Creating a stand-out product is particularly difficult in a massively competitive marketplace, states Iain P W Robertson, a factor that underscores French carmaker Renault’s wonderful freehand approach to its lukewarm GT offering.

renault-clio-gt-2-1Being aware of one’s nationality must not be compared with being simply jingoistic. Every nation has its individual traits and characteristics that are worthy of exploration. In many ways, they create the reasons for most of us to enjoy foreign travel. We like the Belgian obsession with lace, chocolate, beer and trains running on time. We admire the Germanic desire to be pragmatic, the Spanish need to enjoy siesta, the Americans’ pursuit of grandeur and even China’s handle on replication…of absolutely everything.

My dear friends at Citroen (and also Peugeot) have lost much of their French-ness in the pursuit of what somebody, within their styling department, probably confused by a marketing perception, believed to be the key to Germany’s success in the car scene. Good heavens! Fraught with the financial issues that have afflicted every carmaker for the past few years, Citroen even went ‘balls-out’ to sell its C5 model from a Teutonic standpoint. I am sure you might recall the TV adverts.

renault-clio-gt-2-2Along with the change in perception came firmer suspension, despite the fact that controlled compliance had always been a Gallic automotive trait. The French (in those quarters) had elected to ignore all that they stood for. You can also include Germanic-type interior mouldings and even upholstery weaves, as PSA Group sought to replace the traditional creaks and groans of most of their car interiors. The problem was that they created a Frankenstein-type ‘hybrid’, which was neither of one nationality, nor the other, and the sales potential stumbled.

This combines to make what Renault has achieved, with its most popular Clio, a genuine star in the ascendant. Clio has always been France’s most popular compact model, with its lineage that goes back to the ‘5’. Unlike its rivals, Renault has remained true to form. The new Clio is unmistakably a Renault and always a Clio. There is zero confusion, yet, there is a lot more in the recipe.

You see, the Clio and, in this case, the GT model, embodies swollen wheel-arches, a waspy-waisted design and a presence that is essential to classic Gallic style. The French used to be renowned for their Escoffier-led culinary grace and design houses, such as Michel, Dior and Hermes. Yet, as with its wine industry, the ‘New World’ took over. Clio’s magnificence lies in its simplistic preservation of Gallic values. It possesses French style in abundance, with its sensual form, although it is not trying to be something that it cannot ever be.

renault-clio-gt-2-3However, the GT is not the fire-breathing 200 Turbo, even though it shares the sub-brand ‘RenaultSport’ ideology. Instead, it offers a spirited 1.2-litre engine that develops a meagre but still impressive 120bhp, hooked up to a 6-speed, twin-clutch (with paddle-shift), automated-manual gearbox. While this sole gearbox option is a move towards producing sustainable emissions figures, it also applies a number of most useful ‘toys’ to its armoury.

The only other carmaker to demonstrate such confidence in its market was Skoda, when it sold the diesel-only Fabia vRS. It, too, created a brilliant market niche by getting people talking about it. The Clio GT is every bit as competent as the Fabia was stoically Czech. However, on a personal gearshifting touch, I am not as much a fan of column, as opposed to steering wheel-mounted paddles. Both styles have their benefits, I realise that, but I simply prefer the spoke-mounted type that moves with the steering wheel, as opposed to being fixed. Those of the Renault are fashioned from aluminium and are both tactile and efficient.

renault-clio-gt-2-4Talking of efficiency, a little silver button in the Clio’s lower centre console might be all too readily overlooked. Depress it and a bright green strip illuminates ‘Renaultsport’ in the main instrument pod. The difference between the standard responses, from all motive electronics, to the enhanced status is quite marked and adds a soupcon of fun to the mix, by speeding-up gearshift times, making the throttle more responsive and providing the Clio with a tangible performance edge.

For such a small car, Renault has managed to gift it tremendously good packaging. I realise that it is the largest Clio ever produced but it works and access to the well-appointed cabin is easy. The hide-covered driver’s seat (+£1,250 option) and steering column adjust through a wide range to ensure that comfort levels are not compromised. The Clio’s carpeted boot is also usefully shaped and spacious, the folding back seats supplementing its carrying capacity substantially.

renault-clio-gt-2-5While the Clio GT drives exceedingly well, with great feedback from its electrically powered steering, it is the wonderfully pliant ride quality that is its best of a raft of excellent features. As mentioned earlier, French cars used to be renowned for it; the Clio GT delivers it in spades. Yet, there is no lack of control, even though its 17-inch alloys ride on 45-profile 205-section tyres that might otherwise demand a greater compromise. I would venture to suggest that the Clio GT offers the best ride and handling of any small car and quite a few larger ones that I have driven in the past decade.

You might not expect a bundle of fun from its performance perspective, after all, 1.2-litres is hardly ‘exciting’, even though its turbocharged 120bhp (100bhp per litre of displacement) is still a target of many engine-builders. While the exhaust note is uninspiring, there is always the ‘sound symposer’ built into the car’s telematics that also comprise the Tom-Tom sat-nav and on-board computer in the R-Link media package, with which to engage. In extremis, you can make the feedback (through the car’s stereo speakers) sound like a Bultaco motorbike! However, you can introduce a V6 Alpine, a Clio racing car, or even a classic Renault 8 Gordini into the sonic loop. It is amusing, if not entirely practical.

renault-clio-gt-2-6Accelerating from 0-60mph in a benchmark time of 9.5 seconds is zesty enough for today’s traffic conditions and the top speed of 124mph is useful to know. The CO2 rating is 120g/km, which equates to a Band C VED fee of ‘free’ in year one and £30 annually thereafter. With a combined fuel economy figure of 54.3mpg (although I attained 55.4mpg on one trip but a consistent 42.8mpg for the rest of the test), this Clio is not merely an excellent vision of grand touring in today’s environment but a most apt overall performance choice. Prices start at a wholly reasonable £17,395 and there is an array of extra-cost personalisation potential too.

Conclusion: I doff my cap in Renault’s direction for taking what is an undoubtedly brave step with its model programme. Of course, there are eco-issues at stake that it has been able to address but there is a lot more to this finely targeted approach, with the Clio GT, than meets the eye. It is a great wee car that is unashamed of being French, even though (presently) some observers might be confused by it.