A very senior Renault boss once told me he'd landed at his holiday airport car-hire desk and been offered the choice between a Renault Modus and some anonymous Japanese rival. He opted for the rival, because "the Modus is so ugly, I couldn't bear to be seen in it". Well, now at Renault, the centime has finally dropped: people might say they want their small car to be above all practical, safe and economical but if it's a munter they'll have nothing to do with it.
So the strategy for the new Clio was to go all-out on the looks. The Clio (together with the upcoming Zoe electric car, itself a surprisingly comely example of the battery-powered genre) comes at the end of a painfully long new-car drought for Renault. Unless you count the Wind, they haven't had a proper all-new model since the Scenic in 2009. This lengthy pause meant Renault could employ a thoughtful new design chief in Laurens van den Acker, and give him time to think before he had to bring out his first new-generation Renault.
The theme is organic, sensual warmth. The Clio has a curvy set of panels, with sucked-in sills emphasising the billowing hips over each wheel. It sits behind a boastfully sized Renault diamond on a nose similar to the DeZir concept's.
Since fewer and fewer three-door superminis get sold, Renault calculated it'd be better off not bothering with one. The Clio's just a five-door. Controversially, there won't even be a three-door RenaultSport version. This meant Renault couldn't fall back on the common strategy of making a three-door swish-looking and the five-door frumpy and practical. So the swish five-door has a low roofline, a sculpted tail and shallow side glass. If that means a boot that's a bit awkward to load, rear headroom that's not quite as generous as before, and visibility that's a bit compromised, well, so be it.
In the past, the Clio was a bit of a supermini leader. It was one of the first to hit five stars in NCAP tests. One of the first with electronics options like stalk stereo controls, separate stereo display, keyless start and navigation. And it always had the option of bigger engines than the rest, too. This time around, there's still class-leading safety and entertainment gadgetry, but, instead of big-capacity engines, the Clio has leapt aboard the downsizing bandwagon.
A fact that I'm slightly regretting as my test Clio struggles past a white van man up a steepish motorway hill. It's got what is, for the moment, the most powerful petrol option, a three-cylinder of a less-than-ripsnorting 898cc. Fortunately, it's livened up by a turbocharger with good lag-free response. At town speeds, it's nippy enough, and, even when worked hard in the country, it sounds sweet. But work it hard you must. On motorways in the outside lane, the Clio doesn't so much accelerate as gain speed in geologic time. But let's not be too hard on it: in the optional eco version (where, admittedly, it has to shoulder the burden of raised gear ratios) it is rated at just 99g/km, better than the dearer Honda Jazz hybrid.
Anyway, within a few months, there will also be a turbo 1.2 making 120bhp. Sounds more like it. And beyond that, the turbo 1.6 in the RenaultSport making 200. Although those more powerful petrols are still tantalisingly unavailable, I did have a go in the diesel version. It's a 1.5-litre, and although the power is the same as that little petrol at 90bhp, the mid range is stronger, so you can work it up a motorway incline without having to bounce off the red line in third. It's quiet for a diesel too. But no matter that its fuel and CO2 numbers are best in class, it's £1,100 more expensive than the petrol, and you'll have grown old before you get that back in fuel saved.
It wasn't just a lack of prettiness that held back the outgoing Clio (unsurprisingly no one takes credit for that botched facelift). It was also the fact that, compared with the happy biffabout little French cars of my youth, it wasn't much fun to drive. Well, I'd say this one has got its mojo back. Or, as we road testers are contractually obliged to say when discussing French superminis, its joie de vivre. Its vivacité. If you absolutely must, its va va bloody voom.
Whatever. It steers keenly, doesn't fade into understeer and it even lets you feel the back wheels nibbling away at their limits. Sure it rolls a fair bit, which slows downthe reaction times to your steering, but the overall experience is nicely interactive.
That body roll is all part of a generally soft and supple suspension. It really does ride rather well. It has the old-style French long-wavelength lollop over undulations, and deals well with sharp potholes too.
Back to that other Clio USP, the cabin equipment. Well, on half the range there's a tablet screen fixed in the middle of the dash which takes care of navigation (rather basic - you can't even opt for a north-up orientation) and phone and iPod or USB music (again, rather basic with poor search menus). But the sound is good, via bass-reflex speakers. Later, there'll be the option of an up-market tablet with better, TomTom traffic-connected navigation and various downloadable apps including a sound synthesiser to alter the engine note to race car, motorbike, and, for all I know, Prof Pat Pending's Convert-a-Car. The dash plastic quality is a bit hard and hollow. Remember when mobile phones were expensive, so the phones on shop shelves were lifesize replicas of themselves? This feels like a replica dash.
Never mind, the interior design is stylish and cheery. Like the whole car, really, in both its design and character. I met our Renault man again recently, and it seems he's OK about being seen in this one. I would be too.
898cc, 3cyl, FWD, 90bhp, 100lb ft, 65.7mpg, 99g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 13.0secs, 116mph, 1009kg
Feels lighter than the last one (it is) and nimbler, but still decently refined. A loveable car in a class that lacks them.