Renault has unveiled the Clio II, successor to one of Europe's best-selling small cars. Gavin Green previews the expected launch and offers some clues as to how it will look and drive.

Set to go on sale in Britain in late May, Renault's new offering will cost no more than the outgoing Clio model, with prices starting at about pounds 8,200.

Mechanicals are largely carried over, albeit improved, from the old Clio. Engines start at 1.2 litres, and range up through 1.4, 1.6 (a new size for the Clio) and sporty 1.6 16-valve models. There's also a 1.9-litre diesel. In every case fuel consumption has been improved.

Renault is regarded as one of Europe's most progressive car stylists, and the new Clio has a number of unusual styling touches. The most distinctive feature is the double-curved rear screen, borrowed from Renault's 1994 Ludo concept car, shown at that year's Paris Salon.

Renault design chief, Patrick Le Quement, says that rear views are a car's most overlooked angle: "So many designers sweat blood over the nose or profile, but just seem to forget about the tail. I think the rear end is actually the new Clio's best angle." The nose and profile are more conventional, but Le Quement says he was keen to get away from drab, organic shapes that lack definition.

"We wanted distinct edges and angles to the car. We wanted a slightly more masculine shape," says Le Quement. Unusually, the front wings are made from plastic composites, to reduce denting, while the two 16-valve models - the 1.6, and an upcoming 2.0, due in the autumn - get aluminium bonnets, to save weight.

Transmissions include a "fuzzy logic" four-speed auto, which adapts its change pattern to driver needs, an "easy", clutchless manual gearbox and a conventional five-speed manual.

Interior room has been increased, partly via a lengthened wheelbase, while cabin plastics - one of the old Clio's greatest weaknesses - have been upgraded. The most unusual interior feature, however, is that the front headrests adjust on curved runners to ensure that they're always close to the head, thereby reducing the risk of whiplash injury.

The Clio's other greatest novelty was its development. It was styled using Renault's new computerised "dynamic" studio, which enables the designer to see what a car looks like while moving on the road, when a design is still in an early stage. "Most cars are designed static, in a studio," says Le Quement. "The new Clio was designed on the move."

Renault has a variety of backgrounds, ranging from a country road, to the busy Peripherique ring road around Paris, to a city scene, and can superimpose a three-dimensional digital image of the new car on any of the backgrounds. The car then "drives" around the scene, in a highly realistic way. "We can see what a new car really looks like, in its real setting, at an early stage in its development," says Le Quement. "It's amazing how many cars look good in a studio, but ungainly on the road."

The Clio II, as the new model will be tagged officially, is likely to make its public debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March. And, yes, Nicole - the best-known car ad campaign figure in Britain, says Renault - will continue to spearhead the advertising.