Papa's New Bag
One of the finest hot hatches of the 1990s is one of the shrewdest buys of 2017. We take a Renault Clio Williams back to the F1 team's HQ to show you why it's such a clever money car!
It’s in a particularly challenging series of S-bends where the Renault Clio William s stakes its claim as the bestever hot hatch. The corners, wellsighted and open, are a third-gear delight – where much of the mid-curve fine adjustment is done using the throttle, its 16-valve four-pot singing bet ween 4000 and 6000rpm. Steering, suspension and engine synchronise wonderfully; the Clio taking on the form of a balletic Sports Blue stimulation machine.
Many a pub argument has been fought to a bitter, inconclusive end over the vitally important issue of the greatest hot hatch – but after flinging it through those bends, we’ll wager a stiff one on the Clio fighting off all comers. Which is an interesting position, given that very few people would come close to describing the early 1990s as anything other than a hot hatch dead zone – a trough after the peaks of the mid-1980s.
And that would be true, had Renault not brought us the Clio Williams in 1993. The car might have been named in honour of Renault's Formula 1 partnership with Williams Grand Prix Engineering (see box-out), but its roots lay in Group N rallying. In a nutshell, this 2.0-litre version of the Clio 16S was a homologation special – and as such, it gained a number of rallying modifications before being coloured up in blue and gold to reflect its super successful F1 alliance.
The standard Clio 16S's 1.8-litre 16V ‘F7P’ engine gained a new crankshaft, pistons, camshafts and con rods. Power increased to 145bhp at 6100rpm for a 130mph-plus maximum speed. Under the skin, it also received a reinforced front subframe, bespoke front struts with new springs and dampers, with uprated front anti-roll bar and rear torsion bars. To give it even more incisive handling, the front track was widened by 20mm.
"Looking at the Clio Williams today you can't help conclude that they absolutely nailed it."
To make the Williams more special than the 16S, Renault stripped it of fripperies. Out went the ABS, electric mirrors, sunroof, and audio system. Today, omitting kit and slapping an RS or Clubsport badge on a car while charging a premium is common practice. Back then it was rather gauche – but Renault did brilliantly with the Clio Williams, and set the template for years to come.
Looking at the Clio Williams today, more than 20 years from its launch, you can’t help but conclude that theyabsolutely nailed it. Perhaps more so than any other hot Renault hatch, this side of the mid-engined R5 Turbo. With those flared front and rear arches, gold and silver Speedlines and contrasting Sports Blue metallic paint, it looks a million Euros.
Inside is equally a treat, with its Williams stitched grey interior and figure-hugging velour seats with blue inserts and matching instrument dials. Lovely. And unlike the car it replaced, the much-worshipped Renault 5GT Turbo, the Clio's interior feels well-made and wouldn’t fall apart with one well-placed kick.
It’s fitting that we’re driving it on some surprisingly challenging back lanes in deepest Oxfordshire. We’re within walking distance of the Williams F1 team’s HQw in Grove, home to not only a race team, but its priceless collection of competition cars. Is our humble Clio worthy of the same stylised ‘W’ badges you find at the race team’s HQ front gates on its tailgate?
From here, we’d say a resounding ‘yes’. The roads are narrow, the surfaces are not exactly smooth, and would challenge a modern hot hatch, let alone one that’s been around the block more than a few times. But the alterations to the Clio's suspension set-up certainly created a car that's great, almost brilliant, to drive – not that the original 16S was a slouch to drive.
Within minutes of the first time you fire it up, you’ll feel confident and ready for fun. The engine responds crisply, with eager throttle response, and it just feels alert, almost angry, even at idle – which sounds busy, but nicely insulated. Perfect for a hot hatch, then.
The seating position is unsportingly high, with offset pedals, but the view out is excellent, which works well here. Slim A-pillars and that lofty view in the snugly supportive bucket seat mean you can place the Clio with real precision. It’s here, on what you’d describe as typical English B-roads, where the Williams is at its entertaining best – and you’ll be on it in no time, getting this French hot hatch to dance on tiptoes, but never stumble.
The steering, although lacking the effusive road feel of a 205 GTI (but better than a R5 GT Turbo), is accurate and allows you to hit every apex beautifully, time and time again. Plant the throttle while kissing the kerb, and you'll marvel in the Williams' brilliant traction, allowing the engine's ample torque to slingshot you to the next corner. Threading a series of bends into one flowing direction change becomes second nature – and an absolute joy.
On a give and take road like this, the Clio is clearly faster than a standard 205 GTI or Renault 5GT Turbo. It feels more stable, planted and capable of absorbing the odd mistake without punishing you severely. Yet it’s full of nervous energy, and completely stimulating. There’s more lateral grip, its brakes are much closer to the performance on offer, and they will resist fade much more effectively.
