Now three years’ old, the Renault Clio still looks fresh to my eyes and is a car I remember with fondness from its launch.
I was so smitten that I got hopelessly lost driving it and was late for lunch. Given the importance that I place on lunch, I have been very careful to make sure that such a disaster hasn’t befallen me since.
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Power in a small package
The Clio Dynamique S Nav I had for the week was fitted with a 1.5-litre diesel engine producing 90hp and a healthy 162 lb ft of torque, lending the car a muscularity during overtaking that was at odds with such a small, cheap car.
Of course, it is easy to see where the pennies have been saved: the handbrake is operated with a lever rather than a button and reversing sensors are an optional extra, for example, but the overall feel is of a car designed for the driver and the overall feel is anything but poverty-spec.
So the seats are comfortable, look terrific and provide a perfect driving position, (something you might feel entitled to be able to take for granted but you’d be surprised how many cars fail in such a simple task), the dashboard and interior fittings feel more upmarket than they need to, and the interior space is generous enough to fit two grumpy teenagers in without triggering further angst-ridden whinging.
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Beautifully balanced drive
Yet it is on the road that the Clio really shines and it is a very long time since I’ve driven such a beautifully balanced car in which nothing is in excess and nothing is found wanting.
This is a car on which real thought and care has been lavished by engineers who have a very clear understanding of the Clio’s demographic.
It is a joyful thing to steer along motorways and byways, rising to the challenge on both with an aplomb that astonished me.
I covered 125 miles on a wet and windy motorway stuffed to the gunnels with family, presents and emergency rations and the only compromise that was forced on me was an adjustment to the height of the headlight beam to compensate for the extra weight.
In fact, the Clio demands no concessions of its driver whatsoever yet the rewards are out of all proportion to the inputs: it brakes, steers, goes, and handles better than anything in its class.
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Sharp and slick
The steering is pin-sharp but without the hyperactive directness of the MINI, a car in which every corner is taken in a series of slices. Turn-in is accurate and immediate and while long sweeping bends might induce a touch of understeer in extremis it is otherwise resolutely neutral.
The gear change is as slick as anything this side of a Honda NSX and the clutch is light and progressive. As a result, the old journalistic cliché of finding any excuse to pop to the shops for a pint of milk was made real during my week with the Clio.
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Of course, it isn’t perfect: Renault’s electrical gremlins surfaced with a warning that the tyre pressure sensors had failed, advice that was disproved by a manual check that showed that all was well mechanically, if not electrically.
The keyless central locking threw the odd hissy fit too, always locking the car automatically as I walked away but rarely unlocking it when I returned. However, the reliability score for the Clio is above average, so perhaps mine were isolated problems.
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Basic models offer best value
The Clio that I drove had been sprinkled with a few optional extras, driving the price up to a whopping £18,915 and this is too much for any small car, no matter how beautifully finished and lavishly equipped. My advice is to stick to the base specification and I promise that you won’t ever feel cheated.
You could, of course, spurn the diesel in favour of a lighter, cheaper petrol-engined model, in which case a Clio with a 90hp petrol engine will cost you just £16,170, on paper, at least. The reality is that there are bargains to be had.
Parkers suggests that a brand new car just like the one I loved so much can be bought as a new or pre-registered model for just £12,654. That’s astonishing value and you will still benefit from Renault’s comprehensive four-year warranty.
Of course, you could save even more and buy a nearly new model: I found a 2015 car with fewer than 10,000 miles on the clock for under £10,000 with the balance of the warranty outstanding.
New or used, the Renault Clio is one of those rare superminis that doesn’t make you feel like you are downgrading from a ‘proper’ car to save money; this is a car you buy because you love driving and want to be able to enjoy a great chassis in a smaller, more wieldy package.
Best-in-class – Renault Clio: Simply nothing touches it for sheer driving pleasure. That it is such a bargain consolidates its place in my heart.
The best of the rest – Ford Fiesta: Frumpy looks and a commonplace name disguise a great car that deserves its place as the best-selling car in the UK.
Left-field alternative – Suzuki Swift: Hugely under-rated, the Swift is almost as much fun as the Clio and is even cheaper to buy.
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