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Renault Clio GT 1.6 VVT 128 Review

Like most cars over the past decade or so, the Renault Clio has grown in both size and stature. There’s no denying that this face-lifted version of the MkIII Clio is far larger than the original car, but it’s also far more comfortable and well equipped. In fact, the amount of kit that you can find inside a Clio today is staggering considering its “small car” status.

The Clio has also built up a reputation for itself as one of the best hot hatches on the market – the MkI Williams Clio is an all time classic, while the MkII Trophy was also something very special. I myself had a Clio 197 F1 R27 for a while, and it was an absolute riot to drive. But what I’m looking at here is more of a warm hatch than a hot one – the Clio GT 128.

This Clio GT may not have the outright power of my old 197 or the Clio 200 that replaces it, but it certainly looks the part. There’s nothing too over the top, but the dark alloys complement the metallic blue paintwork nicely, while the side skirts and bumpers give the car a sporty, but not garish appearance.

As the name suggests, the Clio GT 128 pumps out 128bhp from its 1.6L petrol engine. This doesn’t make it super-quick, but if you keep the revs high, you can motor along at a brisk pace. On the plus side, the chassis just loves to be pushed hard and rewards the committed driver. And although when you are pushing hard you might find yourself wising you were in a Clio 200, the fact that this GT 128 manages to slide into insurance group 7E makes it potentially more attractive to many.

When it comes to technology, Renault has managed to squeeze a surprising amount of kit into this Clio, and as always, that’s the real focus of this review. So, can a small hatchback really show some of the big boys how in-car technology should be done? Let’s find out…

Whenever I look at a factory fit navigation system I inevitably find myself comparing it to an aftermarket TomTom unit. In pretty much every case, the factory fit sat-nav is nowhere near as good as a TomTom, but in the case of this Clio GT the story is a little different, because the factory fit unit is a TomTom!

The Carminat TomTom is a £450 option on the Clio, which is pretty reasonable by factory fit navigation standards. Obviously it’s still a lot more expensive than an aftermarket TomTom, but you are getting all the advantages of the voice commands being pumped through the stereo system and your music volume being dropped every time one of those commands is issued. And let’s not forget that a factory fit item always looks better than something stuck to your windscreen with a power cable draped to your cigarette lighter.

If you’ve used a TomTom in the past you’ll instantly recognise the menus and icons on the 5.8in colour screen, and if you haven’t you’ll probably be won over by how instantly accessible the TomTom interface is. However, if you are already a TomTom user, like myself, you’ll no doubt find yourself stabbing in vain at the screen, because unlike every aftermarket TomTom, the unit in this Clio doesn’t have a touch-screen interface.

Not only is there no touch-screen interface, but there are no controls for the sat-nav built into the car either. Instead you get a standard TomTom wireless remote, which slides into a little case that resides in one of the centre console cup holders. Although this position is handy for access while driving, it’s easily visible from each and every window when the car is parked – not ideal from a security perspective. My advice would be to whip out some Velcro and keep the remote somewhere equally as handy, but less obvious to petty criminals.

The use of a separate remote control for the TomTom system does present another issue too. If you lose the remote, you have a pretty useless sat-nav integrated into your car. Obviously you can buy a replacement, but until you do, satellite navigation will be off the menu.

Putting the negatives of the choice of control method to one side, there are many positives too. For a start, the remote is pretty basic in its operation, which means that it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, thus making it easy to use the TomTom system itself. Matters are helped by the clean and logical layout of the TomTom interface. Inputting destination details is still nowhere near as simple as on a touch-screen, but it’s not an arduous chore using the remote.

Change of control method excepted, what you’re getting is one of the best navigation systems available. If there’s one disappointment, it’s that it doesn’t support the latest TomTom Live traffic update information, but then it would need to have some kind of cellular data connectivity built in. That aside though, you’re getting the vast majority of what makes an aftermarket TomTom so good.

