What's this ball of testosterone?
It's only the most eagerly anticipated hot hatch of the year. Successor to the 182, the Clio 197 is the first of the small fast Renaults to use the new, third generation Clio platform. It's bigger and heavier but more powerful too.
So, what separates the hot version from a 'normal' Clio?
The 197 is built on a bespoke production line at Renaultsport in Dieppe, where the basic shell is among very few shared components with the stock car. The wings are flared to cover a track widened by 48mm at the front and 50mm at the back. There's an additional duct for cooling air in the front wings, as well as new front and rear bumpers, side skirts and grilles, heavily bolstered seats, aluminium suspension components and a Brembo brake set-up pinched from the Megane 225.
What about the engine?
It's basically the same as the old hot Clio's, but with an extra 15bhp to counteract the disappointing 150kg kerbweight increase. The naturally aspirated 1998cc four has had tweaks to the camshaft and valves, a higher compression ratio, and the peak output of 194bhp is delivered at a frenetic 5550rpm. The old five-speed gearbox is replaced by a six-speed manual 'box. Changing gear is great fun thanks to those closely-stacked ratios and a trio of alloy pedals, specially shaped for heel and toeing.
How does it drive?
On tight, twisty roads the engine is easily exploited and enormous fun. It feels punchy and endlessly keen to rev until the change-up light's blinking at you just below the 8000rpm red line. The downside is that there's little torque low down, so you're always changing gear in order to find decent performance, and it's annoyingly buzzy on the motorway. At least the driving position is bearable these days. Thank the deep bucket seats and reach adjustable steering for that.
And in the bends?
The chassis feels better resolved than the old car's, still superbly adept at switching direction with good manners and little fuss, but somehow the edge that made you respect the 182 is gone. It's mostly the fault of the new and slightly vague electric power steering but also true of the chassis as a whole - it's more composed but also a little more numb. That's not to say the 197 is dull - far from it. It feels both ultra-stiff and wieldy, and when you throw it into a corner it's difficult to believe the amount of grip available - to come unstuck takes both speed and a brutal approach. It's fun but it's certainly grown up.
Anything else I need to know?
Well , you might want to hang on a few more months and scrape together a few extra grand for the new Civic Type-R. Or take a drive in a Focus ST. It's got a great five-pot warble, loads more room and much better steering than the Renault.
At £15,995, it's £1195 pricier than the 182 but feels more expensive too. It's far less manic than the old car and far easier to live with yet still a laugh a mile to drive. But if you do want something more akin to the old car you'll have to wait for the harder-edged Cup version.