REVIEW DATE: 23 May 2007
The latest Renault Clio is at its most affordable in Freeway form but can this entry-level trim retain the feel-good factor of the plusher models? Steve Walker reports.
It's the higher specification derivatives in any car range that star in the advertisements, take pride of place in the showrooms and claim the most column inches in the press. However, it's often a vehicle's more modest guises that actually turn the bigger profits. Having wowed the country's performance car enthusiasts with their range-topping 197bhp Renaultsport Clio, Renault devised the Freeway specification to bring up the rear. It's aim, to separate budget conscious buyers from their closely-guarded cash.
The Freeway is based on the erstwhile entry-level Clio offering, the Authentique, but it superseded that five-door only car at the base of the range by virtue of its three-door bodystyle. Cheaper and sportier thanks to its ditching of that extra pair of doors, the Freeway renders the Clio range more accessible to buyers who had resigned themselves to a budget badged supermini or a bijou city scoot.
Predictably, given its positioning at the more cost-conscious end of the line-up, the Freeway is fitted with the smallest and least powerful engine that Renault have seen fit to plumb into their cash cow Clio. It's a 1.2-litre 16-valve unit and its 74bhp maximum power output is produced at 5,500rpm. The 0-60mph sprint takes 13.4s and there's a 104mph top speed.
The Clio is a big car, even by modern supermini standards. It weighs-in at well over a tonne and progress can be sluggish with the 1.2-litre powerplant doing the legwork but drivers who spend most of their time pottering around town probably won't see a problem.
It's on the open road that the unit has to be worked hard to keep pace up inclines or pass dawdling traffic but it's nippy enough and won't disgrace itself on the motorway. The engine can become noisy when pressed but otherwise the refinement in the cabin is very impressive with minimal wind and road noise. Despite the absence of the power to really exploit it in the Freeway derivative, the Clio serves up an enjoyable driving experience with tenacious grip and taut body control that invites swift cornering. The ride quality is also very good, whether on the flat or over the multifarious traffic calming measures that plague our urban areas.
"The Clio's safety provision is hard to beat."
You wouldn't call the Clio's styling adventurous, at least not in comparison to some of Renault's other recent designs but it's an appealing shape that's rendered more dynamic in three-door form and the Renault DNA is always evident. The Freeway derivative manages not to betray its entry-level status too readily with only the wheel trims dropping the clanger that this is the bargain basement option.
Inside, the Clio reveals its party piece - one of the roomiest interiors in the class. There's plenty of capacity for a full complement of four adults to get in and access to the rear is dignified even in this three-door car. The facia design is relatively unadventurous and the materials quality in the Freeway is noticeably inferior to derivatives further up the Clio ladder but it's all solidly assembled and, the rather small stereo buttons notwithstanding, easy to use.
The Clio's safety provision is hard to beat. Even the Freeway trim level comes with six airbags, ABS with brake assist and pretensioner seatbelts with load limiters for the front seat occupants.
Equipment levels on the Clio Freeway are not to be sniffed at, even if the more advanced features that lend an extra air of opulence to the plusher models in the range have fallen victim to this model's economy drive. There's a multi-function trip computer that dishes out all manner of handy stats about your journey, a remote central locking system that incorporates Renault's RAID anti-intruder device and a CD stereo with column-mounted controls.
The Clio Freeway is priced at a highly reasonable £7,485 and that gets you the 1.2-litre 16v engine with the three-door bodystyle. No other derivatives are available with the entry-level spot in the five-door range being taken by the broadly similar Authentique model. Four body colour options are available and the Freeway derivatives can be easily identified by their silver 'Freeway' badges on at the bottom of the B-pillars.
No 1.2-litre supermini is going to bankrupt its owner overnight with excruciating running costs and the 1.2-litre Clio Freeway is no exception. The car matches its reasonable upfront price with a combined fuel economy figure of close to 48mpg and CO2 emissions of 139g/km. Even if, like many Freeway buyers, most of your motoring is likely to be comprised of short trips in urban areas, you can still expect to average over 35mpg. A low insurance grouping of 2E is another boon for buyers on a budget.
The Freeway might be the cheapest model in the line-up but it comes refreshingly free from that nagging feeling that you're missing out on the Renault Clio's best bits. It has the interior space, the handsome styling and the safety provision that allow the Clio to stand out in its competitive market sector. Sure, some of the more desirable options and luxurious trim materials are absent but the Freeway doesn't feel overly Spartan, especially at this sub £8,000 price point.
The 1.2-litre engine won't satisfy those looking for exhilarating performance but it's peppy at low speeds and can cope with longer journeys without undue drama. The Clio's handling and refinement are both out of the top draw and the enjoyable driving experience makes you wish that the Freeway's engine had a bit more about it. Buyers can opt for the Renault Clio Freeway safe in the knowledge that despite being the base model in the range, it still offers the majority of what makes the Clio such an accomplished product.
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