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Road Tests

Renault Clio TCe 90

Oh Papa, when did the Renault Clio turn into a compact family car?

Price: From £12,995. On sale February
Engine: 989cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, 90bhp at 5,000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 113mph, 0-62 in 12.2sec, 62.8mpg, CO2 104g/km

Those Nicole and Papa ads were three generations of Renault Clio ago now. Would the rebellious daughter even recognise the fourth manifestation of the Clio breed if she time-travelled forwards two decades?

For a start, it is no longer a supermini. The previous Clio, launched in 2005, was a lot bigger than its predecessors and the new one is slightly bigger again, except in height. It is also available only with five doors, making it even more the compact family car rather than an urban runabout. It comes across as quite a bulky, grown-up machine.

The final version of the previous Clio wore a curious nose, and this new model still looks a bit odd, with its bulbous bonnet and hefty dents in the flanks. The rear door handles are hidden within the window surround, though, which makes it look a bit like a sporty three-door, while optional graphics can rev up the roof. Inside, shiny highlights around the vents, gear lever and on the doors and steering wheel match those outside.

And now, please meet R-Link. All Clios, even the basic ones, have a Bluetooth link to the stereo for phones and music players, but further up the range the central console gains a large touchscreen for the usual media and satnav functions. R-Link, the top version of the "multimedia" system, goes a stage further, adding internet, email, text-to-speech, economy driving tips and a range of Renault-partnered apps. It also comes with a particularly good "3-D" sound system with an added bass unit. You can see the target market here.

That market has never cared less what a car is like to drive, as long as it's good enough not to be bad and doesn't use much fuel. Some of us, though, still rate a car's driving as the most important aspect once past obvious considerations of space – the Clio has plenty, except that your arm bangs too easily on the door trim – and quality. In the latter criterion, the Clio scores well, with a soft-touch dashboard, a strong aura of substance and a particularly handsome, chrome-surrounded instrument cluster.

As for engines, there are two ultra-frugal, 1.5-litre, 90bhp diesels returning either 90g or an extraordinary 83g/km of CO2 production, the latter thanks to longer-legged gearing likely to make the Clio feel less lively. Also offered is a simple 1.2-litre petrol engine with 75bhp as a range-opener. But the most interesting is the 898cc, three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine. This little unit produces 90bhp and, again, comes with two choices of gearing allowing 104g or 99g/km – impressive in a petrol engine pulling a not-very-small car.

As with Ford's excellent 1.0 Ecoboost engine, the power is delivered with a smooth, deep note and plenty of energy, although Ford's has the greater verve. It's matched to a five-speed manual gearbox, and its light weight helps the Clio steer neatly and handle with the quick agility vital in a compact car. It rides smoothly over bumps, too. Full marks here.

Beyond its fashion-model market positioning, then, the new Clio is an excellent small(ish) car and good value. Driving enthusiasts, though, will be waiting for the Renaultsport version, given how the previous Renaultsport Clios have been the best of their genre.

The new one will have a 1.6 turbo engine instead of a 2.0 non-turbo, which is to be expected. It also ditches the manual gearbox in favour of a double-clutch paddleshift one, with no manual alternative. Bad move: target market tragically mis-read. I'm in mourning.