In a refreshing change from the clinically practical body shells from Germany, and even the attractive clone shapes from Asian builders, Renault's new Clio is the motoring equivalent of drop-dead gorgeous. Attractive in photographs, in the metal it's a refreshing breath of styling fresh air.
The small car sector has had a mercurial rise in the past 10 years and it's highly competitive, with almost all brands playing in this field delivering performance, economy, comfort and connectivity features that were unheard of just a few years ago.
But the Clio turns heads - even my most cynical colleagues lifted their eyebrows at first sight. Renault's director of styling, Laurens van den Acker, summed it up in typically French fashion: "No acute or aggressive angles, just voluptuous curves that make you want to reach out and caress it!"
Importantly, the Clio performs better than a small car should as well. Only two engines are available, each one developed by former Renault F1 engineers. The starting point is a three-cylinder, sub-1-litre alloy block unit that develops 66kW and 135Nm, with the torque peak starting at just 2500rpm, ultra low for such a small displacement engine. The next unit adds another cylinder, sharing the same pistons, rods and ancillaries to produce 88kW and 190Nm at 2000rpm. Both are turbocharged, using light turbo units that spool up to speed in a flash, minimising lag when you plant the throttle and delivering a genuine sparkle to the Clio's road manners.
More than a third of the parts are common to both units. The alloy block saves an impressive 20kg over its predecessor and internal friction is reduced by a healthy 20 per cent. A new timing chain designed to last the life of the engine helps here and the new engines are matched to a pair of gearboxes that complement the broad torque output. An Eco mode is available on the 1.2-litre unit, which dials down the torque, modifies the gearshift and drops the air-conditioning temperature.
Overall, the smaller engine is rated at a remarkable 4.5L/100km, which makes a diesel version somewhat pointless. By comparison, the bigger engine fairly guzzles fuel at 5.2L/100km.
Inside, the Clio offers a range of colour and trim options that Renault hopes buyers will select in showrooms and be prepared to wait up to 10 weeks to get their preferred combination from the factory in Turkey, where all right- hand-drive Clios are built. I actually doubt that will happen, as when the target market sees the car in the flesh, so to speak, they'll want it so bad that a long wait won't be tolerated.
The central entertainment unit sits beneath a sweeping dashboard that is both attractive and functional. Wherever your music is, you can pipe it through the Clio's bass reflex speakers, which provide the big sound performance needed for Renault's latest trick, the R-Sound Effect feature.
If you're bored with the quiet hum of a latest-technology small engine, you can dial up a program that converts the engine noise (only inside the car, unfortunately) into the snarl of a V6 Renault Sport, or the throb of a MotoGP bike. Pointless, I know, but pretty cool.
The Clio's bigger engine is mated to a 6-speed dual clutch automated gearbox from Getrag, while the three-cylinder gets the 5-speed manual.
Both had a perfect ratio spread to keep the car rolling in traffic or darting along undulating country roads. Keyless entry and start, hill-start assist and cruise control with speed limiter are all standard.The Clio starts at $16,790 for the three-cylinder manual. An extra $1000 gets you the trim and appearance upgrade. For $19,790 you can have the 1.2-litre engine, and the top-of-the-range Dynamique version is $23,290.