Renault's Clio is a supermini you can't ignore in fourth generation form. Jonathan Crouch explains why
Bigger, better looking and more efficient, Renault's fourth generation Clio returns the company to volume credibility in the supermini sector. Bubbling with personality, it's an effervescent statement of intent from the Gallic brand. Looking for a small car in this segment? You're looking here at the state-of-the-art.
Is it possible to overstate the importance of the fourth generation Renault Clio? Not easily. Here's a company that some feel has rather lost its way in recent times, ditching distinctive models and letting others fester in pursuit of an electrically-powered motoring future the market still isn't quite ready for. Until it is, Renault needs to get its core cars right. No, let's be more specific: it needs to get this Clio right. This car's direct predecessor, 2005's Clio III, tried to be more grown-up, but only ended up being bigger, heavier and, in ordinary guises, generally less characterful - less Renault. As it aged, the brand's staple supermini dropped slowly off the market radar. But it's back - or so we're promised - in a fourth generation guise that returns Renault to its roots as a maker of small cars that are fun, frisky and individual. Pretty as a picture and as sporty as you could ask a car of this kind to be, it claims to offer a sense of esprit that's been recently lacking, not only from its brand but also from the supermini sector as a whole. Let's put it to the test.
That Renault can engineer a small car with handling to bring a smile to your face has never been in doubt. There are plenty of rorty little Renaultsport Clios around that testify to that. It's a long time though, since we've seen an ordinary affordable Clio replicate a properly dynamic driving experience for anyone to enjoy. This fourth generation version has to do just that and be more than just a pretty face. It does - and it is, something you establish fairly early on. It isn't quite as taut as a rival Fiesta, but that's OK: if you're like me, you instinctively expect French cars to roll a little more - almost want them to for the payoff of silken low speed ride. Which is delivered here in a way that no rival can better. Just one of the many reasons you'd like to drive this around town. The others? Well-weighted steering that facilitates a tight 10.6m turning circle. And torquey engines you don't have to row around with the gear lever. There are three main ones, with low and hi-tech routes to petrol power. If price is all, you'll choose the affordable entry-level 1.2-litre 16V 75bhp entry-level unit. Better though, is Renault's 0.9-litre three cylinder TCe unit. If you did need a little more petrol poke, there is a TCe 120 engine option, but this, like the 1.6-litre direct injection turbo unit used in the Renaultsport Clio 200 hot hatch, must be ordered with an automatic EDC ('Efficient Dual Clutch') automatic transmission that few will want. Diesel drivers get an improved version of the dCi 90 unit used in the previous generation model.
'Simple, sensuous and warm' were the three design keywords and that's pretty much what's been achieved, with voluptuous looks that make you want to reach out and touch curving panels that gather pace around the steeply raked windscreen, culminating with assertive shoulder lines above the front and rear wheelarches. There's no three-door model, so it's just as well that the five-door does a good impression of one, coupe-like styling emphasised by hidden rear door handles. So visually and practically, you get the best of both worlds. Out back, there's a decent sized 300-litre boot while at the wheel, we've yet another dash that's been sculpted in the shape of an aircraft wing on which is mounted an overtly confident chrome-surrounded instrument cluster dominated by the kind of digital speedo that not everyone will like. Equally eye-catching is the consumer electronic-fest that dominates the gloss black-trimmed centre console of all but base models in the form of a tablet-like display that is the 7-inch R-Link colour touchscreen. From here, as well as controlling the stereo and the Tom Tom sat nav, there's the potential to surf the internet, email, use text-to-speak messaging, download a range of Renault-sourced apps and even get economy driving tips. It's really very clever indeed.
For most British customers, a fourth generation Clio will cost somewhere in the £11,000 to £16,000 bracket typical for Fiesta-sized superminis, will have five-doors and a choice of three mainstream engines. Of these, there are a couple of petrol units - an older 75bhp 1.2 and a cleaner, pokier, more modern 88bhp 0.9-litre three cylinder TCe - plus the popular dCi 90 diesel. Beyond these - and much less popular - will be the auto-only petrol 1.2-litre TCe 120 and 1.6-litre turbo 200 units, the pokier of the two powering the Renaultsport 200 hot hatch model. Whichever mainstream five-door Clio you choose, there are kit items included that will cost you more on many rivals. Virtually all Clios get alloy wheels, air conditioning and front foglights. And absolutely all of them get daytime running lights, cruise control with a speed limiter, a trip computer, a height-adjustable driver's seat, power front windows and mirrors, Bluetooth 'phone compatibility, a decent quality USB-compatible CD stereo with punchy Renault 'Bass Reflex' speakers and fingertip control, plus Hill Start Assist to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions. Mid-spec variants also get Renault's R-Link infotainment system which features a wide seven-inch colour touchscreen with voice control. This marshals functions such as TomTom satellite navigation and connects into the car's own electronic systems, so providing an 'eco2' 'eco driving' function.
Renault has made a firm commitment to driving down the cost of motoring and thanks to an average weight saving of around 100kg across the range, the Clio demonstrates some impressive economy and emissions figures. In fact, for more than half the range, there'll be no annual road tax to pay thanks to the way that sub-100g/km CO2 emissions figures grant exemption. All very impressive, but not efficiency you're likely to notice very much at the wheel of a Clio in base 1.2 16V 75bhp petrol form. To be fair, this entry-level unit has been improved so that combined cycle fuel consumption can break through the 50mpg mark (it's now 51.4mpg) and the CO2 return - 127g/km - is now less embarrassing for a car of this size. But it's still way off what we now expect from a modern supermini. Part of the reason why is that this older engine can't be ordered with the Stop & Start system that's standard on all Clio TCe and dCi models, cutting the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. These variants also get the £250 option of an ECO package, which adds low rolling resistance tyres, a weight-saving thermo plastic tailgate and tweaks to torque and throttle performance. Overall, though it ought to be standard, it's probably worth having for the 5% difference it makes to fuel and CO2 figures. Particularly in the case of the 0.9-litre TCe, where the ECO tweaks bring CO2 levels below the magic 100g/km figure to a road tax-free 99g/km. Combined cycle fuel consumption meanwhile, will see a 0.9-litre TCe ECO variant return an impressive 65.7mpg on the combined cycle. As for the dCi 90 diesel Clio variant I'm trying here, well here, you can expect to achieve 88.3mpg on the combined cycle and put out just 83g/km of CO2 - better than most hybrids can manage.
So, a promising return for Renault to a position amongst the class leaders in the supermini segment. The French brand hasn't always identified and prioritised the things that really matter to small car buyers, which is one reason why in recent years the Clio has slipped down the sales charts. So what does really matter to these people? Efficiency, practicality and safety? All this stuff has been properly addressed here. I have a suspicion though, that looks are as much if not more of a buying incentive. Just as well then, that this car scores there too. And dynamics? The fun 'chuckability' that used to exemplify small Renaults? Yes, you also get that, balanced with the comfort that's also a Gallic trademark. In terms of the exact balance between the two, it'll depend a little on your choice between the two most preferable mainstream engines. Go for the light and agile three cylinder TCe petrol variant and there's extra fun and character. Opt for this diesel and you get a more mature and sensible performer: choose to suit. Let's leave the final words to Renault boss Carlos Ghosn: 'there's nothing wrong with any car company that good cars won't fix'. He's absolutely right. And so is this Clio.
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