Little Clio has plenty of French polish for Kiwis
Renault's grand plans for new-look hatchback
Call it vive la petite car, you can even call it the French revolution but, whatever you call it, there is now a revitalisation in New Zealand of vehicles from France.
Peugeot has had a strong presence in our market for a while but in the past year Citroen has made a bid to become the manufacturer of choice for Kiwis and now Renault has started waving the French flag here.
American Chris Blair is Renault's new general manager after working for car dealerships including John Andrew Ford in Auckland. In his new role, Blair is determined to get the French brand out of its rut so he's starting small - light, actually - with the introduction of the fourth generation Clio hatchback.
Built in Bursa, Turkey, and based on Renault-Nissan Alliance's B-platform, the Clio is classed as a light car in Australia, where the has been a star and taking a number of awards last year. To qualify in Australia as a light car, it has to be shorter than 4.07m with the Clio nipping in at 4.063m in length, 1.448m high and 1.732m wide.
In New Zealand the hatchback sits in the small car segment.
Two five-door petrol models have gone on sale here, starting with the Authentique model with its 900cc, 66kW petrol engine paired with a manual five-speed gearbox, sitting on 16in alloys and priced at $22,990.
But it's the 1.2-litre, four cylinder 88kW six-speed dual-clutch auto Expression, costing $26,990, that Blair expects to be the popular pick.
In May, Blair will add the sports version of the small hatch, the Clio RS, before pushing the new-look Megane RS mid-size sedan and the family-friendly Koleos mid-year and finishing 2014 with the Captur crossover.
If that isn't keeping Blair busy, he's also running the company's Auckland dealership which has just opened in Greenlane. It joins the Wellington and Christchurch dealerships while Blair is relying on the company's website to attract buyers from outside those cities.
"That's the wonder of the internet," says Blair. "If customers are interested, we'd fly them to the dealerships."
And Blair is hoping the Clio will lure in those customers.
First launched in 1991, the Clio was named European Car of the Year while the second generation sold 140 units in New Zealand and the third generation was only sold here as a Renault 3 Sport, a three-door manual.
The new Clio will be competing against Mazda2, VW's Polo, Peugeot 208, Ford Fiesta and the ever-popular Suzuki Swift.
Blair is especially targeting buyers of European cars, Volkswagen fans in particular.
What he's hoping will impress new buyers is the car's five-star Ancap and Eurocap ratings, satellite satnav as standard, along with its interior and exterior styling.
Although a five-door hatch, it has a coupe-like appearance thanks to the integrated exterior rear door handles. Inside, the console makes it distinctive, with its 18in touchscreen info centre.
The rear seat accommodates two adults comfortably, or three children, with a large 300-litre boot.
During my weeklong test of the Clio, I packed the hatchback with two teens and added a bootload of supermarket shopping, but found the long pacing between the auto's lower gears meant I wasn't first off from the traffic lights.
Then, during the media launch recently on the back roads of Waikato to Matamata countryside, and with two adults on board, the 1.2-litre engine proved to be a star. Sit in top gear and put your foot down and the Clio thinks it's a rally car, which isn't surprising as our drive programme took in part of the Rally New Zealand routes.
The chassis and suspension worked well together to give an agile drive over undulating back roads, cornering well at speed and, considering the bitumen it was driving on, providing a quiet ride.
A wrong turn meant the need to make a tight manoeuvre on a narrow road with ditches on either side but, with a 10.6m turning circle and 2.4m from lock to lock, the U-turn was simple.
With the route taking us through some Waikato farming towns, locals took an interest in the Clio. Mabye the French revolution is happening.