Light car comparison: Renault Clio v Ford Fiesta v Kia Rio v Volkswagen Polo

$11,660 $13,860 Dealer
  • Fuel Economy
    6.1L
  • Engine Power
    103kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    145g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

Four of the best city lights shine over a combined 2500km...

Light hatchbacks have never been this polished. The Renault Clio, Volkswagen Polo, Kia Rio and Ford Fiesta all make a convincing case for spending $19,990-plus on a high-grade light hatch, rather than a base model larger hatch.

The catalyst for this comparison test is the re-introduction of the regular Renault Clio models, in new fourth-generation form. The $19,790 Expression tested here offers a 1.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed dual-clutch automatic, exactly matching the configuration of the Volkswagen Polo in this test, although the $21,490 77TSI Comfortline scores an extra ratio for its dual-clutcher.

Although the Clio finally ends the VW Group’s monopoly on downsized, turbocharged engines in this class – as opposed to larger engines without a turbo that is the norm – the Ford Fiesta will soon, too.

But its 1.0-litre ‘Ecoboost’ turbocharged three-cylinder engine option isn’t due until December, so here and now the recently facelifted $19,825 Trend with a 1.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder will do battle. It is within $100 of the Clio, however, so its inclusion still makes sense.

The Kia Rio, meanwhile, offers the best non-turbo petrol engine in the light hatchback class. The 1.6-litre unit in the $21,990 SLi tested here is unique among the non-turbo crowd in offering direct injection technology to help boost outputs and lower consumption. It is the most powerful engine here.

We’ll crunch the numbers on their up-front value and long-term ownership proposition, including standard features, warranty and servicing costs. A sub-1000km drive loop, split between urban, freeway and country road driving, will then sort their performance, economy, comfort and refinement rankings to find an overall winner.

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

Standard on all models here are dual front and side airbags, electronic stability control (ESC), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, air conditioning and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity.

The Clio Expression uniquely comes standard with a colour touchscreen and satellite navigation, but in a sign of the times it lacks a CD player and gets only four speakers to the others’ six.

It is the only car here to get 16-inch hubcaps, but alloys can be added for just $500 extra. Likewise, it is the only contender to lack rear power windows, but it is available in a $300 option pack that bundles in features not available on its competitors, such as automatic wipers, electric folding door mirrors and keyless auto entry and start, in addition to auto headlights standard only on the Rio. Our test Clio added both alloys and the ‘Electric pack’ and at $20,590 is suddenly transformed into the best value contender here. The only sizeable blot on its copybook is that it lacks curtain airbags.

The Fiesta Trend is the cheapest car here, but at $765 less than the as-tested Renault it doesn’t seem as strong value. It gets standard power rear windows, 15-inch alloy wheels and front fog lights – the only car here to miss fogs is the Polo – but its only unique feature is a driver’s knee airbag.

The Rio SLi, meanwhile, costs $500 more than the Polo 77TSI Comfortline, making it the most expensive contender here. It does, however, include 17-inch alloy wheels to the Clio’s 16s, and Fiesta and Polo’s 15s, and scores both fog lights and auto headlights over the Volkswagen.

At least from an equipment perspective, both the Kia and Volkswagen struggle to justify their $1400 and $900 respective premiums over the Clio Expression, however.

RUNNING COSTS

Each of these light hatchbacks includes a capped-price servicing (CPS) program, but with different end dates.

Ford extends its CPS for the Fiesta all the way to seven years or 105,000km, the Volkswagen program ends a year earlier, the Kia’s a year earlier again, while Renault lets dealers barter for your business after just three years.

For those first three years the Ford also costs the least to service. At $245 for the first and third service, and $275 for the second, it tallies just $765. The Renault, at $299 per service, requires $897, while the Kia, at $239/$310/$292 for the first three dealer visits respectively, splits the difference at $841. The Volkswagen is the costliest to service, its $347/$491/$420 respective trio of checks totalling $1258.

Over five years or 75,000km, the Fiesta only extends its lead, asking $375 and $245 for another two services. From here the Clio, with CPS finished, blows out to $671/$286 as “recommended” costs for the fourth and fifth year, which is marginally cheaper than the Polo’s $855/$347 but more expensive than the Rio’s $458/$267, respectively.

The Ford falls slightly behind with its below-average three-year/100,000km warranty, but if the Fiesta is serviced with the capped-price servicing program at a genuine dealer, roadside assistance is included. The Volkswagen struggles to gain back ownership ground with a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, though roadside assistance is included over that period regardless of where the car is serviced.

Both the Renault and Kia lead with five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties, though the Clio just edges ahead overall with roadside assistance for that entire period, compared with just 12 months cover for the Rio.

