Life can change very suddenly and not always in welcome ways. We have all learned that in the past few weeks.
It doesn’t matter whether it is as a result of Covid-19 or simply because of fashion, but the unexpected happens all too often for us to be truly comfortable.
Change is a constant in life and we have to adapt all the time. It does not matter whether what is forcing the change is a virus ripping through humankind or the mere fripperies of the commercial world.
Although as affected by the coronavirus outbreak as any other industry or activity, the automotive world is also a slave to fashion. Manufacturers reinvent products regularly to feed our wants and desires, or at least what they perceive them to be.
The SUV phenomenon is a case in point.
Who, ten years ago, would have predicted that we would all be aching to drive around in what were once dismissed by pretty much everyone as ‘jeeps’?
Now, not one manufacturer does not have a full suite of SUVs in their sales armoury, in a range from small to medium to big to gargantuan.
SUV-type vehicles were once the preserve of farmers, urbanites who fancied themselves as adventurers, or dreamers who reimagined their otherwise dull lives from behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender.
Fashion and public demand have now dictated that the SUV be an essential tool for exciting escapades such as shopping, the school run, and driving to work.
For all that, however, certain traditional forms of car design are still with us: hatchbacks, saloons, coupes, and so forth.
But one long-established type of car is currently undergoing a major revival: the super-mini.
While the format wallowed in something of a depression under the weight of the SUV onslaught, slowly, but surely, it has been making a comeback and, truth be told, it is now one of the most competitive and exciting car segments.
The standard-bearers in the class are the Ford Fiesta and the Volkswagen Polo, but a number of interlopers have invaded the party.
Although the Italians — previously giants in this segment, with the Uno and the Punto — have largely abandoned the genre, the SEAT Ibiza, the three-door Mini, the new Opel Corsa, the Toyota Yaris, the Mazda2, and the Nissan Micra are picking up the slack and are innovative and exciting contenders.
The French are making a comeback, too, and among the best of the super-minis right now are the Peugeot 208 and the Renault Clio.
The Peugeot we reviewed very positively a couple of weeks ago and we also tried the Clio earlier this year, with equally positive results. This week, however, we are revisiting the latter.
The last time I drove the Clio, it astonished me with its lack of Frenchness. The expectation of the Clio is a small, neat car that drives OK, but which is built for French drivers’ tastes. This meant that comfort was the priority, even at the expense of an interior that would shock a miser, and poor handling.
The seats were well-bolstered and kind to bottoms of all sizes, but more often than not, the cars pitched and rolled like a Friday-night drunk.
They also drove with the sharpness of a supertanker and had décor comparable to that of a €15-a-night French train station motel.
Raising the bar was not something I expected the French to do, but Peugeot and Renault have with both the 208 and the Clio.
The new Clio does not look much different from the old one — not different at all, in fact — but that is testament to how strong design director, Laurens van den Acker’s first Clio was.
Indeed, since that car, van den Acker has revitalised the entire Renault range and has given the company a new lease of life in the design department.
But, even if the new one is not that dissimilar to what preceded it, everything else about it is quite different indeed. It is built on a new platform, boasts new suspensions and subframes, the engine choices are largely new, it is 22kg lighter, and the interior is excellent.
What van den Acker and his team wanted to achieve — and have been largely successful in doing — was to put the Clio into the narrow gap between the sophisticated Volkswagen Polo and the dynamic Ford Fiesta. Thanks to the modifications mentioned above, they have largely achieved that.
The engine is another 1l triple — turbocharged this time — that puts out 100bhp and which, allied to a six-speed gearbox, is a fine little engine. It has a top speed of 190kph and while the 11.8-second, 0-100kph time is a tad glacial, the 4.3 l/100km consumption figure is encouraging.
The public, however, are fickle and trying to keep a swathe of people happy is a difficult trick to pull off.
Renault have tried to do this by banishing all the scratchy interior plastic surfaces to somewhere below the sight-line and away from the touch points.
And, although the car is slightly smaller in size than its predecessor, Renault has increased the rear leg-room and the boot space, which is impressive.
In doing all these things, not only have they elevated the perceived feel of the Clio to standards only seen in much bigger cars, but they have also endowed it with a sense of elan, which is largely lacking in the class as a whole.
In short, the Clio looks and feels like it should be a hell of a lot more expensive than it is.
Renault have also ladled on the specification, to the point at which the Germans would baulk, because of profit margins.
The specification in this car, though not as generous as in the previous Clio I tried — it has a smaller touchscreen and no rear camera or spare wheel — was still good.
That said, some of the stuff was additional to the basic spec and I think that as the asking price is so low (just over €17,000), many people will not hold back in buying the available options when ordering.
Usually, when I review a car a second time, it comes into sharper critical focus than initially. In this instance, however, the Clio only reinforced my original opinion that what had once been a perennial mid-table contender was now capable at least of a Champions League spot, if not the league title itself.
And that is why it keeps its five-star rating.
The Rating: * * * * *
The Cost: From €17,195 to €20,965 as tested.
The Engine: A neat three-cylinder turbocharged petrol.
The Specification: Nearly good enough to get worked up about.
The Overall Verdict: A dramatic improvement.