Why should the rich guys have all the fun? People with more than just a bit of cash to rub between their fingers have a plethora of choices when it comes to buying a high-performance car. Meanwhile, those on a tight budget usually have to settle for a small, underpowered and underperforming vehicle that would bring a driver to tears in both style and thrills. Think Mustang versus Yaris.
But that's all going to change for the buyers in the UAE. Because Renault has decided to bring their tiny Clio RS 200 to our shores, and honestly, I now wish I was in the market for a new car. The Clio follows the formula of the proper hot hatch, with performance that lumps it in with the Honda Civic Type-R, Volkswagen GTI and Mini Cooper S. The problem these other marques will find, though, is that, at Dh84,000, the Clio comes in at least Dh30,000 less expensive than its nearest competitors, sometimes even Dh40,000 or more cheaper. The Type-R, for example, starts at Dh114,999.
But one drive in the Renault and you'll wonder why you would ever pay a dirham more. Because just a day spent hooning around in this little car will put a big, smarmy grin on your face, and it won't be just because you saved a bit of money. Get inside and sit down in the Recaro race-inspired seats; yes, they're sparse and simple, but surprisingly comfortable, even on longer rides. The high side bolstering will keep you in place as you test the car's cornering limits, though they might be rather tight for those "big-boned" people, of which I am not. A driver will find that everything falls right at hand - the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel and the gear shift for the six-speed manual box are right where they should be for spirited driving. The gauges, especially the yellow-striped tachometer, convey a sense that this car is more than just an economical, daily commuting vehicle.
As will the exhaust note as you turn the key. Instantly, a raspy growl shoots from the twin, chrome tail pipes, inspiring a bit of aggression from the driver even before a gear is engaged. At 1,240kg, this is a small car. Which is why 203hp can be so much fun. Straight off the line, the lower-ratio gearing helps get the Clio to 100kph in about 6.9 seconds, with absolutely no torque steer from the front-drive setup. And the engine likes to rev high, and keeping it there - with the help of the six-speed gearbox - is where the power and the fun lies. But that's not even the best part.
No, the real fun is finding any and all roundabouts or twisty pieces of road. The handling is positively go-kart-like, and being sunk into place by the racing seats just eggs a driver on to find the limits of adhesion. You'll have to try very, very hard. There's little to no roll in spirited curves, it just stays planted and poised. Understeer is almost non-existent; only at cornering speeds beyond what most other cars are capable of does the front push out with just a hint of tyre squeal. But even that is subdued, and the Clio snaps back under control instantly. I really couldn't get enough cornering in this car.
All this, yet the ride isn't uncomfortable. It's firm without being jarring, making the Renault practical for everyday driving. And when you need to stop, you'll be rewarded with one of the best brake setups in its class. The Brembo four-piston calipers on the front are shocking in their stopping power yet easy to modulate, a very unexpected performance point in a car like this. Even discounting the performance, the Clio just feels better than its price. Its interior, while maybe not as creative as the Civic's or the Mini's, is still pleasant and has better materials than either car. There is a surprising amount of room for passengers in the rear, both in leg- and headroom. And overall, it just feels solid, from the sound of its doors opening and closing to the feel of the buttons and switches on the dash and steering stalks.
It's not perfect: the front seat belts are a bit of a reach to get, there's a full-size spare strapped to the boot floor, infringing on cargo space (a hidden smaller spare would have been better) and the brake and throttle pedals are too far away from each other for proper heel-and-toe shifting. And even apart from those nitpicks, I have to admit the sportiness of the RS 200 might be a bit overbearing for some people. At around 3,000rpm, the interior buzzes, and any loose change or mobile phones in the tiny tray will only accentuate that. And, at higher speeds, the drone of the engine could get to be a little much after a while; I would have preferred a taller sixth gear, as the exhaust note gets a little grating on a trip to Dubai when the engine is turning over at more than 4,000rpm.
But you don't buy a car like this expecting the luxury of a Mercedes. For the price of a commuter car, you get a little racer that would be an absolute hoot on a track day. Pound for pound, and certainly for the money, this is one of the most fun cars I've ever driven, and goes to the top of my list for hot hatches.