Fuel consumption results further boost the Clio Expression’s standing. Over a 600km test loop comprising city, freeway and country road driving it consumed 7.6L/100km, up from its official combined cycle figure of 5.2L/100km. While the Polo 77TSI actually consumed less in exactly the same conditions – 7.3L/100km, up from its 5.5L/100km official combined cycle claim – the Renault accepts regular unleaded fuel where the Volkswagen demands costlier premium unleaded.

Neither the Rio SLi or Fiesta Trend need premium, but their on-test results of 8.6L/100km and 8.4L/100km respectively help prove the theory that larger engines without turbos are no longer as economical as smaller engines with a turbo. The Kia exceeded its 6.1L/100km claim on test, as did the Ford beyond its 5.8L/100km claim.

Over the 15,000km the average Australian drives per year, and with regular unleaded at $1.45 and premium at $1.55 in Sydney at the time of filling, the Clio will cost $1653; the Polo $1697; the Fiesta $1701; and the Rio $1741. Not much between them, then, but call it a coffee per fortnight you’ll get extra in the Renault compared with the Kia.

INTERIORS

The Volkswagen Polo may cost a bit more than its competitors up front and in the long run, but it feels more premium inside than its rivals here. Its design can be called quite conservative, but equally, looking like a condensed Golf also makes it the classiest.

Its soft-touch dash plastics are the nicest here, and details such as the flock-lined centre console storage bin, leather-wrapped handbrake, proper door grabs, and silver-tinted air vent surrounds and door handles mean that while the 77TSI Comfortline may not be the funkiest or most fully featured, it is the best place to sit overall.

Firm but supportive cloth-trimmed front seats are matched by the most generous rear bench here, the tilted seat base making the Polo by far the most comfortable for rear riders. It isn’t quite as spacious back there as the Rio, though.

The Volkswagen’s 280-litre boot extends to 952L when the 60:40 split-fold rear backrest is folded, which is almost identical to the others, but the Polo uniquely has a split partition that can be removed to create one large space, or installed to create two separate spaces.

By far the worst aspect of the Volkswagen interior is the aftermarket-like Bluetooth ‘pod’ attached like a 1990s mobile phone charger to the left of the main audio screen, which itself utilises a dowdy monochromatic-screen unit.

Worse, the tiny touchscreen responds slowly, and on our test car when a call ended, it failed to register and kept the audio system silenced. The Bluetooth audio system also plays out of one speaker and sounds like AM radio, rendering it virtually useless.

Its connectivity system is a far contrast to that in the Renault Clio, which offers a proper, large touchscreen with integrated systems. While the app-like interface and high-resolution graphics consign the Polo to an analogue era, all wasn’t entirely well with our test car. Simply, the Bluetooth audio function was glitchy regardless of which tester had their phone connected, and without the back-up of a CD player, our test Clio, ironically, left us less connected than the others.

The French cabin is also the newest and coolest of the quartet, mixing piano-black trim with customisable colours and a blend of shapes – like the horizontal-slat digital speedometer. Its front seats are also much softer than the Polo’s, though not necessarily more supportive.

For $250 buyers can choose between ivory, black, red, ‘dots’, ‘sport’, tricolour, and, as on our test car, blue interior trim, to match or contrast other optional exterior trims that add a further $250.

The bathmat-like rubber plastics on the Clio dashboard aren’t quite Polo-grade, though, and there are some storage and ergonomic issues. The Renault has by far the smallest glovebox, door bins and cupholders, for example, and no passenger vanity mirror when the Rio and Polo even gives their shotgun-rider a light. The transmission lever on the Clio is also incredibly cheap feeling – clacky and loose.

Further back, and the Clio has the shortest rear seat base that also sits lowest to the floor, and the least rear legroom and headroom. Compared with the Rio, the roomiest car here, the Renault affords a full 45mm less legroom, and is 40mm/15mm adrift of the Fiesta and Polo respectively. More concerning considering Renault claims its hatch is just as safe as its competitors despite Clio being the only car here without curtain airbags, taller passengers will find their heads brushing the arching roofline.

Yet moving back again, the Clio boasts the largest boot at 300 litres, a full 12L larger than the second-placed Rio. With the rear backrest folded that also extends to 1146L, a massive 81L more capacious than the Fiesta that earns second place for maximum cargo capacity. The Clio is the only car here to install its spare wheel under the car, however, yet it is at least a full-size (steel, not alloy, though) spare.

If the Clio’s connectivity dates the Polo, then the Renault’s design does the same to the now five-year-old Ford Fiesta cabin.

Everything works logically inside the Fiesta, but it has the cheapest plastics and is the only contender with a steering wheel that adjusts for height but not reach. The tiny monochromatic display, in lime green, is inferior even to the Polo’s, as is the Nokia-like keypad that lacks tactility when the buttons are pressed.

On the upside the front seats are even more comfortable and supportive than the Polo’s and Clio’s, with heftier side bolsters and a base that is pleasantly plush.

