After three months with a Renault Clio powered by a four-cylinder turbo engine linked to a six-speed automatic, we’ve swapped to a Clio with a three-cylinder turbo and five-speed manual.
In Australia, the only Clio with an automatic gearbox is the 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo with a healthy 88kW of power and 190Nm of torque. It only costs $2000 more than our newly collected $17,790 Expression manual version, a tiny 0.9-litre three-cylinder turbo with 66kW and 135Nm.
When most competitors charge that amount for an auto alone but no extra power, the auto model especially looks like a bargain. And when most light car buyers choose an auto anyway, it leaves the manual seemingly irrelevant. Trouble is the Clio Expression’s dual-clutch auto is ditzy and indecisive, and its engine sounds as characterless as any piece of machinery on a factory floor. Conversely, the three-cylinder is a real darling – refined but with an offbeat growly edge. Can it be the sweet spot in the Renault Clio range?
Our test car is white, with optional alloy wheels ($750), electric pack including auto headlights and wipers, power rear windows and folding door mirrors ($300), and red exterior and interior trim ($250 each) – the latter of which is a bit, um, polarising.
Although our grey auto came into its stride as it passed 6000km (only a week before we handed it back!), less than 10km after collecting the new white manual it had already plastered a big smile on my face.
Yes, there’s a big drop in power. You have to keep the little triple on the ball and that means rowing the long-throw and slightly rubbery manual gearbox as though you’re training for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. It demands being driven flat out all the time. It constantly rewards with its enthusiasm and eagerness, though, and expects the same from its driver.
There are a couple of downsides, however. Driving the little triple turbo flat out means fuel consumption nudges 10L/100km – more than double its 4.5L/100km combined cycle consumption claim, and once getting as high as 13L/100km!
The Clio never wins a traffic light sprint because not only is its 66kW delivered at 5250rpm and does run out of puff slightly beyond that, but it’s also doughy and laggy below 2000rpm. It’s almost diesel-like in its narrow power delivery – hence why it needs to have its manual used often.
Yet the manual’s tall second gear means that if you attempt to take any turn around-town that doesn’t require you to come to a complete stop, the Clio falls into an off-boost torque hole. It feels completely empty, requiring a hefty lurch back to first gear and plenty of throttle, which makes it frustrating rather than fun.
The realisation of how off-pace the three-cylinder Clio is for driveability came after driving our family’s 2005 Suzuki Swift manual, its 1.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder with 130,000km on the clock pulling easily from just above idle in second gear.
Generally, lopping a cylinder off a four-cylinder actually reduces friction and inertia so it makes three-potters feel torquey and responsive low down. A Volkswagen Up! 1.0-litre makes its peak 95Nm between 3000-4300rpm, for example, where most four-cylinder engines need beyond 4000rpm to deliver their maximum.
Adding a turbo, however, and the fact the Clio weighs more than the sub-light hatchbacks that most three-cylinder engines reside in, seems to conspire to reduce that off-the-line perkiness. Swapping into a Kia Sorento V6 after a week in the Clio felt like upgrading from a Corona Avante to an Aventador.
Still, flogging the underpowered manual three-cylinder Clio is much more fun than waiting for the ditzy automatic to do its business in the fairly brisk four-cylinder. Either way, both leave you with the rest of the little Renault package that is super-sweet.
The Clio has lovely, light steering that makes a pleasure of navigating from the office to my house via the World’s Tightest Streets – so tight, most cars that flank either side of the road are dented and scraped.
There’s also really supple ride quality, but with an underlay of firmness. Type into Google Maps the corner of Kent and Margaret Street, Sydney CBD, and you might mistake the satellite view for a picture of the Mars lunar landing, such is the roadworks that seemingly never ends there. It’s part of my commute, though, and pounding over the same mix of road plates, manhole covers and botched bitumen in different cars reveals the Clio to be one of the most absorbent, regardless of cost.
Factor in the comfy seats with a winning touchscreen and standard satellite navigation, and it’s largely a commuting winner – although this is the fourth new-gen Clio we’ve tried that has ill-functioning Bluetooth audio connectivity across multiple different phones. The cupholders are also more babycino-sized than ideal – in direct contrast to the vast holes for cupholders featured in the US-built Toyota Kluger, for example.
That Renault offers a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty and cheap fixed price servicing makes the Clio a rational light hatch choice as well as an inspired one.
While it will be interesting to see if the three-cylinder Clio can free itself up as the kilometres pile on as the four-cylinder did – or whether its driveability issues are a deal-breaker – the Clio I’d really love is the 1.5-litre turbo-diesel tested at the international launch in Florence, Italy, in 2011.
It brings together 220Nm and a manual gearbox, but Renault Australia decided not to import it because nobody buys light hatchbacks with diesel engines locally. That may be true – Ford ditched the Fiesta diesel, and VW sells few Polo diesels – but it may just be the Renault Clio long-termer to truly adore.
Renault Clio Expression TCe90
Date acquired: February 2013
Odometer reading: 3620km
Travel this month: 1180km
Consumption this month: 7.8L/100km
Renault Clio Review: Long-term report one