IN TODAY’S car review for The Sunday Times Magazine, Jeremy Clarkson confesses that he has never owned a French car. Mind you, nor has he ever had the inclination to own one. Never one to say controversial things about foreigners, he’s quick to point out that it’s not because he’s never liked a French car; in fact, he was very fond of the Citroën CX.
In his words: “It was a car … that looked at the laws of physics and said, with a shrug, ‘I’m French, so I’m not going to pay any attention to this English kernigget Isaac Newton.’”
There are a few other exceptions to Clarkson’s ambivalence — he namechecks the Peugeot 504 convertible, the Peugeot 205 GTI, the Renault Fuego turbo and the mid-engined Clio V6, despite the fact that the latter needed “all of Canada to do a U-turn” due to it’s rather large turning circle.
That’s pretty much the extent of his motoring Francophilia, though. “All the other thousands and thousands of cars they’ve made were school-field-trip dull, designed for French motorists who really only needed something that could be used to create a parking space. They were just bumpers with engines.”
This does give the new Renault Clio — the subject of today’s road test — a distinct advantage, however. The ST columnist and Grand Tour host’s expectations weren’t particularly high.
Clarkson says he knew what to expect: “Clangy doors. A clattery diesel engine. Foam seats and a weirdly high safety rating from Euro NCAP, which is backed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.”
However, in a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover surprise worthy of Britain’s Got Talent, Clarkson was proved wrong on many counts. The doors close “with the exact sound a landing parachutist makes when his equipment has failed to open.” The seats are “good and grippy and comfortable”. And best of all, “The knobs feel … weighty.”
What’s more, Clarkson found the ride comfortable yet discovered it can also take a corner well. The steering is “absolutely beautiful”, he says.
And, although Clarkson did miss the pulling power from low revs of a diesel, he found the more socially acceptable petrol engine isn’t bad.
The Clio is also cheaper than the equivalent Ford Fiesta but has 5bhp more (the Clio has 99bhp, the Fiesta 94bhp), and can do 0-62mph two seconds quicker. It’s also practical, with a large boot and healthy fuel economy.
However, he reckons you won’t get too far past 62mph, which is why this Clio has gained its five-star safety rating: “You’re never going fast enough to hurt yourself in a crash,” quips Clarkson.
Despite that black mark, Clarkson was beginning to think Renault had managed to conjure a better small car than the Ford Fiesta; the UK’s best selling car last year. The Clio is “good value, fun to drive, so slow it’s safe, spacious and seemingly very well screwed together”, he reckons.
And then he tried the infotainment system. Clarkson’s test car had a “huge iPad-type screen” which is used to control everything. Great in theory, apart from the fact that the huge screen that is supposed to control everything doesn’t work, until you are several miles into your journey. And that, he says, puts the Clio’s five-star safety rating at risk.
“You’ll have to concentrate so hard on finding where you are in the menu that you’ll fail to see the approaching corner, and crash. Luckily, however, because of the engine’s feeble output, you’ll be doing only 12mph.”
The technological troubles don’t end there. The steering wheel buttons are confusing, and Clarkson found himself having to endure the ‘you’re not wearing your seatbelt’ beep, despite the fact that he was wearing his seatbelt. “Being told to do something you’ve already done is mind-bogglingly annoying. After seven seconds I wanted to kill myself. After seven minutes I wanted to kill everyone in the whole world.”
His advice, then, is to buy the entry-level version, without the ostensible “upgrades”, which gives you all of the car’s great qualities, without marring them with annoying tech. “It’s the croque monsieur. Not the croque monsieur with velouté de pouce-pied électronique.”
So, are Clarkson’s quibbles with the Clio’s fickle tech enough for it to miss out on the title of best small car? Or is the entry level version actually enough to make Clarkson recommend buying a French car? Find out by heading to the Sunday Times website.