Forgive my indulgence, but my first ever car was a first generation Clio RSi, and days hurtling round Wiltshire B roads were great ones: sawing at that canted steering wheel, squealing little tyres, with a broken speedo and only the rev counter and my own idiocy for guidance.
It’s seems an age ago, not just for me, but for Renault too. Subsequent generations of Clio have pretty much summed up the rather insipid character of many of its core car line-up, and is the main reason the firm is shedding sales in Europe at an alarming rate.
But the firm hopes this new Clio is a line in the sand, the point at which all those years of dull eggboxes on wheels are consigned to history and possibly the greatest maker of small cars in history comes blasting magnificently, va-va-voomingly, back to the top.
First step: design and quality
Times have changed, and the new car is nowhere near as brilliantly simple as the first generation one (Dacia does the boggo job for Renault these days), but this Laurence van den Acker-scribbled car looks great, much better in the metal than in the pictures, which flatten the contours.
The rear wings really bulge out from under the coupe-ish side windows (all cars will be five doors) and the bonnet is one great muscular arc. I’m still not sure about the beaky nose, but there are some nice design flourishes, such as the lower vents, which frill like the Dezir concept of a couple of years ago. The wheels have been pushed right to the outer extremities of the bodywork, giving it a sporty stance.
Inside the cabin is pretty decent, with the nicely tailored central ‘tablet’ aping iPads and the like, but don’t try and pull it off – it’s stuck fast. On it you get a dim-witted sat nav system, and in high-end models the ability to receive emails, and all that stuff people addicted to Facebook love. It’s comfortable too: the steering wheel is more upright and adjusts far towards your chest, which is ergonomically good, and the seats are thick and comfy, if a little soft. Some Renaultsport chairs should sort it.
Second step: fun to drive
The new car comes with three engines: a fairly basic entry level 1.2-litre with 75bhp, a 1.5 dCi diesel with 90bhp and a three cylinder turbocharged 0.9-litre petrol throwing out the same power. In terms of economy, the 1.2 shows its age, throwing 127 grammes of CO2 out the back every 1,000 metres. The diesel in its most eco form manages an excellent 83 and the three cylinder petrol around 100, depending on your choice of wheels and so forth.
As for performance, the diesel does what they all do, offering decent low down shove and some nose heavy driving characteristics, but it’s the three cylinder petrol that’s the star.
It bobbles along merrily if you keep it above 2,000rpm where the turbo kicks in, and while it could never be called swift it can be hustled about, but you’ve got to think about your gearchanges: find yourself one too high in say, third, out of a slow corner and you might as well get out and push, because the torque will have gone on holiday.
Get the right gear (often one lower than instinctive) and the turbo wooshes into life, torque appears and you fizz forward. Great fun. In fact, unlike most point and shoot modern cars which require no thought to make fast progress, there’s skill and learning required to get the best out of this engine, and when you do, there’s great satisfaction to be had. That sounds more like the Renaults of old…
There’s a slightly odd imbalance in the ride and handling quality of the Clio. The engineers have spent a lot of time and money on the suspension, which has advanced McPherson struts linked to triangular lower wishbones and double bushes and at the front and a torsion beam with coil springs at the back. As a result its composure through bends and under braking is pretty good, holding nice and flat, while the steering feel is meaty.
It only understeers when you’re deliberately pushing it or the road offers little grip, and that’s easily counteracted with a lift, which tucks the nose back in. It can even misbehave of you want it too, the back stepping out for lift-off oversteer. Those lovely Renault handling traits that many of us came to learn as youths are on their way back.
But all this fun has come at the expense of some high speed refinement, and the thing bashes against any transverse ridges with quite a shock, and it tends to patter over rougher surfaces noisily. I’ll take the compromise.
Third step: price
Massively important in a supermini, the Clio starts at £10,595 but the three cylinder begins at £11,995 with the range topping out with a Dynamique MediaNav model at just over 16 grand. There’s a lot of kit too as standard, including Bluetooth, USB port ESC hill start assist and the MediaNav touchscreen. That’s pretty good value.
I felt like I was 18 again, and it takes a lot to make that happen. The Clio is a vastly improved car over the last one, and is genuinely interesting, fun and characterful. I doubt it will be a genuinely great car as the supermini market is too crowded these days for any one model to stand out, but it’s a bloody good one. Thank goodness for that.