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Click for pictures“It is Europe’s Car
  of the Year 2006,
  has five safety stars,
good and
  now it’s got even
  more Va Va ROOM!
  Say ‘Hello’ to the all-
  new Renault Clio...”

WHEN THE EUROPEAN CAR OF THE YEAR 2006 awards were announced at the tail end of last year, a few eyebrows were raised as the award went to the roomy, all-new Clio range of three- and five-door super-minis. Va Va Voom styling, an impressive safety rating and more interior space were significant plus points in the judging process.

Many motor industry pundits, including me, had expected the new BMW 3-Series to receive the annual accolade. But in the European awards business there are as many politics and connecting country alliances at play as there are in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Still, we Brits love the Clio as well. Proof? It has driven off with the Best Supermini trophy at the coveted 2006 What Car? awards, as well as a number of other awards from a variety of publications. The UK is
a good hunting ground for the Clio as it is regularly placed in the top ten sales chart, and finished 2005 in ninth position overall — a very good performance in a highly competitive sector.

But the 'supermini' sector is changing. Cars are getting bigger and more substantial as designers come up with new engineering solutions to meet the challenging Euro NCAP safety requirements. The latest Clio has been awarded the maximum five-star rating, making it the eighth Renault to achieve this high standard.

In the supermini segment, the Clio has really set the trend for other manufacturers to follow — certainly as far as interior space is con-cerned. The new Fiat Grande Punto, currently Europe's best-selling car, is another supermini newcomer offering more passenger room, as too does the new soon-to-go-on-sale Peugeot 207.

So, thankfully after last year's huge influx of small city cars, 2006 is shaping up to be the 'Year of the Larger Supermini'. Thank goodness for that because a bigger size brings a better ride, more comfort
and a more substantial product.

The new Clio — or Clio III as Renault like to term it — demonstrates
the advantages of being realistic about the size a small family car should actually be. Admittedly the additional bodyshell weight does dull the performance of the smaller petrol engines, but the car feels strong and it is safe. Best of all, it is spacious. The Clio was initially introduced in three-door hatchback form and five-door models have recently been added to the line up.

Generally in this sector the three-door versions are more popular, because they are considered to look more sporty and therefore more appealing to young singles or married couples and mums with small children. However, in practical terms I think five-door models offer the best value and make more sense. You have a roomy rear seating area,
so why not have rear side doors? Why make getting in and out of the vehicle difficult for passengers? Plus, you also get a lot more load space for not a lot more money.

The range starts at £8,895, which buys you the cheapest three-door model, and rises through many derivatives to £15,050 for the most expensive five-door 1.6-litre petrol or 1.5-litre dCi diesel versions. There are 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6-litre petrol engine choices and a 1.5-litre diesel unit available in three levels of power output. As per the current trend, there are plenty of specification levels: four for the three-door range and five for the five-door models. In addition there is a whole host of extras ranging from style packs to cool packs; from SatNav
to parking sensors. Desirable definitely, but all these add up in cost
and add very little to the resale value when you come to part with the car. So buy wisely.

My test car was the four-cylinder 98bhp Clio 1.4 16V 3-door petrol version with the middle of the range Dynamique trim and equipment level which includes air conditioning. It also offers a good level of
chic 'n' sporty specification for a reasonable price of £10,750. How-ever, the test car was also fitted with loads of extras — including
a navigation system and so on — that in a flash turned it into a £13,000 car. Hmmm… your choice, I guess.

But let's get the essentials out of the way first. The new Clio is safe, solid and roomy and it looks good as well — especially from the side. The side profile has a continuous styling line that sweeps up from the aerodynamic headlights, along the rising front wing edges, up the A-pillar over the roof and back down to the tailgate to lend it a coupé look. The Clio has a low waistline — rather unusual these days when safety requirements tend to dictate high door sides. But it works well, and clever design and engineering have overcome the slab-sided look seen all too often. So, full marks to Renault for styling.

Inside the Clio looks solid and well put together, with nice textures
to the trim and — at the risk of repeating myself — there's plenty of room. But I would still opt for a 5-door version... The cabin is very comfortable, with good-sized seats — unlike previous generation super-minis. It is also very quiet. The driving position is much improved over the previous Clio and the low waistline allows good visibility while
at the same time creating a light and airy interior. Also nice to know is that, along with ABS, every Clio has at least six airbags.

Ride comfort is good, too, and better than the new Grande Punto. Much of that is to do with the weight of the car due to the 'safety-first' structure. The Clio sits on the road well and delivers a stable,
roll-free ride while the suspension mops up the bumps and potholes with ease.

Handling is sharp and responsive, and only the acceleration is a dis-appointment. Equipped with the five-speed transmission, the 98bhp petrol engine is surprisingly flexible and it does allow high gears to be used at low speeds. In reality, though, it takes a while to reach a respectable cruising speed, making you think the official performance figures — a 114mph top speed and 0-62mph acceleration in 11.3 seconds — seem better than real life. Hills, in particular, really catch this Clio 1.4 out and you need to use the top end of the rev range
to keep the car rolling at a respectable speed. That said, once it's in 'the cruise', it's fine.

The weight of the all-new body structure has dulled the performance somewhat but then again occupant safety is definitely important. Though the weight didn't seem to dent the fuel economy. My test car returned 39.5mpg overall, just a bit less than the official quoted figure of 42mpg. I could live with that, but a high-mileage user might go for the diesel versions where 60mpg is likely to be achieved in real world driving conditions.

Yes, the Clio III is a very good car and it needs to be because it sells in a tough and price-sensitive sector of the new car market where retail price discounting is widespread. The quality, design, safety and roominess are its major plus points. Car of the Year 2006? Not overall the best new car launched in the last 12 months, but certainly the best supermini so far. To recap: it's safe, solid, roomy, comfortable, well-screwed together and refined. Okay, it could do with a bit more Va Va Voom — although that's compensated for by lots of Va Va ROOM! Just make sure you negotiate a discount. — David Miles

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Renault Clio III 1.4 16V Dynamique | £10,750
Maximum speed: 114mph | 0-62mph: 11.3 seconds
Test MPG: 39.5mpg | Power: 98bhp | Torque: 94lb ft

Visit Renault's website Click to go there now

---------------------------------------------------------------------- Renault Clio III