Velvet. Say it out loud. Go on. Vellllvet. Imagine Captain Holt from Brooklyn Nine-Nine saying it. Let it roll off your tongue. It’s one of those words, one of those materials, which conjures a certain image – like, when I wrote ‘tongue’ and ‘velvet’ in the same paragraph, I bet your tongue was flushed with a strange, dry, sandpapery sensation.
What’s it all got to do with this review? Well, when was the last time you heard of a car with a velvet interior? The 2017 Renault Clio Intens has exactly that. Mmmm, exotic!
It’s not in the same league as that red dress worn by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but the newly added Intens variant in the updated Clio range features (fake) leather and velvet seat lining. For reals.
The Intens model – obviously – is going for the luxury angle in the updated Clio range, which also has more affordable Life (from $15,990) and Zen (from $17,990) models available, and a sporty GT-Line version for the same money as the Intens ($22,990) – all prices plus on-road costs. Read the full pricing and specs story for more detail.
So, can a little car like this up-spec Clio offer the little luxuries you might expect? Renault, after all, is pitching this version as “luxurious” – it even says so in the brand’s media release. Consider it a rival for the newly-added Mazda 2 GT, the Volkswagen Polo Highline or a Peugeot 208 Allure.
It’s not our place to say whether a car looks nice or not, but the 17-inch alloy wheels are schmick, and Intens models can be had with free personalisation options, like Flame Red or Ivory exterior elements (door sill and grille inserts and rear spoiler), and Red or Grey interior highlights (dashboard, door panels, seat highlights).
I’m one of the first to admit it can be difficult to think how a compact car like this can offer the indulgences you might find in something bigger and more expensive. But this version has other bits and pieces to make it stand out from, shall we say, lesser Clio variants – like chrome window trims and tinted rear windows. And it also has a hands-free parking system with front, rear and side parking sensors in addition to the standard-across-the-range rear-view camera system.
Like most semi-automated parking systems, you hit a button (in this instance placed logically up next to the media screen) to activate the system, then use the indicator so the car knows on which side you wish to park. You need to choose the gear (drive or reverse) as the car instructs, and apply the brake and throttle – just be careful: if you’re facing downhill and put it in D, it can roll forwards, and because of the dual-clutch gearbox there can be some lurching under light throttle, and the indicators auto-cancel when you make minor adjustments to the steering.
It doesn’t just do reverse-parallel parks, either. It’ll deal with perpendicular and even 45-degree angle spots. As with many of these systems, it can be slower than a human to pick a suitable space, and it can be frustrating to use if you’ve got someone up your clacker, too (just like any reverse-parallel move!). But it works, and works well. If you want to see it in action, what the video attached to this review.
Other niceties in the flagship Intens model include the brand’s R-Link multimedia system with built-in satellite-navigation and voice control, and a four-speaker Arkamys sound system. Even though this is an update, there’s no change to the phone connectivity on offer – still one USB port, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto mirroring.
Even in the entry-level version you get keyless entry (front doors only) and push-button start, automatic on/off headlights and automatic windscreen wipers. Our car (and the Zen below it) has LED headlights, which are excellent.
And while all of that shiny, special looking stuff is enough to get excited about what the little Clio has, you also need to consider some of the stuff it doesn’t have.
There is no autonomous emergency braking system, even as an option, and there are no curtain airbags to protect rear-seat occupants, either. Those exclusions may or may not matter to you, but you should consider that every other car in the class has rear curtain airbag coverage, and many now have AEB available – the Mazda 2 has it standard in every model.
There are other driving quirks that’ll either be fine by you, or not. The dual-clutch transmission is one such objectionable item, because at low speeds it can be jerky at times, it can also roll back/forward as mentioned, and the throttle can be hard to modulate as a result.
When you’re taking away from traffic lights it’s relatively easy to judge the throttle, although there is some turbo-lag to contend with along with the transmission hesitation. If you do a lot of stop-start urban driving, be sure to do exactly that when you go for a test drive.
