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As the new millennium approached, the hot hatch wasn’t in the rudest health, largely if not entirely killed off by soaring insurance premiums.
But rudeboy monthly Max Power was thriving. It was on its way to becoming the UK’s biggest-selling car magazine, bigger than Top Gear ,and its pages were crammed full of economy hatchbacks with DiY engine transplants and wide-arch conversions.
I know, because two decades ago I served an apprenticeship there – barely controlling my screams from the passenger seat of a V6 Vauxhall Nova, and barely controlling a twin-engined Mk1 Golf.
Compared with some of the lukewarm performance models many makers were selling at the time, this was a breath of fresh air.
Was Max thriving because of a gap in the market? Were the major makers taking note?
Both arrived in 2001, and both were humdrum base cars to which their manufacturers added six-cylinder powertrains, extreme bodywork and a dash of Max attitude.
They are extraordinary now and were certainly extraordinary then, but history told us that neither was completely out of the blue.
The Renault has the most logical bloodline, with a lineage back to the mid-engined 5 Turbo made for rallying from 1980.
Those tendencies resurfaced through the ’90s on the back of Williams-Renault scoring six Formula One manufacturers’ titles on the bounce, first with the one-off Espace F1 in 1995, a people carrier with a V10 engine; then the Sport Spider a year later, a 930kg roadster that made the Elise look sensible.
That was the first to wear the Dieppe-based Renault Sport badge, the Clio V6 second.
Renault previewed the Clio V6 as a racer for a one-make series to succeed the Sport Spider championship, but in 1999 it confirmed it would build a low-volume run of road cars.
Or at least Tom Walkinshaw Racing would: the British company developed these unhinged Clios and handbuilt them at its Uddevalla facility in Sweden alongside the Volvo C70 coupé.
‘Our’ Clio V6 is an excellent example of the Phase 1 original, of which 1516 were made, brought along by specialist SG Motorsport on behalf of owner Mark Kempson.
Even if you somehow overlook its 171mm wider bodywork of composite panels made by MOC (the people behind the Espace F1’s silhouette), those F1-style side pods and the fact that the rear seats are AWOL, there’s no missing that this Clio is mid-engined and powered by something more exotic than a 2-litre ‘four’, even at a standstill.
The engine wakes from behind you with a warm, smooth idle that brims with barrel-chested, unstressed power.
Those sophisticated tones make an odd bedfellow for the Clio’s interior.
At £25,995, the V6 was about £11k pricier than the next-best-thing Clio 172, and the PR guff drew parallels with a Porsche Boxster.
Yet the blue and grey plastic mouldings feel insubstantial, the seats high-set and lacking lateral support. And there’s a reverse-Tardis sense of constricted elbowroom, despite an exterior to bother width restrictors.
If the interior is a carryover from the 172, the chassis is a big difference – the body was lowered over a rear box-section built up on a jig, with unique multi-link rear suspension, and there ’s a new crossmember where four cylinders should have perched.
The front track is 110mm wider, the rear 138mm, and the front arches were cut off and re-welded to accommodate 17in wheels – two inches larger than the 172’s – behind which four-piston AP Racing brakes were fitted.
As hardcore as these modifications were, Renault intriguingly marketed the V6 as a GT-flavoured sporting car with a cushioned ride.
That softness actually adds to the challenge of a heart-in-mouth drive – the Clio lolls about gently on its suspension, smothering expansion joints and, tellingly, rolling on to its outside rear wheel whenever possible.
Even when you’re not pushing, you sense that weight transfer plays a big part in this car’s dynamics.
Driving gently, you also notice relatively leisurely but nicely detailed and weighted steering, the long, lazy throw of a gearshifter that sits up higher than in other Clios, like a miniature Statue of Liberty, and is in such stark contrast to the keen bite of the AP brakes.
Above all, the V6 stands out as it hauls energetically from low revs. Renault cranked it up 20bhp from the 207bhp Laguna with new pistons featuring different crowns that increased the compression ratio, larger inlet ports and optimised induction paths.
The rev limit was raised by 500rpm to 7100rpm, too, and a lighter flywheel was fitted.
Given the shopping car/big engine combination, it doesn’t take off like a pinged elastic band when you flatten the accelerator.
Blame flab: at 1355kg, the V6 is more than 300kg chunkier than the 172. But wind it up and the warm, fuzzy bass of the lower end morphs into an angrier zing in the rush toward 7000rpm, and there’s certainly plenty of punch for cracking on. You just need to roll up your sleeves.