TomTom was the first sat-nav manufacturer to provide full seven digit postcode support, so it comes as no surprise to find that the system in this Clio offers that feature. Although I have seen a few other factory fit systems with seven digit postcode support, it’s still a relatively rare feature, despite it being such an obviously useful one.

The Carminat TomTom also comes equipped with a database of speed camera locations, so you’ll get a warning whenever you’re approaching such a device by the roadside. You can specify how early you want the warning to come and also the audio alert that’s played. Considering the proliferation of these, so called, safety cameras (although they rarely seem to be on dangerous roads, only long, straight ones), this is definitely a feature worth having.

Like modern aftermarket TomToms, the system in the Clio GT has a wide range of voices in multiple languages. It also features computer generated voices, which bring an array of extra functionality to the party. Okay, so the computer generated voices sound a little, well, computer generated, but the benefits they offer far outweigh the unusual intonations and pronunciations. When using real voices, the system can only playback what has been recorded, and the amount of words recorded will always be limited. However, with the computer generated voices, the system can playback any word, including every street name on every map in the system and every point of interest in the database. You can even have traffic reports read out to you rather than having to read them on screen.

I’m sure that some users will still prefer the sound of a real voice, and whichever option you choose you’ll find that the vocal instructions are excellent. All instructions are clear and made in a timely fashion, ensuring that you don’t miss a turning or take the wrong exit off a roundabout. One thing that is conspicuous by its absence though, is any form of visual instruction in a dash mounted display, but that might be a bit too much to ask from a Clio.

There’s a good points of interest database, although there are a few issues with it. I set it the task of finding a Tesco supermarket near my location, but it managed to find none. However, it did tell me that there was an Abbey National located at a Tesco that was near by – basically it was telling me that there was an Abbey ATM at the local Tesco, which, in essence, told me where the Tesco was. Not particularly straightforward, but most of the information you might want is in there, you’ll just have to think creatively to get to it!

Another feature worth mentioning is the Help Me section. Here you’ll find emergency phone numbers and locations for things like Police, Hospitals, Dentists, Doctors, garages etc. You might question how often you will need this stuff, but on the one occasion that you do need it, you’ll be very glad that it was there.

Finally, I have to mention the fact that you can configure the icon for your current position on the map to be whichever Renault you happen to be driving – assuming you’re using 3D maps. Of course I doubt that you can really get a Renault F1 car with this sat-nav system in it, but it’s a good bit of fun nonetheless.

The Clio GT came equipped with a Bluetooth hands-free system allowing you to hook up your mobile phone wirelessly and make and receive calls safely, while on the move. Getting a phone connected is a breeze and I had no problem hooking up multiple handsets, including my iPhone 3G.

Once your phone is connected the signal strength is displayed at the bottom of the main navigation screen, but there’s no indication of battery life. You can access your entire contacts list via the car’s interface and click on any contact to initiate dialling. You can also choose the type of in-car ring tone, as well as its volume.

Unlike some systems, the one in the Clio GT doesn’t allow for voice dialling of every name in your contact list. Instead you have to record voice tags for each of the contacts that you think you’ll want to dial. This is somewhat laborious to do, but once it’s done, it’s done, and I far prefer pronouncing names the way they’re meant to be, rather than how an in-car system thinks they should be pronounced.

There’s a voice command button located on the steering column. Pressing this button mutes the music and prompts you to say the name of the contact you want to dial. Voice recognition was generally excellent, with the Clio recognising names first time and dialling without incident.

Call quality is slightly disappointing though. It’s fine inside the car – you can hear the person that you’re speaking to clear as day. However, for whoever is on the other end of the call, you come through sounding distant, with a slight buzzing evident whenever you speak. It doesn’t make the system unusable by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not as good as it could be.

There’s no shortage of audio options on offer, probably more than I’d expect to find in a car this size. The Radio is limited to analogue FM and MW stations, with no DAB digital radio on the menu. You also get a CD player that can playback MP3 files, meaning that you can squeeze a decent size music library on a single disc.