The steering wheel is also a great size – slightly smaller than the VW’s and Renault’s – with audio and cruise buttons as logically labelled as they are in the Kia Rio; by contrast the Polo puts those respective functions on indicator and wiper stalk, while Clio cruise control necessitates pressing a button down beside the gearlever, then using the steering wheel buttons, and hides its audio functions on an ‘eastern block’, a pod to the right of the steering wheel.

For rear seat space and comfort the Fiesta rates only slightly behind the Rio for room and the Polo for comfort. As with those competitors, but unlike the Clio, it offers rear map pockets. Unlike the entire rival trio, however, the Fiesta gets roof coat hooks instead of proper grab handles.

The Fiesta also offers competitive boot space – 281L rear seat up, 965L backrest down – but it does so with a pithy puncture kit underfloor. That there’s no spare wheel of any sort is made worse by the fact VW, Renault and Kia all include full-size spares.

In both its presentation and space utilisation the Kia Rio feels like a bigger car than the other three. Its soft-touch dash plastics are the second nicest here, let down by scratchy door trims.

Likewise its red monochromatic displays – one for audio, one inside the speedometer – look almost sexy and endow the Rio with a surprisingly high-end feel.

The Kia also offers plenty of storage options, including not only the largest glovebox here, but also one of the biggest dash-caves we’ve seen in any car.

Only the lever adjustment for the driver’s seat (also used by Renault) grates alongside the infinitely variable rotary knobs used by Ford and Volkswagen.

It’s almost a double-win for the Kia in the rear with class-best legroom and headroom almost matched by the comfort of the bench, which is decently long but less tilted and comfortable than the Polo’s.

The Rio is the only car here with an alloy full-sized spare, and its 288L boot expands to 923L when the backrest is folded.

ENGINES AND TRANSMISSIONS

‘Big car’ interior impressions with the Kia Rio are backed by a feeling of solidity and perkiness on the road. The body feels the strongest here, supported by the 1215kg kerb weight, which is the heaviest of the group and a full 127kg lardier than the lightest car here, the Polo.

A touchy accelerator pedal makes the Rio feel fastest off the mark around town, too. Kia is the only manufacturer here to use a traditional torque converter automatic transmission, with six gears, where the competition now use dual-clutch automatics that are essentially manual gearboxes that are electronically controlled. The reason for the switch is down to efficiency and quicker shifting times, but while the Rio can’t escape the fact it used the most fuel on test, there are upsides to its traditional automatic. Where its rivals all have a slight hesitation off the line, the Rio SLi puts its power to the ground far more smoothly, making it number one for urban driveability.

The 1.6-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine also delivers the most power of the quartet, with 103kW produced at 6300rpm. Should you need to pull out when changing lanes in traffic, the automatic delivers snappy response, kicking down quickly and allowing the engine to rev freely.

Even the 1.5-litre Ford Fiesta, with a lesser 82kW at 6300rpm and 140Nm at 4400rpm, has superior overall driveability to the Rio.

Its take-off performance may not be as perky, and indeed the Ford’s six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is a bit sluggish off the line, but the transmission is smarter and more in tune with the engine’s needs. It is not only a better partnership around town, but on the open road it – like only the VW – offers an ‘S’ mode that denotes a Sport shift pattern. It cleverly holds gears, blips the throttle and squeezes every last kilowatt and Newton metre out of the engine.

The Ford engine also pales against the twin 1.2-litre turbocharged engines in the Polo and Clio, yet even they duel between themselves for the drivetrain gold medal.

The Volkswagen 1.2-litre produces 77kW at 5000rpm and 175Nm between 1550-4100rpm; the Renault 1.2-litre makes 88kW at 4900rpm and 190Nm at a flat 2000rpm. The Clio weighs 1146kg, marginally more than the Polo at 1088kg, and its dual-clutch gearbox gets six gears to its rival’s seven.

Even then, the Renault should have it all over the Volkswagen, but that isn’t the case. In fact, the Polo 77TSI Comfortline hammers the Clio Expression in every discipline – it sounds sweeter, revs quicker and more cleanly, has less turbo lag off the mark, and from standstill to 100km/h recorded a half-second quicker time of 9.4 seconds.

Much has been said of the Volkswagen direct-shift gearbox (DSG) in recent times, but the Polo’s is a pearler. Off the line it doesn’t roll back like the Clio does, it is quicker to hook up and quicker to shift, and with an ‘S’ mode like the Fiesta, it holds gears adeptly.

By contrast the Renault dual-clutch teams with a soft accelerator pedal to feel sluggish off the line. The automatic then slurs between gears, and it fails to holde gears prudently. At least the manual tipshifter is the correct way around (push forward to downshift), which is unlike the Polo and is far superior to the anti-ergonomic +/- manual shift buttons in the Fiesta. When tackling hills, the Clio’s torque can be appreciated, though, and it is a quiet, relaxing companion.

STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING

The Renault Clio is quiet in terms of road noise, too, and it offers terrific ride quality. The steering is light, and although it is slightly too vacant on centre, it is progressive and sweetly feelsome everywhere else.

Its suspension feels the softest here, particularly when the going gets tough. The Clio rolls more and understeers earlier than any rival here. All four cars wear Continental tyres, but where the Polo and Fiesta wear ‘premium contact’ boots and the Rio has ‘sport contact’ rubber, the Clio gets ‘eco contact’ patches, which in this case is code for ‘they have less grip’.

Luckily, the Renault also has among the sweetest chassis of the group, so it is well balanced and quite keen to be driven hard.

The only problem for the Clio is – you guessed it – the Polo. The Volkswagen is even quieter on coarse-chip country roads; indeed it is the most refined here.

The Polo also matches the Renault with a soothing, compliant ride across all surfaces, yet it mixes that trait with tighter suspension that means it rolls less and feels more composed when changing direction quickly.

Only the Volkswagen steering is slightly less impressive, with heavier weighting and a slower rotation between left and right lock, though the system is still very good and reassuringly consistent.

Yet the Ford Fiesta remains the dynamic superstar of this class, beating even the Clio for steering feel – it is slick, quick, light and connected.

The Fiesta also blends the Clio’s playfulness with the planted feel of the Polo to rate up front for handling. Its ride is marginally firmer than the Clio’s and Polo’s, however, though it remains wonderfully compliant. Only the non-turbo engine prevents the Fiesta from keeping pace between corners.

The Kia Rio suspension falls slightly behind those rivals, though it still rates quite well. It has the busiest ride around town, though the strong body seems to absorb smaller impacts that are heard but not felt. The Rio feels almost Euro-like in the way it is firmly absorbent, yet still comfortable, though it cannot match the compliance of its rivals. Decent dealings with impacts at low speeds also descends into some crashing and thunking on rough roads at speed, and the Rio produces the most coarse-chip road noise of the group.

The Rio sits surprisingly flat through corners and clearly relies on the grip generated from its 17-inch tyres. It isn’t the most balanced chassis, but like the Polo, it is composed and can be fun.

The stability control calibration, however, is by far the worst of the group. Where the others subtly intrude, and even help quick cornering, the Rio’s clamps down needlessly early and hard, and removes power from the accelerator for what feels like seconds. Thankfully it can be switched off (so too can the Polo’s but not the Fiesta’s or Clio’s).

Another negative is the steering, which is slow, vague and lumpy in terms of weight. On the freeway, it requires attention and subtle corrections, and on twisty roads it lacks the tactility that all three of its rivals demonstrate.

VERDICT

The Rio is, along with the larger Cerato, the best car Kia has ever produced, genuinely adept and impressive, and competitive with the best cars in the class.

In terms of its interior presentation, space, features and warranty, it is valid light hatchback selection, though it also has automatic transmission, ride and steering issues that hopefully Kia will be quick to address.

For its cheap entry price and cheap servicing alone, the Ford Fiesta earns a solid third place, its superb steering, ride and handling cementing it there. But it sorely needs an interior makeover and that 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine to boost its standing.

Choosing between the Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo is tough.

The Renault may be subjectively more stylish and less conservative inside, yet the bland engine means the Volkswagen is actually the more charming of the two. In addition to its demonstrably superior engine and transmission, the Polo is also quieter and slightly sharper dynamically, with a higher-quality interior.

The Clio Expression may offer more features for less, a better warranty and cheaper servicing, but you can mount an argument that the better car is worth paying a bit extra for. The Polo 77TSI Comfortline is the better, and best, car in this class.

Photography by Easton Chang.

Ford Fiesta Trend

Price: $19,825
Engine: 1.5-litre 4-cyl petrol
Power: 82kW at 6300rpm
Torque: 140Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 10.6 seconds (tested)
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km claimed (8.4L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 139g/km

Kia Rio SLi

Price: $21,990
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl petrol
Power: 103kW at 6300rpm
Torque: 167Nm at 4850rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 10.4 seconds (tested)
Fuel consumption: 6.0L/100km claimed (10.2L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 138-141g/km

Renault Clio Expression

Price: $19,790
Engine: 1.2-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 88kW at 4900rpm
Torque: 190Nm at 2000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 9.9 seconds (tested)
Fuel consumption: 5.2L/100km claimed (7.6L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 120g/km

Volkswagen Polo 77TSI Comfortline

Price: $21,490
Engine: 1.2-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 77kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 175Nm at 1550-4100rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 9.4 seconds (tested)
Fuel consumption: 5.5L/100km claimed (7.3L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 128g/km