With the Clio off the road during the winter months and then immobilized by lockdown having just earned a new MOT, about six months had passed since I'd taken it for a proper drive. Madness. So when restrictions began to lift, new track rod ends went on and I promptly got the geometry reset. Then, one sunny Friday evening, I departed London after work, ending up deep in the High Weald, an area of astounding natural beauty. Three quarters of a tank later, I returned home at 11:30pm.
Before that long overdue date with the countryside, I’d made a few detail changes to the car, including sourcing that lucrative rear window Elf sticker (sold here), fitting a carbon steering wheel centre badge and putting the rear seats back in. The car was looking good – but in truth all of that only part-appeased me during lockdown. What really mattered more was how the car performed; and thankfully, with the capital's speed bumps behind us, things felt right. Really right.
If you’ve had the pleasure of driving through the East Sussex side of the High Weald late in the day, you’ll likely know how glorious it is at sunset. You’re hard pressed to not stop at every peak to take a photo of what surrounds you. The roads are pleasing to the eye, too, but more so to the seat of your pants because they’re generally smooth. For a Clio running Bilstein B14s and stiff polybushes, it’s heaven on Earth. Here the car no longer feels clumsy or brittle, as it does in the city; it breathes over crests and cambers. It flows.
Thanks to the reduced ride height of those adjustable coilovers, along with the lower seating position delivered by the Recaro Pole Position (I peer over the wheel, touring car style), the car’s centre of gravity is much lower than standard. My 182 doesn’t cock an inside wheel like a puppy anymore. That impudent OEM trait has somewhat faded, replaced by more serious responses, with what feels like only a couple of inches of lift when the chassis's loaded up through a bend. Off-throttle, mid-corner rotation is more progressive than in a standard RS Clio, with the axis closer to centre of the 182's footprint. It's less flamboyant, more genuinely racey.
As mentioned in previous reports, the Clio’s front wheels are set at 2.3 degrees of negative camber. Along with the stiffer front ARB bushes, fresh track rod ends and those grippy Dunlops, it means the car feels darty. But not in the modern way, where an EPAS system is hyper away from the straight ahead; the Clio’s hydraulically assisted rack ratio is not particularly quick by 2020 standards. Rather, it’s reactive in a more old school way, where there’s very little slack between your palms and the wheel hubs to delay quickness. With my car’s 330mm, suede-wrapped steering wheel, the feel through the rim is textured, too, and it grows in information as the load increases. After six months, I’d forgotten how rewarding those sensations are.
That being said, I’m not going to start telling you that a 129,000-mile-old Renault’s power steering hardware is a world beater; having recently jumped out of a McLaren 600LT, I'm under no illusion that a humble Clio rack is the best out there. But compared to present-day hot hatches, it’s much more authentic. Partly thanks to the diameter of the wheel, the loading is actually quite high, too. So much so that it’s an effort to turn the wheel at crawling pace, but with speed, the resistance lessens and it feels very natural. I still have a set of polybush rack bushes to go on to unlock a tad more feel from the OEM setup, and I want to fit a strut brace in the coming months to go with the solid top mounts. But right now, I’m really happy with the front end as it is.
The engine, too, feels pretty sweet. Freshly serviced with fully synthetic 5W-40, it pulls hardest from 5,000rpm to 6,500rpm against the soundtrack of a rumbling intake (the K-Tec pipework does a pretty good ITB impression!) and raspy exhaust. The motor feels particularly characterful in the way it flutters and reacts to the car around it; with stiffened engine mounts, bumps, dips and heavy braking make its tune wobble in tandem. It's so brilliantly reactive, heel-and-toeing is genuinely rewarding. Why don’t more manufacturers fit throttle pedal extensions to their cars like Renault did on the 182? It makes rolling your foot from pedal to pedal gratifyingly easy.
That evening drive is one I don’t think I’ll forget for a while. The way the nose bobbed into bends under load, the lovely, steering wheel-straightening mid-corner rotation and F4R's enthusiasm – it was bliss. Up there with some of the best drives I’ve enjoyed in far, far more exotic cars, and not just because this one's mine. The sunset helped, of course, as did the empty roads. But mostly, it's because the Clio is now at the stage where it demonstrates why balance, poise and fluidity are the things you wish for in a driver's car. It makes it hard to put away. And doubly happy that we're all back on the road in time for summer.
Car: 2004 Renault Clio Renaultsport 182
Run by: Sam Sheehan
Bought: May 2011
Mileage at purchase: 74,457
Mileage now: 129,123
Last month at a glance: The Clio revels as freedom returns and the sunshine takes hold
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