Magnificent little Modus

There’s a significance about the Modus that pervades everything it does. From the way it finally re-establishes the long-lost French skill of making small cars funky again, to the fascinating realisation that this is quite probably the first small car ever to make anything much larger seem unnecessary, without having to qualify such opinions in terms of cost, reduced dynamic appeal or poor build quality. In fact, just to spoil things for those who always read the last sentence first, I’ll say it here: this is one of the best small cars ever made.

How something so chirpy and cuddly can be based on a platform known simply as ‘B’ is testament to Renault’s drab industrial tongue. It actually means that the Modus shares its foundations with the Nissan Micra and next year’s Renault Clio. It’s an especially rigid platform and, given the compact dimensions of the car, looks massive in cutaway illustrations. No wonder this is the first supermini to score five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests.

What the Modus does is offer the intrinsic benefits of a big car in a small-car package like never before. As with the very safest big saloons, it’s extremely crashworthy: six airbags, a smattering of seatbelt pretensioners and anti-submarining seats.

Renault has also turned conventional supermini specification theory on its head. Whereas most automatically delete equipment to maximise profit, the Modus gets the lot. There’s climate control, a funky set of electronic dials, sat-nav if you so require, likewise a panoramic sunroof and standard anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution – everything you’d expect to find, or be able to specify as an extra, on your £20k Laguna. 

And where you’d expect the plastics to be just that touch harder and the console a little less solidly fixed, the Modus is at least as well screwed together as a Mégane, and its polymers just as squidgy. This is Renault saying that, just because you’re paying less, you shouldn’t miss out on the niceties. In fact, you should probably reconsider buying anything bigger.

Those looking for punchy performance probably should reconsider, though. With just 80bhp to lump 1185kg around, the 1.5 dCi diesel is barely sprightly, but then this is further proof that Renault has fully rediscovered the art of the small car, because it just doesn’t matter that the 1461cc unit will only thrum to 62mph in 13.4sec and top out at 104mph. I can tell you that it’s red lined at 4600rpm, but that wouldn’t count for anything. It’s a lovely engine to use: quiet, torquey and thoroughly relaxing. This isn’t a car to hustle – it’s something to be enjoyed and admired at a lope. And that is the secret of the French small-car tradition; something that the Japanese have yet to master, even Honda with its excellent Jazz.

Happiness is as much a part of the Modus chassis as its front struts and rear torsion beam. None of the technology counts for much because the end result has an especially powerful effect on the driver. Slow speed, cute fun. That’s just as well because the electric power steering is catatonic and has an annoying resistance to budge from the straight-ahead at speed. And the chassis is pretty soft. No doubt the high seating position (very good, save for the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel) exaggerates this, but then again this isn’t a hot hatch and the way it gently bobs down the road is really rather wonderful. The seats have something of a Renault 5 sponginess about them, too. Ride comfort on the 15in wheels we tried was fine – sadly not a return to the magic carpets of old, but it easily beats the Jazz.

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And it’s very spacious. Not down-size-the-Scénic-immediately big, but remarkably so for something no longer than a Clio. The rear seats have two positions. You can push them backwards and inwards between the rear suspension turrets for two people, or further forwards for three people – a position which also maximises boot space. Rear legroom is tight on the foremost setting, but otherwise it matches the larger Scénic and the seat’s a good shape with just enough under-thigh support. The seat’s easy to move and slide, and the boot has a very low loading lip and an optional second opening (a drop-down flap in the boot lid) that’s as cute as it is practical. It looks like an original Mini’s boot lid. Boot space is always good (198 litres at its titchiest and 621 litres with everything folded flat) but it’s worth noting that the front seats won’t slide back far enough for a sensible driving position in the mini-van mode.

And that’s about all the Modus does wrong. It has headlights that shine around corners at low speed, bespoke mountings for a bike rack, more cubby holes than in a herd of kangaroos and chic mirror-mounted indicators. It’s a celebration of all that’s right about today’s small cars. A car that blends all the pragmatic needs of a small family with a substantial hit of infective character. However, more telling than any of this is that, in the tradition of the great small French runabout, the Modus is a car that will probably (in the UK at least) be bought as second or third wheels. And more often than not it will be chosen over its more expensive house-mates for any given journey because it’s so much fun.

Chris Harris

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