If I'm completely honest, I used to associate cars like KN55 HWX with teenagers, backwards baseball caps and joggers worn below the arse. Despite a burning desire to try a hot hatch, I opted for the hairdresser image, now also owner of my third Audi TT alongside the Clio. Ahead of an organised weekend in Wales with a group of Trophy owners, I didn't really know what to expect.
And there's more out of shot!
Pulling into a car park in Llangollen at the crack of dawn, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the trip's organiser, Tim Hyde. A well-spoken, 35-year-old analyst at Vodafone from Berkshire; my stereotype was shattered. One after another the Trophys rolled into our first meeting point until we stood 12-strong, with a broad range of passionate owners from all walks of life.
The itinerary was set and the route was planned, so we set off with eager anticipation. The bemused look on locals' faces was something I was going to have to get used to over the weekend; fuelling stops were particularly entertaining and equally chaotic. Within minutes of setting off the heavens opened as we made our way towards a well-known triangle of roads near Denbigh. As we came to our first stop at the Sportsman's Arms though the rain stopped, and I'd just about become accustomed to trundling along in a gaggle of red Clios.
Looks reasonably good fun...
Again with no prior knowledge, I had assumed we'd spend our weekend simply cruising around some beautiful countryside. Another expectation immediately shattered. Out of the town and well away from civilisation, we separated into smaller groups of three, and what followed can only be described as the best drive of my life. Sandwiched between two rather spirited drivers at the front of the pack, I found myself pushing harder and harder, loving every minute. On the tight, twisty and undulating roads cutting through the Welsh valley, I finally discovered why the Clio Trophy has been lauded as one of the best hot hatches ever made. Using newfound skills and with understanding of the car's limit from the track, I was able to judge cornering, braking and handling ability better than ever before. I was having more fun out here in Wales than I ever have; the Clio Trophy really is the king of the B-road.
Even in the wet, the Michelin Pilot Sport 3s had so much traction and I could feel the grip levels in the palm of my hands through the steering wheel. The braking and suspension upgrades I've made gave me so much more confidence; turn in was sharp, the front end responsive and the Sachs dampers superb. No understeer, just handling perfection and a high level of predictability that has made me adore this car so much over my first year of ownership. The reward of a perfect heel and toe downshift before getting back on the power to propel you out of a bend puts a huge grin on your face, corner after corner. Driving a clear section of road on your own is special enough, but being in a pack of Trophys, watching them move on the road in front and behind you, is really spectacular. Before the first hour of the trip was up, I knew it was going to be unforgettable.
Cars and owners in their element
I moved to Herefordshire when I was 16, and was blessed with the Elan Valley as my playground immediately after I passed my driving test. Wales is a beautiful country, with mind blowing roads and dramatic scenery, but it's all too easy to take it for granted. Now living in Kent, driving along the Llanberis Pass to Caernarfon reminded me of why I fell in love with Wales so much over a decade ago. The best road of the weekend for me was the B4391 from Ffestiniog to Fron-goch. If you go to one road in Wales this year, go there. Hooking up the mix of alternating corners, cambers and straights with the backdrop of jaw-dropping scenery cannot be replicated on track. As you finish the section of road with sweaty hands and adrenaline rushing through your bloodstream, you'll understand why.
If I didn't love KN55 HWX enough already, my weekend in Wales with such a wonderful group of like minded enthusiasts certainly cemented this car as one of the best I've ever owned. If ever a definition for driving enjoyment were needed, this would be it.
Car: 2005 Renault Clio 182 Trophy
Run by: Ben Lowden
Bought: April 2015
Purchase price: £4,250
Last month at a glance: Ben and his Trophy friends head to Wales
Cheerio diesel Skoda, hello limited edition Renault hero!
Spa day the Renaultsport way
Induction and exhaust tweaks for the Trophy
Trophy shines after time with detailers
Brace yourself Ben; time for the damper rebuild...