The car you see here could conceivably become the most popular small car in Britain. It's Renault's new Clio, launched just in time for Nicole's wedding - unless fact and fantasy have transposed themselves. (Nicole is Renault's chief marketing consultant, small cars. She spends her spare time acting out the role of a French actress called Estelle Skornik.)

Most popular? Well, Renault is making cars that a great many people want to buy. The proof came in April, when the Megane, helped by the fact that it comes as a hatchback, a coupe, a convertible, a saloon and - most popular of all - the Scenic MPV, became the best-selling car range in Britain.

The Clio, too, has been a regular sales Top Ten fixture, and its popularity has risen in proportion to its age. There is no better time to replace a car than when it's on a high and the buying public still feels good about it, because it gives the new one the best possible start in life.

The most popular version is likely to be the 1.2 RN, which combines the smallest available engine with the one-up-from-basic trim level. Other engines are a 1.4, a 1.6 and a diesel, with a direct-injection turbodiesel and a sporty 110bhp, 1.6-litre 16-valve engine to follow. In three-door form, the 1.2 RN is yours for pounds 8,850 on the road.

This is cheap, given that power steering is standard, along with remote- control central locking, a neat stereo-control stalk mounted on the steering column and, less good, a tacky pop-up sunroof. Side airbags are optional, as is one ahead of the front passenger. So, too, are anti-lock brakes and air conditioning.

At the front, the new Clio looks like a topologically distorted version of the old one. But as you look rearwards past the bash-proof plastic front wings, it moves further away from familiarity. The roof curves down into a rear window of almost part-cylindrical cross-section. Inside, there's an abundance of ovoid shapes, and you sit high behind a height-adjustable steering wheel. Because you sit high, you're very aware of the way the Clio leans over when you go round a corner. It's a throw-back to the first Renault 5 here, as is the supple, lolloping ride. The quietness is new, though: there's a lot of noise-absorbing rubber in the suspension mountings to filter out road roar. And it is for noise-reducing reasons that Renault has ditched the rear suspension system that has served nearly all small French cars for more than three decades, and replaced it with a copy of the torsion-beam axle long favoured by VW, Vauxhall and Ford.

The result, says Renault, is a small car with big-car refinement, and the claim is broadly true. Unfortunately there's a price to pay, because this small car can also suffer from a big car's unwieldiness. The old Clio's sharp, nippy agility has degenerated into a torpid semi-anaesthesia, demanding big, sweeping movements of the steering wheel when you're driving gently. Then, if you speed up, strange things happen. All that rubber in the mountings acts like a big elastic band; the delay in response to the steering that you experienced when going slowly is now followed by an exaggerated reaction.

It can be unnerving at first, because you think that the rear wheels are going to skid, but they don't. Passengers will soon tire of the car's squirm and wobble, though. I preferred the old Clio's way of coping with corners, even if it was noisier overall.

The 1.2 RN's engine uses little fuel; it's a quiet engine as small-car engines go, and it pulls with enough vigour to cope with motorways.

So, that's the new Clio. Is it better than the old one? To have a crash in, yes, because it's stronger and better-engineered to dissipate the force of an impact. To cruise in, too, because it makes less commotion. The new Clio is a fine consumer durable. But the old one was more fun to drive.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: pounds 8,850 (Clio 1.2 RN 3-door)

Engine: 1,159cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 60bhp at 5,250rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 99mph, 0-60 in 14.7sec, 40-45mpg.

Rivals (all prices for 3-door versions)

Citroen Saxo 1.1i SX: pounds 9,060. Less space for tall people than Clio, but faster, handles better, more fun to drive.

Fiat Punto 60 SX: pounds 8,649. Roomy, unusual-looking with tall tail-lights in the rear pillars, good value. Lumpy ride over bumps.

Ford Fiesta 1.3 LX: pounds 9,495. Delightful to drive, even the 1.3. Cramped in the back.

Peugeot 106 1.1 XL: pounds 8,895. Identical to Saxo under the skin. Best car in the class.

Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 LS: pounds 9,110. One of the neatest-looking superminis, but stodgy to drive.

Volkswagen Polo 1.4L: pounds 9,245. A relaxing drive. Looks great outside, drab inside.

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