The Clio habitually ranks at the sharp end of the class in this regard. It has never been short on verve, even at the cheaper end of the model scale. But for the Ford Fiesta, you’d probably call it the finest example of the zesty, engaging European small hatch – the sort that the Japanese, Koreans and now the Chinese have been seeking to reproduce for the past 30 years.
But the new one sets higher standards than its immediate forebear right across the board, from compliance to high-speed stability to ultimate grip and amusement value. As a driving machine it’s the most multi-talented and complete supermini to come out of France in a long time: certainly since the Citroën DS3, and probably for a lot longer.
The way the Clio segues from remarkable rolling comfort at one moment to slick and engaging handling accuracy the next, marks it out as a work of real class. It’s a calmer customer than the Fiesta; slightly softer of spring and less tautly damped, its low speed ride is very quiet but also more absorptive than the Ford’s.
This means that, at higher speeds, there’s a little more body movement in the Clio. But when that does materialise, and the road surface conspires to test the Renault’s mettle, excellent damper tuning and first-rate bump isolation combine to produce fluent body control and an unusually silken ride in one so small.
Indeed, on an urban test route the Renault feels well refined and able to glide over road defects in a manner more normally suited to a much larger car.
The steering wheel is quite large and it feels a little over-assisted at low speeds. But as you accelerate, so that power assistance ramps down. Ultimately, it allows a well paced, well weighted system to present that, although it isn’t very informative, does feel natural, if a little light in places.
Lean on the suspension and it firms up in trustworthy proportion, keeping control of the body and working the tyres just hard enough to produce plenty of grip and a consistent steering response.
An effective balance of dynamic virtues is what we look for in a good-handling hatchback, and the Clio’s balance of comfort and sporting brio is every bit as striking as its chic new clothes.