Renault's handsome new Clio gains an improved interior, better quality and in this RS-Line model, an engine shared with Mercedes-Benz. Can it take on the Polo, Ibiza, and Fiesta, though?
In the Metal:
If there is a criticism of the way the new Renault Clio looks, it's that it sticks a little too slavishly to the styling of the old, MkIV version. Perhaps that's neither surprising nor a bad thing, as the MkIV still looks fresh as it heads out of the door, and it's still a very strong seller - the second-best selling car in Europe right now, behind only the VW Golf.
Renault has massaged the design a bit - there are new lights front and rear, all LED-powered now, and in fact the whole under structure of the car is new. Indeed, it's some 12mm shorter than the outgoing Clio, in spite of being roomier inside. You'll tell it apart from the old one by the lights, which feature those distinct C-shaped daytime running units at the front, and by the rear hatch, which is more sculpted and three-dimensional than before.
Inside is where the real changes have taken place, though. Out goes the slightly too-cheap-feeling cabin of the fourth-gen Clio and in comes something far more impressive. The Clio's cabin is now stuffed with high-end, soft-touch surfaces and in some trims can feel properly premium. Quality has taken a big step up, which in fairness it needed to, and comfort levels are top-drawer. There are nice touches too, including neatly integrated air vents, a proper glove box for right-hand-drive versions (at last!) and a new central touchscreen. That display most obviously looks at its best in big, upright, 9.3-inch form, but even the basic seven-inch version doesn't look too shabby. Renault has re-worked the infotainment software, too, so that it's now much easier to use and looks classier than it used to, but there are still some awkward menu layouts and controls. There is a useful row of 'piano key' shortcut buttons underneath the screen, though, which helps.
Less satisfying are the standard digital instruments, which, like the ones in the Renault Megane, look cheap and underwhelming. Better to wait, and pay extra, for the upcoming ten-inch digital instrument pack, which really improves things.
Practicality levels are mixed - the boot, at 391 litres, is positively massive, but there's limited head- and legroom in the back seats. The sporty RS-Line trim also adds some nice alloy wheels and body kit, but fails to make a truly distinctive impression, and may not be worth the cost of the upgrade.
Engines run from non-turbo 1.0 75hp petrol, through turbo 1.0 100hp, to this 1.3 four-cylinder 130hp model, to the 85hp diesel that will be only of minority interest in Ireland. Also coming is a new hybrid, using a 1.2kWh battery and two electric motors, tied into a new 1.6-litre naturally aspirated engine and an automatic six-speed gearbox, which promises to be a rival to the Toyota Yaris Hybrid.
Those hoping for this RS-Line Clio to be a junior hot hatch, and to revive memories of the glorious 16-valve and Clio Williams models of the 1990s, should probably look away now. The RS-Line pack adds many things - a body kit, 17-inch wheels, chunky sports seats and seemingly more contrast red stitching than there are things to stitch, but it doesn't make the Clio remotely sporty to drive.
Handling is of the safe and predictable variety. That new steering wheel looks good and feels great in your hands, but it doesn't give you an intimate relationship with the front wheels. The Clio feels over-light and disconnected most of the time. Which is not to say that it's bad, especially, just that it's not much fun. Its forte is being stable and surefooted and displaying excellent long-haul and main-road manners. A bit too grown up for its own good? Yeah, there's a bit of that alright.
A shame, too, that the RS-Line pack includes 17-inch wheels that really hurt the ride quality. The Clio, in this form, felt jittery and unsettled far too much of the time, only really relaxing on billiard-table smooth motorway surfaces. Sad to say, but the sporty add-ons are probably best avoided.
So too is the 1.3-litre engine. It sounds harsh when you rev it, doesn't match up well with the slightly slow-witted DCT dual-clutch gearbox, and never feels powerful nor punchy enough to live up to any kind of RS billing. A shame, really.
On the upside, the Clio is comfy, and that lovely interior is no hardship to spend time in on a long journey.
What you get for your Money:
The new Clio is likely to be more expensive than the outgoing version, with prices expected to start at around €17,000. That will include extra equipment though - not only autonomous emergency braking, but lane-keeping steering, traffic sign recognition and that seven-inch touchscreen. It'll be decent value, probably undercutting the likes of the VW Polo just a little, and about on a par with the Ford Fiesta.
This is not the Renault Clio for Ireland. With the most powerful 1.3-litre engine, the auto gearbox and the (likely) pricey RS-Line trim, it's going to be too expensive for this cost-sensitive part of the market. It's also lacking in fun and has an uncomfortable ride. Thankfully, the strengths of the more affordable Clio models - terrific cabin, gorgeous styling, high quality feel, comfort - shine through.