"Plant the throttle whilst kissing the kerb, and you'll marvel in the Williams' brilliant traction"
As your speed edges higher, respect for the Clio will change to love. It’s the combination of its short-throw, wonderfully mechanical gear change, well-weighted steering and torquey engine that will do it for you. Fast becomes effortless. But it's not the speed that impresses, but the balance and traction, both of which are so beguiling. As for overtaking – as long as you have it fizzing above 3000rpm, the Clio will rocket past most cars.
Cambered and lumpy roads really flatter the Williams, and although we were dreaming of the Route Napoleon when we set off this morning, we’re more than happy with our Oxfordshire rendezvous right now. Its suspension is firm for low-roll cornering, but it's beautifully damped, too. It’s capable of rounding off all but the sharpest irregularities, and allows you to crack on where stiffer cars will bounce you into slowing down.
We haven’t spoken too much about its performance yet. Not because it isn’t quick, but in the shadow of the Williams factory, on these narrow roads, it doesn’t seem that relevant. It’s fast enough without being scary.
Renault's performance figures bear this out. The maximum speed is 134mph and 0-60mph time is 7.8 seconds, which puts it in the same area as a modern VW Golf GTD. But you can guarantee the VW driver wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on under his tyres – unlike the Clio driver. Even by 1990s standards, it wasn’t that fast.
But despite that, we’d take the Williams every time. Its F1 connection may well be the inspired creation of a creative marketing department, but we love it all the same. When it elbowed its way into the hot hatch arena in 1993, it found itself without any rivals, and did much to restore the market sector’s credibility after a sustained attack from the insurance industry and the arriviste roadsters and coupés, spearheaded by the brilliant Mazda MX-5 and (less so) Vauxhall Calibra.
Williams and Renault in motorsport
When Renault and Williams partnered up in Formula 1 in an arrangement that lasted between 1989 and 1999, they enjoyed a remarkable period of success.
From the off, this was a partnership that looked set to do well – it was the end of the turbo era, and with its new V10 RS1 engine plus drivers Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese, Williams-Renault was up with McLaren-Honda and Ferrari at the sharp end of the grid (after finishing seventh in the Constructor’s Championship with a Judd V8 engine the previous year). So much so that the much-fancied Belgian driver managed to take two wins in the team’s maiden season.
It was just the beginning of what would prove to be an amazing era for the company in F1 and the British Touring Car Championship. In 1990, Boutsen and Patrese returned with an evolution of the previous year’s car, winning one race each.
In 1991, Williams-Renault entered a new era of high tech. That year’s challenger, the FW14, boasted a semi-auto gearbox, active suspension and the grid’s most powerful engine. All that stopped Williams cleaning up was the car’s poor reliability.
The following year, and with the more highly developed FW14B, Williams swept all before it to take the championship, with Mansell taking nine wins. For 1993, Alain Prost joined the team, and with new team mate Damon Hill, swept to the constructor’s title and ten race wins between them.
The 1994 season looked set for a repeat with Ayrton Senna joining Williams. But that was the year where much of the tech – including active suspension and ABS – was shorn. Senna struggled to catch Michael Schumacher in his Benetton Ford and in the third race of the season, Imola, he crashed fatally. Damon Hill took on the mantle of team leader, manfully fighting Benetton for the rest of the season, losing out when Schumacher rammed him off track in Australia; Damon would eventually take the title for Williams-Renault in 1996. Although Jacques Villeneuve scored a memorable championship win in 1997, the Anglo-French partnership went downhill in F1 from that point on, petering out on the back of Ralf Schumacher and Alex Zanardi’s 1999 campaign in their Williams-Supertec (arebadged customer Renault V10).
Today, you can see these cars and more at the Williams collection at Grove (williamsf1.com). You’ll need to pre-arrange a visit but it’s well worth making the effort to do so.
The Modern Classics View
Today, it’s considered a hot hatch great – but we’d go further and say it’s up there with the VW Golf MkI, and Peugeot's 205 GTI and 306 Rallye as one of the very best. In a decade that was starved of talented affordable hot hatches, the Williams came in and kicked at an open door to take class honours. And we’re eternally grateful for that. As a modern classic, it has almost everything going for it – it's quick without being anti-socially fast, and it handles so brilliantly, you’ll feel good even when going shopping.
It's special, is appreciated by true aficionados, and is already heading in the same value direction as the Renault 5GT Turbo – and we already know it’s better than that. Should you buy one to invest in? Well, with 30 per cent increases in value in the past three years (for the best examples), your head will say you’d be mad not to. But in truth, your heart will have won you over at the very first corner – so much so, that you’ll never look back.
Specifications Renault Clio Williams 1
Transmission FWD, 5-speed manual
Performance 0-60mph 7.8sec
Top speed 134mph