The History Of Renault Hot Hatches

21st Aug 2014

Over the years, Renault, through its motorsport division Renault Sport, have given us plenty of models to excite us. Though there are plenty of motorsport achievements to talk about, it's their road-going counterparts that we'll be focusing on here.


Motorsport background

Renault Sport was formed in 1976, when Renault merged Alpine and Gordini Tuning together.

With Alpine focusing on the chassis design and utilising Gordini's engine expertise, this proved to be a successful partnership on the track. It spawned many impressive racing cars and even winning Le Mans in 1978 with the Renault Alpine A442B.

Renault Alpine

Renault 5 Turbo

In 1976, the Renault 5 Alpine was launched, and was one of the first 'hot hatches'. It was on sale even before the Volkswagen Golf GTi - a car that is widely regarded to have created the hot hatch market.

It wasn't the fastest car, with only 92hp it could only achieve a 0-60mph time of 9.7s, and that lead to the launch of a turbocharged version, called the Renault 5 Gordini Turbo. This ramped performance up significantly, with the engine now producing 110hp, the 0-60mph time dropped to a more brisk 8.7s.

Things didn't really 'hot' up until 1980 however, when Renault Launched a massively modified model simply called Renault 5 Turbo. It was different in almost every way to the Gordini versions, as the engine was moved from its traditional place under the bonnet, to behind the driver in place of the rear seats - creating a mid-engined hot hatch that was ready to go rallying. In the beginning, only 400 were made for homologation purposes, but by the end of its 4-year production run, more than 3500 had been produced. 

It won a total of 4 WRC rallies, as well as many hearts back in the 1980s - there was nothing else like it on the road. The Turbo 2 improved upon the original, and boasted 160hp from a 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. It could hit 62mph in 6.6s, which is rapid even by modern standards.

Renault 5 gt turbo

Clio Williams

The Renault Clio Williams was launched to critical acclaim in 1993. It's reasonably large 2.0-litre engine produced a sizeable 150hp, propelling the car from 0-60mph in 7.8s, which again, is still decent by modern standards.

It wasn't just the outright pace of the care that impressed, it was its incredible, thrilling handling that puts this car in the list of the all-time great hot hatchbacks, alongside the the likes of the Escort RS Turbo and the Peugeot 205 GTi.

Despite originally planning to build just 500, the Clio Williams 1 sold over 5,000, and so Renault continued to make the Clio Williams 2 and 3, and sales totalled over 12000 before production ended in 1995.

It came without extras such as ABS, electric mirrors, a sunroof and even a stereo system - with the primary aim saving weight. We can thank this little car for the rest of the hot Clios that we have been lucky to enjoy in this country ever since.

Renault Clio Williams

Clio II Renault Sport

The Phase 1 Clio Renault Sport was called the Clio Renault Sport 172 in the U.K, thanks to its 172 bhp from the naturally aspirated 2.0-L 16v 4 cylinder engine. IT was a whole heap of fun, and continued on the principles of the Clio Williams which were light weight, fizzy, responsive engine and brilliant handling charactertistics. It came with a bargain price tag too, costing just £15,995 when it was launched in June 2000. At the time, it was impossible to go faster for less, and could achieve 0-60mph in 7.0s and a top speed of 138mph - really impressive figures that some hot hatches would be jealous of even in today's market. The car was facelifted in 2001 and In August 2002, Renault stripped out the Clio, leaving behind a ready-to-race road-rocket called the Clio 172 Cup. It did without the fancy Leather/Alcantara Seats, Automatic Xenon headlights and Rain sensitive wipers, air conditioning or ABS. It also had thinner glass in the windows and some of the sound deadening removed, resulting in a significant amount of weight saving. This practice dropped the 0-60mph time to a frighteningly quick 6.7s.

After another refresh in 2004, the Clio RS Trophy was named as Evo Magazine's People's Performance Car of the Year in 2005. It came in Cup Spec, but had further uprated suspension parts, was lower by 10mm, had lightweight Speedline Turini alloys, a spoiler from the V6 Clio (which we'll come on to later) and Recaro Trendline seats. It was made especially for the UK market, with only 500 made, though 50 extra ones were built and sent out to Switzerland.

Renault Clio

Clio V6

The Clio V6 remains to this day one of the most bonkers cars ever to come out of France. Or the whole of Europe. Or the world. The engineers went really rather crazy, ripped out the back seats and slapping a huge 3.0-litre V6 engine where the kids should be sat.

Here are all the reasons why you wouldn't want to buy this car:

It has a tiny 45-litre boot - V6 takes up most of the space.

It's not economical at all, the combined economy figure is 23.7mpg.

At 13m, the turning circle is massive - life becomes one long 3-point turn.

The V6 sits right behind your head, and it's very loud.

Despite all the above reasons, you still want one. Above all, the Clio V6 was a very, very fast car. The original Phase 1 cars had 227bhp, but 2003-2005 Phase 2 V6s turned it up even further, producing 252bhp and rocket from 0-60mph in just 5.6s, which is almost supercar levels of performance. It was hand built by RenaultSport technicians, and feels every bit as special as it small production numbers suggest that it is. And just look at the thing - the Phase 2 models really were a thing of beauty, the specially commissioned wide body was built in a Finnish bodyshop, and it unintentionally harks back to the Group B rally cars of the 1980s.

