Renault Clio IV RS 1

You know the world has changed when the French have caved in. The idea that a tricoleur hot hatch not being shod with a manual transmission may sound downright sacrilegious, but here it is. That it’s a Renault Clio RS that taken that walk is even more staggering, considering the lineage.

There’s no need to look as far as the insane Clio II V6 RS to go all evocative (or misty-eyed, if you’re a Renault fan). The 14 years and four output tunes (172/182/197/200 hp) of the previous Clio RS’ generations have always adhered to the same formula – three-doors, free-revving NA mills and cogs you had to row through by hand. The resultant drives were lively, a bit raw around the edges, but always engaging, everything you’d expect from a hot hatch.

But this is the present, and the present has no place for heritage or sentiment. The stick shift is gone, but it isn’t the only thing that has paid the price in the move for progress. The three-door theme has also been ditched in favour of offering better accessibility through five openings, and things are no longer normally-aspirated – the blown route is via a shared Japanese motor, no less.

Not revolutionary moves, by any measure, if it were anyone else, but here It all adds up to a massive paradigm shift, one meant to open the car up to a much wider audience. The question is, does the fourth-generation Clio RS 200 EDC retain the flavour of its predecessors even if the recipe has changed, and is that new tangent enough to attract more followers?

Things kick off well enough, because the new RS is quite the looker, bulbous front end notwithstanding. It helps that the Clio IV is a handsome car to begin with, and the RS meats it up without taking it over the top, save perhaps at the front – there’s a fair bit of bulk in relation to the rest of the car, and that F1-inspired bumper blade feels a bit too played up.

Things fall easier on the eye further afield though, and the rear in particular has good visual appeal, dressed up with a RS spoiler, contrasting diffuser and dual chrome exhaust finishers. As standard, the car sits on 17-inch Tibor double five-spoke wheels, dressed with 205/45 Goodyear Eagle Asymmetric 2 rubbers, not too imposing, but it gets the job done visually.

More pluses going into the interior, which is a progression over the previous Clio’s – the cabin isn’t exactly cavernous, but the extra two doors means access to the rear is a far simpler affair than before. Rear space is adequate, and there’s 300 litres of boot space, which places it in between its primary competitors, the Ford Fiesta ST (276 litres) and Peugeot 208 GTi (311 litres).

The dash layout feels more organic, though the ergonomics of some switchgear continues to confound in operational aspects. Likewise, refinement and tactility of material trim, which is up over the old, even as things don’t always gel or feel completely measured in precision.

This is best exemplified by something as simple as stitching – the evaluator’s steering wheel’s ‘straight ahead’ red stitching marker (sitting on the 12 o’clock position on the wheel) wasn’t quite straight ahead, but rather tilted slightly right when viewed dead-on. French flourish, perhaps.

Elsewhere, reminiscent of the Peugeot 208 GTi, plenty of red highlights to be found inside – the seat belts, gauge needles, door panel beading, stitching, gear shift lever and corresponding surround as well as AC vent surrounds get the treatment. Over-accentuated perhaps, but on the whole the Clio’s cabin is a far better dressed proposition than the rather dull affair found on the Ford Fiesta ST, in which the cabin presentation doesn’t veer far from that seen on the standard B299.

Standard equipment includes keyless entry/start, auto headlamp and rain sensors, cruise control, steering column-mounted paddle shifters, a (not very aurally impressive) Bass Reflex audio system and a seven-inch touchscreen, which incorporates TomTom navigation, Bluetooth, audio streaming and Renault R-Link connectivity, as well as on-board telemetry from the RS Monitor 2.0 system.

The latter is comprehensive in the amount of data it provides, from engine performance, g-force diagrams, wheel torque and traction curves to a graphic display of the Efficient Dual Clutch (EDC) transmission internals, a stopwatch and data logging. Plenty to keep the techies involved, for sure, and though screen resolution isn’t terrific, legibility is good.

There’s also RS Drive, which offers three modes (Normal, Sport and Race) – these tailor engine and gearbox mapping, ESC and ASR settings, steering feel and throttle response. Elsewhere, there’s an RS Sound Pipe that channels engine sounds into the cabin, and if that’s not enough for you, an R-Sound Effect mode offers a selection of synthesised engine notes running off the car’s audio speakers.