Driven with this kind of enthusiasm it’s in the corners that the V6 really puts a gulf between itself and more conventional siblings.
Stamp on the brakes and speed falls away instantly as the beautifully judged ABS makes the front tyres chirrup just a little.
You need to be more measured as you bleed off the pedal and arc the nose towards corners – with so little weight over the front it just glides in, delicate and pure, but you’ve also set physics in motion.
The Clio is softer and shorter than your typical mid-engined sports car and that hefty engine is already leaning on the outside rear suspension; as it lazily compresses, so the V6 begins to act like the heavy end of a thrown hammer.
This gives the Clio a fabulously throttle-adjustable balance, and the softness actually makes it quite progressive.
But beware: if you snap the throttle shut in a panic, that weight will quickly snap back and you might as well be juggling as steering.
And if you keep your foot in and let the rear end step out too far, there’s only minimal steering lock (the turning circle is 13m, three metres more than the 172).
The operating window between exploiting the delicious mid-engined balance and the emergency services requiring a compass to find you is perilously narrow.
Even when you get it just right there’s no limited-slip diff to ride out the slide, adding further unpredictability.
This is not a car in which to arrive ahead of schedule at an unfamiliar corner, and it might not be much faster than a 172 partly as a result.
But it is a brilliant drive, both because it feels so incongruously exotic and it is such a challenge.
The Phase 2 Clio V6 arrived in 2003 and addressed many Phase 1 shortfalls. It was a firmer, smarter-looking, better-balanced car (and also easy to bury in a snowbank on the ice racetrack in front of Jean Ragnotti and Patrick Tambay on the launch).
As such, prices range from £23,000 to £70,000, but there’s a purity to the Phase 1 as the start of the line, and they’re cheaper at £17-30,000 – if you can find one.
There were only 250 examples of the Beetle RSI, all silver (251 if you include car 002, a blue one-off for boss Ferdinand Piëch), and one will now set you back around £45k.
‘Our’ Norwegian import recently sold at a Bonhams MPH auction for £33,750, and in very good nick it is, too.
For a car so close in era and concept, the Beetle couldn’t have been executed more divergently, taking a far more conservative – and no doubt more economically sensible – path to a similarly extrovert car with similar performance.
Like the Clio, the Beetle had its roots in motorsport, with a one-make series in Germany featuring a grid of Beetle Cup cars powered by 204bhp V6 engines.
No modern Beetle before or since the RSI got all-wheel drive or a VR6 engine (the closest was the front-drive V5, but mostly it was a cuddly machine more focused on retro flower power than actual power).
We had, however, seen 2.8- and 2.9-litre versions of its narrow-angle V6 with a common cylinder head through the 1990s.
The luxurious V6 4Motion Golf was still on sale, and combined that engine with Haldex all-wheel drive.
The limited-edition RSI Beetle essentially took these proven parts in 2001 and previewed a sportier twist on the theme, with its wilder exterior and interior plus a capacity increase to 3.2 litres – the VR6 barely fits in the engine bay.
This new displacement would later resurface for mass production with the four-wheel-drive Golf R32 and six-cylinder Audi TT, all sharing the same platform and the RSI as their testbed.
Power was only 5bhp off the Clio at 222bhp, but, because this is a substantially larger machine with a propshaft and four driveshafts, it’s some 160kg heavier.
The chassis was enhanced to complement the extra performance, with lowered suspension featuring revised rear geometry, and uprated Brembo brakes tucked inside 18in OZ Superturismo alloys.
The bodykit is lifted straight from the Beetle Cup racer and includes 80mm-wider arches, deeper bumpers front and rear, and a huge pramhandle below the rear window that’s fed air by a smaller, roof-mounted wing. Twin Remus exhaust pipes poke from under the rear valance.
If the Clio feels low-rent, the Beetle’s interior looks more special than many Audi TTs – and it needed to, given that the RSI cost £50,000 new: three times more than the next-priciest Beetle.
The highlight is a pair of gorgeous fixed-back Recaro bucket seats with carbon shells that cup you much more securely than the Clio’s, while still having a plump squish of leather luxury; they’re as perfect for the track as they are for a four-hour schlep.
The rears are matched in similarly high-quality tropical leather, so you can actually carry passengers in the back and put luggage behind those passengers, too.
You also find carbonfibre doorcards front and rear, Alcantara headlining, and billet aluminium where usually there’s plastic: the passenger grabhandle, window winders, door pulls, speaker surrounds, even the sunvisors. It’s bling, yet with a quality that keeps it the right side of brash.
