Renault’s BRIO A new breed of rarefied modern classics is vying for your attention – and the Clio V6 is at the head of the pack. Words Greg Macleman. Photography Tony Baker.
RENAULT’S WACKY RACER Clio V6: a modern classic that makes no sense, but is all the better for it
For those of us more used to classic and vintage machinery, it’s easy to become disillusioned with modern motorcars. Whether due to the constraints of safety regulations or the pursuit of peak aerodynamic efficiency, car design has become increasingly bland and homogenous with each passing year. It started with the ‘Jellymould’ Sierra in 1982 – the harbinger of doom that set the tone for a wave of design-by-committee models so lacking in character that you could fall asleep face-first in your Frosties just thinking about them.
While it did produce its fair share of anonymous shopping trolleys for first-time drivers and mums on the school run, Renault bucked the trend in the ’90s with a number of bold and wholly ridiculous models designed in part for one-make race series, starting with the Renault Sport Spider – a no-frills, composite-bodied roadster – and leading to the Clio V6, a modern reimagining of the firm’s mighty 5 Turbo.
Of all the models in its back catalogue, no one could blame Renault for taking the 5 Turbo as inspiration for its sportiest Clio. The car blazed a trail for forced-induction hot hatches, taking the simple formula of sticking the engine in the middle of the car and sending power to the rear wheels – and creating a legend. As well as taking on the world of Group 4 rallying – an eclectic formula containing everything from Vauxhall Chevettes to Maserati Meraks – the Gandinipenned brute also went toe-to-toe with the likes of the Lancia Stratos, winning the 1981 Rallye Monte-Carlo and ’1982 Tour de Corse with Jean Ragnotti, as well as making its silver-screen debut as the exotic wheels of Barbara Carrera in Never Say Never Again the following year.
Like its 5 Turbo forebear, the Clio V6 took the basic platform of Renault’s best-selling supermini and did away with the rear seats, mounting the engine in the middle of the chassis and sending power to the rear wheels. The first iteration of Renault’s Clio V6 can trace its lineage back to September 1998, when development of both road and race cars began in earnest, led by Yannick Kerguelen, an engineer who had a hand in the firm’s turbocharged Formula One cars of the ’70s and ’80s, as well as the BTCC Méganes and Lagunas of Alain Menu. Testing was carried out by F1’s Philippe Gache and Mégane champion Jean-Philippe Housez, so it came as no surprise to those in the know that the track-centric Trophy racer was the first version to be unveiled to journalists. This raw and uncompromising car was a stripped-out animal with 285bhp on tap, a kerb-weight of just 1120kg and a state-of-the-art six-speed sequential gearbox that negated the need for a conventional clutch. Its launch was marked by journalists’ inability to keep the car pointing in a straight line, with most spinning like buttered cats, much to the chagrin of the French engineers.
The road car, meanwhile, broke cover at the Paris Motor Show in 1998 before finally going on sale in the UK in 2001. Designed in France, the cars were put together by Tom Walkinshaw Racing in its Uddevalla workshop in Sweden, and shared their 2946cc engine with the Laguna, though in a higher state of tune thanks to the addition of new pistons – which increased the compression ratio to 11.4:1 – and bigger inlet ports. It revved higher, too, and with greater eagerness owing to its lightened flywheel, while comfortably eclipsing most other hot hatches with a power output of 230bhp – though in truth the V6 is more of a coupé than a hatchback, as if a supercar has been shrunk in the wash. While the sequential ’box from the Trophy was considered for the mainstream production car, in the end Renault opted for a more conventional and cost-effective six-speed manual transmission.
Though it shared its basic bodyshell with the cooking-model Clio, the outlandish bodywork – penned by a team under design guru Patrick le Quément – differed wildly from even the hot RenaultSport 172, with aggressive side vents, considerable sills, reworked front and rear bumpers and monstrous flared arches, while stance and roadholding were dramatically improved thanks to a wider track – 110mm at the front and 138mm at the rear – and a suspension set-up that took it 66mm closer to the road.
The interior feels distinctly average in Phase 1 guise, sharing much with the standard Clio II on which it is based, including the bland dashboard – which looks as if it’s been moulded from melted-down plastic bottles – and low-quality switchgear. As you would expect, the cabin is cramped, and there’s no ignoring the lack of rear seats – the view behind is dominated by a flat plastic engine cover hiding the mid-mounted V6. Storage is predictably at a premium, limited in the main to a cubby under the bonnet, complete with ominous drainage hole, and an alcove in the boot big enough for little more than a Fray Bentos steak pie. Handy, because anything you store in it is likely to be well cooked by the time you get to where you’re going.
