ITS NOT often that a car makes you feel quite like this, but then the Renaultsport Clio 200, based on the oh-so-ordinary French hatchback, is more than a little bit special.
This is actually a special edition called the Raider, and its matt Stealth Grey paint finish gives it the sort of fighter-bomber look that its name deserves. Its essentially a fully kitted-out Clio 200 with a good few special touches to define the edition.
The Renaultsport Clio is a bit of an icon, with heritage stretching back to the 1980s and the spiced-up versions of the Renault 5. That passed its DNA down to the Clio Williams, now a modern classic and highly sought after, and then to the first Clio 172 at the turn of the millennium.
Every single one of them was an absolute blast to drive, with intoxicating handling and fizzy engines. Several generations later, with only a minor hiccup in the shape of the first Clio 197 in 2006, and the range has reached a new pinnacle with the Clio 200 Raider.
Never mind the special equipment over a normal 200, like the unique wheels, standard Carminat TomTom Live sat-nav (or Renaultsport Monitor your choice), standard Cup chassis and Renaultsport touches on the gear knob and rev counter.
What really pulls you in to this car is its reputation for the way it drives, and the way it drives is unlike anything else in hot hatchdom. In a field of turbocharged rivals the Clio is technically slower in the real world you cant just plant your foot on the throttle and bask in a wave of torque.
But what you get in return is a wonderfully rev-hungry engine that sucks you into the driving experience as sure as a whirlpool would suck in a baby seal. As you push the engine past 7,000rpm and snick the wonderfully-weighted gear lever up though the close-ratio gearbox, youre hooked.
Its a high-revving engine by modern standards, leaving 7,000rpm well behind before hitting the rev limiter. It sounds good, and its loud enough to get your blood pumping without deafening the cows in the next field.
From the very first corner you reach, you realise that the communication the chassis was feeding you on the way into it translates to wonderful steering feel through the turn, with a neutral chassis balance that responds instantly to throttle and steering inputs.
It feels planted but at the same time so alive, with as much feedback as you could wish for coursing through every contact point note the special, perfectly-shaped leather Recaro seats and put them on your Christmas list, and if Santa will let you get away with it, preferably get them wrapped in a Clio 200 Raider.
The togetherness and cohesiveness of the finished article is outstanding. It feels as though it was made from one solid lump of brilliance. In no time youre driving it as though its just an extension of yourself, if youll forgive me getting all Zen.
Turn-in is crisp, instant and accurate, guided by peerless feel at the wheel. The rack could possibly benefit from being a little faster, but the grip, balance and sheer driving delight that it constantly throws up along a twisty road is just superb.
Even the ride, bearing in mind the 18-inch wheels, stiff suspension and low-profile tyres, is remarkably well controlled. The spring and damper rates are just about perfect, so even on rough roads the ride is never crashy or harsh.
You cant be lazy or relaxed in this car, and thats key. When you CAN take it easy, you tend to most of the time. When you cant, youre forced to step your game up; to try to live up to the car. The Clio Raider demands great driving technique to do it justice but it offers rewards none of its rivals can.
If it were to have an Achilles heel, it would be that not everyone wants to have to work hard to go quickly, no matter how exciting the experience. Some people just want to lean back and feel a wave of turbocharged torque, and the Clio cant provide that.
And then theres the price. The Raiders list price is £21,695, which is almost £5,000 more than the stripped-out Clio 200 Cup, which offers the same driving experience without the gadgets.
For the people who still want to feel the adrenaline and know its because theyve mastered driving the shining star among hot hatchbacks, theres nothing to touch any Clio 200. At the end of the day, the Raiders extra spec makes it more special to own, but the raw experience is on offer for a lot less cash.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Renaultsport Clio 200 Raider, £21,695 on the road.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol producing 197bhp and 159lb.ft.
Transmission: 6-speed manual gearbox only, driving the front wheels.
Performance: Top speed 141mph, 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds.
Fuel economy: 34.5mpg.
CO2 rating: 190g/km.