoiler and a front bumper fitted with a deeper dam.
Look inside and it's clear nothing has been allowed to compromise the Clio's turn of speed. There's no air-con, while in the rear there's a simple bench. The front window glass is also thinner, and Renault claims it has fitted less soundproofing. Even the stowage bin usually found under the passenger seat has been removed, as have the floor mats.
Cloth upholstery replaces the half leather used in the £15,095 Clio 172. Although it feels a little cheaper to the touch, it proves equally as supportive once you are behind the wheel. A new-look dashboard has also been fitted, complete with body-coloured inserts. Aluminum trim on the gearknob and steering wheel completes the package.
Fire the engine and it's clear this Clio is a hard-edged machine. The exhaust sounds louder and the throttle feels much more responsive thanks to a series of modifications made to the engine management system.
Slot into first gear, and the clutch feels a little more aggressive, too, mainly because of the faster revving engine. Thanks to the weight reduction, acceleration is strong low in the range, and builds rapidly as revs rise.
Capable of sprinting from 0-60mph in only 6.8 seconds, the 172 Cup is the fastest four-seat car available for less than £20,000. Weighing in at only 1,021kg, the Clio offers 168bhp per ton. By comparison, Honda's acclaimed Civic Type R offers a 'mere' 166bhp. As the road gets more testing, it's clear the Renault is not simply about straight-line speed, either, and some subtle but significant changes have been made to the suspension to enhance the handling. Firstly, the car's 'footprint' on the road has been increased, with wider axles front and rear. The chassis has also been modified to improve turn-in and mid-corner stability.
The suspension has not just been firmed-up, however - the spring and damper combination is now more subtle than before, and the Clio absorbs bumps with ease. Steering feel is improved, too, and offers a near-constant stream of information to the driver.
You'll need to hold on tight at speed. The lowered suspension has increased the 172's tendency to follow imperfections on the road, as have the new tyres, which are built to take greater loads. This constant movement is no bad thing, however, and actually adds to the sense of drama behind the wheel. The competition feel is further enhanced by the lack of ABS, which has been removed to keep weight and costs down. The brakes are powerful, but require careful use if you are to avoid locking up when using them hard.
The result is a car that is far easier to drive quickly than the notoriously twitchy V6 version. Safety hasn't been ignored, however, with Renaultsport offering driver and passenger airbags. And a roll-cage is always an option!
Clearly some big changes have been made to the Clio Cup, and it's thanks to these modifications that it has more character than ever. The result is a vehicle which is incredibly involving to drive, and easily one of the most thrilling hot hatches we've tried this year.