THRESHOLDS, INTERSECTIONS AND dead ends: not much provides better impetus for reinvention. When it became apparent to decision-makers at Renault that the French firm was headed, stylistically at least, down a blind alley, a design shake-up was inevitable. Enter Mazda’s serial concept king Laurens Van Den Acker, whose immediate task was to envision a new design direction for Renault that kicked off with – surprise, surprise – a series of universally acclaimed concept cars beginning with the stunning DeZir. Now, just two years later, comes Clio 4, which represents the first full production fruits of the Dutchman’s grand plan. But it’s not just a style revolution. While the vitally important Clio ushers-in the new face of Renault, it also launches a new generation of on-board tech and a range of all-new turbocharged powertrains boasting a very impressive figures. But, as ever, proof, pudding etcetera. So…
It’s two days before the car’s major public début at the Paris Motor Show and I’m in the hills of Tuscany putting Clio 4 to the sword. Just moments ago I’d parked it up on a verge and, after first ogling gladiator Maximus’s Elysium, gave it a thorough inspection. You can’t fail to notice the Cullinan-spec diamond badge fluidly linked to massive headlamps by a pool of black grillework. It’s a bold, confident face that will please many. The flanks are much more sculptural than before, with hidden rear door handles creating a quasi-coupe feel, which Renault feels negates the need for a proper three-door version this time. It’s all-change at the rear too, where a smaller window, bold crease lines, wavy diffuser panel and lamp units similar to those on the Mazda2 dominate. Definitely attractive, but whether it creates the instant desire Renault’s hoping for is debatable. (See the design sidebar for Van Den Acker’s own thoughts as he walks us around the new Clio on Renault’s impressive Paris show stand.)
As for the interior, aspects of it would not have looked out of place in an early 2000s concept car, especially the pod-like central control section, which, incidentally, also stars in Renault’s all-electric ZOE. The floating pod encompasses air vents, air-con switchgear and Media Nav, Renault’s tablet-like touchscreen multi-media interface co-developed with LG. Like the name suggests, Media Nav controls audio, Bluetooth operations, portable music devices, navigation and also allows image viewing. I found it all really intuitive to operate, easily accessing music playlists off my iPhone in seconds via the the USB port, but did find the sat-nav too economical with its audible instructions, forcing you to keep an eye on the screen for effective navigation. A more connected, app-friendly version dubbed R-Link – with sat-nav by preferred partner TomTom – arrives in Europe early next year and may also become available here.
The rest is pretty conventional apart from the main instrument cowls that appear to have been inspired by the classic ViewMaster toy. Europeans will be offered a factory-fitted personalisation programme that allows customers to choose from various plastic inlays for the steering wheel, vent surrounds and door trim, plus wheel rim and roof decal options. It’s all a bit naff really and won’t be part of Renault SA’s initial offering anyway.
On the road, Clio 4 drives just like you’d expect a Clio to, just with quicker, more responsive steering. But there are other differences, too. The car feels lighter, probably because, at 1009kg, it is. (By comparison, Clio 3 in 1.6-litre guise weighed-in at 1150kg.) A portion of that weight loss is down to the engine line-up, which has been put through the fashionable downsizing and forced induction process. The launch versions I drove was powered by an 898cc, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol that produces handy peak outputs of 66kW and 135Nm. In a bold move, it’s with this engine that Renault will launch the new Clio in South Africa in the first half of 2013.
Interestingly, the tiny triple didn’t sound as distinctively offbeat as some of the other three-pot motors currently on sale. Worked hard, as was necessary on the test route’s hills, it was clear that while willing enough at low revs, the unit is far happier spinning at 2000rpm plus – not unexpected, as torque peaks at 2500rpm. Fortunately, the five-speed transmission is a sweet one and I spent a lot of time switching between second and third gears with the occasional uphill hairpins calling for first. Still, the turbocharged mill makes a worthy replacement for a naturally-aspirated 1300 with the added benefit of excellent fuel economy. Renault’s combined cycle claim is 4.5ℓ/100km and I achieved an average in the high-sixes over the launch run, much of that driving three up. Other petrol engines in the European line-up include a 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo and a 1.6 turbo, which is reserved for use in the new RenaultSport model.
Clio 4 is a satisfying update on the third-generation car that should at least put the brakes on sliding sales. While it doesn’t present any radical packaging innovations or possess ridiculously desirable styling, it is clear the money has been spent on turning a decent car into a more efficient and technically proficient one. Will that, along with Van Den Acker’s stylistic vision of a new Renault, be enough to fall in love with Clio again? In the words of the red-shoed Dutch wonder, ‘If this falls flat, I’m going to be looking for a new job … very soon’.
NEED TO KNOW
ENGINE 898cc, 12v, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol, 66kW @ 5250rpm, 135Nm @ 2500rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE 12.2sec 0-100kph, 182kph top speed, 4.5ℓ/100km, 104g/km
SUSPENSION MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
MADE FROM Steel