How to buy: The Renaultsport Clio 172/182
Depending on who you ask, there are several different answers to the question "Who invented the hot hatchback?"
The most commonly held belief is that the Germans came up with the formula in 1976 with the original Golf GTi. Some will claim that the British actually came up with the idea with the original Mini Cooper some fifteen years earlier, whilst conveniently glossing over the fact that whilst the Cooper may have been pretty hot, it didn't actually have a hatchback. No, I reckon that it was actually the French of all people who democratised performance motoring with the 1974 SIMCA 1100ti. Now almost totally forgotten, the 1100ti was a practical family car, which thanks to its 105mph potential was also a hoot to drive and set the template for every hot hatch that followed including the famous VW.
Of course, in the 1980's it was Peugeot who rather stole the hot hatch show with the 205 GTi, I don't think I need to extol the virtues of the 205 again, but suffice to say it was brilliant then, and it still is now. After the 205 died though, Peugeot rather dropped the ball. It's replacement, the 206 GTi was stodgy and uninspiring. The honour of the French hot hatch was at risk, fortunately though, Renault were on hand to pick up the baton and run with it.
Early pre-facelift 172's are hard to come by now, and are more collectable than later cars, if not quite as talented.
The first Clio to wear the Renaultsport badge appeared towards the end of 2000, and arrived on a scene that was looking pretty bleak for hot hatchbacks. The EP3 Civic Type-R was still a year away, and the Golf GTi was struggling with middle age spread in its fourth generation. It was based on the first phase of mark two Clio, and whilst these days the looks of those original pre-facelift cars with their guppy-faced front ends and small wheels might be a little old-fashioned, the driving experience was anything but. Put simply, the Clio 172 as it was known, blew everything else in its class into the weeds through a combination of razor-sharp handling, a punchy two-litre engine and surprisingly luxurious equipment levels. Things got even better in 2001 when the 172 got a makeover along with the rest of the Clio range. It gained a much prettier nose, as well as revisions to the rear suspension to tame a bit of the waywardness that was one of the few vices of the original car.
The next major change for the hot Clio came in 2004 when power was boosted by 10bhp to create the imaginatively-titled Clio 182. The revised cars are easily identified by their twin tailpipe exhausts. As with the 172, buyers were able to choose between the 'full fat' model, or the optional Cup package which removed luxuries such as the climate control but gained you a 10mm lower ride height, firmer damping and lightweight anthracite alloy wheels. Production finally ended with the advent of the third generation Clio in early 2006, but not before the very special run-out Clio 182 Trophy was launched. Limited to 500 UK cars and just 25 for the Swiss (no I don't know either), the Trophy was lauded as one of the all time great FWD cars thanks to its trick Sachs remote reservoir dampers which came straight from the racetrack.
At the heart of every mark two Renaultsport Clio you'll find a two-litre twin cam petrol engine, designated the F4R. Fans of old school hot hatchery will rejoice at the news that all 172's and 182's were naturally aspirated. This is considered to be a good thing for two reasons, firstly because turbocharging makes an engine less responsive and less willing to rev, but mainly because the later turbo iteration of this engine carried the unfortunate codename of F4RT, and nobody wants that.
Jokes aside, the F4R is a fundamentally tough engine and serious mechanical issues are few and far between. One thing an R.S does need is a regular cambelt change, the job needs to be done every 72,000 miles or six years meaning that even the youngest, lowest mileage examples should have had two belt changes by now. Unless you're buying very cheap, you'll want some proof that the work has been done recently. With the two-litre engine in situ there isn't much room in the little Clio's engine bay, so changing belts on a 172/182 means having to drop the engine on its mounts. This takes time, and as we know, time is money. So expect a garage to charge £400+ to do the work. These engines are also equipped with variable cam timing, and it's good practice to change the inlet cam variator at the same time as the cambelt. It often gets missed though, if your prospective Clio has an engine rattle when its warm and idling, then a replacement variator is the only cure.
Clio's aren't as sensitive to missed oil changes as some, but as with any older performance car you'll want to see some evidence of servicing. If a service is due it'll tell you on the dashboard, but the good news is it's an easy DIY task and you can expect to pay no more than £60 for everything you need including the 0W40 fully synthetic oil.
All 172's and 182's were equipped with a 5-speed close ratio manual gearbox. Like the engines these are inherently strong and spotting an abused 'box is fairly easy. Steer clear of any Clio that whines in 2nd or 3rd gear, a sure sign that it's been thrashed. Don't worry too much about the gear lever vibrating a bit when you're on the move, the mounts weaken over time and it's a cheap job to replace them. Clutches are pretty strong, but if the bite point seems high this indicates that a replacement will be on the cards quite soon.
Something to be aware of is that many suspension and steering parts are bespoke to the R.S models and aren't shared with any other mark two Clio. Even today there are some parts that are only available from Renault main dealers and come with price tags to match. A track rod end for example would cost you a tenner from your local spares place on a normal Clio, on a 172 or 182 you'll be looking at much more from Renault. The same applies to the twin-pipe exhaust system on the 182's. Dealer only I'm afraid.
Clio's of this generation are actually pretty well protected against rust, and the Renaultsport models didn't come with lairy plastic bodykits which are renowned for trapping moisture and rotting the hidden parts of cars.
