Top Gear's Top 9: notable Renault Sport road cars

By topgear, 14 May 2021

1980 Renault 5 Turbo

If you’d not heard the news, Renault Sport is being absorbed by Alpine. And as we blow out the candles on its retirement cake, it really would be impossible to start anywhere else. Renault could make cars until the world is finally ingested by the sun and this would remain its high watermark of cool and intrigue.

With a 1.4-litre turbo behind the seats and driving the rear wheels, it follows a hot hatch recipe that’s only really been repeated within Renault Sport’s own offices.

Like all of the most esoteric road car icons, it was borne out of a need to satisfy race car regulations, and its gloriously cartoonish shape is the work of the same bloke (Bertone’s Marcello Gandini) who penned the very car it was designed to take down (the Lancia Stratos).

Its sporting CV wasn’t superlative, but the sheer swagger with which Jean Ragnotti drove his has chiselled it a huge portion of the World Rally hall of fame nonetheless. This wasn’t Renault’s first hot 5, but it’s the most memorable.

1993 Renault Clio Williams

Another hot hatchback whose form was chiseled out by pesky rallying regs, only this time the engine was a nat-asp 2.0-litre. One fitted traditionally and squeezed somewhat hilariously under its bonnet to drive the front wheels through a sweet five-speed manual.

While it’s a safer tin-can hot hatch than its Peugeot 205 GTI contemporary, a Clio Willy can still shimmy around with abandon. Delightfully bridging the gap between Eighties danger hatches and the genre’s Nineties maturing (at the hands of escalating insurance premiums), all while boasting the plushest sports seats of the era, it’s one of the greats.

1995 Renault Sport Spider

Full disclosure: this isn’t one of the greats. But if history is chockful of cars too special to need boundless talent to swell their cheeks and values, Renault’s little speedster is among them. The company even used its own cars as dull background extras to exaggerate its specialness in spectacular marketing shots like the one above.

The Spider’s tale might be more storied if Renault hadn’t had the rotten luck of launching it slap bang in the middle of the Nineties, right as Lotus were wheeling out a little sportscar called ‘Elise’ that was an astonishing 200 kilos lighter and significantly more compelling to drive.

That Renault Sport has now been subsumed by Alpine, and is therefore now working with Lotus on a new electric sportscar, feels somewhat pertinent.

1998 Renault Clio V6

Remember the 5 Turbo from a mere three slides ago? So did Renault at the end of the last millennium when it created this wonderfully deranged little hatch. Well, little in length. It’s so wide as to almost sit square on the ground.

Squeezed amidships was the 3.0-litre V6 engine from a contemporary Laguna, driving the rear wheels. In the prettier Phase 1 Clio V6 pictured above, that led to some quite frenetic handling.

Renault added power yet smoothed off the edges for the Phase 2, which is fast becoming a heroically expensive classic. How brave are you feeling?

2008 Renault Megane R26.R

Pit a Clio V6 against one of these and you’ll dispel any notion of ‘front-wheel drive’ equating to ‘wrong-wheel drive’. Perhaps the most talented FWD car on the planet, Renault mercilessly stripped weight from the already pretty decent Megane R26 to ignite hot hatch warfare around the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Renault Sport stripped 123 kilos from the Megane – the rear seats, stereo and most of the airbags were first to go, before a new carbon bonnet and plastic rear windows trimmed the figure yet more.

While it was created to chase a lap time, what resulted was a two-seater hatch offering more satisfaction than supercars ten times the price, adeptly dispelling the ‘Ring laps ruin cars’ notion too.

2009 Renault Clio 200 Cup

Until its slightly aloof fourth (and now final) generation, the RS Clio was among the most reliably fantastic performance cars on sale, boasting similar form to a 911 GT3 or BMW M3.

To the extent this could easily be ‘Top 9 Renault Sport Clio special editions from the 2000s’ if we wanted to drill down with the clarity of an unconfident Mastermind contestant picking a specialist subject.

But elbowing delectable little 172 Cups and 182 Trophys out the way in this more diverse list is the mesmeric little 200 Cup, the zenith of the Mk3 RS Clio and to some – including the fingers typing these words – of dinky hot hatches as a whole.

A nat-asp 2.0-litre with as much power as can reasonably be produced without a turbo is mated to a chassis that gives you whatever the heck you ask from it – the tenacity of a shrunken touring car or the whimsy of the loose-hipped hatch icons – with millimetric precision. A truly joyful car.

2013 Renault Twizy F1

We bet you’d forgotten about this, huh? It never made production, and it’s ostensibly only here to stop this portion of the internet resembling a particularly geeky discussion on a Clio fan forum.

But while Tesla, Porsche and Lotus currently take acclaim for sexing up electric cars, never forget that Renault Sport had a go back in 2013.

Essentially, a Twizy got the KERS system from a contemporary F1 car and the ‘wheel from an F3 single-seater. It was a marketing tool - for, well, we’re not 100 per cent sure what – that understandably never got the chance to slice pedestrians’ ankles in the real world. Shame though, huh?

2016 Renault Megane 275 Cup-S

Renault’s successor to the mighty R26.R – the Megane 275 Trophy-R – sliced over 20 seconds from its Ring time and pushed the boundaries of how extreme a FWD car can feel yet further.

And yet every bit as impressive was the civilian version, for those of us more likely to be transporting humans than spare tyres. There were nigh on infinite strains of special edition in the Megane’s third generation, but Renault saved the best ‘til last – the Cup-S was a fully seated, mostly practical hatchback with all the nerdy tech bits from the Trophy-R lying expensively but tantalisingly on its options list.

2019 Renault Megane RS Trophy-R

Like at least half of the cars on this list, Renault’s third stab at a Ring-bashing hot hatch makes little sense on paper. Take a five-door car, whip the seats out from behind those back doors, then fit carbonfibre wheels and brakes ensuring it retails with surprisingly little profit margin.

What resulted is every bit as enthrallingly driver focused as a similarly priced Porsche Cayman GT4. The two cars could have been made by the same team of people, such is their shared ethos.

This was the Renault Sport team with little (if any) limit placed on them – hence the expensive components and the fact the Trophy-R ditched the four-wheel steering and paddleshift auto tech that were headline acts in its base car.

One can only imagine the fraught boardroom discussions ironing that one out, but perhaps the engineers knew this car would draw the slightly flimsy, lightweight curtain on Renault Sport. This Megane certainly constitutes going out with a bang.

STORY Stephen Dobie

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