The race to inject more prestige appeal into compact city cars is about to pick up pace with an all-new Renault Clio.
Volkswagen has been making the running with its Golf and Polo in Australia’s smarter suburbs, but now Renault is intent on pushing its position with a new contender. And it’s not alone, with Peugeot and Citroen also injecting plenty of style into the smaller end of the range.
The common strategy is to boost showroom appeal beyond the bottom line.
“The top reason buyers give for choosing the Clio is always design,” says Renault's project manager for the fifth-generation Clio, Vincent Dubroca. “Way more than in other market segments, but also against its direct competitors.”
The Clio is Renault’s biggest seller worldwide, and Australian buyers will have to wait for the new model: despite being unveiled next month, first deliveries down under will not be until early 2020. But momentum is already building for what will be the company’s first petrol-electric hybrid model.
While the 2019 Clio is small on the outside it achieves a TARDIS-like trick of being bigger on the inside, with a more upmarket look and feel.
“The interior has undergone a true revolution, with a considerable improvement in perceived quality, greater sophistication and technology," espouses design guru Laurens van den Acker, who has transformed the Renault range in recent years.
“When I arrived at Renault, it was looking for its soul. This time, we have so much to build on it would be a shame to throw it away,” he smiles.
“We’re reaching towards premium segment cars. The hard plastic was in your face. Now what’s soft is close and what’s hard is far away. The interior is where the emphasis is, but the difference between today and tomorrow is cars become smart.”
He’s talking not only about the wave of infotainment, but also the need to have a car that is easy for a driver to operate despite the imminent arrival of semi-autonomous support systems.
“Designers like the idea of getting rid of buttons because Apple takes buttons away. But in a smartphone you’re concentrating and in a car you’re doing 120km/h.”
Renault describes the Clio as a 'supermini' and it’s not alone in Europe.
“If you look at what people are buying, our most popular variants are quite highly specified,” Paul Pottinger, of Volkswagen Australia, tells Australian Business Traveller.
“In the case of Golf, more than 70 per cent of Australian sales are over $30,000, and Polo buyers are looking at a slightly less-expensive Golf. We don’t get carried away with the myth that the Polo is just for P-platers and first-time buyers.”
For Peugeot and Citroen, which are style leaders but lag on sales in the supermini stakes, the objective is to hit the sweet spot with a smaller number of buyers.
“There is no point in us trying to play the volume game," admits local Peugeot and Citroen spokesman Tyson Bowen. "The 208 and C3 are both popular with people who are keen on good design and want something that makes a statement."