On a 172/182 you'll be much more likely to find signs of accident damage and it's this that you need to look out for. Renault have never had a cast iron rep when it comes to build quality I know, but Clio II's should have uniform panel gaps. Run a finger up the join between the front door and the wing, if it pinches at the top or bottom then be wary. Check for signs of paint overspray on the lights and the windscreen scuttle, as well as inside the engine bay. You'll want to check under the boot carpet too for any evidence of a rear end impact. A stuffed Clio that hasn't been repaired properly on a jig will never drive right again, and there are enough good ones out there to render buying a damaged one pointless. On the 182 the revised exhaust system runs through the spare wheel well so don't expect a spare rim even on the most original car.
Whereas the Renaultsport model differs mechanically from the regular Clio II in many different areas, the cabin is largely the same as the one you'll find in it's more prosaic brethren. This is both a blessing and a curse because whilst it means that interior parts will be cheap and easy to find, the second-gen Clio is not the car we turn to when we're looking for an example of quality interior craftsmanship. Squeaks, rattles and broken trim bits are common fare for the 100% genuine Gallic plastic used in here, and the leather steering wheels can look tired after surprisingly few miles. It's not uncommon to find that the original wheel has been replaced with an aftermarket item. Beware though, if the airbag warning light is illuminated the car won't pass its next MOT.
An easy way to tell a Cup spec Clio from the regular model (dubbed 'full fat' by Renault fanciers) is to check out the interior. Full fat models were loaded with some pretty high-tech gadgets for the day such as digital climate control, automatic wipers and headlamps and optional satellite navigation that looks hilariously outdated today. These cars also got some natty half-leather Renaultsport-branded sports seats which are very comfortable, but the leather bolsters can wear very quickly. Cup models did without most of the gadgetry and came with thinner, lighter cloth seats instead. These seats are also comfy to sit in and are less prone to wear than the plusher items.
Fortunately the second-gen Clio is one of the last Renault's to have been supplied with a proper ignition key, rather than the stupid 'credit card' style system used on later models. The microswitches in the remote units can fail, but as the car still has proper door locks it's not the end of the world. Make sure that when you start the car all the warning lights extinguish including the 'SERV' and 'STOP' ones, the digital odometer will also indicate the engine oil level for a couple of seconds when the key is turned. Instrument clusters are known to fail, although specialists can repair them for £100-150 in most cases.
As always, make sure to start up any prospective Clio you're looking at from cold. Do the usual checks for excessive smoke from the exhaust. Give the throttle a blip with the door open and listen for any rattling from underneath the car, it's a dead giveaway for an exhaust system that's past its best.
A Renaultsport Clio is all about the drive, and to get the full experience you need to have a decent test run in any potential candidate. If the car you're looking at is local then try and take it down some good driving roads that you know well. If the vendor seems cagey about you taking the car on a decent test run then just walk away. A good R.S will sell itself on the test drive, a bad one will stick out like a CND protestor on a Soviet submarine.
The proof is in the driving. Don't be afraid to give it some beans on the test drive, a good'un will lap it up.
Don't be scared to give the thing some beans when you pull away, if the seller has been cheeky and managed to put any ESP or ABS warning lights out with some diagnostic equipment then a bit of wheelspin can trigger them to come back on. Once the engine is warm then take the car up through the gears, it should pull keenly and without hesitation. When they're in good health any of the 172/182 variants can hit 60 in about seven seconds, and because they're small they should feel that fast. If the car feels hesitant or lethargic when accelerating then you could be looking at sensor or catalytic converter trouble. Don't forget to listen for that top end rattle now that the car is warmed up.
The hydraulic power steering setup should feel direct and evenly weighted. If the wheel is straight but the car is still turning, or it vibrates as you accelerate then the front axle will need attention. R.S Clio's are equipped with disc brakes all round and have ABS as standard. They should be easily capable of hauling the car to a stop without fuss. A vibration through the brake pedal when pressed lightly is a sign of a warped disc, which is common on cars that are used on track, a popular pastime for 172/182 owners, especially those with Cup or Trophy models.
The R.S Clio is a favourite with car modders, this isn't necessarily a problem providing you go in with your eyes open. If the car has been sensibly upgraded with quality parts by someone who know their stuff then that's fine. On the other hand, if it looks like someone has used a bazooka to fire a load of eBay-bought tat at it then steer clear.
The first thing to remember here is that whilst all Renaultsport Clio's are equal, some are more equal than others. For example, you can pick up a leggy facelift 172 for around £1000 with an MOT, whereas a mint condition 182 Trophy will set you back £8k plus.
The very early pre-facelift cars are an acquired taste looks-wise, but they are starting to become more collectable after years in the shadow of the later models, due to their relative rarity and being the first of the breed. Tempting though they may be, buying a cheap 172 is likely to be a false economy. Especially when the £1500 you'll probably spend bringing it up to scratch is enough to get you behind the wheel of a tidy example with a good history and a long MOT. There isn't much price disparity between the full fat and Cup models, and buyers generally fall on one side or the other. Those who want a Cup wouldn't entertain the FF version, and vice versa.
The 182's first appeared in 2004 on a 53-plate, and will generally carry a slight premium over the equivalent 172's, although as time goes on I expect that gap to close as all R.S Clio's become more sought after. My personal pick would be a late model 182 from a long-term owner, with a good service history and a recent cambelt and variator change. Don't worry too much about mileage if the car has been pampered. For a car like this you should expect to pay £2750-3250.
Whether you go for the early 172, the 182 or throw yourself in head first for a Trophy, providing you choose wisely you'll have what I, and many others consider to be one of the finest hot hatches ever produced. Happy hunting.