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Used test: Peugeot 208 vs Renault Clio vs Volkswagen Polo interiors

These small yet practical hatchbacks are all much more affordable at two years old, but which is the best buy?...

Peugeot e-208 2021 dashboard

Behind the wheel

Driving position, visibility, build quality

Each of our contenders comes with a height and reach-adjustable steering wheel and a manually adjustable driver’s seat that can be ratcheted up and down. In the Peugeot 208 and the VW Polo you can adjust the backrest angle using a little wheel at the side of the seat, whereas the Renault Clio has a lever to do the job. It’s easier to reach but, with a set number of positions, offers less scope for fine tuning. 

Slightly disappointingly, you don’t get (and its original owner couldn't add from new) adjustable lumbar support on the Clio or Polo. And while it was an option on the 208, it was available only as part of a £1400 pack that few buyers specified.

Renault Clio interior

This is a shame, because the 208 has the least lower back support, as well as the least side support in corners. The Clio’s sportily bolstered seat holds you in place the best through bends, but it could also do with more lumbar support. On balance, the Polo’s seat is the best but still isn’t ideal, being the firmest and having a relatively acutely angled squab that presses against your legs.

Still there's lots of other things to like in the Polo. It has the best arrangement of pedals, seat and steering wheel, so you feel the most at home behind the wheel. The Clio’s steering wheel isn’t quite lined up centrally with its driver’s seat, and unless you raise the 208’s seat significantly, you feel like you’re sitting on the floor. 

As with other Peugeots in recent years, the 208 also has a tiny steering wheel and a high-set instrument panel. This is meant to make the dials easier to see by allowing  you to view them over the wheel rather than through it, but it doesn’t work as well in the 208 as it does in some of Peugeot’s bigger models (some drivers will find that the rim gets in the way). Because there’s no issue seeing the instruments in the other two cars, Peugeot’s approach feels like the answer to a question no one asked. 

Volkswagen Polo interior

On the plus side, the Peugeot 208 instruments are thoroughly modern. They’re rendered digitally in 3D and can be configured in a number of preset styles. The Renault Clio has part-digital dials on a smaller 7.0in screen, while the VW Polo makes do with regular – albeit very legible – analogue instruments, separated by a small information screen. If you wish, you can seek out a Clio or Polo with fully digital instruments – it was an option on both cars when new.

In terms of usability, the Polo is no trickier to operate than a toaster. Its ultra-simple dashboard layout contains big, clearly marked buttons for most controls, so you can operate them easily on the move. The Clio is also pretty logical, although its stereo controls, tucked away behind the steering wheel, are a faff to use until you’ve learnt what each button does. The 208 takes a similar approach with its cruise control buttons, but the Polo (if you've found a car where the first owner spent £285 to add cruise control) puts the switches for both functions on the wheel, where you can see and use them more easily.

The 208’s fiddliness doesn’t end there. Adjusting the temperature has to be done using the central touchscreen, rather than simply twiddling a knob like you do in the others. There are simple toggle switches for various functions on its centre console, but behind these is a row of distracting, touch-sensitive control pads. Why distracting? Well, as with the touchscreen icons, you have to divert your eyes from the road to ensure you hit them accurately.

Peugeot 208 infotainment

It may be fiddly, but the 208 interior isn’t lacking in glamour. In fact, it’s arguably more striking than any other small car and on the whole the materials look and feel expensive. The Clio, in RS Line trim at least, actually has a few more soft-touch finishes than the 208 and fancy ambient lighting, but overall it doesn’t have the same panache. It feels flimsier, too – as evidenced by a centre console that moves if you lean against it. The Polo Beats interior comes with a variety of contrasting colours and is robust, but is it plush? Apart from some squidgy plastic on top of the dashboard, every surface is hard to the touch, so not really. 

The Polo is the easiest to see out of when parking, though. That’s because it has the thinnest windscreen pillars and the most open glass area at the rear, while both of its rivals have upswept rear window lines that obstacles could lurk behind. Factor in the 208’s chunkier windscreen pillars and it’s hardest to see out of in all directions. On the plus side, it comes with rear parking sensors, but that’s nothing compared with the Clio, which has front and rear parking sensors plus a reversing camera. The Polo has zilch in terms of visibility aids and, like the 208, dim halogen headlights. The Clio’s are brilliant LED bulbs.

As well as obscuring your view, the 208’s fat windscreen pillars and canted-in side pillars sit closer to your head, making it feel the smallest in the front. However, it actually has as much head room as its rivals and leg room that’s as generous as in the Polo. The Clio has the least leg room, but all of them will fit six-footers, no problem. There’s lots of storage space in the front of each, too, including under their centre armrests (a standard feature of the 208 but an option in the Clio and Polo). 

Volkswagen Polo rear seats

A pair of lofty adults will find the Renault Clio the least comfortable to sit in the back of. It offers by far the least head and leg room, and asking three adults to sit side by side would be torture. You can just about manage that feat in the other two, and the middle passenger will be happiest in the Peugeot 208 because it offers a bit more knee room between its front seats. For two adults sitting in the back, the Polo has the edge; it’s easier to get in and out of than the 208, feels airier once inside and has a bit more head room and the most foot space under its front seats.

The subwoofer under the boot floor of this Beats-spec VW Polo not only means you can’t have a spare wheel but also removes the useful height-adjustable boot floor that the rest of the range comes with. Consequently, its boot is the shallowest of the three and can hold only four carry-on cases below the parcel shelf. That’s not a great total, although there is a decent chunk of additional space under the boot floor. 

Neither of the other two gives you a height-adjustable boot floor in any trim level, but their boots are deeper and the Clio’s is also longer. They can hold five cases each, although you have to put up with much higher loading lips; the Clio’s, in particular, is more than 27cm from the edge of the opening down to the boot floor. When you fold down their 60/40-split rear seats, the Polo is the only one that leaves you with a flat extended load area.