Renualtsport's Dieppe operation has given us some of the best hot hatches over the years, but the Clio 182 Trophy might just be their finest hour
By CRAIG TOONE
Photography by JAKE THOMAS
The topic must come up at least once a month. It starts off innocently enough, a link is sent to a tempting example for sale and it takes all of about sixty seconds before the floodgates open. Important, work related emails are shoved to the bottom of the queue as the merits of everything from abused Phase Ones to pristine, £10,000 182 Trophy’s are discussed. Non are criticised, just prioritised.
Colours to the mast, we are huge fans of a RenaultSport Clio. I’ve had three. A black 172 I killed, a blue 182 that gave up the ghost, and my personal favourite - a 172 Cup that’s still alive & kicking. Phil’s had a 172 Cup too and followed it up with a 197. Rich is still under the Renault Sport spell with his R26 Megane, but cut his teeth behind the wheel of another 182. We’re prepared to stick our neck out onto the chopping block and call it the greatest hot hatch of all time, such is our admiration and memories generated behind the wheel. Only Chris is the lone dissenter, banging the Type-R drum loud & proud. You can imagine that it took all of a nanosecond to pull rank when the offer came in to review a Trophy.
172bhp might not seem like a headline-grabbing figure anymore, but back in January 2000 shoehorning a 2.0 16v into a B segment supermini was considered a Ron Burgundy level of big deal. At the turn of the century the hot hatch market was in a state of flux - Peugeot had persisted with its excellent 306 Rallye and GTI-6, but crippling insurance premiums turned buyers towards more fashionable coupes. The nadir was best summed up by the 2.0 MkIV Golf GTI, which pumped out the same power as the 1975 original despite weighing about as much as a passing moon.
Many wondered if the computer Renault used to type the press release had caught a case of the millennium bug - the previous torch bearer for the demure hot hatch was the 106 Gti with all of 116bhp. With nearly fifty per cent more power, straight-line performance had just taken a giant Gallic leap forwards – the 172, with just 1030kg to carry, blitzed to 60mph in six-and-a-half seconds. A Ford Racing Puma, for all its cornering prowess, was left gasping for air. Only Honda’s 2001 introduction of the 197bhp Civic Type R, arguably from the class size above, could hold a candle to the rampant little Clio. By the time the lightweight 172 Cup came along in 2002, even the new Subaru Impreza WRX Turbo came off second best in a sprint to 100mph, and the little French Bulldog only cost £12,995. It was impossible to go faster for less.
Reception for the Phase One was glowing but not overwhelming, critics praising its chassis and raw pace but singled out steering that just fell short of the bar set by its predecessor, the Williams. The Phase II introduced a more chiselled nose but dialled back the aggression and piled on the pounds, so is therefore considered the weakest link of the litter. The weight increased as the aluminium bonnet quietly disappeared and Renault upped the toy count – automatic xenon lights, rainsensing wipers and climate control all became standard equipment. The racy 15in OZ alloys wheels made way for a sober 16in design of Renault origin and the company was forced to shorten the final drive in order to bring the acceleration back up to par with the Phase One.
The 2002 Cup sought to recapture the lost edge by adopting Porsche’s Clubsport philosophy – ditching the mod cons, stripping out the sound deadening and fancy seat material, fitting thinner glass and deleting the antilock braking system. Renault’s justification for losing the assisted stoppers was that serious track drivers would prefer a more natural-feeling middle pedal, a curious omission but one that removes any doubts over the model’s intentions. The track width was up 10mm courtesy of the new, utterly gorgeous 16in Speedline Turini alloy wheels whilst the geometry was tweaked and the spring rates stiffened. With its exclusive Mondial blue paint, additional front splitter and taller rear spoiler the Cup is a pent-up ball of energy, a rolling Sonic the Hedgehog of a car.
