The diesel Renault Clio has been a long-standing choice for those wanting an economical and affordable small hatchback. The Clio was launched in 2012, however, and newer rivals – including the Skoda Fabia and Hyundai i20 – are looking to unseat it from its throne. Is the diesel Clio still the one to go for? Let's find out.
Renault Clio 1.5 dCi 90 Dynamique Media Nav
The benchmark for small diesel cars thanks to its refined engine and low costs
Skoda Fabia 1.4 TDI 90 SE
This newest diesel engine has the lowest emissions here, but is that enough to give the Fabia the win?
Hyundai i20 1.1 CRDi 75 SE
Lowest price and plenty of kit could give the new i20 the edge, despite having the highest CO2 emissions
Small diesel hatchbacks have plenty of appeal; they’re seriously cheap to run yet usefully practical. As long as you rack up lots of miles, or are a company car driver who wants to benefit from the keen BIK tax charge that a diesel supermini’s typically low CO2 emissions bring, one is likely to be on your wish list.
That’s the sort of driver Skoda is targeting with the new Fabia 1.4 TDI – the entry-level diesel version of our recently crowned 2015 What Car? Car of the Year.
Hyundai’s smart-looking new i20 came very close to beating the Fabia when we tested the two cars in petrol form, and while the 1.1 diesel i20 might be relatively short on power compared with its Czech rival, it’s cheaper to buy and comes similarly well equipped.
The car both of these newcomers have to beat is the Clio 1.5 dCi. Last year it fended off the new VW Polo and Ford Fiesta to retain its title as our favourite small diesel, thanks to its refined motor, fine driving manners and low costs.
What are they like to drive?
The Renault and Skoda are reasonably sprightly. The three-cylinder Fabia is particularly strong at low revs, pulling without fuss from 1500rpm and getting you swiftly up to speed in the process. The four-cylinder Clio doesn’t have quite the same urgency at low revs but it builds speed more smoothly and predictably, with less of a surge when its turbocharger kicks in.
With considerably less power to call on, it’s hardly surprising that the Hyundai is the slowcoach here. Despite short gearing, it feels out of breath whenever you leave the city limits. It’ll happily cruise at motorway speeds when the road is flat, but even gentle inclines cause it to lose momentum.
On the plus side, the i20’s engine is smoother and quieter than the Fabia’s, which is decidedly gruff and sends shudders into the cabin. The Hyundai’s engine is still a little coarse at low revs, however, whereas the Clio’s is remarkably smooth.
You’ll have the most fun in the Renault on twisty roads because it’s the most agile and composed through bends. True, its steering could do with a bit more weight to give you confidence when cornering at faster speeds, but this does at least make for easy manoeuvring around town. The Fabia’s steering is more positive, although the body does sway about more through tight twists.
The Hyundai certainly doesn’t disgrace itself, feeling composed and stable in most situations. However, its steering is heavy when parking and not particularly fluid at higher speeds, and the i20 generally feels the least well balanced through faster corners.
None of these cars rides with quite the suppleness of a Ford Fiesta, but neither will they have you cursing every pothole. The Skoda and Hyundai jostle you around more than the Clio at town speeds, but settle down above 40mph – at which point the Renault’s ride starts to become a bit bumpy.
What are they like inside?
All of these cars have a height-adjustable driver’s seat with enough movement to accommodate occupants of all shapes and sizes. None gets adjustable lumbar support, though – even as an option – so there’s the potential for backache on long journeys in all of them. That’s particularly true in the case of the Renault, which has the least supportive seats. We’d recommend asking for an extended test drive to make sure you can get comfortable.
The Hyundai and Skoda are a close match on interior quality. The Hyundai just edges it, thanks to a soft-touch covering on the face of its dashboard, while the layout is easy to get the hang of. That said, the i20 is the only one of the three that doesn’t get a colour touchscreen. Some buyers might be put off, too, by the beige or blue interior finishes that are compulsory, unless you choose the unusual £495 ‘Mandarin Orange Pearl’ exterior paint; this is the only paint colour that comes with a slate-grey interior.
Harder feeling finishes are used in the Skoda’s cabin. However, its colour touchscreen, combined with the variety of reasonably priced optional trims and upholstery finishes available, make it easy to see why many would favour the model's more modern-looking interior.
The Clio’s gloss black centre console is similarly focused around a colour touchscreen, but everything you touch feels cheaper – there are sharp edges around the seat adjustment controls and some of the plastics feel pretty flimsy. Visibility isn’t so good in the Renault, either, due to its narrow rear window and raked-back windscreen pillars. It’s easier to see out of the Skoda and Hyundai.
It doesn’t get any better for the Clio in the back, either, where it offers the least head, leg and elbow room. It’s enough to make it feel noticeably pokier than the back of the Hyundai or Skoda.
All three models have enough boot space to satisfy most buyers of small cars, and seats that fold easily in a 60/40 split. The Skoda’s boot is the longest and deepest, but it’s a touch narrower than the others and – as with the Clio – there’s a big drop down to the floor over the boot lip.
Only the Hyundai, with its standard variable-height boot floor, has a load bay that’s flush with the boot lip and with the rear seatbacks when they’re folded.
What will they cost?
The i20’s low list price has plenty of appeal. However, haggling brings bigger savings on the Fabia and Clio, so even the Skoda - the priciest of our trio - costs only a little more than the Hyundai after discounts.
Still, the i20 comes with a five-year warranty as opposed to the Clio’s four-year and the Skoda’s three-year offerings, and is the cheapest for those buying on PCP finance.
All three cars have USB sockets, Bluetooth, alloy wheels and a leather-covered steering wheel, while the i20 is the only one to get electric rear windows and lane-departure warning. The Renault impresses with dusk-sensing headlights and automatic wipers plus keyless start, but does without the rear parking sensors its rivals have as standard.
Only Skoda charges extra for a multi-function steering wheel and cruise control, but it is alone in having automatic city emergency braking – an important safety feature that isn’t available on the Hyundai and Renault.
These small diesels are popular with business users as well as private buyers, but the i20 is the least convincing company car. Its higher CO2 emissions place it two tax bands above the others. Although its lower list price counts in its favour, you’ll still have to sacrifice marginally more of your salary each month to run one.
Contract hire costs are also the highest on the Hyundai – albeit by only a fraction over the Skoda – while the Renault will be considerably cheaper than both for anyone planning to lease.
The Clio is also the most frugal here, achieving 60.1mpg in our real-world economy tests, next to 57.7mpg for the Fabia and 55.1mpg for the i20. Not bad, although some may be disappointed that none of these cars gets closer to its impressive claimed economy.
All things considered, the Fabia will cost private cash buyers the least to own over three years.
This is a close test. All three cars offer low running costs yet manage to avoid the depressing cost-is-everything aura that budget-first hatches can suffer from.
However, for its all-round appeal, it’s the Fabia that has to win. It’s both the cheapest company car and private buy. It’s good to drive, is spacious and comfortable inside, and has plenty of standard equipment. However, the diesel engine is seriously gruff at low revs, so the sweet-revving 1.2 TSI petrol remains our favourite Fabia and makes more sense for the majority of small car buyers.
The smooth 1.5 dCi has always been our favourite Clio, and it’s certainly the most refined engine here. The Renault also has the sweetest handling and best fuel economy, while items such as sat-nav, automatic wipers and keyless start add functional luxury that a high-mileage driver will really appreciate. Being cheaper to lease per month than the other two is no small matter, either.
Which leaves the worthy Hyundai. Let down here by a weak engine, comparatively high emissions and uninspiring handling, it’s a shame we couldn’t get hold of the more comparable 89bhp 1.4 diesel model (it wasn’t available at the time of testing). Then again, this 1.1 has made a good case for itself. After all, the 1.4 is more expensive and has even higher emissions. If you’re not worried about modern infotainment or going very quickly, the i20 could suit your needs well.
Skoda Fabia 1.4 TDI 90 SE
For **Neat handling; great running costs; low company car tax
Against Poor engine refinement; slightly nobbly low-speed ride
Verdict The best all-rounder, but petrol Fabias make more sense
Renault Clio 1.5 dCi 90 Dynamique Media Nav
For** Best engine refinement; lots of kit; agile handling
Against Cheap-feeling interior; not as big as the others
Verdict A good diesel car, but the Fabia is even better
Hyundai i20 1.1 CRDi 75 SE
For Cheapest to buy; good equipment; practical
Against Very slow; poor infotainment system
Verdict Recommendable, but hard work in fast traffic