Renault Clio V6

Megane Renault Sport

Renault launched its first Megane RenaultSport in 2004, having seen the great success that the hot versions of the Clio were having. Unlike the Clio, the Megane was turbocharged to give it the necessary oomph to shift all the extra weight it carried over the smaller Clio. The original models were good enough for 0-60 in 6.5s, and a top speed of 147mph - so this was a very quick car indeed. Noticeably faster than the Clio, and enough to keep up with the Ford Focus ST and Vauxhall Astra VXR that were released soon afterwards.

In 2005 the Cup chassis version was released, cutting weight by 10kg, and adding drilled disc brakes, Brembo callipers and stiffened steering, leading to sharper handling and faster track times. It was a great car, but it was to become even better later down the line with a couple of very special editions that really launched the Megane ReanultSport into the hot hatch hall of fame.

The first one was the Renaultsport 230 F1 Team R26 special edition, which was commissioned in celebration of Renault's victories in the Formula 1 2005 Drivers and Constructors' championship. It had a sports exhaust, new rear dampers, gloss black wheels, and more luxury features such as cruise control, climate control, an upgraded stereo system and fantastic Recaro seats.

More importantly however was the R26.R version. This was a stripped out road-racer, built for one thing really: to break the FWD Nurburgring lap record. It was an extreme version of an already fairly extreme car. It had the rear seats (and seat belts) ripped out, no passenger or curtain airbags, no climate control, no fog lamps. Even the rear wash/wipe, heated rear window, the headlamp washers and even the stereo were removed. Most of the soundproofing went as well. Other weight-saving measures included a carbon fibre bonnet and plastic rear windows, and the total weight lost was a very significant 123kg, resulting in a total weight of just 1230 KG. This means that it accelerated from 0-60mph in just 5.9s, almost as quick as the mad Clio V6 that had gone before. The performance gains from this serious diet were obvious and the R26.R managed to lap the Nurburgring in a time of just 8:16.90 - quicker than a Porsche Cayman S at the time. These special editions are rare (only 450 were made) and they're pretty darn expensive even if you do manage to track a used example down.

Renault Megane Sport

Clio III Renault Sport

The third generation Clio was a totally new car for Renault, much bigger and heavier than any Clio that had gone before. This presented Renault Sport with a major challenge: to make the new Clio RS as exciting and as brilliant as the ones that had gone before it. They managed it through a combination of increased power outputs, shorter gearing and a more responsive steering rack. It won multiple awards for its brilliance, beating everything from the likes of the Ford Focus ST, VW Golf GTI and MINI Cooper S to be named their hot hatch of choice in 2009.

Again powered by a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder 2.0-litre engine, the Clio RS now produced 197bhp, and was a 'joy to rev' according to many leading car road test magazines. It wasn't the most torquey engine available however, so it's a good job there was joy to be found from revving it hard. Cup versions were 36kg lighter than the regular ones, and came in a variety of eye-popping colours such as 'Alien Green'. It won other awards too, including twice being crowned Autocar's Hot Hatch of the Year in 2010 and 2011, and winning WhatCar? Car of the Year - Best Hot Hatch £15,000-£20,000 three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Renault Clio

Twingo RenaultSport

The Twingo is the baby in the RenaultSport range, and focuses more on handling than speed. It's peppy 1.6 VVT naturally aspirated engine is spritely, and if you work it hard you will be able to get down a British b-road at a fairly rapid pace. It has 131bhp from its engine, and hits 60mph in 8.7s from standstill. Its handling is pure, and its intentions clear - it just wants to put a smile on your face. And it does so too, especially in Cup chassis form where the suspension is 4mm lower and features stiffer springs and larger wheels.

Renault Twingo Gordini Sport

Megane III RenaultSport

The Megane III is a very striking car - it looks absolutely brilliant, especially in the brighter colours such as yellow and red. There were two different types when it was launched, the 'Cup' edition was the cheaper, and featured less equipment but a more track-focused chassis set up, enabling you to have more fun when the roads get twisty. It had suspension that was 15% stiffer, and stickier Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. 

Whichever version you purchased, especially ones without the cup chassis, it was much more refined than previous hot Renaults. Better sound proofing, ride comfort and the ability to travel much longer distances were welcome attributes, after years of manic, loud, bonkers hot hatches it was pleasing (to some) to have a more relaxed experience - you could now enjoy the car with none of the previous drawbacks.

This more docile nature was not to last long however, and the Megane 265 Trophy and Cup versions were soon released. The Trophy edition was faster and more powerful, and only 500 were made. It features extra power, torque and larger 19" alloy wheels as standard. This car broke the FWD Nurburgring lap record again, recording a time of 8 minutes and 8 seconds. It's been named What Car? Best Hot Hatch for 5 successive years in its category.

Recently, Seat broke the Nurburgring FWD lap record with the Leon Mk3 Cupra, and Renault were determined to take it back. That's why they came up with the RS 275 Trophy-R, which brings back many of the weight-saving features pioneered by the R25.R. It gets rid of the back seats, air con and rear wash/wipe, sound deadening and a radio. There are only going to be 30 units available in the UK, and they cost over £36,000 - pretty expensive. Better to stick with a normal trophy, we think.

Renault Megane Sport