Video Game Hero: 2001 Renault Sport Clio V6

“I think the engineers were a little drunk when they came up with this one,” Ahmad laughs, grinning at the car parked against the curb in front of us under the warm summer sun of an early June afternoon.

Staring down the unusual beast in question, it’s hard not to agree. In fact, I’d venture there exists perhaps no better definition of “The Thing That Should Not Be” in the automotive world than the Renault Sport Clio V6.

Unless you’re a passionate devotee of either Forza or Gran Turismo, chances are you’re unfamiliar with the “Clio” badge, let alone come across one in the wild. Never sold in North America, and with a mere 3,000 or so spread across the rest of the world, the Renault Sport Clio V6 is the most hardcore version of the French automaker’s entry-level hatchback – and perhaps the perfect example of what kind of over-the-top shenanigans can take place when accountants turn their backs on product planners for even a single second.

By now you probably think I’m exaggerating, spinning Euro-hyperbole designed to pull in Francophiles and fans of orphan brands that never quite got a fair shake on this side of the Atlantic. I assure you, that is not the case. In fact, I don’t think I even possess the imagination required to conjure up something as unusual and outrageously cool as the Clio V6 – let alone convince a major car company to put it into production.

You Want to Put What Where?

Typically, when an automaker wants to build a hot hatch they take a strong-selling compact car, slap on stiffer springs and a more aggressive set of dampers, and then either warm over the engine that’s already under the hood or swap in something with a little more pep to keep things interesting for prospective buyers. It’s a simple and time-tested formula that’s been applied to everything from the original Rabbit GTI to the current Ford Focus ST.

In fact, Renault already had a quicker version of its popular Clio called the RS 172 in the stable, which featured pretty much everything you’d expect from a performance-oriented European – but it apparently wasn’t enough. When Renault decided it was time to build the ultimate Clio, the company took everything in the preceding paragraph, crumpled it up, set it on fire, and then swallowed that flaming ball of conventional wisdom just to prove that it could.

Spruce up the suspension? Nah, forget that – we’re tearing out the front CV joints and flipping them around 180 degrees to transform this former front-puller to rear-wheel drive. Turbocharge the Clio’s modest four-banger? That’s cute, every other car company ever, but we don’t need anything under the hood at all. In fact, we’re going to take the largest V6 in our parts bin, tear out the rear seats, and stuff it right behind the driver’s head so it can sit directly on top of that transaxle we installed.

Automotive Insanity

Right about now is when you would typically cue maniacal laughter from Renault’s bean counters, who would have rightly rolled around on the floor clutching their fat, suspendered bellies at the concept that anything resembling the Clio V6’s description would ever make it farther than the fever dream of an ether-addled engineer.

Except that didn’t happen. In fact, quite the opposite: Renault put together a prototype Clio V6 towards the end of 1999 that quickly became the darling of the lucky few auto journos across the continent who had the chance to sample its absurd character. When the production model followed shortly thereafter in 2001, it offered 230 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque drawn from an enormous, 3.0-litre V6, borrowed from the Renault Laguna sedan but upgraded with the kind of deep breathing and new pistons required to support an 11.4:1 compression ratio.

The lump allowed the first-generation Renault Sport Clio V6 to light up its rear tires with amazing alacrity, when it wasn’t scooting to 100 km/h in a respectable 6.2 seconds. It also gave the engineering team the chance to install enormous air-sucking vents just ahead of the car’s massive rear haunches (171 mm wider than any other Clio) in a bid to try and keep the rev-happy six-cylinder cool enough to survive a track session. They were a perfect fit with the vehicle’s wider track (pushed out 110 mm front / 138 mm rear), 17-inch OZ wheels, and dropped suspension setup, all of which gave the hatch phenomenal curb appeal that simply couldn’t be matched by its contemporaries.

Hunting the Beast

I certainly couldn’t help but notice this particular example of Renault’s loony-bin performer when I happened to swing in to Montreal’s Orange Julep cruise spot at 1 am on a Thursday evening in early May. I was half convinced it was a mirage – I’d never seen a Clio V6 on any of my trips to Europe, and I certainly had zero expectation that anyone here in Canada would be passionate enough about French cars to seek one of these ultra-rare speedsters for import.

Of course, that’s only because I had yet to meet Ahmad Latif, the owner of the car in question. More than just a gentleman generous enough with his time to allow a journalist like me the opportunity to drive his impeccably kept 2001 Clio, he also happens to be a huge fan of all things Renault.

