IT HAPPENS EVERY time Topcar gets the keys to a Renault. I get a nervous phone call from a representative of the French marque to confirm my approval of its condition on delivery or some other arbitrary reason. Truth is they just want to see if their worst case scenario has indeed unfolded and their latest offering has indeed been delivered (read sacrificed) to yours truly.
It’s true that in the past I have been critical of Renault’s offerings but I’ve always held the company’s sports derivatives in high regard. What’s more, the Clio RS on which the Gordini skin has been painted is a long-time favourite of the Topcar team, so no surprise that the arrival of the Gordini’s keycard was not followed by a phone call. This little scrapper fights its own battles.
I love it. Just look at it, all hunkered down and wide of stance. Ggrrrr! It’s hard to see it as a rival to the brilliant but aesthetically sedate Polo GTI when it’s wearing a bright white gum guard posing as an airdam, but to be honest this car couldn’t give a ruck.
Its muscular arches are dominated by two-tone twelve-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, covered in ContiSport Contact 3 rubber. A pair of white stripes trisect the Gordini’s signature blue bodywork, although the glittery ‘G’ pattern is not to everyone’s taste. The side mirror housings are also in white, creating just enough contrast without cheapening the overall effect. My favourite detail however must be the air vents in the front fenders – they’re proper tough looking and best appreciated from the rear. From that perspective you also can’t ignore the twin exhaust exits each side of a huge, black rear diffuser.
Only Renault could make a bright blue mini hatch with Tippex lines look this tough.
Climb into the blue beast’s belly and standard Clio fare awaits. That means a simple, uncluttered layout with satellite audio and trip computer controls in the usual grenade cluster behind the helm. Good. It gets buttons out of the way and by now every Renault owner will be used to this feng shui arrangement. Quite frankly this is not a cabin, it’s an office: an uncomplicated workspace for some serious quickness. Even the keycard slips out of view beneath the start button, although I’ll be damned if the buttons on it are legible in anything but perfect lighting. Gordini trim includes blue panels on the bucket seats, blue piping on the carpets, a blue gear gaiter and a blue knob bereft of any gear markings. Good luck finding reverse.
Forgive my brief glance at the cabin comforts (it’s all there, I promise) as I focus instead on the more ‘fun’ controls. Here are the numbers you were scanning for: six-speed manual, 1 997cc, four cylinders with 16 valves making 147.5kW and 215Nm. Thumb the starter and a deep burble greets you. Strum the throttle and its pitch rises to the beginnings of a scream. Let the revs bubble and pop around 3 300rpm, then in one deft move drop your left foot from the clutch and bury your right one into the carpet. Within 7.2 seconds (the time it takes to reach 100kph) you’ll remember why you prefer the sound of a highly strung normally aspirated motor. By the time you cross the quarter mile at 15.38sec you’ll be dismissing turbos and superchargers as fool’s errands and when you eventually top out at 225kph you’ll scoff at silly oil shortages, environmental carnage and the motor industry’s pursuit of hybrid tech. Let’s just say petrolhead-inspired hatches are alive and well, here with an engine honed to perfection over generations.
It’s when the road transforms from uncooked (straight) spaghetti to a twisty bolognaise that the Clio really comes on song. Its Cup chassis, grippy rubber and firm suspension conspire with easily modulated brake and throttle action to produce one of the most balanced and precise front-wheel drives ever. The seats are suitably supportive, useful when generating and swapping directional G forces with neck-breaking pace. Pushed hard the Clio RS serves up safe understeer each time, but the lack of a mechanical limited-slip differential means that power is spun to oblivion on that inside wheel. The brakes are impressive, offering great feel, and the steering is well weighted, but the grabby clutch can be tiresome when negotiating heavy traffic. The ride quality is surprisingly good for a sports hatch of these diminutive dimensions, but pockmarked Tarmac will punish your spine.
In the past, I’ve berated Renault for diluting its Gordini name on cosmetically tweaked RS hatches. This minor rant still applies, but I’m willing to look at it differently. The Clio RS is a special car and the Gordini is its most special derivative, making it hugely collectable. That engine represents a zenith, almost comparable to the unit in Honda’s S2000 for sheer enthusiasm. It makes me wonder what the Superboss engine would have been like today had Opel stuck to normal aspiration for its manic OPCs. The bottom line looks like this: I believe the Clio Gordini is quite capable of delivering a ‘smiles-to-kilowatt ratio’ on par with sports cars brandishing seven-figure price tags. For just R279 000. Bargain.