The F1 link was a marketing stunt, but this French hot hatch sated the appetites of fun-starved enthusiasts. Will Nightingale reappraises it
Renault Clio Williams in the spotlight
The Clio Williams is alert to turn in and balletically poised when it does so
By the early 1990s, a golden era of the hot hatch was in its twilight. Excess was out, prudence was in and truly entertaining pocket rockets had become an endangered species. The 205 GTI had just been culled and the Fiesta XR2I was on its last legs. The Golf GTI soldiered on in Mk3 form, but only because it had sold its once joyful soul to the devil of lower insurance premiums.
When it seemed all the merriment was over, Renault came to the rescue – with just a little help from Williams. And we really do mean ‘a little’ because the extent of the then F1 world champions’ input into the Renault Clio Williams was pretty much a name and that achingly cool navy-and-gold colour scheme. All the hard work was done by a division of Renault that would become Renaultsport. But out of that onesided project came one of the finest hot hatches there’s ever been.
There was already a zesty offering, the 16V, in the Mk1 Clio line-up, but the Clio Williams was much more than a makeover and few extra horsepower. The 16V’s 1.8 F7P engine was swapped out for a 2.0-litre F7R (later to be used in the Sport Spider), boosting power from 137bhp to 150bhp. The result? A very respectable 0-60mph time of 7.8sec and a top speed of 134mph, performance figures the Golf GTI of the era couldn’t even get close to.
It never was firepower that made the Clio Williams such a wonderful driver’s car, though. Rather, it’s how perfectly in tune every component and its accompanying muscle fibre feels – whatever the road and whatever speed you’re scramming down it. Thanks to a wider front track, fatter tyres and lower suspension than the 16V, the Williams isn’t short of outright ability, either. A 205 GTI may steer even more sweetly, but we’re talking tenths of a percentage and the Clio counters with more grip and less temperamental on-limit handling.
The car wasn’t developed in Britain, but you’d swear it had been, such is the fluidity with which it rides our dreadful roads. Potholes that would see a 205 skipping sideways are smothered with ease by the Clio’s relaxed suspension. You’d expect such a set-up to deliver poor roll stiffness but it really doesn’t; the Williams is alert to turn in and balletically poised when it does so. It’s quieter and easier to live with than most hot hatches of the day too.
That 2.0 engine needs 6100rpm before it gives its all, but it’s torquier than you might imagine, allowing plenty of entertainment from seventenths upwards, rather than the balls-out-only thrills of some of Renaultsport’s more recent creations (think Mk3 Clio Cup).
The original – now known as the Williams 1 – is lightest and best, and was meant to be a limited run of 3800 cars. A further 1600 were built, to the annoyance of those who’d bought into the supposed exclusivity. That wasn’t the end for the Williams, because 2 and 3 versions were later launched, each adding more safety aids, more luxury kit and, less appealingly, more weight.
None is yet quite as religiously celebrated as a 205 GTI or even a Golf GTI Mk1. But true bargains are a thing of the past, with Clio Williams prices kicking off at around £3500 for a scruffy Williams 2 – the most ubiquitous version. For a low-mileage, well-loved Williams 1, expect to pay £12,000 or more.
YEARS PRODUCED 1993-1996 PRICE RANGE £3500-£15,000 POWER 150BHP
Expect to pay £12k for a mint Williams 1