“I grew up loving the brand,” he explains. “Their motorsports history – at Le Mans, in Formula 1, in rally, Group A, Group B – has always strongly appealed to me, and I’ve always found they built real driver’s cars.”

Ahmad’s monster hatch was actually hiding in Japan, where Latif was lucky enough to snag it a couple of years ago at auction on the very first week he started his search for a Clio V6. Japanese imports are typically lower mileage and in better condition than their European counterparts, he tells me. There are likely no more than six of these cars in the entire country, and Ahmad knows where each and every one of them is – including “the one my broker bought after he drove mine.”

Despite its Boulogne-by-way-of-Tokyo origins, he’s had no issue keeping the car on the road. “Almost everything in the Clio was taken from other Renaults,” he says. “There’s a lot of parts sharing, and I can order direct from Europe for almost everything.” The only two bugaboos? The electrical system, which he admits has a little trouble dealing with moisture, and the front brakes, which set him back $1,000 a set.

Personality Goes a Long Way

After a quick walk-around, Latif hands me the keys to what is one of the rarest cars in Canada, and tells me not to worry – there’s nothing special I need to be aware of about the car, except for its enormous turning radius.

“It was my biggest surprise after buying it,” he laments. “You create a traffic jam if you try to do a U-turn. People hate you.”

I make a mental note not to squeeze the Clio anywhere that might require a three-pointer, and then immediately forget everything Ahmad had just said to me as soon as I turn the key. The 3.0L roars to life immediately behind me, the ultra-short exhaust piping rendering a pleasing burble and growl that sounds nothing like the raspy, unpleasant note you typically get from a V6.

The six-speed transmission’s shifter sits in a pop-up ring front and centre of the valley that separates the driver and passenger seats, and it falls immediately to hand as we pull away. Clutch action is easy, power delivery is smooth at low RPM, and what I notice more than anything else is how unusual the seating position is in the car – almost like I’m piloting a van rather than a small hatch, an impression compounded by the huge rectangular glass panels that make up the Clio’s greenhouse.

Once on the boulevard, I snap the throttle and the Renault surges forward with the most glorious soundtrack tuning up just aft of my ears. I mention to Ahmad how surprised I am at the dulcet tones of the sixer, and he tells me that while he loves it around town, on a long trip the highway drone is overwhelming.

Intellectually, I understand what Latif is telling me, but emotionally, I’m already deeply in love with the Clio V6, to the point where my magnanimity towards its few foibles knows no bounds. The car’s deft turn-in, excellent throttle response, and “Hey, let’s start a fight!” attitude seeps through the modest plastics of the designed-in-the-90s interior and absorbs through my pores like an outgassing paean to my soul. Later, when shooting a few photos, I don’t even mind that turning the Renault around requires more room than rotating a school bus on a seesaw.

In that rarest of cosmic convergences, the car is exactly what I wanted it to be, and my impressions on how well it drives as the V6 howls are enthusiastically affirmed by Ahmad’s own experience with the car. He takes all of his vehicles to the track, he says, and the Clio is no exception, claiming that it’s a virtual go-kart that’s a blast to rocket around a road course.

“It has nearly 50/50 weight distribution, but just understand that when that rear end goes, it goes,” he says, “and there’s no catching it once that happens.”

Still Crazy, After All These Years

Latif’s passion for rarely seen automobiles has lead to more than one question from baffled civilians about why he’d spend so much time and money on an old Renault whose performance credentials, in a modern context, wouldn’t get it past the velvet rope of the Honda Civic Type R’s VIP section.

“The average person doesn’t get it,” he explains to me. “But it makes perfect sense to me. With a car like this one, I’m buying a piece of history, and I’m driving a car that’s raw, engaging, and completely different from almost everything else on the road.”

He’s right, about all of it. The Renault Sport Clio V6 is such an outlier on the performance scene that it’s not only a genuine shock that it was ever built, but there’s absolutely no way it would ever be given the production blessing from any current car company. Later models (2003–2005) would add more power and stretch out the wheelbase in a bid to civilize things further, but it should be noted that despite all its shock and awe, the Clio V6 wasn’t all that much quicker than the front-wheel-drive, front-engine Clio RS models sitting across from it in the showroom.

But who’s still talking about them?

Party in the back. 7/19/2018 8:00:00 AM