Often it's both little niggles and special touches that are the focal point of the getting-to-know-you month with a brand new car, and so it proved with 'my' Renault Clio Expression TCe120.
The mid-grade Expression is expected to be the most popular in the reborn French light hatchback line-up. Most of those punters are expected to miss the 0.9-litre three-cylinder and five-speed manual version, and spend $19,790 for the 1.2-litre four-cylinder and six-speed dual-clutch automatic we’re driving for the next six months.
Essentially, we’ve got the most popular drivetrain in the most popular specification level.
Exterior options on our Renault Clio test car include Oyster Grey hue ($550) and red exterior trim ($250) – the combination of which reminds me of a Volkswagen Golf GTI Mark VI. Inside, there’s dotted-silver trim ($250) that looks too much like wrapping paper for my liking, plus I have a shirt that is white with silver dots, so I can’t wear that for fear of clashing…
There’s also should-be-standard alloy wheels (though for a reasonable $500, or a less-reasonable $750 for the black items featured here), and an electric pack – which adds rear power windows (which also should be standard), automatic headlights and wipers, and auto-fold door mirrors for just $300.
It takes our Clio to $21,890 plus on-road costs.
A $2000 difference in pricing would typically only buy an optional automatic transmission alone, but Clio buyers score a bigger, more powerful engine as well, with outputs rising from 66kW/135Nm for the three-cylinder to 88kW/190Nm.
That’s great for auto drivers, but it leaves the three-cylinder looking irrelevant. It’s especially a shame because the 0.9-litre is a cracking, characterful engine, even if it is a bit slow.
The 1.2-litre we have is gutsy when on the move, but it sounds buzzy and characterless.
Worse, the automatic it’s attached to it frustratingly ditzy.
Sometimes, it works brilliantly, smoothly shifting up through its ratio set when accelerating and cleverly shifting back gears when braking for a set of traffic lights. But the delay between throttle-press and gearbox response, particularly at low speeds, is terrible.
In peak hour traffic, attempting to move quickly off at the lights is met with doughy reluctance. Changing lanes one morning on the Harbour Bridge, in what was plenty of time to not get in the way of a car approaching from behind, left me foot flat, transmission refusing to kick down for seconds, and that car suddenly on its horn.
Luckily, the engine has freed up noticeably over the past 500km and the gearbox seems to work more fluently with it, too. Time will tell if it becomes less of a problem.
Those larger issues are largely offset, however, by the brilliant steering and ride quality of the Clio Expression. This is a joyful car to drive around in the suburbs as much as it is when twisty country roads emerge.
I love the consistently light and quick steering, and the way patchwork Sydney inner city roads are shrugged off with masterful compliance.
For a $20,000 model, little touches like the auto keyless entry have become appreciated. Yet this system is better than most such systems, because when the Renault keycard is in my pocket and I walk away from the car, the Clio ‘blips’ to let me know it has locked itself. Most other systems won’t make a noise, so you never quite know if it’s locked.
The Renault system also allows me to press the black rubber button on the front door handles to unlock the Clio, then keep the keycard in my pocket and use the starter button to switch the car on or off.
One gripe is that if you cheat and press the lock button on the keycard when exiting, it won’t allow you to use the door handle button to unlock it; until I realised this, I was left looking dumbfounded at the local café, as anti-cool as the leather-jacketed bloke they use in the Clio billboards that read ‘seriously stylish so you don’t have to be’. Or something like that.
I’ve also come to love the touchscreen system, which, as with the keyless auto entry, is among the easiest of any car in any class category.
Most notable is the phone connectivity, which allows you to search for contacts by typing their name onto a keypad that comes up on the touchscreen. Most systems either require you to rotate a dial to punch in the name, which is time consuming; blank out the keyboard when driving, which is painful; or require the use of voice control, which never understands the name.
There are many examples of doing connectivity poorly – Renault, however, has got it spot on.
Perhaps predictably, there are downsides. The satellite navigation map only has an auto-zoom facility. It doesn’t allow you to select a particular zoom unless you hit part of the map and then zoom in, but the map remains fixed, then reverts back to the auto-zoom that follows the car around.
Audio quality is decent, unless you crank the bass and volume where it distorts easily. I’ve plugged in a 20Gb USB key full of songs, and the Clio shows up the album cover, full naming and allows you to easily navigate through multiple playlists and artists.
But this is the second Clio we’ve driven that has patchy Bluetooth audio connectivity that regularly cuts in and out, rendering the system unusable. Renault is onto the case.
As I said, little niggles and special touches, frustration and love, have defined the first month with our new Renault long termer. Maybe that is as it should be with a French hatchback – it certainly is with my 1989 Peugeot 205 GTi that shares garage space at home – though it still doesn’t stop me longing for the lovable triple engine and a proper manual transmission.
In the coming five months I’m planning to hand the Clio around, firstly to my 58-year-old mother who is an aged carer and currently drives a 2005 Suzuki Swift. I’m curious to see how regular punters rate the little Renault.
I like it. But it’s not love … yet.
Renault Clio Expression TCe120
Date acquired: November 2013
Odometer reading: 2884km
Travel this month: 991km
Consumption this month: 10.9L/100km