As today, only true cognoscenti bought into the Clio V6 when it first hit showrooms in 2001. The sacrifices of driving a two-seat car in a four-seat shell with scarcely enough luggage space to store a top-up shop scared off many, while those seeking bar-room bragging rights were sold somewhat short: despite having a near 1-litre capacity advantage over its junior stablemate, the V6 was under a second quicker to 60mph than the Clio 172 Cup. But for all its impracticalities (henceforth ‘foibles’), the Clio V6 excels in one major area: delivering a truly immersive theatrical experience once you’ve stepped across the wide sill, slipped into the Alcantara-trimmed buckets and fired up the engine.
Things begin to make sense once you slot the snappy gearlever into first and drop the clutch, waking the warbly and sonorous V6 with a generous helping of throttle. Progress is rapid and accompanied by a glorious soundtrack, thanks to the mid-mounted engine turning the cabin into a speaker box of epic proportions – it’s the Dolby 5.1 surround sound to the 172’s mono output. The sense of drama is palpable and, while the view outside is distinctly ‘Clio’, you’re never left in any doubt that you’re behind the wheel of something very special. Acceleration isn’t of breakneck proportions, but speed builds relentlessly and without hesitation. Given enough room, the Renault will eventually hit 147mph in sixth and working it through the gears is a joy.
Not that you have to break the speed limit to enjoy the experience, such is the novelty of a hot hatch with 40:60 weight distribution allied to a mid-engined, rear-drive configuration. With the encouragement provided by that wonderful soundtrack and a nimble, well-resolved chassis, it’s easy to lose hours on the twisting Welsh back-roads of the Brecon Beacons, exploring the capabilities – and limitations – of such a remarkable car. Unlike the challenging Trophy race cars, the roadgoing Phase 1 is a much more polished proposition.
The do-or-die handling characteristics of the earliest track cars were well muted by the engineers at TWR, but there’s still a sense that the road car is capable of biting. Come into a corner too hot and the extra weight over the rear wheels starts to become noticeable – much like an early Porsche 911 – and the looming presence of snap oversteer never feels far away, despite clever Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, which keeps tabs on each corner and makes sure none of the wheels locks up. Lessons learned on the track transfer readily to the road: take it easy going into turns, and keep your powder dry until you’re back on the straight – particularly when the car in question belongs to someone else.
After an enjoyable morning playing cat-and-mouse with owner Tann (see panel), it’s time to pull over and swap the early car for the 2003 facelift variant. To the layman the two Clios seem almost inseparable, bar the obvious colour difference, but linger a little longer and the changes become apparent. Most notable are the front lamps, which kept step with the standard models by ditching the rounded lights of the early car in favour of a more angular style. The bumpers also got a refresh, with a larger mouth and reworked grille, while at the rear things stayed largely the same, though the Heath Robinson blanking mesh of the TWR example was done away with in favour of plastic milkcrate- style grilles. There’s no doubt the younger car is better put together, too, including the body panels, which are bonded at their joins, unlike the Phase 1, which still has the faint aroma of a machine pieced together by men in a shed.
The white coats at the former Alpine works in Dieppe – who were in charge of the second-generation V6 – ensured that the improvements weren’t just skin deep. Power was upped from 230 to 255bhp following work from engineers at Porsche, while the handling quirks of the early cars were ironed out to a degree after the wheelbase was stretched by 22mm and the front track widened by 33mm. The rear end was firmed up, too, giving much more stability. The changes added 45kg, taking the total weight to 1400kg, but despite this the 255 shaved more than half a second off the 0-60mph time, taking it down to 5.6 secs and upping the top speed to 153mph.
From behind the wheel the 255 feels more up-to-date thanks to a refreshed interior largely shared with the facelifted Clio. It’s particularly familiar to those who’ve driven the 172 and 182, which boast the same comfortable sports seats. The driving experience is almost identical to the first iteration, with the same rush of power and charge up the rev range. It’s difficult to tell unless near its limits, but the updated car is more assured and less likely to catch you out, helped by its slightly wider front track. Think of the cars as a set of twins: they look the same, sound the same, but one has a slightly sharper temper.
You may think that the V6 is too modern to be considered a classic, but it boasts greater credentials than a host of much older and more valuable machines. For starters, it’s rare. Just 1513 Phase 1 and 1309 Phase 2 cars were made, making it more exclusive when new – and, probably, today – than a Lamborghini Diablo. Each car was handbuilt by engineers at TWR and Dieppe – a commonality shared with exotica such as the Jaguar XJ220 and Alpine A110. Finally, there’s its sheer impracticality: it’s too harsh to use daily; servicing is a nightmare; it has the turning circle of an ocean liner; and the luggage compartment is too small for anything other than a holdall, which will get soaked as soon as it rains.
It’s a car that probably should never have been built; the answer to a question nobody asked. But there’s also something delightful about a manufacturer having the bravery to produce a car whose appeal would be, at best, limited. Us Brits always love an underdog, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the UK was the V6’s best market. Nor should it shock that it has gained such a following in classic circles, whose owners are no strangers to sacrificing usability, practicality and comfort for that flutter of excitement every time you open your garage.