The Renault Clio will return to the Australian market in regular form in the second half of 2013, ending a six-year hiatus to give the French brand's local revival a further boost.
Renault initiated another comeback in this market in 2010 after previous failures. The Australian management team chose to keep importing only the RenaultSport hot-hatch version of the Clio, deciding it would wait to relaunch the Clio nameplate with the impending fourth-generation model.
That new Clio has now arrived, and a select group of Australian media including CarAdvice was brought to Florence, Italy, to try the latest version of Renault’s well-known city car that has sold more than 12 million units worldwide.
There’s much significance surrounding the new Clio. It’s the first clean-sheet design from former Mazda designer Laurens van den Acker, and it introduces his new corporate face for the company’s vehicles.
The diamond-shaped Renault badge is larger and more upright than before, designed to demonstrate the brand’s renewed confidence.
Van den Acker’s first Renault can only be described as a huge design success, with the Clio 4 looking stylish from all angles.
There are strong hints of Alfa Romeo design to the tail-lights and haunched rear quarters, and not least the hidden rear door handles that are designed to make a three-door variant redundant.
Personalisation options also become prominent on the new Clio, with buyers able to select different colours for areas such as the side mirrors and side protector panels. Decals are also available for the roof.
Under the new-look body is a modified version of the previous-generation Clio’s platform. Dimensions change in every area, with the city car now 35mm longer, 45mm lower and 24mm wider.
Axle widths expand by 34mm and the wheelbase is slightly more stretched by 15mm to 2589mm.
The wider body and tracks give the Clio a great visual stance when viewed directly from behind, but the latter also serves to give the little Renault more stability than before.
The new Renault Clio is more than just stable on the road, however. Its handling is of a level that puts it in the same esteemed league of great-driving city cars that includes the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and the Volkswagen Polo.
A long and winding road up into the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence quickly dispels any concerns that the stark contrast between the regular Megane and its RS variant is likely to be repeated with the Clio.
If a standard Clio is this good to drive, enthusiasts should get very excited about the newly announced RenaultSport Clio 200 Turbo.
The Renault Clio’s front-wheel-drive chassis is neutrally balanced and remarkably resistant to understeer.
Whether you’re carrying plenty of speed into corners on trailing brakes or playing with the cornering angle with a little lift of the accelerator, the Clio provides huge amounts of confidence-inspiring entertainment. Only the windscreen pillar that can affect vision around corners spoils things slightly.
The steering is direct and accurate, and it provides feedback when the front wheels start to lose grip. While the 16-inch low rolling resistance tyres fitted to our Clio are far from the most adhesive we’ve tried on a city car, they’re more than sufficient for most buyers and also allow keen drivers to exploit the car’s latent ability.
This terrific body control doesn’t come at the expense of ride comfort, with the Clio’s strut front and torsion beam rear suspension offering enough suppleness and bump-cushioning ability that journeys don’t become arduous.
And you needn’t fear freeways, either, despite the fact our test car was a Renault Clio TCe 90 model powered by a 66kW 0.9-litre three-cylinder turbo and expected to be Australia's entry-level model.
The 0.9L turbo Clio certainly isn’t the fastest-accelerating small car (0-100k/h in 12.2 seconds), though the engine only has to motivate a car weighing 1009kg and it’s unexpectedly torquey – with a noticeable kick just after peak torque (135Nm) arrives at 2500rpm – and happy to pull from low speed in third or even fourth.
It’s mated only to a five-speed manual, and that may explain why there’s a bit of a gap between second and third gear.
Still, keep the Clio in second on twisty roads with few long straights and it’s an opportunity to enjoy revving an engine that is refined for a three-cyinder – exhibiting none of the vibrations through the throttle pedal that can be common with the breed.
There’s still a noticeable off-beat note, though, that’s also one of the likeable traits of three-cylinders. Yet it’s also quiet at 110km/h, despite using about 2800 revs, and you’ll hear more wind noise, though even that is well contained.
Officially, fuel consumption is rated at 4.5 litres per 100km. We reached double figures during our stint of spirited driving, but stretches of freeway and country roads did see the trip computer start to tumble back in the 8.0s.
For owners looking to save fuel wherever possible, Clio models come with an Eco button that, when depressed, helps by reducing engine torque slightly, modifying the mapping of the throttle pedal and offers a little gearshift symbol to prompt shifts at the appropriate time.
Renault Australia is still working through engine choices and there’s a chance the three-cylinder turbo will join a diesel and another petrol that are both almost certain starters for launch.
The 1.5-litre turbo diesel of the Renault Clio dCi also produces 66kW but 220Nm, with fuel efficiency of 3.4L/100km and a 0-100km/h time of 11.7 seconds in five-speed manual form. (The diesel is also expected to come with the new dual-clutch auto next year.)
It's another gem of an engine, tractable from idle and with noticeably bigger swell of torque than the three-cylinder turbo that makes general driving more effortless and allows for greater driver enjoyment by providing better squirt out of corners.
A 1.2-litre turbo is also coming that’s teamed with Renault’s new dual-clutch transmission.
The RenaultSport Clio 200 Turbo will only employ the twin-clutch ‘box and features a 147kW 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder.
Renault says the new Clio is also a new standard bearer for its interior quality.
There are enough hard plastics to know what price point you’re at with the car, and the glovebox hatch isn't damped, but there are also some thoughtful treatments to the cabin – such as a soft upper-dash and some trendy trim choices.
Our test car came with a ‘Sport’ theme that wasn’t entirely convincing with its graphics on plastic trim for the doors, gearbox surround and steering wheel, though a racier red option in another car was likeable for its red and black seats with black piping, red dash and door trim, and piano black gloss steering wheel trim and centre stack.
If the Clio’s centre stack resembles a slightly deformed iPad, Renault is not pretending it isn’t playing on the current Apple phenomena by calling it a multimedia tablet. (In addition to a colour touchscreen, though, it also incorporates air vents and heating/ventilation controls.)
In Europe, trim levels above the base Clio come with a so-called Media Nav system, which brings Bluetooth audio streaming and phone connectivity as well as Tom Tom satellite navigation.
A Tom Tom-developed app-based system Renault calls R-Link will also be available shortly (and is being investigated for Australia).
It will allow owners to download a range of apps – both free and priced – that include email with text-to-speech function, Tom Tom live traffic reports, ‘Coyote series’ speed camera locator, Yellow Pages, Twitter and Renault roadside assistance.
It also includes an ECO2 app that will rate your ability to drive economically out of 100.
Renault says about 100 apps will be available by the end of 2013.
You can also download a decent amount of bags into the Clio’s 300-litre boot, which is one of the biggest in the segment. We managed to squeeze two large suitcases into the deep boot, with space to spare on top.
The rear seats split-fold 60:40. Sit on the cushions and the Clio has the kind of rear legroom that is not out of the norm for the city car class – meaning adults wouldn’t want to spend too long back there.
And they won’t be protected by curtain airbags, either, as Renault admits it decided to spend more money on B-pillar sensors that are capable of triggering the side/thorax airbags up front more quickly in the event of a side impact.
Most city cars are now being equipped with at least six airbags but the car maker says it put the safety emphasis on front occupants because rear seats in city cars are not frequently used.
It does take some gloss off the Clio’s otherwise shining credentials, though it still scored a maximum five-star rating with independent crash-test body NCAP.
And it doesn’t stop the Clio from being the best Renault in years not to wear a RenaultSport badge.
Add a starting price that is anticipated to start at about $16,500 and Renault is capable of upsetting the current segment benchmark, the Volkswagen Polo.
The Renault Clio is well styled, refined, thoroughly modern, and terrific to drive.