► All-new Clio Mk5 on sale in autumn
► Choice of petrol and diesel, hybrid to follow
► Our first drive in sunny Portugal
The formula has become very familiar - and very successful - over the last 30 years. But the temptation to mess with the Clio has surely never been greater, given the pace of change in technology and the move towards crossover styling. The new Mk5 is, cleverly, both entirely familiar and a thorough overhaul.
New platform, new engines and transmissions, massively upgraded cabin - that all amounts to a radical overhaul. But the styling is very familiar and so, crucially, is the way it drives; it's the same, but better.
Renault has resisted the temptation to let the Clio's proportions drift into modish crossover territory - the new Captur will be along soon to scratch that itch. And, although there's a bunch more connectivity and a hybrid coming in 2020, the new Clio line-up is at heart a substantial and very well executed evolution of Europe's most popular supermini. They've sold 15 million worldwide since 1980; that's one per minute, and not the sort of success you want to jeopardise.
What's the range?
In the UK we'll get three petrol engines (74bhp 1.0-litre triple, 99bhp turbo 1.0-litre triple, and a 128bhp turbo 1.3-litre four) and a 84bhp 1.5-litre turbodiesel four. The diesel has a six-speed manual, the small petrols have a five-speed manual, and the bigger petrol, the TCe 130, has a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
There are three trim levels: Play, expected to be priced from £14,500 when cars reach UK showrooms in October (that's up about £1000 on the current entry-level Clio, and more expensive than the most basic Ford Fiesta); Iconic, from £16,500; and RS Line (a name that will replace GT Line across the Renault range) at around £19,500.
Next year's hybrid uses a naturally-aspirated 1.6-litre petrol four and two electric motors, one big and one small, both attached to the engine, with a battery in the boot. There won't be a plug-in hybrid Clio - that tech is being saved for the new Captur.
All Clios come with a good level of electronic safety aids and connectivity - Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, traffic sign recognition, etc - with a lot more available. It's no A-Class, but you can have different coloured ambient lighting, and there is limited voice activation (simple addresses, phone numbers, track selection) but no head-up display or augmented-reality nav. All cars come with LED headlights, a camera at the top of the windscreen and radar in the grille.
Looks very familiar...
But it's nearly all new. The Mk5 Clio is the first car to have as its underpinnings Renault's new CMF-B platform. It's been designed to incorporate the safety systems and connectivity that are expected today, and to be ready for a variety of powertrains, including hybrids, but not including pure electric; the new Zoe has its own platform.
The new Clio has a fractionally shorter wheelbase and is slightly lower, while being roomier in most ways. It's also about 50kg lighter.
The overall exterior look is very much that of the big-selling Mk4, but with a shapelier bonnet and roof, and a flatter rear hatch.
The inside line
Where the exterior styling has been only minimally changed, the interior is very different, and much better. The tape measure says it's bigger in some directions, smaller in others. But the point is that clever design work makes better use of space. The rear seats are lower, and the front seatbacks slimmer, and the headrests much less chunky, to give better sight lines. Up front, the steering wheel is smaller, and the plastic on the steering column is narrower - by just a few millimetres, but it makes a difference. The only time you notice a lack of room is when you're buckling in or adjusting the seat.
The plastics and cloth used are better, and the swoopier, more curved, more horizontal design of the dash adds to the impression of width.
The standout feature up front is the central touchscreen that comes as standard on higher-spec Clios. It's vertical, a good size at 9.3 inches, customisable and impressively clear. It's extremely user-friendly - have a guess and you'll invariably be right. There's also been some clever thinking about what should be operated via touchscreen and what merits a physical button. There are a lot of buttons, but they're logically grouped for quick operation. (Lower-spec models come with a touchscreen that's smaller and horizontal.)
The boot has been reshaped. With the rear seats up, the boot is now the biggest in its class, although it's smaller than before with the rear seats down. The load lip is higher, which should reduce repair bills in low-speed shunts.
On the road
We drove two Clios: a turbo 1.0 triple TCe 100 in mid spec and a 1.3 twin-clutch TCe 130 in the disappointingly low-key RS Line spec. In both, you're immediately struck by the improved, more natural feel from the revised electric steering, by the composure through bends, by the well-modulated braking, now with less pedal travel, and by the overall improvement in refinement.
The smaller engine feels willing and lively up to a point, but you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time on the motorway.
The 1.3 feels considerably more powerful, and smooth with it, flattening out hills. The paddleshift for the twin-clutch auto is clean and reasonably quick, but the automatic changes are well programmed if you just leave the car to its own devices.
Available as an option on the 1.3 is Renault's new Highway & Traffic Jam Companion. It's excellent in stop-start traffic, and makes life easier on motorways. It will keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front, restart you from a standstill, keep you centred in a well-marked lane, and will remind you to hold the steering wheel if you get cocky.
This is a significantly better package than the previous Clio, which was quite rightly a popular choice. The two engines we've tried both suit it well, as do the gearboxes.
But it's the reshaped cabin and the smartly integrated tech upgrades that make it seem more appealing than the excellent if rather plain Fiesta. The new Peugeot 208 is almost upon us, with lots of potential to be another compelling contender. What a great choice to have.
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