In July 2005, Autocar's cover line said it all: 'World's Greatest Hot Hatch'. Hyperbole, you think? No. The Renault Sport Clio 182 Trophy was that good. Then, now, always. And while a number of cars have appeared since to challenge what we regard as truly exceptional in a hot hatch (at least two more from Renault) the Trophy has earned itself a permanent and reverential place in the discussion.
How? Well, it helps to cook with the right ingredients. Off the back of the Clio Williams, Dieppe had already spent half a decade turning the humble second generation Clio into something special. Shoehorning a modified 2.0-litre 16-valve engine into the supermini helped some; the F4R730 four-cylinder unit had variable valve timing and made 172hp. To make the most of it, Renault Sport launched the Cup model in 2002, which relieved the car of everything from air con to its spare wheel.
The result wasn't far north of a metric ton, a trifling kerb weight that Dieppe underpinned with stiffer springs and dampers, and a wider track. It also went to the trouble of increasing the castor angle of the front wheels - and eschewing trivialities like stability control or anti-locking brakes. Best of all, because you sat on blancmange seats amid virtually no sound-proofing, Renault decreed that you shouldn't have to pay too much for its terrier-like change of direction and laissez-faire attitude to weight transfer either, and charged £12,995. You couldn't go faster for less. Nor have any more fun.
By 2004 a facelift had turned the Clio into the 182, the extra power liberated by a redesigned exhaust manifold and high flow catalytic convertor (the changes culminating in the model's new dual tailpipes). The standard RS version already sat on wider tracks and stiffer suspension and had the 172 Cup's caster angle, but for £200 more you could add the chassis pack which lowered the car by 3mm onto even firmer springs and dampers, and strengthened the front hub.
The bonafide Cup version repeated its predecessor's weight-loss game plan, although the equipment shedding wasn't nearly as far-reaching. The Trophy, a runout version limited to just 500 units in the UK, ditched the pretence of a diet altogether. It boasted no more power than a standard 182, and had a smattering of leather to go with its puffy Recaro sports seats, Capsicum Red paint job and dark metallic 16-inch Turini wheels. But no-one was parting with £15,500 in 2005 for the confetti - it was what you couldn't see that mattered.
Rather than mating the Clio with a higher output (as it had already done with the surreal V6 model), Dieppe blew the development budget on Sachs Race Engineering dampers ten times as expensive as those worn by the Cup car. With separate reservoirs to handle half the oil and gas, a thicker damper rod could be deployed - and because the hydraulic bump stops were included, the Trophy could afford to feature shorter springs. This meant that it rode 10mm lower than even the Cup version. And was about 100 times cooler.
The 13 years between then and now have hardly threatened to unmake its reputation, even accounting for the woeful driving position and famously low rent trim plastics. Certainly it doesn't hurt that the ever fattening layer of driver aids, sound-deadening and fuel-saving sediment was comparatively thin in 2005, and that the Trophy retains the fast-vanishing combination of naturally-aspirated engine, dinky size, hydraulic steering, passive suspension and a kerbweight still shy of 1,100kg. Yet that still doesn't quite account for the way the Trophy covers ground.
It is instructive here to recall that the Cup version did not ride badly; it was merely unflinching in the way you might expect from such a small and single-minded car. Thus it occasionally bridled or banged or clattered - not enough to scupper the fun, just enough for you to heed the strain. In the Trophy, while the vertical stiffness remains pronounced on Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres, it is also made to feel soft-edged and accommodating by an entirely different league of wheel control.
Certainly no contemporary supermini could lay claim to its level of composure. In 2005, it was unprecedented - even in 2018, the chassis's resistance to becoming unsettled at speed or under high lateral loads is a marvel. Alongside the trick dampers, it is the progressiveness of the bump stops which help provide the stubbier springs with the elbow-room to shine; meaning that you get better, flatter body control without the sacrifice typically required by a reduction in suspension travel. No less impressive is the fact that the Trophy doesn't forfeit its frenetic, fun-loving side to greater sophistication. A higher grade of assurance means it can be driven more quickly, more often, sure - but not in a way that dials back on the clamorous, quintessentially 'Clio' bit that made it so compelling in the first place.
With all the same handling pungency present and correct - only better and sweeter and more congruous - the limited-edition model is one of those rare front-drive cars that rewards total commitment without seeming fraught or over endowed. It remains honest and easy to drive on the surface, and the harder you try, the more enigmatically gifted it appears to get. Even hunched over the controls, with your fingers stuck to the steering wheel, it's hard to conceive of a way it might have been made better. Crushing then to learn that only 304 remain registered in the UK, and of that number there can hardly be many as box-fresh as Renault's own heritage fleet constituent. Expect the seller of such an example to make you pay handsomely. And expect it to seem cheap at twice the price.
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT CLIO 182 TROPHY
Engine: 1,998cc, 4cyl 16v
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 182@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@5,250rpm
0-62mph: 6.5 secs
Top speed: 138mph
On sale: Sept 2004 - Sept 2005
Price new: £15,500
Price now: £5,000 - £9,000
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