The world of hot hatches was initially dominated by Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk1 / Mk2 and Peugeot 205 GTi. Entering the 1990s, both breeds evolved to be more civilized and insurance-friendly but also lost the favour of keen drivers. In contrast, Renault's performance and motorsport division, Renault Sport, launched a string of fast Clios, including Clio 16V, Williams and a variety of Clio RS models. With good performance and sharp handling, they stole the hearts of driving enthusiasts and rose to the top of hot hatches league. In the next 2 decades, few other hot hatches could match the fast Clios for pure driving pleasure.
The father of all fast Clios was the 1993 Clio Williams. It was so badged to celebrate Williams-Renault F1 team winning both driver's and constructor's championship the previous year (many would follow), so Williams did not involve its development at all. Under the "power bulge" of bonnet sat a larger 2.0-liter 16V engine. It was derived from the existing 1.8 16V unit but bored and stroked to realize the extra capacity and received larger valves, hotter cams, new polished intake manifolds and new exhaust system. Output increased from 136 to 150 hp. While peak torque of 129 lbft seemed unremarkable, most of it was available low down the rev thus it felt highly flexible. Moreover, the Williams weighed only 990 kg wet, and had a close-ratio gearbox, so performance was startling for such a little car. It was capable of 0-60 in 7.5 seconds and 134 mph flat out.
Even better was how it cornered. The combination of beefed-up tires, wider front track (thanks to using the lower suspension control arms of the larger Renault 19), lowered and stiffened suspension, retuned steering and all-round ventilated disc brakes (despite of losing ABS) resulted in excellent handling. It offered amazing traction and front-end grip. The suspension soaked up bumps very well on twisty roads, allowing the driver to concentrate on the steering (nicely weighted and feelsome) and gearchange (precise). The chassis felt alert, responsive and well balanced. A mild lift-off oversteer made it involving and entertaining to attack corners. No wonder today many still see it as one of the best hot hatches ever made! Lastly but not least, the golden wheels and power bulge still look great today.
Clio II RS: before (left) and after (right) the 2001 facelift
As Renault withdrew from F1 racing, the fast Clio dropped the Williams name and was formally badged as Renaultsport (RS). The first Clio RS was derived from the second generation Clio, which was more aerodynamic but hardly any larger than the old car. That was good because it retained the lightweight and agile character of the old car. Meanwhile, performance took a giant leap as it switched to a new 2-liter engine with 172 horsepower and 147 pound-foot of torque. This one was derived from the modern 2.0 unit employed by Laguna. It had lightweight hollow camshafts, friction-reducing roller cam followers and a 2-stage variable intake valve timing. On the top of that, Renaultsport added lightweight Nimonic alloy valves, high-flow intake manifolds and exhaust to enhance revvability. Road test found the car took only 6.6 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. It was a giant killer!
Like its predecessor, the chassis got wider tracks, lower and stiffer suspensions and bigger brakes. Nevertheless, the Clio II RS was not as focused as the Williams. Its high-profile tires were a compromise between comfort and handling. Its chassis had built in more understeer to deliver a secured driving feel, although lift-off oversteer was still possible. Its steering was less feelsome, and gearchange was less incisive. Full list of standard equipment also showed its intention to get more sales from ordinary drivers, such as air-con, ABS and brake assist.
The Clio II RS was facelifted in 2001 together with the rest of the Clio range. In 2002, it got a striped-out Cup version, which had air-con, ABS, passenger air bag, xenon lights and some sound-deadening materials deleted to cut 80 kg. Slightly sportier suspension tuning and stickier tires resulted in better handling.
In 2004, both the standard RS and Cup had their engines improved to 182 hp, thanks to freer flowing exhaust manifolds and catalytic converter. Wider tracks, yet another retuned suspension and wider 205 tires improved its grip, sharpened its handling and reduced understeer. That took the car back to where it deserved – the top of hot hatch class.
Clio III RS: before (left) and after (right) the 2009 facelift
The Clio III RS did not impress initially because it – like all Clio III models – got a lot larger and heavier, more like a Volkswagen Golf than a supermini. That did no good to the engine, which remained a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter. By switching to a continuously variable intake valve timing and by raising compression ratio from 11.0:1 to 11.5:1, Renaultsport managed to squeeze out 197 hp from it, which was remarkable considering it lacked VTEC-style variable valve lift. However, the torque curve was peaky and the extra weight of 150 kg made the car slower in the real world, even though a close-ratio 6-speed gearbox was used. Larger frontal area dragged down top speed by 4 mph to 135 mph.
However, it did handle and ride better. Its supersized body afforded much wider front and rear tracks so to enhance cornering stability. 215/45VR17 rubbers generated superior grip to enable higher cornering limit. Larger Brembo brakes provided stronger stopping power. New double-axis strut front suspension eliminated torque steer completely. A rear diffuser cut aerodynamic lift at speed. The car cornered with a precision and composure not found on the previous generation. Its ride was also smoother. Steering feel remained numb though.
In 2009, the RS was facelifted with an ugly black nose, which cut drag by 3 percent. Performance was improved a bit as the engine got a new cylinder head and ECU to boost low down torque and 3 hp at the top end. The gearbox had its first 3 ratios shortened to aid acceleration. In the chassis, double-acting dampers were employed to improve high-speed ride while thicker front anti-roll bar reduced body roll. Its handling got sharper.
Again Cup version was offered alongside the well equipped standard car. It saved 36 kg by skipping air-conditioning, high-spec audio, electric mirrors, telescopic steering wheel and soft-touch plastics on dashboard. Besides, it got a quicker steering, 7mm lower ride height, 30 percent stiffer springs and dampers. Being old-school direct and responsive, the Clio III RS Cup was the most entertaining hot hatch to drive until its death, when rivals had switched to fuel-saving turbocharging. It was probably the last true hot hatch to be seen on this planet.
||Clio II RS (Cup)
||Clio II RS 182
||Clio III RS (Cup)
|Year of production
||All Clio II RS: 52,080 units
||All Clio II RS: 52,080 units||Clio III: approx. 30,000 units
||Front-engined, Fwd||Front-engined, Fwd||Front-engined, Fwd|
|Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
||3712 / 1641 / 1365 / 2472
||3772 / 1639 / 1417 / 2472
||3811 / 1639 / 1416 / 2485
||4017 / 1768 / 1484 / 2575
||Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
||Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.||Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.||Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
||1998 cc||1998 cc
||197 hp (200 hp)
||Strut / torsion-beam||Strut / torsion-beam||Strut / torsion-beam||Double-axis strut / torsion-beam|
||1070 kg (979 kg)
||1240 kg (1204 kg)
||135 mph (139 mph)
||6.6 sec* (6.5 sec*)
||6.9 sec* (6.6 sec**)
||17.9 sec* (16.9 sec*)
||18.7 sec* (16.7 sec**)