What is it?
Away from the mega-money, mega-horsepower arena of LaFerrari and the McLaren P1, the all-new Renault Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo is arguably this year's most eagerly awaited car.
It is very much of the moment when it comes to delivering a big bang for not that many bucks: it has 197bhp, can hit 62mph in 6.7sec yet costs just £18,995 in basic form, or £19,995 in the Lux trim tested here.
Lux adds full climate control in place of the standard air conditioning, and the R-Link multimedia system that's operated via a 7in touchscreen. R-Link includes an intriguing feature that allows you to exchange circuit telemetry for all sorts of racing tracks with Renault and with other users. But it also enables the stereo to play a particularly good party trick. By writing some crafty algorithms into the music system that effectively track what you do with the throttle, gearchange, brakes and so on, the stereo can transform the sounds made by your Clio RS into a range of seminal racing and rally cars from days gone by. So if you want your Clio to replicate the noise of an Alpine A110 rally car at full tilt, all you do is hit the magic button and it delivers. Geeky, yes, but like all good things from planet geek, unquestionably appealing all the same.
The Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo makes a genuine attempt not to dent the environment too much in the process, hence the reason it's powered by a smaller, 1.6-litre turbocharged engine that delivers 44.8mpg and just 144g/km compared with the previous hot Clio's dirtier, thirstier, naturally aspirated 2.0-litre powerplant.
Where the new RS gets exceedingly contemporary indeed is that it comes with a dual-clutch automatic transmission, and a dual-clutch automatic transmission only. So anyone who's in the "I won't drive cars without a manual gearbox because paddle-shift gearboxes are for sissies" camp won't be driving a new Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo.
Which is a fairly bold but also potentially damaging move on Renault's behalf; only time will tell whether the decision not to offer the option of a manual will force us all to make a more clear connection between Renault's fast road cars and its participation in F1 (which is the intention), or simply drive would-be customers in the opposite direction.
What is it like?
There can be no denying that what the Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo provides on paper, at least, is more than enough to keep enthusiasts engaged. Because according to the folks at Renaultsport, it's not just one but actually three different cars under the same roof.
In the new RS Drive program's normal mode it's a soothing, civilized, smooth-riding five-door family hatchback that just so happens to go like stink when you put your foot down.
But if you then thumb the magic button, which sits just behind the overly large gear lever, Sport mode engages. The steering gets meatier, the gear changes become snappier, the throttle response alters and the traction control allows a bit more slip. At a stroke, your Clio transforms into a snarling, mildly wheelspinning hot hatch.
Thumb it again to select Race mode and – in theory – everything goes up a notch again, and this time there's no traction control whatsoever, while the gearchanges also become fully manual. Which means you can run the engine right up to its rev limiter without fear of the gearbox upshifting on its own (handy on a track, basically).
In this mode, says Renaultsport, the Clio becomes the equivalent of a road-legal racing car. And should you crave yet more response beneath your backside, you can always specify the Cup chassis for an additional £450, which brings 18in wheels and tyres, 15 per cent stiffer springs and dampers, a 3mm drop in ride height plus a brisker steering rack.
You select Sport – this is a hot hatch, after all – and register a rise in the idle speed of the modified 1.6-litre Nissan Juke Nismo engine. A light glows green within the instruments and the words 'sport' and 'Renaultsport' illuminate, as if to underline the point.
Clunk the too-big gearlever left to select manual and the number one appears on the dash, alongside yet another message that says 'ESC sport' (indicating that the e-diff has switched to partial traction control but not yet full race mode, in which state it is tuned to cut understeer by tickling the brakes of the unloaded inside wheel, just as the McLaren MP4-12C does when it senses that doom has appeared on the far horizon).
But there is one fairly key ingredient that's missing this time round. And that's involvement – the absence of which will either be of little consequence or a major travesty, depending what sort of driver you are.
To be fair, the Clio doesn't lack feel or interaction, per se. Its steering is impressively precise and increasingly meaty in its responses as you choose sportier modes. The ride is exceptionally comfortable on just about all surfaces, thanks in part to a new hydraulic bumpstop design that enables less aggressive springs and dampers to be fitted. And its combination of a rousing exhaust note and genuinely vivid acceleration make it more than exciting enough in a straight line.
But at its centre, the Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo has become a very different car compared with its predecessors, one whose dual-clutch automatic gearbox in particular is neither fast enough nor intuitive enough in use to justify its presence here. To be blunt, it feels much like a regular automatic car with paddles, with downshifts occurring too slowly – even when Race mode is selected.
Should I buy one?
The whole car now feels much friendlier, much softer, much more usable and more everyday-civilized than its predecessors, but also less intense and less lit-up when the right road happens along.
The core appeal of the Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo has shifted, in other words, and it is bound to attract a different kind of customer as a result.
But the people who crave what was on offer in each and every one of its predecessors – that wide-eyed, almost manic involvement when behind the wheel – might be less enthralled by what they find.
Renault Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo Lux
Price £19,995; 0-62mph 6.7sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 44.8mpg; CO2 emissions 144g/km; Kerb weight 1204kg; Engine 4cyls, 1618cc, petrol, turbo; Power 197bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 177lb ft at 1750-5500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch auto