First drive: Renault Clio review

Remember when the Clio was advertised by Nicole and Papa? Or when it proclaimed to have va-va-voom long before Mazda got zoom-zoom? Well, so does Renault. Having sold 12 Million Clios since the first generation in 1991, it’s now launching the brand new, fourth-generation Clio, which it hopes can capture some of the mojo - and customer hearts - that the first two generations did. So did we fall head over heels?

A Clio to fall in love with again?

First signs are good. Despite now only coming with five-doors, the new Clio looks good, glistening in the Italian sun. New Renault design director Laurens van den Acker’s aim was to produce something so good that it would “make you fall in love with Renault again” - he describes the Clio as having simple but sensual qualities.

After the last car’s rather Germanic feel and "shrunken-MPV" stance, its comes as a welcome change. We thought it looked neat on the show stand at the Paris Motor Show a few weeks ago; it looks better still on the road.

Stand-out elements are the new Renault face with massive lamps and Renault badge interconnected by a black grille and surround. Ironically, it’s perhaps the car’s least successful bit, giving it a big snout - but at least now you’re in no doubt as to what’s coming up behind you. There’s real surface sculpture in the flanks, a pronounced haunch over the rear wheels and a very tidy rear - all combined with a much lower roofline than before and an impressively four-square, hunkered down stance.

A tech marvel too?

Like all Clios before it, the new generation car is very well equipped. That means a handsfree, “keyless car” door opening card system, hill-start assist and stability, traction and brake-distribution control are standard on all models. Move up the range and you’ll get climate control, a back-up camera and - most importantly - the central "tablet" unit, which floats off the main dashboard surface and contains a 7-inch touchscreen with a high-mounted USB port and navigation as standard.

Optionally, Renault also offers something called R-Link. It basically equips the car with a sim card (running on EverythingEverywhere - EE - in the UK) and gives a data connection to the outside world and Renault’s app store, which allows a limited range of apps to be downloaded. We’ll review it at a later date as it wasn’t fitted to the test cars at launch and won’t be available until some time next year.

But for many people, the Media Nav system on the Dynamique trim level cars will suffice. It’s a well-executed system. As with the Peugeot 208, it’s great to get a full colour, 7-inch touchscreen in this size of car. We like its integration into the gloss black tablet, found the system played ball with both iPhone and Android phone happily and gave good call quality. The nav didn’t get us lost in the crazyness of Florence’s roads either, despite not being the most graphically clear system. We just wish Renault had fitted a physical home and back button rather than making you do everything through the screen. In the depths of some menus - or when in a phone call while on the move - it’s very tricky to flick back to the navigation map quickly.

Still fun to drive?

The Clio’s always offered big-car qualities in a small car package, but it’s also always been toward the top of the pack in its class when it comes to driving thrills. Get out of the city and give it its head and it’s still fun. The steering’s got a decent weight to it and it handles sharply without riding too firmly. We drove two engines, the 1.5 dCi diesel, with 90bhp, and the new 0.9 litre, 3-cylinder "TCe" petrol which also has 90bhp.

The diesel delivers that familiar slug of torque from low revs, which means that you can pretty much do everything in second and third gear, while sipping fuel at never more than a gallon every 50 miles, despite our driving it hard and spending a lot of time at Italian motorway speeds - think “higher than in the UK”. Buy the Eco version and it’ll give you a class-leading 83g/km co2 figure too, which means zero road tax.

But unless you’re driving 12,000 miles a year or more, we’d point you to the petrol because it’s cheaper to buy, doesn’t use that much more fuel and is a lot more fun to punt around in. It’s got a distinctive, but not-intrusive, 3-cylinder burr and - somewhat unusually for a turbocharged unit – it loves to rev. If you, like us, owned either of the first two generation Clios and remember their seeming love of being taken by the scruff of their necks and thrashed, then the TCe shows the same spirit. Only now, it’ll also cruise down a motorway at UK speeds all day at a serene whisper and shut itself off every time you stop at the lights. It would be our choice of engine for the moment (more versions are coming next year), as it suits the Clio’s character well.

The perfect package?

Bucking the trend in this class, the Clio is slightly bigger than before, which means that for a small family, this could be all the car you’ll ever need. The boot holds 300 litres, which is only a little less than a Ford Focus, while inside the quality of materials feels up to Volkswagen’s standard. If it takes your fancy, you can even personalise your Clio with Le Mans stripes, some sporty red highlights, the French tricolour, or polka dots. The actual personalised elements such as the lower door cladding, steering wheel and air vents also look and feel “premium” and create an eye-catching contrast to the other materials.

You’ll probably have guessed by now, that we’re really quite impressed by the new Clio. Often, cars that try to be all things to all people come unstuck as being "masters of no trades". But the Clio looks good, is practical, has got the highest NCap crash rating in its class, offers the lowest emissions in the class, is very well equipped and gives you some of the most up-to-date tech available. The Clio starts at £10,595, but we’d point you towards a TCe in Dynamique Media Nav trim for £13,995 as the sweet spot right now.

 

Verdict

So have Renault and Mr van den Acker done enough to make us fall in love with the Clio?

Well, at Pocket-lint, we’re not ones to rush into things and fall head-over-heels at first sight. But we’d certainly be up for a second date with what is one of the prettiest and most complete cars in its class. The Clio’s got its va-va-voom back.