Renault: Counting on Clio

by William Diem

BIARRITZ, France —People with X-ray eyes might spot thicker body stampings and new reinforcements that make the body stiffer and safer. Europeans will surely notice that Clio has a new grille, a new central console and a bigger logo on the hatchback. But advanced engines are what will make the difference, says Renault.

For those counting their centimes there is a new 65-hp, 1.5-liter diesel that gets 55 mpg, while for those counting on thrills there is a new 172-hp, 2.0-liter gasoline engine tuned by Renault Sport. In between, there is a new free-breathing, 16-valve, 1.2-liter gasoline engine rated at 75 hp that gets 40 mpg. Three other unchanged engines are available at 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6 liters.

Europe-only supermini Clio faces tough competition

The all-new Clio II arrived on the market in mid-1998, and it is already getting a major facelift, in which half the body-in-white is new.

"Competition is accelerating," said Philippe Martin, the engineer in charge of putting the new engines in the cars. "The product cycles have to get shorter."

The European supermini segment includes cars like the Ford Fiesta (a new one is due this fall), Opel Corsa and Volkswagen Polo. The segment has accounted for an average 32 percent of European sales over the last five years. The Clio led the segment in 1999 with 3.3 percent of the European market, but it slipped to 3.2 percent last year as the 206 climbed into the No. 1 position.

Until now, Clio diesels used noisy, old technology. The new engine is quiet, full of torque, and the first to use high-pressure injectors developed by Delphi Automotive Systems. The injector reacts more quickly than the Bosch injectors that have monopolized European common rail engines until now. That helps reduce noise and increase efficiency, said Martin.

On a French autoroute with an 81-mph speed limit, the Clio reached its top speed of 100 mph without waiting all day. On the twisty back roads in the French Basque country, it safely accelerated past farm trucks and Citroën 2CVs and VW delivery vans on the occasional straightaways.

While the gearing was too long and the engine too slow, the engine labors a little noisily, but it doesn't give up. Almost all of the 118 lb-ft of torque is available at all times, with the peak at 2000 rpm.

The diesel is obviously nose-heavy in comparison. It weighs 50 kg (110 pounds) more than the 1.2-liter, with almost all of the excess on the front wheels.

Then there is Renault Sport. The engineers who are trying to bring the Formula 1 manufacturer’s crown back to Paris next year were also in charge of tuning the 2.0-liter block for maximum performance on the road.

Six national police dressed in black and carrying sidearms pulled us over at the crossroads of the Basque village of Hasparren. "License and papers?" Pascal Pourny, an editor at a regional paper in Normandy where some Clios are built, presented his license while I searched the glove box vainly for the insurance papers. Another cop stuck his head in the open window and asked, "Combien des cheveaux?"—French for, "What's the horsepower?"

No problem that the insurance papers didn't turn up. The new Clio is a nice car, and the policemen wanted to look it over.

Good thing they weren't there a little earlier, when I took it up to 112 mph on an empty stretch of the autoroute. There was plenty of muscle left—top speed is given as 137 mph—but they take your license away over 106 mph, and I want to keep mine.

Perhaps I needn't have worried. Some colleagues blew a red light in Biarritz, right in front of the flics. The driver successfully explained that he saw the light was red, but he was going very quickly and the brakes were very good, and he thought it would be unsafe to cars behind him if he stopped so suddenly.

The Basque separatists who kill people operate mostly in Spain, but some take refuge on the French side, so the police have more serious things to worry about than journalists on car launches.

At $18,220 (139,000 francs), the Renault Sport 2.0 costs much more than the entry level 1.2-liter ($10,670) or the 1.5-liter CDi ($11,890), but it is a pleasure to drive. Like all Clios, it negotiates the urban environment easily. On the autoroutes and in the mountains, it grips the road and gets you where you want to go in a superior fashion.

The Renault Sport has its own new grille and exterior markings. Plastic inserts on the dashboard, gear shifter and steering wheel are meant to look like brushed aluminum, but real aluminum has a texture that makes the plastic look cheap. On the other hand, the seats have the excellent side support you want in a car that corners well.

All the Clios suffer from a new central console look that has further reduced the size of the buttons for radio and climate control. My one accident in a press car was in a Suzuki Swift, when I rear-ended a Chevrolet Lumina while looking for a tiny radio control, so it’s a sore spot for me. Patrick Lecharpy, the Renault designer in charge of the facelift, explained that they wanted to present the driver with fewer visual distractions on the console. The radio can be controlled by a stalk on the steering wheel, but I think it's unwise to offer the driver controls that can't be operated in a glance.

High-end luxury features in a mini

Competition in Europe is tough, which has inspired Renault to offer more luxury items in this small-car segment (automakers are just starting to get the message that Americans want luxury in small cars, too). A rain detector and automatic headlights are standard on many levels, and at the highest trim level you can have Xenon headlights.

A new electric power steering system is quiet, easier to use than the hydraulic system it replaces, and saves 3 mpg because it is lighter and not always dragging on the motor. The stronger body has Renault hoping the Clio will get 5 stars in the EuroNCAP crash tests, as the new Laguna did. Anchors for baby seats are available in three positions, including the front passenger seat. If you use it for a child seat, you can turn off the passenger airbag with the ignition key.

The roads around the towns of Bidache, Pée, and Arcanque are as straight as the curls in Whoopi Goldberg's hair. Sheep in the fields looked up as we passed, and the police knew that the car was something new, but only one pedestrian along our route gave us a knowledgeable regard. To the rest of the world, we were in a Clio, a well-known, popular car, and we were nothing special.

Renault's challenge is the same as every manufacturer's: Getting potential customers behind the wheel, so they can feel what they can't see.

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