By Jonathan Crouch
Bigger, better looking and more efficient, Renault's fourth generation Clio was launched in 2012 to return the company to volume credibility in the supermini sector. It did. Bubbling with personality, it's an effervescent statement of intent from the Gallic brand. Looking for a small car in this segment? You're looking here at the state-of-the-art from the 2012 to 2016 era. Let's check it out as a used car buy.
The Clio supermini is by some margin Renault's most successful model, with over 12 million sold since the original version arrived in 1990 to replace the iconic little Renault 5, the market's very first supermini. The Clio line was conceived as heir to a series of fun, friendly little cars stretching all the way back to the post-war years, models supposed to embody all the spirit and joie de vivre that once set this French brand apart. By 2012 though, things were slipping in this regard. The third generation Clio III, launched in 2005, tried to be more grown-up, but only ended up being bigger, heavier and, in ordinary guises, generally less characterful - less Renault. As it aged, the brand's staple supermini dropped slowly off the market radar.
The fourth generation model we look at here was Renault's bid to get things back on track and rejuvenate its supermini segment fortunes. Pretty as a picture and as sporty as you could ask a car of this kind to be, it claimed to offer a sense of esprit that had previously been recently lacking, not only from its brand but also from the supermini sector as a whole. The version we're looking at here sold until 2016 when it was then heavily facelifted.
What You Get
Prior to this fourth generation Clio model's arrival in 2012, it'd been some time since we had seen a really pleasingly styled little Renault. 'Simple, sensuous and warm' were the three design keywords for this model and that's pretty much what was achieved, with voluptuous looks that aimed to make buyers want to reach out and touch curving panels that gather pace around the steeply raked windscreen, culminating with assertive shoulder lines above the front and rear wheelarches. There's no three-door model, so it's just as well that five-door bodyshape does a good impression of one, coupe-like styling emphasised by hidden rear door handles. So visually and practically, you get the best of both worlds.
In a design actually based on decade-old Clio III underpinnings. No matter. These were stretched to create in this car one of the most spacious superminis in the class, with around 10% more rear legroom than you'll find in most obvious rivals. Significantly more headroom too, which is impressive bearing in mind the lower roof height. All of which, if you've a family to carry, could matter hugely. No of course you can't get three fully-sized adults comfortably across the back seat in a car as small as this but in this unlikely eventuality, you'd be better of in this Clio than in just about any other car in this segment. There's decent space for their possessions too, with a boot that, at 300-litres, is about 15-20-litres bigger than the obvious competition. Push forward the 60/40 split-folding rear backrest and you can extend it to 1146-litres - again, a best-in-class figure.
At the wheel, there are shiny, jazzy cabin finishes that grab your attention and refuse to let it go, especially if you're in a car that's benefitted from (or been afflicted by) the huge array of trim personalisation that was possible for original buyers. As for the design itself, there's yet another dash that's been sculpted in the shape of an aircraft wing on which is mounted an overtly confident chrome-surrounded instrument cluster dominated by the kind of digital speedo that not everyone will like. Equally eye-catching is the consumer electronic-fest that dominates the gloss black-trimmed centre console of all but base models in the form of a tablet-like display that is the 7-inch R-Link colour touchscreen. From here, as well as controlling the stereo and the Tom Tom sat nav, there's the potential to surf the internet, email, use text-to-speak messaging, download a range of Renault-sourced apps and even get economy driving tips. It's really very clever indeed.
Dislikes? If you can get on with the modern feel, there aren't many. The rear windows are a little small (their glass area has been reduced this time round for a sportier look), so it can be tricky to see over your shoulder when parking or at junctions. It's also a bit surprising to find that the cruise control switch isn't operated in its usual place off the wheel but down by the handbrake. Still, at least behind the wheel all models do get a neat control stalk for the high quality stereo. Not as ergonomic is the placement of the start button (there's no key needed) a reach away on the left hand side of the centre stack; lazily, it wasn't moved across to suit the needs of righthand drive customers.
Still, all markets did seem to appreciate the practicality of this cabin, with lots of well thought-out stowage spaces dotted around. The tray in front of the gear lever that's exactly the right size to hold your 'phone or music player. The 4-litre glovebox. And door bins that can carry a 1.5-litre bottle. Pass the Perrier.
What to Look For
This fourth generation Clio sports a cabin that's a good deal better screwed together and made of more durable materials than its rather reedy predecessors. It also runs on largely tried and tested mechanicals, so Renault has lessened the risk of problems cropping up quite cleverly. The racy Renaultsport 200 EDC model aside, this Clio has also escaped the boy racer brigade. The 200 is a very different kettle of fish and thrives on being driven within an inch of its life, so be a little more careful here. Whatever variant you're looking at, check tyres, exhausts and front suspension alignment carefully and try to establish if the previous keeper was diligent in the car's upkeep. Look for parking scratches on the alloys and evidence of child damage on the interior plastics and upholstery. All of these issues are common and could give you scope for price negotiation.