Things get more interesting when you pull down the flap located in front of the gear stick though. Here you’ll find an analogue AUX input for pumping sound from pretty much anything through the in-car system, but far more useful is the USB port. You can plug in any USB key here and stream MP3 and WMA files, but unlike using the analogue AUX input, you can control all the playback through the in-car system.

You can also hook an iPod up to the USB port – you can then playback your music by artist, album, playlist etc. Unfortunately I found that navigating an iPod through the Clio’s entertainment system was painfully slow and soon gave up in favour of a USB key, which worked far better.

You can also playback music via a Bluetooth device using A2DP. Configuration is simple, and once I’d connected my iPhone up for phone calls, it instantly appeared as an audio source as well. When I selected my iPhone, it instantly started streaming my tracks, but I had no control over the music via the car’s controls – I couldn’t skip forward or backwards through the track list. Luckily this proved to be an issue with the iPhone and not the system in the car, since when I hooked up the Samsung YP-R1, I was able to control my music playback.

Sound quality is surprisingly good, with decent levels of clarity, and enough bass to satisfy most tastes, without rattling the windows. There’s little sign of distortion when the volume levels are pushed high either. Sound was pretty consistent regardless of the source, and even music streamed over Bluetooth sounded absolutely fine.

Not so impressive is the navigation of the entertainment system. Despite there being a large, full colour LCD screen, all navigation menus are in monochrome, and only give you three lines of data. It’s almost as if the entertainment navigation was designed for a smaller display and has just been rolled over onto the large TomTom screen – which of course is altogether possible.

There’s a full set of audio controls on the steering column – here you’ll find volume controls, a mute button, an audio source button and a jog dial for skipping forwards and backwards through your track list.

The Clio GT comes fitted with a pair of cosseting sports seats, which while not as supportive as the Recaro buckets I had in my Clio 197 F1, are still very good. The side bolsters hold you in place during enthusiastic driving, while they’re well cushioned enough to keep you comfortable on very long journeys.

There’s also digital climate control, ensuring that the temperature in the cabin is just right – although it’s not dual-zone, so you’ll need to hope that you and your passenger agree on what the optimum temperature is.

You also get automatic windscreen wipers, while the headlights will also activate as soon as it starts to get dark. The keyless entry and start system means that you never have to take the keycard out of your pocket. The door will automatically unlock as you pull the handle, while the engine is started using the button in the centre console. To lock the car you simple press the button that’s integrated into the door handle. The keycard does also have controls to lock and unlock the car, but once you’re used to not having to take a key from your pocket, you won’t want to go back.

There were no parking sensors fitted to this car, but they are available as a £300 option! That said, if you need parking sensors on a car as small as a Clio, you’re better off spending that money on some extra driving lessons.

The Clio has always been a great little car, but this GT 128 provides a great mix of sporty fun and generous equipment levels. Okay, it’s not the fastest hot hatch on the market, not by a long way, but it will be cheap to run and insure, while still offering an entertaining drive for anyone committed enough to exploit its chassis.

The Carminat TomTom navigation system is one of the best factory fitted systems I’ve ever used. You get most of the features that make TomTom aftermarket systems so great, but without the need for windscreen mounts and trailing cables. It’s slightly disappointing that there’s no touch-screen interface, but hopefully Renault and TomTom will address this for the next version.

The in-car entertainment system is also very well featured for a car of this size, and anyone with a large digital music library will be glad to see both a USB interface and Bluetooth streaming abilities. Add to that the excellent keyless entry and start system, great seats, climate control and auto lights and wipers and you’ve got a small car with big aspirations.

The Clio GT 128 has a base price of £13,985, but with all the extra kit seen on this test car, you’d be looking at £15,680. That may look like a lot of money on paper, but for what you’re getting, that’s pretty reasonable. And let’s face it, most dealers are open to negotiation these days.

If you’re looking for a small car that looks good, drives well, comes loaded with kit and won’t cost you the earth to insure, the Clio GT 128 should definitely be on your short list.

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