Lyon, France - Imagine a widebody Dodge Neon coupe. Mid-engined. Rear-wheel drive. No longer powered by a humble four-cylinder but by a V-6 borrowed from the 300M. Get the picture? That's essentially the transformation Renault's Clio econo-hatch has undergone at the hands of Renault Sport and Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). The result is the awesome Clio V6, son of the Renault 5 Turbo 2 and Renault's newest racer for the road.
Like its charismatic predecessor, the genetically manipulated Clio does not share many items with its mass-production siblings. Under the hood, where lesser Clios have their engine and transmission, the Clio V6 has a black plastic tray that serves as a bonsai cargo hold. The engine instead looms large behind the front seats. Although sealed off by a well-insulated clamshell capsule, the 24-valve V-6 is still every bit as audible as an angry mother-in-law riding shotgun. Mounted east-west, the 3.0-liter engine, which produces 230 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, is mated to an extremely long-legged six-speed manual transmission. With the exception of anti-lock brakes, there are no electronic watchdogs to aid traction or to sort out any handling imbalance. On grippy tarmac, the wild-looking Renault will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds. The top speed is an even more impressive 147 mph, although it takes a long time to get there. Fuel economy? About 16 mpg.
The Clio V6 comes together at TWR's facility in Uddevalla, Sweden, where serious structural reinforcements are required before an engine can be planted in the middle of the car. While they are at it, the Anglo-Scandinavian welding artists stretch the wheelbase and widen the track, front and rear. The suspension is also all new. Up front are damper struts and lower wishbones, with longitudinal and transverse links at the back, abetted by compact spring and damper units. Thick anti-roll bars and four large vented disc brakes complete the chassis setup. Although the doors and fenders are composite, the Clio V6 still tips the scales at a sumo-esque 2955 pounds.
Visually, the Clio V6 is an absolute treat. The designers created a much more sensuous and sculptured body with prominent lateral air intakes, a massive front spoiler, flared front and rear fenders, sills that are now almost too wide to step over, multi-lens headlamps with xenon bulbs, and a busy rear bumper that incorporates two rectangular breathing gills and a pair of enormous tailpipes. The alloy wheels are shod with well-filling Michelin Pilot Sport SX tires--205/50ZR-17 front and 235/45ZR-17 rear.
Inside, however, the mid-engined Clio is definitely more Renault than Sport. The plasticky dashboard is almost unchanged, and the build quality is more in line with a $15,000 runabout than with a $34,000 hot hatch. Strong points include the comfortable and generously adjustable seats, the conveniently tall shift lever, and the perfectly spaced drilled metal pedals.
Ready for a blast around the block? Then brace yourself for some serious initial understeer. Directional stability can be best described as sporadic, and at-the-limit handling is a take-your-heart-in-your-hands experience. Power oversteer is the essence of this car's character, but you need to plant your right foot quite early to unstick the rear tires, and, occasionally, it helps to point the nose toward the apex of a turn even before you can see it. What can really throw you on winding roads is the extra-wide turning circle and the steering's lack of lock, both of which must be blamed on serious front-end packaging constraints. On the credit side, the Clio V6 deserves full marks for a set of powerful disc brakes and for its intoxicating drivetrain, which is smooth, torquey, responsive, and unexpectedly refined.
Renault Sport and TWR will build no more than 5000 Clio V6s through September 2003. Since orders already exceed the limited supply, the cars are being allocated to preregistered customers via an Internet raffle.
Perhaps DaimlerChrysler should consider a similarly tricked-out Neon. After all, such a car works wonders for the corporate image--and for the adrenaline flow of its lucky owners.