TWENTY-three years ago, the Renault Clio was launched to replace the 5, which in turn had developed out of the idiosyncratic 4. It was the year Jack Charlton took a team and the country to Italia '90. The Clio has been an amazing success story for the French company, even if it did spawn some quite nauseating ads in its time. More than 12 million Clios have been sold and the fourth generation arrived here this year.
While earlier Clios were definitely a young person's, even slightly girly, car – as epitomised by their adverting campaign based on 'Nicole' – the latest generation is far more grown up. All versions are now five-doors, even if a coupe silhouette is attained with a slightly lowered chassis, hidden rear door handles and a sportier profile. Space all round is good, the boot is cavernous and the comfort factor is high. Safety features have been improved and the Clio received a maximum five stars in the new Euro NCAP rating which are now – rightly – judged on entry-level versions.
There is of course an absolute mass of navigation, sound and connectivity stuff on board the Clio. However, it is getting to the point with many marques that the marketing focus is on this aspect rather than the car itself. A lot of this can be distracting and actually interferes with safety rather than the reverse. Until we all have self-driving cars, it is probably time to try and reverse the trend.
Yet beyond the styling and sounds, the Clio is still a very good car to drive and surprisingly solid and confident across all the low-consumption petrol and diesel engines. Despite the prevalence of diesel in recent years, petrol is usually better in small cars and especially ones that are unlikely to do very high mileage. This is definitely the case with the Clio. The Clio is in a very competitive sector and while the Renault brand has suffered over recent years for almost being over-marketed here with heavy discounts, the car is a real success story, unlike some of its sister cars which have suffered from being cheap without being good value.
However, at an entry price of €14,990, the basic Clio is beginning to get into pricier waters and by the time you go into the Dynamique or R-Link versions you are feeling the pain indeed, with step-ups of €1,300 and €1,400 respectively. There are some pretty big competitors out there, among them the very impressive Hyundai i20 1.2 petrol Premium at €16,495 before p&p, and the Toyota Yaris and a very basic Ford Fiesta (the market leader) at starting prices of €15,550 before p&p.
The year before the Clio was launched, Toyota unleashed its luxury brand marque Lexus to a welcoming public. Very quickly it became popular for its blend of reliability, comfort, power and absolutely solid building. Despite some forays into sporty cars, most notably a two-seater model, the SC430, the cars mainly appealed to an older male audience. Our own Hugh Leonard was one such owner.
Ten years later, in 1999, Lexus launched the IS range to compete with the likes of the BMW 3-Series, and similar to that car it had little room in the back and not enough in the boot. However, through various guises the IS has become the mainstay of the marque, and up to the present some 5,000 units have been sold here.
With the latest IS, Lexus have gone for a much bolder, powerful design with what they call "aggressive elegance". It is longer and wider than its predecessors. However, the standout point is that all models across the range will be hybrid-powered and automatic. Lexus – alongside the Toyota mother-ship – has been the main proponent of hybrid technology, and some 500,000 units with this form have been sold. For the moment, hybrid cars get the benefit of a €1,500 government rebate which gives a starting price for the Lexus IS 300h of €37,780 before €800 p&p.
On a good test over last Monday and Tuesday, I found the IS 300H a very confident, sporty drive with no compromise in space or power. It has distinctive, nicely upmarket trimmings in the cabin, although the massive centre console does intrude. Even though the hybrid system mixes petrol power with the electric motor and battery, the consumption is on a par with the best diesels in its class and will deliver 65mpg. It's a good car and as many other manufacturers have followed Lexus/Toyota in offering hybrid cars, I think their gamble in putting their biggest seller into only this form deserves to succeed.