Life, etc

Renault Clio 4: French revolution

By Deon Schoeman 18 April 2013

Small French cars have always had a special allure – and the new Clio 4 is set to continue that tradition. It’s a real looker in a sea of subcompact blandness, and the cabin is a smart and edgy mix of tech and comfort. But the real news is under the bonnet … By DEON SCHOEMAN.

It’s amazing how swiftly the automotive world is changing. Driven mainly be environmental concerns, but also by customer demands for lower acquisition and running costs, the globe’s auto makers are creating cars that are increasingly compact and lightweight.

This new generation of compacts is being powered by smaller but highly sophisticated engines – powerplants that manage to combine both pep and economy in a high-tech expression of automotive engineering.

The biggest challenge, though, is to persuade motorists –and South African drivers, in particular – that a small, sub-1.0-litre engine has sufficient brio to hustle along a four-seater hatchback. After all, ours is a country where bigger is mostly considered better …

The all-new Renault Clio 4 is a good case in point. It’s fitted with a small but cutting-edge engine that divides its 898cc between just three cylinders. It also happens to be a real head-turner, with styling best described as sexy and glamorous, while the cabin oozes class and comfort.

To succeed in the highly competitive B-segment for subcompact hatchbacks, the Clio has to be more than sophisticated and pretty, though. Perhaps the most important element, certainly from the cash-strapped South African motorist’s perspective, is value for money.

The new Clio does pretty well at achieving what is a challenging balancing act.

In pure styling terms this fourth-generation model looks almost exotic, but without resorting to effect or ostentation. Its smooth and almost organic shape positions the little Renault a cut above the budget norm. Even this middle-of-the-range 1.0 Expression looks anything but budget-beating.

There is an aura of aspiration in the way chrome inlays are used in the grille and along the sides. Daytime running light strips, bold headlight clusters, the concealed rear door handles and an integrated roof spoiler add further visual appeal. This is a design that is cohesive, contemporary and ultimately striking.

Vitally, the exterior’s premium impression is carried through to the smart and comprehensively equipped interior. It’s a space that looks both more advanced, and more upmarket, than a B-segment car has any right to be.

Nor does that first impression equate to an empty promise. The tactile experience of the cabin – the textured upholstery, the grippy steering wheel, the nicely turned out switchgear – confirms careful and close attention to quality.

The instrumentation mixes up digital and analogue components in a way that not only makes ergonomic sense, but adds further design appeal. The large numbers of the centrally placed digital speedometer are unambiguous, while the conventional dials for rev count and fuel level are reassuringly familiar.

The switchgear is intuitive enough to make first-time users feel at home, and not too radical a departure from the traditional Renault to alienate brand loyalists. If anything, I missed some of the small idiosyncrasies that used to set the marque apart from its somewhat more conventional rivals.

But the undisputed showpiece here is the colour touch-screen. It acts as the control centre for many of the car’s systems, including the integrated navigation, the multi-speaker sound system, and Bluetooth-based telephony and audio streaming.

Navigation? Indeed, the Expression comes with an intuitive and easy to operate satnav system as standard. And because it is so tidily integrated, it really feels like a bespoke solution. Suddenly, that handheld GPS just doesn’t cut it any more…

The Clio 4 Expression is also fitted with cruise control, a speed limiter, and keycard-based central locking, while safety is comprehensively addressed with front and side airbags, ABS brakes, and electronic stability control. The little hatchback has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, which is becoming a vital consideration on our accident-prone roads.

Another Clio 4 highlight is the efficient packaging and layout of the interior, which allows decent rear accommodation, aided by the ease of entry afforded by those rear doors. The 300-litre boot may not be all that generous by family car standards, but it’s useful in the B-segment context.

Given its substantive presence and spacious interior, however, it’s easy to think of the new Clio as a bigger car than the subcompact norm. Which makes the choice of engine all the more puzzling – or not.

It’s quite understandable to be initially discouraged by the realisation that this mainstream Clio has to rely on nothing more than a 900cc three-cylinder engine. After all, many motorcycle engines have a larger engine capacity.

But look beyond those bigger-is-better prejudices, and instead consider just what the source of the hatchback’s urge really is. For a start, it’s turbocharged, but it also employs variable valve timing, and a low-inertia turbocharger.

Max power is 66kW, combined with 135Nm of torque. A five-speed gearbox and front-wheel drive are standard fare.

The high-tech engine’s gruff sound is strangely charming, and the car pulls strongly, even though there is some lag at the very bottom of the rev range. It’s a good example of how effective a sophisticated, small-capacity turbo engine can be, and it certainly points towards the motoring future.

Of course, the real benefit of a small engine is reduced fuel consumption. Renault claims 4.5 litres/100km for the combined cycle, together with CO2 emissions of just 105g/km.

For a generously proportioned B-segment hatch, powered by small-capacity engine, the new Clio has plenty of urge. There is some lag at low speeds, but the test example had less than 900km on the clock when we got it.

By the time the Clio had to be returned, we’d added another 400km or so to that tally, and the three-cylinder’s enthusiasm had increased markedly. Clearly, it’s an engine that needs some running-in time before reaching its optimum.

The Clio always feels more agile than the specs suggest. Renault claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 12.2sec, and a 182km/h top speed, but the car’s natural sparkle makes piloting it a pleasure.

A word of warning, though: the hatchback isn’t quite as sprightly once it’s carrying four occupants and a boot stuffed with luggage. Low-down lag becomes more apparent, and in-gear tractability suffers.

Even so, the dynamics are involving and entertaining, especially as far as ride and handling are concerned. The finely tuned chassis offers both comfort and response, together with enough feedback to make it fun to drive.

You don’t really get to the point where carrying too much speed into a corner will induce understeer, but the Clio feels balanced and poised in the tight, and tackles faster curves with composed assurance. Even the electrically assisted steering loads up sufficiently to provide useful feedback.

Straight-line highway driving is pleasant, thanks to well contained road and wind noise levels, while the cruise control takes the effort out of sticking to a steady (and legal) cruising speed. Bottom line? You soon forget that the Clio is powered by such a small engine.

Ironically then, it’s going to take some time for South Africans to get used to the idea of small-capacity turbo engines powering mainstream cars. But as our experience with the new Clio shows, the end product can be nippy, tractable and frugal at the pumps.

Will smaller engines translate into lower prices? Unlikely – at least not for now. The advanced technology applied to wring so much urge from such a small unit doesn’t come cheaply, and it will take some time until economies of scale bring those costs down.

Thus, at R179,900, the Clio 1.0 Expression is hardly cheap. But if the price tag is considered against this car’s mix of tech, standard features, safety and comfort (not forgetting its reduced appetite for premium unleaded), the value component is significant. DM

VITAL STATISTICS

Renault Clio 1.0 Expression


Engine

In-line four-cylinder, 898cc, turbo

Power

66kW @ 5,250rpm

Torque

135Nm @ 2,500rpm

Gearbox

Five-speed manual

0-100 km/h

12.2sec

Top speed

182km/h

Fuel consumption

4.5 litres/100km (combined cycle)

CO2 emissions

105g/km

Retail price

R179,900

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