Friend of mine bought one, and having driven it and mulled around with my thoughts for a solid spell, it's time to post up a review.Looks
His is silver/Nimbus grey. No stripes, no checkered flags or other addendum. It looks very purposeful, hunkered down on its suspension with fat 17s at each corner. As you walk around the car you take in that it's actually rather large for a small car - but then, most small cars are huge these days. It's got hips (more on this, later), and that really sets it apart from a regular shopping Clio. Walk around to the back and there's a pukka diffuser there with an exhaust at each end. The overall effect is sporty, but in an elegant way - more fencer/horseman than the Corsa OPC's rugby hooligan in track-pants and trainers. And because it doesn't have black boy racer wheels, or a chavvy spoiler on the back, it's actually quite subtle, sort of like Marion Cottilard with a youthful Isabelle Adjani's curves. It looks exciting, and that's half the job done on a car like this.Interior
The seats are lovely. They're a grippy fabric, in the hot-hatch mould. A nice break from the leather that everyone seems to insist on. They're of excellent density, firm but yielding, and they grip you right at kidney level. Lovely, deep, sculpted things. The driving position is better than most Clios I've been in, because you sit low and everything falls to hand easily, and the pedals are nicely spaced even for my size 10s. The wheel is of a lovely size, and of course that red "This Way Up" line catches the eye immediately. The dials are pretty sporty - red needles and a redline past 7500rpm that tells you this is a rev-happy machine. It's at this point that you glance in the mirrors and realize that visibility is...um, eccentric. The side view isn't too bad, other than those hips which loom in the mirrors like you're in an Italian exotic. The rear view is beset by a trio of headrests (don't know how/why you'd torture three people by making them sit back there) and a rather small rear window. It's also while looking around that you gather how large everything is - compared to my E34, which is a black cave of no mean proportions, this feels massively bigger in front. It's got the usual bells and whistles - proprietary Renault CD player with 6 or 8 speakers (good), climate control (very good), auto-on lights and wipers, the lot. It feels like a quality piece of kit - everything shuts with a solid thunk, and the plastics feel pretty good. Again, there's a sense of occasion from the way you're seated and the way the seats grip you that makes something like a Polo GTI feel very pedestrian.Driving around
So you're sitting in the car, and you start it up. From the driving position, it feels like you should have a push-button. My mum's Scenic has a push-button. But that's more about the sense of occasion than anything else. So you twist the key and it fires into life and settles into a busy, thrumming idle. From cold, it has that temperamental, slightly lumpy edge you used to hear people speak of with Alfas. It sounds lovely, and that's coming from someone who drives a V8. So you twirl the wheel to exit the parking lot, snick it into first and you notice a few more things. The steering is very direct, even at low speeds. It's muted, but there's definitely a lot of feel. The gearbox is recalcitrant when cold, and so is the engine, which jerks and shuffles along at low speed in an endearingly old-school way. It feels like something that's breathing through individual throttles. So I take it easy for a couple of minutes, let everything warm up nicely. The ride is firm, but well-damped - it always feels controlled and it can be abrupt, but it never jars, unlike the foul damping of some VW/Audi products. At low speeds, you notice that - once warmed up, the engine is actually quite tractable for something that's normally aspirated. It will do lazy pull-aways from a stop-street, but it constantly champs at the bit.
So I drove out onto the R44 and turned up the wick a bit. That gear-change, which was stubborn and balky before, suddenly becomes the model of precision: it's crisp and it snicks through each gear in a most satisfying way. It's a car that rewards rowing the gears, like a true hot-hatch should. The gearing you wield is short and it combines with the engine to catapult you forward on a wave of noise and I-want-more thrust as the revs climb. The engine itself is truly something - it revs up so quickly and eagerly, with a kick as it climbs onto its powerband that becomes quite addictive. One of my favourite things to do was to leave it in third and just prod the throttle, so good was the tractability. The gearing is well-chosen to keep the revs on the boil, so each snap-change drops you right back into the go-zone. It's thoroughly entertaining, and that's just in a straight line.
Throw some twisties in and it rewards and excites. It always seems to be goading you to go faster, turn in more aggressively, throw it into that corner a little more vigorously. The steering comes alive in your hands, and the grip is just immense. I was piling into corners at ridiculous speeds, and it just shrugged everything off. It's a car you mesh with, so intuitive does it become at 10/10ths. You blip the throttle, change down and power through, and the nose finds the apex and you feel like a driving God. I was giggling hysterically after a few swift corners, such is the rate of fun this car serves up.
Of course, when you need to scrub off the speed, the brakes are equally brilliant. Big Brembos that are easy to modulate and have perfect travel and response. They'd stop three Clios, let alone one. And an often-neglected aspect of the hot hatch experience - the headlights are brilliant. You can bomb along on a back-road in complete confidence. It's something the French have always done well.Living with the thing
My friend tells me it's rather thirsty. He averages 10-12l per hundred km, but it's such a driver's car that you don't really care. Again, it's all in keeping with the hot hatch ethos. Besides, life's too short to worry about fuel consumption - when it runs low, just go and get more. A minor point, given that hot hatches should be able to do the shopping trolley thing as well, is that parking is a test of faith. You can't see the damn nose at all, and the tapering sides must be catered for when you reverse into a parking bay. It becomes second-nature pretty quickly though, aided by very accurate steering. It would be a lovely thing to punt around a city, because it's quick and you can nip into small spaces. It uses a bit of oil if you drive it hard, but that's also in keeping with the nature of the beast.Negatives
Um...the ride is quite bad if you're sat in the back. But since you don't drive from the back seat, that doesn't really matter. The gearing is quite short, so it never really settles into a cruising clip when you're on the highway. Even sixth gear doesn't seem to drop the revs that much. Again, not really a deal-breaker, as it's got cruise control and at 120-140km/h it's civilised enough to hold a conversation.What else?
At the money these go for, they're the bargain of the century. It doesn't feel like it's going to blow up (feels more solid than a Polo, at any rate), and it brings a smile to your face on even the most mundane A-to-B run. And when you drive it like your hair's on fire, it rewards in a way I suspect few things at up to double the price will do. I honestly don't get why you'd buy some dull appliance and suffer with it when you can buy one of these.
Now, some pics: