New Peugeot 208 & Renault Clio vs Volkswagen Polo

With upmarket interiors and lots of kit, the new Peugeot 208 and Renault Clio could upset the small car class. The rival they must beat is the Volkswagen Polo...

New Peugeot 208 & Renault Clio vs Volkswagen Polo

The contenders

Peugeot 208 Puretech 100 Allure

  • List price - £18,850
  • Target Price - £18,401

New 208 looks the part and has an upmarket interior, but it doesn’t come cheap.

Renault Clio TCe 100 RS Line

  • List price - £17,795
  • Target Price - £16,532

All-new Clio puts value at the top of agenda, even in range-topping RS Line trim.

Volkswagen Polo 1.0 TSI 95 Beats

  • List price - £17,920 
  • Target Price - £15,596

Our favourite small car is a wonderful all-rounder that will be tough to beat. 

Human beings are getting bigger by the decade, so it stands to reason that cars should grow to accommodate our longer limbs. But here’s the thing: small cars have expanded by an average of around 10% over the past 30 years, whereas we homo sapiens haven’t managed that in the past century. 

Indeed, a modern VW Polo is bigger than a Golf from 1990 and will fairly comfortably accommodate four six-footers. So, that begs the question: do you really need anything larger? Especially given that said Polo has remarkably grown-up driving manners, plenty of gadgets and even a reasonably upmarket interior. Put simply, these days ‘small’ is very much a relative rather than denigrating term.

The reason we’re using the Polo as an example and not, say, the Ford Fiesta is because the Volkswagen has been our favourite small car for some time now. But that might not remain the case for much longer, because it has not one but two all-new rivals vying for its crown. Both are French and both are from manufacturers with a long history of building some brilliant little hatchbacks.

The new Peugeot 208 has moved more upmarket than its predecessor, with a glamorous interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a car from several classes above. However, the new Renault Clio appears to be considerably better value because, for £1000 less than the 208 (or around £20 less a month), you can have it in top-spec RS Line trim rather than the mid-range Allure of its rival.

We’re lining up our newcomers against a Beats edition of the Polo, which trades some boot space to accommodate a meaty subwoofer for its 300-watt sound system. Does it still deserve to be at the top of your shortlist?

Peugeot 208 driving

On the road

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Each of these cars has a three-cylinder turbocharged engine with around 100bhp, so you’d expect similar performance across the board. But in reality, the 208 has a noticeable extra spring in its step. This is partly because its engine produces more pull at low revs, but also because, unlike its rivals, it has a six-speed gearbox rather than a five-speeder, allowing you to find the sweet spot in the engine’s rev range more easily.

The Clio and Polo are fairly closely matched for acceleration, although the former’s engine does have a few noticeable flat spots. This just means you can feel the rate of acceleration ebbing and flowing as you get up to speed, whereas in the Polo it’s more consistent. The Clio also does the least impressive job of isolating you from engine vibration, especially at low revs when you’re working the engine hard.

Renault Clio driving

Although the Polo’s engine makes itself heard the most under acceleration, it’s a fair bit smoother than the Clio’s. But when it comes to both engine smoothness and quietness, the 208 is king of this triumvirate. 

The Clio proves slightly disappointing in other respects, too, with the notchiest gearbox and by far the most tyre roar on the motorway – the main reason why it posted the highest decibel reading at 70mph in our tests. Despite its longer shift action and slightly numb clutch pedal, the 208’s gearbox is slicker and there’s a lot less road noise to trouble your ears. There’s a fair bit of wind whistle on the motorway, though, leaving the Polo as the quietest cruiser by a small margin. And as a bonus, the Polo has the slickest  gearshift and is generally the easiest to drive smoothly. 

Although it isn’t at all sporty, the Polo inspires plenty of confidence with the way it goes around corners. There’s lots of grip, not too much body lean and the steering, while not as communicative as a Fiesta’s, gives you a decent sense of connection with the front wheels, letting you place the car just where you want it. By contrast, the Clio stays much more upright through bends and has quicker, more accurate steering, although it doesn’t give you much feedback when you’re pushing hard through corners. This spoils the fun a little.

Volkswagen Polo driving

And the 208? Well, that’s the boulevard cruiser of the trio, with the most body lean through tight twists and turns and slightly vague steering. But it makes up for that by having the cushiest ride, rounding off bumps impressively at all speeds, at least on the 16in wheels of our test car (they’re 17s on UK-spec cars). The Clio’s suspension is quite a bit firmer, although it’s sophisticated enough to deal with sharp-edged bumps in one go, so there’s no unpleasant shudder over potholes. 

In comparison with its rivals here, the Polo’s ride is slightly more unsettled in most situations, although it’s still one of the more comfortable cars in the wider small hatchback class.

Next: Behind the wheel >>

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