What is it?
A new Renault Clio. Big news in the supermini segment, then; and this latest Clio is a small car with about as big and important a brief as it gets. The Clio 4 is the latest incarnation of the model that helped define the segment as we know today. Mk1 and Mk2 Clios seemed to nail the class requirements perfectly: chic looks, compact proportions, fun dynamics.
But then the Clio got all serious on us with the Mk3. It became bigger and more grown up, and blander to look at and inside and out in the process. And the fun dynamics had been swapped for something altogether more refined, which created a very accomplished and mature car (it still feels so today), but not something you'd recognise as a Clio.
Renault knew this too. So in 2009 it went out and hired former Mazda man Laurens van den Acker as its new chief designer with the brief of bringing character and that certain kind of 'Renaultness' back to its models, however hard that is to define. The stunning DeZir concept followed a year later and did the defining for us, previewing the new face of Renault in the process and leading directly to the new Clio 4.
This Clio sticks with the same fundamental accomplished underpinnings as its predecessor, but an overhaul (think Volkswagen Golf Mk5 to Mk6) means the Clio is wider, lower and with a longer wheelbase than ever, and is said to be more responsive to drive than ever as a result.
An increase in size doesn't mean an increase in weight; it's around 100kg lighter than the Clio 3, a drop that, in combination with more efficient engines, has allowed Renault to do such things as fit a smaller fuel tank (45 litres vs 55 litres) without a drop in potential range.
The big news under the bonnet is two new Renault powerplants making their debuts in the Clio 4, a 0.9-litre turbocharged petrol tested here and the most efficient version ever - 88.3mpg and 83g/km - of the French firm's familiar 1.5-litre turbodiesel. A new turbocharged 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a new six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is to follow in 2013.
What is it like?
Let's deal with those looks first: in the metal, it looks great. The new Clio is a classic case of a car where images may not do it justice; its front-end can look too big for it and its sides too creased through a camera lens, but look at it parked among peers on the road and you'll see a well proportioned and thoroughly contemporary design.
But even if you don't like the look of it, it can't be denied that the Clio is a car with amounts of character its predecessor can only dream of.
That character continues inside. Gone are the lashings of plain black and grey plastics, in their place is an interior with the visual appeal to match its underlying quality. Sure, like the exterior, that boldness might not be for everyone, but the interior of the Clio is undoubtedly a much cheerier companion on a long journey than before.
The intricacies of different trims for different markets meant our test car had a Dynamique exterior and a more vibrant Dyananmique S interior, so inside there was plenty of gloss black trim for the dashboard and centre console and a funky 'Le Mans' theme to the steering wheel, air vent surrounds and door panels. Dynamique and Dynamique S versions get MediaNav, a touchscreen infotainment system neatly integrated into the centre console.
Being 45mm lower than before, you of course sit closer to the ground in the Clio 4 than the Clio 3. There's plenty of scope for finding a good driving position; all versions have reach and rake adjustable steering and a driver's seat that can adjust by up to 70mm in height. The upshot is a car that you feel like you're sitting in rather than on.
You're left with two initial impressions of the Clio 4 0.9 after a minute or two of driving: first, how grown-up and mature its dynamics still feel and second, that the engine feels like it has four cylinders rather than three such is its low-speed refinement.
Around town, the Clio is even more composed than it was before. None of the low-speed ride quality has been lost. And the reduction in weight has made it feel more agile at low speeds, a trait that's highlighted by an electric steering system that feels more pleasingly weighted than on the Clio 3, even if it is a bit springy around the straight ahead.
But the Clio 4 wasn't a car that needed to feel more grown up or composed, if anything it needed something injected back into it. Thankfully, when you're in the mood, so it is too.
The steering rack is quicker than before, and that extra feel that's better weighted around town is even more welcome when you're in need of a smile on your face. And the handling is up there with a Fiesta's in its sharpness and responsiveness, which is some compliment.
Above all, turbocharger and dual-clutch gearbox debates aside, let's not forget that this bodes well for the dynamics of the consistently class-leading Renaultsport version.
If there's a place dynamically where this Clio disappoints its on faster A-roads and motorways. Its high speed ride feels too soft so bumps are bounced over rather than properly absorbed. It doesn't feel as settled or as composed here, which is a shame given how well rounded the rest of its dynamic package is.
It's at higher speeds where the engine also reveals its biggest downside: a lack of top-end grunt and refinement. It's found wanting above around 3500rpm when you press the throttle in top gear when going up a hill or looking for a quick lane change, so you'll be shifting cogs more so than in larger capacity units. It's a nice five-speed gearbox, though.
Even with the downsizing trend producing such impressive engine as it, perhaps it's still asking too much for a 0.9-litre three-cylinder engine to match the high-speed refinement of larger units. And to focus on its shortcomings is to overlook its lengthier lists of positives: it sounds great when revved, offers plenty of low- and mid-range shove, four-cylinder engine levels of refinement, and real-world economy of around 45mpg even when driven with a heavy right foot.
Should I buy one?
It'll certainly make you think twice about buying that Fiesta. It might not quite have the edge on the Blue Oval dynamically, but Renault has still pretty much nailed the overall brief with the Clio.
The Clio is no longer a bland car. It looks great inside and out, drives nicely and has the ability to do what the previous car could never really do unless it was wearing a Renaultsport badge: put a smile on your face.
Sure, you'd probably go for the new 1.5-litre diesel over this new petrol such is its economy and performance benefits but the zesty 0.9-litre powerplant almost feels a more a natural fit in the return of the characterful era of the Clio.
Renault's intention is to roll out the look and feel of this new Clio across the rest of its range. The Clio is back, and if the roll out is successful then hopefully soon Renault will be too.
Renault Clio TCe 90 Dynamique MediaNav
Price £13,995; 0-62mph 12.2sec; Top speed 113mph; Kerb weight 1072kg; CO2 104g/km; Economy 62.8mpg; Engine 898cc, 3cyl, turbocharged petrol; Power 89bhp at 5000rpm; Torque 100lb ft at 2500rpm; Gearbox 5spd manual