A bright yellow car might not be to everyone's taste but it certainly stands out in a traffic jam. And when the yellow car in question is either Renault's F1 Team Clio or Mégane, it actually works. And works well.
These new yellow models, set to hit the UAE's roads shortly, are the pride and joy of the French manufacturer. One of the first things I was told when I picked up the Clio was that I will not find another car the same shade anywhere in the world.
Renault's association with Formula One goes back to 1977 when it debuted the Renault RS01, at Silverstone in the United Kingdom. It has since claimed the world championships many times. When it won its second constructors championship in 2006, the brains behind Fernando Alonso's car decided to celebrate by transferring its track technology to the open road and the Mégane F1 Team R26 was born.
Now, almost two years later, the car, and its little sister, Clio, have made its way to the UAE. The Clio is due in showrooms in the next few weeks, with the Mégane to follow by the end of the year and with waiting lists filling up, the roads could soon be dotted with yellow balls of pure power. But despite having the same inspiration, including rally seatbelts, there are a number of differences between the two cars, which only become apparent when seated inside. From the outside, the vehicles display uniformity: black alloy wheels, F1 Team branding on the wings and a black and yellow checked roof. Yet once in the driver's seat, the two break away and reveal their own personalities.
As a former Clio owner, I will admit I was looking forward to driving this the most. It is the next step from the 2.0-litre 16V model that litters the streets of Europe, favoured by young professionals with enough money to trade in their old Opel Corsa, but still want something that will give them street cred before having to resort to a family car. The Clio F1 Team R27, therefore, had a lot to live up to – and I'm pleased to say it didn't disappoint. Getting in might not be the easiest of task, thanks to the sports seats which make the sides unusually high and stiff for a road car, but once seated, they feel reassuringly safe.
Under the bonnet, the car has the same engine as the aforementioned model and delivers 200bhp, which packs quite a punch in such a small vehicle. The six-speed manual gearbox is also a refreshing alternative to today's automatic army. But putting an automatic transmission in a sports car would probably cause it to lose some of its credibility. No matter what speed the car is travelling at, stepping up a notch is effortless. It is a car that was born to be driven and loves every minute of it – it's just a shame speed restrictions mean it needs a track to show what it can really do.
Short-throw gearshifts allow the Clio to reach 100km/h in 6.9 seconds – the same as the Golf GTI – and using just 8.4 litres of petrol per 100km, it's as easy on the wallet as it is on the eye.
Moving on to the Mégane, it is easy to think it will be the same – albeit a slightly roomier – drive. But that is not so and the differences are striking. Gone is the traditional key to be replaced by the Renault card keyless ignition system, which comes as standard on the Mégane. Gone too are the material seats in favour of sleek black leather. The front seats are still raised at the sides, but not so much as the Clio and, therefore, easier to get in.
The cabin itself also has different design features, with a new radio control panel. It, like the Clio, has a six-speed manual transmission, but the short throw gears are even shorter, making gear changes easier and reducing loss of acceleration at the same time.
Despite also having a 2.0 litre engine the added turbo helps it to stand out and gives it the extra boost of acceleration power. Although it reaches 0-100km/h just 0.4 seconds quicker, with foot to floor in both cars, the Mégane is bonnet and boot ahead thanks to its 230bhp. And the purr that comes with it is something else. Granted, it is not as loud as a rally car – that would be too loud for the road anyway – but the gentle roar proves it was born to be driven.
When Renault launched its Mark II Mégane in 2002, it was keen to stress the importance of keeping the driving position close to the road and not only is it comfortable but adds to its sportiness by making the driver feel part of the car.
After all these positives there has got to be some down sides and while the two models do have them, there are certainly more pluses. In the case of the Clio, it is the seats, mentioned above and also in the gears that can prove jerky at times. The major problem with the Mégane is in the air conditioning – it just isn't cold enough. And with the UAE summer now here, it is not something manufacturers can overlook. Accelerating also takes some getting used to and an unusually high number of revs is needed to move safely away from traffic lights. Once this is accomplished, the car is a doddle.
At Dh95,000, the Clio does not come cheap (a price has yet to be released for the Mégane), but as I was stopped by a motorist who wanted to find how to get his hands on one, I doubt it will stand in the way of prospective buyers.
But which is the better car? As much as my loyalties are with the Clio, for sheer power and comfort, it has to be the Mégane that claims victory.