The drivetrain is great above 15km/h – there’s enough punch from the 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, with its 88kW of power (at 4900rpm) and 190Nm of torque (at 2000rpm) helping it hustle along nicely. It never feels breathless, though the lack of a sport mode means you might resort to doing manual shifts, and there are no paddle-shifters.
Still, the dual-clutch transmission has a less crisp action than other gearboxes of this ilk. You can feel the clutches working under hard acceleration, for instance, though the shifts are smooth when you’re cruising or call on a lower gear for a quick overtaking move.
It’s quiet under acceleration, which is nice, and it’s not too loud on coarse-chip roads, either, even with Michelin Primacy 3 tyres (in 205/45/17 spec).
Those tyres have a bit to do with the good level of grip on offer. In the wet it can tend to want to push on in really tight bends, but the steering is accurate and well weighted, so you know what’s going on at the front axle at all times.
The Clio’s suspension is pretty well sorted, too. It corners with ease, holds a nice flat line when you’re pushing it hard, and isn’t too firm over bumps. You’d expect, being a French car, it would be good over pockmarked surfaces – similar enough to cobblestones, after all – and it doesn't get too worried in those circumstances.
Sharp edges are a bit more of an issue, as it can bounce a bit firmly on the rebound. But on the whole the suspension has a nice tension to it; it’s not cushy, or luxurious for that matter, but nor is it too hard to live with.
Other aspects that need to be examined when considering luxury are cabin space, materials, technology and equipment.
It isn’t packed with kit – you miss out on seat heaters, and the seats are manually adjustable in lieu of motorised toggles. You don’t even get dual-zone climate control – there’s manual air-conditioning with temperature increments, which Renault says is single-zone climate control. I tend to disagree.
If you think rear seat space is vital for a car with lavish pretensions, you’ll be upset. There’s not much space in the back – in fact, it’s cramped by class standards, with tight knee, head, toe and shoulder room, particularly if you’re trying to fit three across the flat back seat.
There’s not much storage either, with small pockets in the back doors, no cupholders (and no armrest) but a pair of map pockets. I guess you could put a take-away hot chocolate in one of those, right?
The shortage of storage continues up front, to a degree. The door pockets are small, the cupholders are low between the seats and shallow (there's a third full-sized one but it's hard to reach), and there’s no usable room in the glovebox – but there’s a little shelf above which is handy for passengers to stow their wallets or phones.
This spec gets an armrest between the front seats that includes a small storage bin, while the boot is competitive for the class, with 300 litres of cargo capacity and a space-saver spare wheel under the body of the car.
The materials on the dash fall short of what you might think you'd get by looking at the car from the outside, and the plastics on the doors are fine, but not special. The velvet on the seats, though… (cue Homer Simpson gurgle of desire here).
Renault’s R-Link media touchscreen is bright and colourful but can be slow to load between screens, and when you are connected to the Bluetooth audio streaming it can jump between sources – for instance, I was listening to a podcast, then took a phone call, and once I hung up it resumed playing music, not the podcast. Weird.
Still, we love that the only speedometer in the Clio is a digital one – it’s easy to see, even for oldies, and there’s a trip computer displaying the vitals like fuel consumption above it, though that’s mirrored on the screen. On that topic, our test regime saw a return of 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres – just a bit over the claim of 5.6L/100km.
The updated Clio model falls under Renault’s revised servicing plan that sees it need maintenance every 12 months or 30,000km – generous, right? – at a cost of $299 per visit for the first 36 months/90,000km of ownership. The Clio is backed by a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and has the same cover for roadside assistance.
There’s a difference between being a luxury car and being a luxurious car, and the Renault Clio Intens falls in the latter category… just.
It’s not all that luxurious when it comes down to it, but it is a reasonably well-equipped model with a fair amount of European flair to help it stand out in the segment.
Click the Gallery tab above for more images by Sam Venn.