Okay, okay, I admit it, I am guilty as charged. When it comes to the four-wheeled machine, I have always preferred big over small. Sure, it’s a prejudice but one I have always been able to justify — comfort, performance and practicality… need I go on? Which is why I was struggling to get excited by the prospect of a weekend in the company of Renault’s newest small car offering, the updated Clio.
To top it all off, it was raining cats and dogs and I was running late to collect the car. Streaking through the downpour, I couldn’t help but reflect on Renault’s patchy history in New Zealand. They’ve had a good few starts here, but come and go more often than the touring French rugby team. It wasn’t an overly auspicious reacquaintance with the brand, in other words.
Climbing behind the wheel, my first surprise was the discovery of automatic-sensing windscreen wipers. Not quite the big trade down I was expecting then. And as I reversed out of the dealership, I heard the familiar chime of rear parking sensors. Nice. In fact, the equipment levels leave very little to be desired. Even the basic car, priced very competitively for a Euro at just $23k, has plenty of kit, including satellite navigation, air con and Bluetooth. The Expression Plus model I got to drive added partial leather trim, auto headlights and wipers, and alloy wheels.
I also appreciated the styling — always a strength of French cars — and the Clio’s coupé-like stance, accentuated by cleverly disguised rear-door handles. Attractive curves and a rising centre line are a further point of difference. It’s fresh and contemporary, although not the statement that the Mégane RS makes — room then for the tweaked Clio RS perhaps?
There are other aspects you might usually associate with a larger class of car, including the six-speed EDC or, more accurately, ‘dual clutch’ transmission for starters. It’s a good one. All the better to get the best performance from the genuinely fizzy 1.2‑litre engine. That’s right, it has only 1,200cc of capacity under the bonnet but it’s what you do with it, right? Add a turbocharger, and hey presto, the feisty Clio produces 88kW and a fraction under 200Nm of torque — on a car that weighs not much more than 1,100kg. It won’t win any awards in a straight line, not quite managing to beat the 0–100km/h sprint in under nine seconds, but it feels quick, the torque giving it plenty of oomph when required. And its quoted fuel economy is a credible 5.2 litres/100km.
The ride though, is a mixed bag. Genuinely supple at low speeds, the Clio can be ‘jiggly’ at motorway cruising. From a driving perspective, the on-road personality matches the performance of its rapid-fire twin-clutch box, and while I would prefer a firmer set-up for cornering, it will be more than adequate for any Alain Prost-like aspirations of future buyers.
Buying French has always been a little bit risky. Once, you had to make plenty of trade-offs, justifying the purchase on the basis of joie de vivre alone. Not so with this Clio. I might not be quite the convert just yet, but I would definitely take more than a second look.
Conclusion: A well-priced and fresh offering in the small to medium hatch space. It also makes for a practical alternative to the usual fare from German and Japanese manufacturers.[warning]
Model reviewed: Renault Clio Expression Plus
Price: From $22,990 (as tested, $27,990 approximately)[/warning]