At least a couple made for entertainment during the test period, but in the long run can be considered nothing more than a gimmick – in short doses, the novelty is worth a laugh. And, as the Clio II V6’s growl showed, things have sadly become a whole lot quieter in 2014.

Some of that tonality was still present in the last outing, but the Clio III’s long-serving F4R 2.0 litre NA mill is now history, replaced by the Nissan MR16DDT direct-injection 1.6 litre turbo mill (known in this application as the M5M). The unit offers 200 hp at 6,000 rpm and 240 Nm between 1,750 and 5,600 rpm. Comparatively, in its final outing in an Angel & Demon variant, output for the F4R was 203 hp and 215 Nm.

Together with the six-speed EDC, the car is good for a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6.7 seconds and a top speed of 230 km/h, marginal improvements over its predecessor. In use, the MR mill is smooth and eager higher up the rev range, but in terms of effervescence and character is nothing like the old unit. It is however the stronger of the power/drive pairing in terms of consistency.

The transmission shines when the car is being belted along and with Sport mode engaged, but in normal mode can feel laggy in take-up and clunky in first/second transitions. Nonetheless, the traits are far less pronounced than in another vehicle the transmission also equips – the unit is the Getrag 6DCT250 dry dual-clutch ‘box, as found in the standard Ford Fiesta. You’d be hard-pressed to tell, really.

The Clio IV RS is available in two specifications – a Cup chassis, which lowers it by three milliimetres, is 15% stiffer and has a quicker steering, as well as a more conventional Sport setup; we get the more sedate Sport specification in a bid to be more yielding in approach and offer greater appeal to buyers.

That softer approach shows up well if you’re big into compliance – the first thing you’ll notice is the high level of comfort. There’s no jarring, brittle ride, and if you putter around the Clio behaves much like a regulation hatchback, all comfy and tidy over all but the most impossible of surfaces.

In this regard, it’s class leading of the hot hatch lot available here, even when measured against the upcoming Fiesta ST. It’s also a world away from the Clio III RS, a more rambunctious beast, one with an uncompromising nature.

But this pliability also hinders it when pushed, because the softness in feel never really gets shaken off at speed. It’s not that the Clio isn’t fast, which it is from Sport mode on, or that it can’t tackle the twists, it’s just that it doesn’t feel very vibrant getting there. The Fiesta ST is marginally slower in the century sprint on paper, but somehow feels the more rapid of the two, especially in-gear.

Handling-wise, agile, keen and well-controlled are good descriptors for the Gallic offering, and it responds lovingly to smooth throttle and clean steering input, as Danny noticed from behind the wheel on a long winding stretch of B-tarmac.

It is however missing the sharper focus and verve (pardon the allusions) of the Ford at speed. The ST has far higher levels of mechanical grip, steers better and responds to mid-corner corrections in finer fashion. It has a rawer, harder edge about it, and while the more challenging to drive at limits, it is also more engaging and rewarding as an experience – all the necessary hallmarks of what a hot hatch should be.

The basis for comparison comes from a four-lap session with the Fiesta ST on a short-course closed circuit in Melbourne, done shortly before the Clio came in for review. Taken in isolation, the Clio feels exciting enough, but as soon as you have a comparison as such, you realise how little fanfare there is in how it gets there and how it picks off corners. The descriptive term would be clinical. In this regard it feels like the Citroen DS3R that we took out recently – fast and clean, methodically so.

Renault Clio IV RS 45

This is not to say that the Clio is a lesser car, just a different one, and only when you scrutinise it under the hot hatch microscope, something that is inevitable given its RS badging and impressive heritage. What it does, it does well enough, and for many the Clio will certainly be enough car. Renault traditionalists will no doubt shed a tear for what must surely be viewed as a blight, but the world is a different place now.

There’s another price to be paid for going the different route, and this is figuratively – at RM172,888 (on-the-road with insurance) the Clio RS 200 EDC isn’t the cheapest option, being RM33k more than the 208 GTi and RM23k more than the Fiesta ST, the price of which was announced earlier today.

It however brings to the table things that the ST and 208 GTi don’t – there’s that outstanding level of comfort, the ability to seat/exit five easily and the wider appeal of automatic operation, things that make it the most versatile of the trio. Is that enough for it to win new friends? Dieppe will certainly hope so.