Just when Renault most needs a star performer, it seems to have produced one. The French firm has been having a hard time selling cars across Europe, challenged for every sale by a pincer movement from VW and Hyundai-Kia. Its model range lost so much momentum in the UK last year that at the beginning of 2012 it killed all but four of the models it sells here, awaiting better cars to sell.

The big fightback begins next February, when the new-shape Renault Clio goes on sale. The car – longer, wider, lower and 100kg lighter than its predecessor – is based on the well-proven running gear of the outgoing Clio, but features new and much more characterful interior and exterior designs by a team led by Laurens van den Acker, the ex-Mazda design boss appointed by Renault in 2009.

The big news for more basic models is a brand-new 89bhp, 898cc, three-cylinder turbo engine. There’s still a normally aspirated 1.2-litre four for entry-level models and the familiar 1.5-litre turbodiesel is offered again. There’s also a semi-sporting 1.2-litre GT petrol turbo model coming to fill the gap to a new 197bhp Renaultsport model.

There’s no doubting that the new Clio looks great. We tested the Clio TCE 90, powered by the new triple, and it looked even better than you see in many photographs: fresh, modern and distinctive. Same goes for the interior. The fascia is dominated by its seven-inch touchscreen. This is the first mainstream Renault to get the new R-link infotainment system and it adds much to the car’s appeal.

On the road, the new Clio instantly feels mature, because road noise is low and it seems more composed over low-speed jitters than before. But it is more agile, too, because the rack and pinion steering has quicker gearing, the suspension has been re-rated and the car is lighter. Faults? It floats a bit more than we expected at high speeds (is this the return of ‘funny’ French suspension?). And we were surprised that the free-spinning three-cylinder engine wasn’t just a little more tractable, given the fact that its rapidly expanding retinue of three-pot rivals usually are.

Still, the Clio is a great little car again, engaging inside and out, and ready to lead a French fightback. It has much work to do.