(approx based on a 2014 Clio 1.5 dCi 90) Day to day consumables for the Clio are in line with what you'd expect. An air filter is around £7, though you could pay up to around £21 for a pricier brand. An alternator is around £340 - but pricier brand ones can retail between around £565 and £590. Brake callipers are around £110, while brake discs sit in the £78 to £82 bracket, though you could pay around £245 for a pricey brand. Brake pads sit in the £15 to £20 bracket for a set, though you could pay up to £30 for a pricier brand. A cylinder head gasket is around £50 and you'll pay about the same amount for a fuel filter. A drive belt is around £10, but you could pay up to around £20 for a pricier brand. An oil filter is around £7, a radiator around £200 and a shock absorber around £70. A timing belt is around £35, but you could pay up to £90 or even as much as £160 for a pricier brand. Tyres retail in the £35 to £45 bracket. A water pump is in the £52 to £82 bracket and a wiper blade will cost between £10 and £20.
On the Road
That Renault can engineer a small car with handling to bring a smile to your face has never been in doubt. There are plenty of rorty little Renaultsport Clios around that testify to that. Before this MK4 model Clio arrived though, it'd been a long time since we'd seen an ordinary affordable car from this model line replicate a properly dynamic driving experience that anyone could enjoy. This fourth generation version had to do just that and be more than just a pretty face.
That it delivers in this regard is something you establish fairly early on. It helps that you're seated a little lower than you were in the previous generation model, that you grasp a wheel with a quicker steering rack and punt around a five-speed gearbox with a slicker shift. As a result of all this, in the first few yards, you should sense that something has changed with this MK4 generation version. A suspicion confirmed the first time you throw the thing into a corner and notice the extra agility that comes with losing around 100kgs, quite a sum in a car this small.
It isn't quite as taut as a rival Fiesta, but that's OK: if you're like us, you instinctively expect French cars to roll a little more - almost want them to for the payoff of silken low speed ride. Which is delivered here in a way that no rival can better. Just one of the many reasons you'll enjoy driving this supermini around town. The others? Well-weighted steering that facilitates a tight 10.6m turning circle. And torquey engines you don't have to row around with the gear lever.
There are three main ones, with low and hi-tech routes to petrol power. If price is all, you'll choose the affordable entry-level 1.2-litre 16V 75bhp entry-level unit that struggles up to 62mph in 15.4s en route to 104mph. But before going that route, we hope you'll give the more up-to-date technology a chance - in the form of Renault's 0.9-litre turbo three cylinder TCe unit. Here lies the fun - the joie de vivre - that loyal Clio buyers have long been looking for from this car. No it hasn't too much to offer if you really rev the thing, but lower down the range where you really want pulling power in a little car like this, there's plenty thanks to the unobtrusive little turbo, with 90% of the grunt available from little more than tickover, more than enough to get you to 62mph in as little as 11.8s on the way to as much as 115mph. And all delivered without the sometimes annoying thrum that occasionally blights rival three cylinder engines from Ford and Peugeot.
If you do need a little more petrol poke, there is a TCe 120 engine option, but this, like the 1.6-litre direct injection turbo unit used in the Renaultsport Clio 200 hot hatch, must be ordered with an automatic EDC ('Efficient Dual Clutch') automatic transmission that few will want. No, the main Clio choice is between the three cylinder petrol TCe - and the variant most will probably want, the four cylinder dCi 90 diesel. This dCi unit is actually the most refined of all this Clio's engines and, despite being so efficient, still manages to be almost identically as fast as the petrol alternative. An extra 62kgs of weight in the nose means it doesn't feel quite as agile as the base TCe, but with nearly 70% more pulling power, it's possibly a better choice if your supermini motoring must include plenty of out-of-town work. It's certainly a little better at higher speeds - say if you're on a motorway and you hit a steep incline.
The Clio MK4 marked a promising return for Renault to a position amongst the class leaders in the supermini segment. The French brand hasn't always identified and prioritised the things that really matter to small car buyers but it did with this car, issues like efficiency, practicality and safety all proving to be strong points of this design.
And dynamics? The fun 'chuckability' that used to exemplify small Renaults? Yes, you also get that, balanced with the comfort that's also a Gallic trademark. In terms of the exact balance between the two, it'll depend a little on your choice between the two most preferable mainstream engines. Go for the light and agile three cylinder TCe petrol variant and there's extra fun and character. Opt for the diesel and you get a more mature and sensible performer: choose to suit.
No small car is perfect of course - and this one isn't. You might feel a Volkswagen Polo is more solid or a Ford Fiesta a little sharper to drive. You might be right, but both in comparison struggle to match the all-round excellence on offer here. As a result, this Clio's going to rate highly on the used car shortlists of many who would never have previously considered it.