It’s not every day we get our hands on a best-seller. A recent trip to the Loire however, garnered DTW a Renault Clio. What did we make of it?
It’s close to half past seven in the evening as the TGV eases into la Gare de Tours, terminating its one hour and eighteen minute journey from Paris-Montparnasse. The station, a grand edifice dating from 1898, and a designated monument historique, feels as though it’s winding down for the evening, as indeed does the historic city of Tours itself.
The Avis car rental office certainly has, the Chef de Gare being called upon to process our documentation and release our pre-booked hire car. It has been a diverting past time during the train journey to embark upon a spot of car-rental bingo, but in this case our guesses are some way off the mark. While I had suggested a Citroen C3, my companion was equally certain of a Polo. We were both therefore surprised and somewhat relieved to have been handed the keycard for a Renault Clio.
The current generation Clio was (by a significant margin) last year’s top selling B-segment hatchback across Europe. Indeed, since its introduction, the current model’s year on year sales continue to grow exponentially, so the fact that a car no longer in its first flush of youth is capable of such a strong showing some five years into its lifespan is no small achievement in the current febrile trading environment.
For a model first launched in 2012, the Clio has maintained a visual freshness which often rather quickly fades from cars in this most hotly contested sector. In receipt of the most subtle of facelifts in 2016, there remains an essential rightness to its form which renders much in the way of plastic surgery both unwelcome and needless. Certainly, one must search carefully for obvious signs of the surgeon’s scalpel.
And while one could suggest an element of skewed priorities in the Clio’s style, one perhaps ought to applaud Renault’s designers for offering their customers something that little more visually indulgent. Because if one could criticise any aspect of the Clio IV’s shape, it would be to observe a certain essence of form over function; a sense that for Laurens van der Acker and his design team, matters of aesthetics over-rode the more tedious practicalities.
The car’s voluptuous shape, with its expressive and elaborate headlamp units, long wheelbase, teardrop (of sorts) shaped DLO and broad haunches is distinctly feminine in character, yet falls pleasantly short of being fey. There is a welcome lack of excess too, in the manner in which the car’s surfaces have been handled, and while the graphics are a little showy in places, they have not been allowed to overwhelm.
Like all the more successful of the van der Acker-inspired Renault designs, the Clio is more of a monospace in essence, if not quite in execution – a body style with which Renault’s current design chief appears to be at his happiest – if the current Scenic and Espace designs are any guide. With 2018 looking as though it will mark the Clio IV’s strongest sales year yet (if the second half performance equals the year to June), it’s clear that the car has plenty of life in it yet. Certainly, to these eyes, it still looks fresh.
Matters are slightly less successful within the cabin however, where style and substance are in places engaged in an somewhat uneasy state of mutual discomfiture. At first glance the Clio’s interior offers an inviting environment, but the profusion of unpleasantly tactile plastics in obvious and frequently encountered places (the tops of the door cards in particular) detracts from the pleasure. Stowage space isn’t a particular strong point either, there being little space for the detritus one tends to accumulate when travelling.
Also unpleasant to behold is the Clio’s infotainment ‘stack’, a curiously shaped and unpleasantly finished receptacle for the car’s sat-nav screen and (in our Clio at least) manual heating and ventilation controls. However, the more driving-focused controls accorded no comment at all, from which I can reliably conclude that they worked just fine.
However, one egregious consequence of car’s sinuous external forms is manifested by its severely compromised outward visibility, especially to the rear of the vehicle. Reversing was very much a matter of instinct, experience and some trepidation. Forward vision was also quite noticeably impeded by the vast A-pillars – a likely consequence of the Clio’s class-leading passive safety credentials. The feeling of grim confinement within the (otherwise decently spacious) rear of the vehicle was further underlined by the dreary all-black interior trim of our rental car.
Our Clio was powered by (we believe) the lower spec version of the Renault / Nissan 1.5 litre dCi turbodiesel, producing 89 bhp. It surprised by being a good deal livelier than such modest figures might suggest, with strong acceleration and impressive power within its narrow working band. But while Autocar described the power unit as being “so refined, you’d struggle to tell that it’s a diesel,” our impressions left little doubt. Not that the noises were altogether unpleasant, there being a rather amusing induction growl emitted under spirited acceleration.
The Clio handled and rode the largely rural French roads we traversed during our sojourn in the Loire with poise and decent compliance. The ride quality was firmish, well damped and body control was very well checked under most conditions. The electric power steering was direct, nicely weighted and while it offered no discernible feedback, (what does nowadays?), it was entirely acceptable.
While we didn’t quite corner the Renault on the doorhandles, the Clio was driven in a moderately spirited fashion (one of our party was a native) and acquitted itself well. Control weightings, while on the light side, were positive, linear and offered no unnerving surprises.
Luggage space for three lightly-travelling adults wasn’t particularly generous within the Clio’s boot, but nevertheless, we squeezed everything in without much compromise. The rear parcel shelf however, a cheap piece of moulded plastic appeared as though it would give up the uneven struggle within a matter of weeks in more hamfisted rental hands than ours.
The sweltering Sunday evening was no livelier at la Gare de Tours as it had been two days earlier, but as we awaited our return TGV to arrive from Paris, I reflected upon our rental steed. Having largely dismissed the Clio as being largely a style statement with little by way of depth or lasting appeal (apart from competitive pricing), it was with some surprise and no little contrition that I found myself considering a car of real ability and some palpable charm.
A far more pleasant car than I had imagined, the Clio carried within it a hint of the relaxed loping gait which has characterised the better products of Boulogne-Billancourt for decades. What let the side down were some minor interior material grumbles, and outward visibility which ran the gamut from poor to abysmal.
That the Clio Sports Tourer not only obviates this frankly unacceptable deficiency while being even better looking than the (admittedly cheaper) hatchback only places the later in an even less flattering light. If Renault saw fit to import it, this would be DTW’s recommendation.
The French press are already speculating upon the Clio’s replacement, said by them to be an evolutionary design slated for launch in about twelve to eighteen months time. And while there is clearly some work to do to improve the next generation car, the current Clio nevertheless seems, on the surface at least, to be ageing with some aplomb.
Author’s note: The article has been amended to reflect errors in the original text.