Go-faster finishing touches include shift lights in the centre of the carbonfibre instrument binnacle, and a trio of gauges for oil temperature, pressure and battery volts that sit where other Beetles have a radio.
Here the radio has been relocated to the roof. Fortunately the daft vase for flowers has been relocated to the bin.
Driving the Beetle is like motoring around in a Monopoly top hat – you can almost stand up inside, and you have about as much chance of touching the front of the vast, desk-like dashboard as you have the rear parcel shelf.
Because the VR6 isn’t actually in the cabin with you, it’s far more subtle as you put the key into the ignition and press the start button that’s inconveniently located by the handbrake.
But it is sophisticated and smooth, and woofles with potential even at idle.
The clutch is on the meaty side, if not obstructive, and that short, stubby gearlever is delightfully positive, with a snicky mechanical action.
Like the Clio’s, the steering is quite leisurely but accurate and nicely weighted, and as you move about you notice the prompt throttle response, the characterful gargle of the engine, and the vigour with which it pulls through the mid-range, this easy speed matched by the authority of the Brembo brakes.
The VW also feels an unyieldingly firm car – a track, such as here at Bicester Heritage, usually disguises this kind of thing, but the suspension really smacks over expansion joints, and at best I’d brace for a pretty brittle ride on B-roads.
That’s perhaps unfair because our Norwegian import still wears winter tyres, which squeal and scrub in these warmer, drier conditions as you barrel into corners off-throttle, but a Clio V6 on winters would be opposite-locking as if you were driving a skidpan car.
The Beetle is much more inert and foolproof, rolling far less than the Clio, mostly gripping or understeering mildly.
It puts its ample power down without a chirrup given an aggressive stab of power and only feigns the mildest interest in throttle adjustability – and that’s if you disable the stability control, a safety feature with which the far spikier Clio V6 doesn’t bother.
Strangely, the RSI also feels slower the harder you drive it – use the revs and, while there’s a nice metallic edge to the soundtrack, it’s all a bit unwilling.
Much better to use the torque and let the V6 warble its way through the mid-range; you feel as if you’re going faster without trying.
Thumpy ride aside, the Beetle RSI makes a lot of sense in a typically Volkswagen Group kind of way.
It’s finished to the highest standards inside and out, and VW used tried-and-tested mechanicals that it was able to amortise across other model lines, offsetting the RSI’s rarity.
Driven down a dark, wet B-road, the Beetle is also far less likely to kill you than the Clio, even if the suspension will have a good go at breaking your back.
And if you’re handing cars out to strangers and trying to make money, the Volkswagen makes the stronger case.
The Clio makes almost no sense at all, with its bespoke mid-engined chassis and specially tuned V6 bundled together with a cheap interior and some improvised engineering hacks.
It smacks of a nutjob research and development team hijacking the entire process and refusing to open the door every time an understandably worried accounts department came knocking.
Driven vigorously, the Clio will also take every possible opportunity to spin you off the road.
Viewed from the Renault boardroom, it was probably a bit of a headache. Viewed two decades on, it’s this esoteric French hot hatch I’d rather own of the two highly appealing millennials.
Today, the Beetle RSI bloodline lives on in the Golf R, while Renault long ago gave up putting hot-hatch engines behind the front seats, and arguably went even bolder with the almost entirely bespoke Alpine A110 sports car.
Those two would seem an odd match-up 20 years from now, but the oddball Clio and Beetle diverged from surprisingly similar origins.
Images: Will Williams
Renault Clio V6
- Sold/number built 2001-’03/1513
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 2946cc 24-valve V6, electronic fuel injection
- Max power 230bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 221lb ft @ 3750rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear multi-link, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 12ft 6in (3803mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1810mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1351mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2510mm)
- Weight 2987lb (1355kg)
- 0-60mph 6.2 secs
- Top speed 147mph
- Mpg 24
- Price new £25,840
- Price now £17-30,000*
Volkswagen Beetle RSI
- Sold/number built 2001-’03/250
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-heads, dohc 3189cc V6, electronic fuel injection
- Max power 222bhp @ 6200rpm
- Max torque 237lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual, part-time 4WD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 13ft 5in (4100mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1810mm)
- Height 4ft 8in (1475mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2513mm)
- Weight 3340lb (1515kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4 secs
- Top speed 140mph
- Mpg 20
- Price new £50,000
- Price now £35-45,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication