The concept car was audacious enough, but the production reality - launched just a year after the 1995 Geneva Motor Show debut - was perhaps even more breathtaking: an extreme, road-legal sports car that captured the very essence of Renault’s nascent performance brand. It’s name? The Renault Sport Spider.
A design fueled by adrenalin, the Spider took the spirit of Renault Sport and distilled it into something so pure and uncorrupted that not even a pane of glass would come between the driver and the unfolding action ahead. Totally focussed on delivering an intense driving experience, anything that might add weight or detract from that quest was jettisoned. That meant no side windows, no heater, no radio, no power assistance for the steering or servo assistance for the brakes, no airbags, ABS or ESC. Even door locks and external door handles were deemed surplus to the Spider’s very concise list of requirements. Renault Sport did develop a windscreen for the 96 right-hand drive Spiders that were sold in the UK, but this was its only concession to our notoriously inclement weather!
Windscreen or not, time has done little to diminish the Spider’s shock value. You still approach it with a mix of awe, amusement and blood-pumping anticipation. Impossibly low and wide, with those bold starfish design alloy wheels and fat Michelin tyres pushed to the four extremities of the car, its squat stance is the embodiment of tenacious road-holding and dazzling corner speed. You can almost feel the g-force pulling at your neck just looking at it.
And with good reason, for beneath the rakish, lightweight composite bodywork is a bespoke aluminium chassis, complete with rose-jointed double-wishbones, Bilstein dampers and coilover springs at each corner. Just like a race car, in fact. Mounted amidships is the 150bhp ‘F7R‘ in-line four-cylinder engine first seen in the legendary Clio Williams. This output might seem modest given the Spider’s supercar looks, but with a kerbweight of just 930kg every single horsepower counts. A close-ratio five-speed manual transmission helps you keep things on the boil, powerful disc brakes all-round to keep things in check.
Like all truly great cars there’s a ritual to driving the Spider. It begins by reaching inside the cockpit to release the driver’s door. It flips upwards like an insect’s wing to reveal a ruthlessly pared-back interior. Step up and over the wide sill, wriggle yourself into the weather-proof Recaro seat and pause for a moment to admire the simplicity of the driving environment. Straight ahead of you, behind the fat-rimmed steering wheel are three dials showing the Spider’s vital signs of oil pressure, engine revs and water temperature. You have to glance across to the centre of the dashboard to see the digital speedo.
Start the engine and you feel it tingle through the structure of the car as its snorty, business-like exhaust note drifts over your shoulders and into the cockpit. The moment you’ve been waiting for has arrived. It might be a lightweight, but the Spider’s controls require true physical effort. If you’re used to a conventional car with power-assisted everything then this comes as quite a culture shock, but with this effort comes rich reward for few cars connect you so completely to what’s happening where tyres and tarmac meet.
You might expect the low-slung Spider to be skittish on creased and crumpled roads, but it unfailingly keeps its cool, absorbing surface imperfections with absolute composure and quickly filling you with confidence as speed builds. You need to work wrists and forearms to guide the Spider, but small inputs are all it takes to thread it along all but the twistiest roads. It’s thrilling to find that all that promised road-holding is there for the taking, front and rear ends of the car gripping steadfastly in unison as you slice through the turns. Similarly the brakes demand a more insistent squeeze of pressure to deliver the stopping power you’re after, but once your synapses and sinews get dialled-in to what’s required you find that not only are the brakes immensely capable, but they are fabulously feelsome and sweetly progressive. The Spider is a sports car that’s on your side.
Since the Spider, Renault Sport has since gone on to forge an unrivaled reputation for engineering performance-enhancing magic into Renault’s mainstream models. Two decades on the Spider remains something truly special: a vivid reminder of where the brand’s energy and imagination originated and the thrilling first chapter in Renaultsport’s continuing success story.