What is it?
The all-new, fourth-generation Renault Clio hatchback. Gone is the option of a three-door and, in the UK, an estate, with a five-door with hidden rear door handles your only option. It’s a smart and distinctive looking car in the metal, however, even if the headlights and Renault badge are a little oversized. The range-topping Clio RS 200 Turbo gets its own review, while the lower rungs of the range are assessed below. Prices start at £10,795 for a 1.2-litre Expression.
Below the Ford Fiesta ST-fighting RS 200 there are four engine choices, entry petrol-powered options comprising a 74bhp, 79lb ft 1.2-litre four-cylinder and an 89bhp, 99lb ft 0.9-litre three-cylinder TCE turbo, while the diesel is an 89bhp, 162lb ft 1.5-litre DCI. These drive the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox as standard.
More exciting and with a greater focus on tech is the Clio GT-Line TCE 120 EDC, a warm hatch version of the 200 Turbo with a diddly 118bhp, 140lb ft 1.2-litre turbo engine, a six-speed paddleshift twin-clutch gearbox and chassis attention from the Renaultsport department. Its dampers are 40 per cent stiffer than standard, while an ‘RS Drive’ button flicks between Normal and Sport modes, altering the engine and gearbox responses, steering weight and stability control settings.
It offers the standard Clio’s best 0-60 time, at 9.9sec, and highest top speed, at 120mph. The most frugal stop/start-equipped diesel emits a weeny 83g/km of CO2 (meaning free road tax) with fuel economy rated at a properly parsimonious 88.3mpg (claimed).
Among the options are R-Link, a multimedia system featuring a TomTom satnav, internet connection, voice recognition and the additional option of R-Sound, which simulates the noise of other engines via a flick through its menus. It’s fun for five minutes but ultimately it’s a gadget to appease the smartphone generation rather than something genuinely useful.
What’s it like to drive?
It’s a characterful and likeable car, the Clio, and in a market swarming with small cars its dynamic abilities should plonk it in the shortlist of any supermini buyer who values a deft chassis.
For a start, it’s better damped than the majority of its key foes (including the class’s handling benchmark, the Ford Fiesta), possessing the bump absorption associated with French cars in the past but with little wallowing during direction changes. The electric power steering relays no information yet is still precise, so you learn to work around its lack of feel.
Most impressive, though, are the Clio’s grip levels. Bog-standard superminis have a tendency to submit to understeer as soon as you attempt much more than toddling pace into a corner; the Clio keeps on gripping and encourages you to get greedy with the throttle. Turn in ultra keenly or lift off the throttle and the rear axle will even play a usefully mobile role. Ultimately, its agility isn’t a match for the fine Fiesta, but the Clio doesn’t shame itself in comparison. The brakes, perhaps inevitably, don’t provide the feel or lifespan to match the keen chassis.
The 1.5-litre DCI is undoubtedly an exceedingly frugal choice, but chirpier and much more fun to work with is the little 898cc turbocharged triple, though it does require a downchange more than you expect when a moderate-to-steep hill appears on the horizon.
The GT-Line is a very interesting proposition. It’s good fun to drive, and its tautly sprung, agile chassis is clear evidence of some Renaultsport development time. Ultimately its downsized turbo isn’t quite ballsy enough to make the 1186kg Clio feel rapid, but this just encourages you to maintain the momentum you’ve built up. With a chassis this good, that’s no hardship.
It’s denied greatness, though, by its automatic gearbox. Not only does it smother the engine and frustrate with its occasionally laboured manual paddle shifts, but the cost of its fitment ensures the GT-Line is made to look a bit silly; at £17,395, it is £400 steeper than a basic Ford Fiesta ST. Not only does that car one of the best hot hatchbacks on sale, as well as one of 2013’s best cars.
How does it compare?
The Ford Fiesta remains the best supermini to drive, and its 1-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost engine is good fun, especially in 123bhp Zetec S form. On a smaller, cheaper scale the Suzuki Swift is a good giggle in all of its guises, from entry-level 1.2-litre to 134bhp Swift Sport. If it’s a solid supermini you seek with little interest in pin-sharp dynamics, the VW Polo and Audi A1 serve up the genre’s classiest interiors.
Anything else I need to know?
Several of the Clio’s engines can be found in the more rough and ready Dacia Sandero, which is severely budget-spec but costs little more than half a Clio, priced from £5995 if you’re willing to turn a key in a lock and wind the windows up and down with nothing but brute force.