The 182 was Renault’s attempt at blending the aggression of the One and Cup with the relative refinement of the ‘full fat’. The standard specification increased too, with cruise control and electronic stability management now included. Importantly the engine remained largely untouched – the extra 10bhp was liberated courtesy of a new 4-2-1 manifold, a freer-flowing catalytic converter and revised ECU calibration. Peak torque now came in 250rpm sooner whilst the rear gained the now infamous protruding twin cannon exhaust.
The chassis saw the biggest revisions. For the first time, buyers could specify the suspension setup from a Cup on a standard car– for those who chose to tick that particular option box, this choice was highlighted by anthracite alloy wheels. The aero package was also available as an optional extra. There was a 182 Cup introduced but it didn’t take its brief as seriously this time around - the WeightWatchers programme only cut 30kg from the weigh-in, thanks to the poverty spec trim and deletion of air con and Xenon's. ABS remained this time around but so did the heavier regular alloy wheels, and the track width didn’t swell. A 182 with the Cup packages ticked thus became the sweet spot of the range, the best of both worlds.
Perhaps Renaultsport was keeping its powder dry for the Clio’s crowning glory, which came in 2005 with the introduction of the Trophy. A limited-edition model of just 500 for the UK market, with another 50 later produced for Switzerland, the Trophy upped the ante considerably. Taking the Cup as a starting point, Renaultsport fitted Recaro Trendline bucket seats mounted 10mm lower, whilst the sexy Turini alloys reappeared, this time dipped in anthracite paint. A Clio V6 donated its rear spoiler whilst the side skirts carried trophy decals, and you could have your Trophy in any colour you liked so long as it was the exclusive Capsicum Red metallic.
The real gamechanger was the switch to Sachs remote reservoir dampers on the front axle. These expensive £1,400-a-side dampers featured a monotube set up with increased fluid capacity. This meant the damper rod could be thicker, optimising body control and compliance over a wider operating window, with little to no flex under heavy braking or hard cornering. Renaultsport then added hydraulic bump stops and cut 10mm from the ride height, using progressive springs.
For all the dark arts of suspension tuning, on first impressions the Clio remains dominated by its engine, in the greatest of hot hatch traditions. The engine bay feels and looks choc full of CCs, as if the 2.0 F4R engine is wearing the car like a slim fit T-shirt. Flex its biceps and there’s a wonderful step at 5,500rpm as the engine comes on cam. The variable valve timing is far from VTEC levels of mechanical theatre in its intensity but the race to the 7,200rpm redline takes on a rampant degree of urgency, the note from Milltek exhaust on this example cranking up a notch in response. Whilst known to produce a handful of horses shy of its 182 stable on a dyno, the engine feels good for every one of its 148lb-ft of torque, the mid-range making light work of that low kerb weight.
The throttle response is telepathic too, the car leaping forwards with the merest flex of the right foot, eager to get down to business. Yes, a current 2.0 diesel rep-mobile would likely outgun the Clio through the gears and the Business Development Manager behind the wheel might chuckle into his Bluetooth headset, but all he’s done is plant the accelerator and let some microchips process the command. The Clio is alive, the mushy object behind the wheel forced to coordinate the engagement of the lower gear with a blip of throttle for the smoothest possible engagement of the cog, earning the performance rather than merely summoning some locomotion.
But it’s not all about outright speed. The Clio feels fast, a lot faster than its 6.7sec 0-60mph time thanks to scant NVH standards seemingly derived from the dark ages, yet it shouldn’t get you into too much trouble. You can’t help but forgive the car’s’ infectious enthusiasm and quickly start raiding the cliché swear box labelled ‘character’ in order to justify the flaw. But it’s true, these buzzes and sensations are part of the charm, they quickly become an essential part of the experience, making the car feel alive at sane speeds, constantly egging the driver on, turning every junction of a mundane commute into an opportunity to cock a back wheel. Dive into a series of bends and feel the weight move fore and aft, left to right and back to the centre again. Feel the subtle messages coming up the steering rack and into your fingertips. There’s a beautiful correlation between the load and the clarity of that message, the harder you go the greater the reward.
