The new Clio has little truck with the well-worn dynamic character type of the classic French supermini.
It’s important to record, of course, that the number of modern small hatches that are now anything like a skinny-tyred Citroën 2CV or even a Peugeot 205 to drive is precisely zero. And yet the last Clio retained a lightness about its steering, a certain indefinable delicacy about its handling and a suppleness to its ride, all of which made it seem intangibly ‘French’-feeling to drive – compared with many of its firmer-sprung, stouter-feeling opponents, at least.
The new one is a notably different prospect. Seeming wider on the road and instantly more agile than its predecessor, it’s also shorter about its suspension movements and more businesslike in the way it deals with a changing road surface. The car turns in with impressive levelness and immediacy and feels precise and composed when driven briskly through a series of bends. It isn’t quite a match for the still exceptional Fiesta for driver appeal but it would likely yield to little else in the class.
Renault’s electric power steering calibration is heavier and quicker off centre than we’re used to from a Clio. Although it opens up with an over-assisted vagueness at low speeds, it becomes more usefully feelsome and reassuring at speed, allowing you to position the car with confidence in quicker sweeping bends and to have a decent stab at gauging the car’s remaining grip level when you’re leaning hard on the outside wheels.
The suspension controls pitch and dive every bit as well as roll and so stability under extremes of acceleration and braking is good, and the car remains well within its comfort zone for handling security at outside-lane motorway speeds. In many ways, then, the Clio has become another small car with the dynamic qualities of a bigger one – and although it might have lost some of its old delicacy and fun factor along the way, it has gained plenty that you might more readily appreciate in everyday driving.
In this age of always-on electronic stability control and grip-at-all-costs chassis tuning, mid-range superminis like this Clio gradually seem to go backwards, in some ways, for driver appeal. In other ways, though, and up to the point that most drivers might seek to enjoy them, they’re hugely competent, secure and impressive.
The Clio’s handling over-delivers for steering response and handling agility to begin with. Even on modest 16in wheels and on a damp day on Millbrook’s Hill Route, it turned in more keenly than the old Clio might have and had good body control under extremes of lateral load. Traction was strong enough to use all of the engine’s torque on the way out of bends without troubling the ESP too much and to carry plenty of speed.