That throttle response allows you to meter out the power, probing the limit of adhesion. Of course it's possible to overwhelm the front tyres, they are only 205 in section after all, but it is you who decides, not a sudden spike in boost pressure. It provides a baseline to operate from and return to. The ride has a nice fluidity to it too, the progressive springs and longer travel providing a range of motion in-period rivals could only dream of.
There are more serious flaws of course, even possible deal breakers. The car was built to a price, so don’t expect Lexus levels of build quality and materials - this 40,000 mile example already possesses its fair share of rattles. More importantly, the mechanicals are robust – the F4R engine is a tough little unit and will run forever if properly serviced. Just ensure the cambelt change – due every five years at around £500 from any decent specialist – has been done with the official locking tools. It also makes sense to change the dephaser pulley and auxiliary belt too at the same time, pushing the bill towards £700. The Cup variants shave a couple of hours’ labour off the job due to their lack of air con, a part which needs removing to gain access to the belts. The Trophy’s fancy suspension did come with a catch - the Sachs dampers deteriorate over time and require rebuilding. The problem is Renault never specified a schedule, so knowing when to authorise the required £600 expenditure can be a guessing game. Some fail at fewer than 20,000 miles, others can triple that depending upon how the car has been driven. Signs of failing units include weeping reservoirs and a “corkscrewing” motion sensed through the steering.
Power steering hoses and the gearbox dog bone mount are other known weak spots, and it’s a good idea to refresh the suspension on regular higher-mileage cars, a relatively economic endeavour. A snapped spring is a common occurrence on a standard 182 but this presents a good opportunity to upgrade to the popular Eibach kit. The factory exhaust might as well be made of tin foil too, given its longevity – many owners have upgraded to an aftermarket stainless steel item by now, so don’t be put off by a car with one, even if you prize originality. Same goes for the steering wheel –, the thumb grips deteriorate over time and the leather on the tip of the steering wheel rim is prone to marbling.
The driving position is another gripe – it’s fairly comical, and feels a bit like you’re perching on a bar stool. The steering wheel is also a fraction too large in diameter and protrudes towards your chest at an awkward angle, whilst the gear level needs a Go-Go Gadget Arm to operate and the clutch has a biting point as high as the International Space Station. The good news is that the seats are supportive and look great – the half leather, half alcantara trim is embossed with the Recaro logo, and the and the view out is fantastic - the super slim A-pillars and teeny mirrors all add a sense of hot hatch theatre. The mpg is palatable too – a motorway commute will see the trip computer record an average of 36, strong numbers for the performance and a great advertisement for the benefits of lightness, especially in a car that only has five forward gears and no stop-start technology.
Prices are already on the rise, with a good example of the breed already surpassing its 197 successor in the classifieds. The 500-run Trophy has put clean air between itself and the rest of the 182 range and, as a side effect, the slimline Cup models have followed suit. Track-day goers are cannibalising and stripping out the weakest examples, trimming numbers and driving values up further. Expect to pay upwards of £3,500 for a decent 182. Eighteen months ago you could pick one up for £1500. You only have to observe the price of a 205 GTI or Clio Williams to predict the trajectory of the 182, especially once the world has gone electric.
The early 2000s are already being talked about as the era of the peak performance car, and the Trophy is the finest hatch from that time. It’s the last of the old school, as fun to drive as a 205 but much faster - and far safer to put through a hedge. It’s a watershed moment - the perfect first performance car for the young enthusiast to learn car control in yet has a bandwidth big enough to entertain the experienced hand and maintain the fun factor for years to come. Turns out my glasses aren't rose tinted after all, and I’m questioning why I no longer have one. Don’t just take my word for it - respected journalists such as Henry Catchpole own a cooking 182, whilst two Trophy’s can count Jethro Bovingdon and Harry Metcalfe on their logbooks. Greatest hot hatch of all time? Bring on the chopping block.