Renault Clio tech innovations: 25 years at the small car cutting edge

Over its four generations the Renault Clio has notched a series of small car technology firsts, and there they are...

From safety and tech to performance and design, Renault’s Clio supermini has always been a pioneer. We've seen four generations of the Clio to date and over 25 years they've blazed a technological trail in the small car market, bringing a series of never-seen-before innovations to customers.

Below, as part of our Renault Clio Special, we explore the key technology innovations for which the Renault Clio deserves the credit. Some were world firsts, others examples of the Clio bringing technology from larger, more expensive cars to supermini buyers at affordable prices for the first time. 

Renault Clio I Baccara: first small car with remote audio controls

Some in-car innovations don’t have to be exciting or radical – the smallest things we take for granted today can have a big impact when they appear. And the luxurious Mk1 Clio Baccara debuted a feature that had never before been seen on a small car: audio controls mounted on a steering wheel stalk.

• Old vs new: the Renault Clio through four generations

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It doesn’t sound like much, and the stalk – hidden behind the wheel spoke in our picture – was huge by modern standards. But it was a revolution back then, allowing drivers in the class to change the volume and station setting without taking their hand off the wheel.

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Now, of course, virtually every new car sold has such a feature as standard, and perhaps the Baccara can take some of the credit for this. 

Renault Clio II: first supermini to feature side airbags, ISOFIX

When the second-generation Clio debuted in 1998, it showcased several advanced safety features. After the last of the first-generation Clios were fitted with seatbelt pre-tensioners, the Clio II was the first small car ever to be offered with side airbags next to the driver and passenger. It was also the first Renault to feature an ISOFIX child-seat mounting system.

These two innovations, combined with a stiffer body structure, improved ABS brakes and new ‘load limiters’ in the seatbelts, meant the Renault was heralded as the safest car in its class by Euro NCAP.

Renaultsport Clio 172: most powerful small hot hatch

Renault really moved on the hot hatch game by launching the Clio 172 in 2000. This was the first model to be branded with the Renaultsport name, while its 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine developed 170bhp – way more than rivals such as the Citroen Saxo VTS and Peugeot 206 GTi, and even more than the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It weighed just over 1,000kg, too, so was fast enough to keep up with some considerably more expensive sports cars of the time.

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Renault Clio III: first cornering lights on a supermini

Many of us are now familiar with cornering lights, which follow the direction of the steering wheel movements. But the third-generation Clio, which hit showrooms back in 2005, was the first-ever supermini to feature this technology. The lights helped to illuminate around sharp bends when the car was travelling below 20mph, drastically improving visibility and safety as a result. 

Renault Clio III: first supermini to score five stars in Euro NCAP test

The Clio III continued Renault’s long-standing reputation for making advances in safety with every new generation. So much so that in 2005 the Clio became the first model in the supermini class to achieve five stars in Euro NCAP’s rigorous crash testing.

Thorax and curtain airbags were standard on most models, while innovative headrests and aluminium brace bars in the door panels ensured the Renault was safer than any other small car.

Renault Clio III: first supermini with hands-free ‘card’ system 

With each generation of Clio, Renault ensured tech normally found in luxury cars was brought into the range. One feature was ‘keyless go’ – a £250 option on all Mk3s and standard on flagships. Its square keycard replaced the key, and sensed when you were near the car, unlocking it when you touched the door.

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• The Renault Clio's best special edition cars

While there had been the odd supermini with keyless entry before, the Clio was the first to also offer keyless starting via a button on the dashboard. 

Renaultsport Clio 200: first diffuser on a small car 

Renault’s Formula One heritage had for years brought racing technology to the road, and one feature on the Renaultsport Clio 200 beat virtually everyone else to market. The hot hatch featured an air diffuser built into the rear bumper, replacing the need for a spoiler by applying up to 40kg of downforce at speed and dramatically reducing lift.

You can find one on various hot hatches now, but at the time the Clio was the first high-performance supermini to benefit.

Renault Clio IV: first supermini with ‘apps’ in R-Link system

In today’s smartphone-obsessed world, Renault became a bit of a tech pioneer with its R-Link system on the fourth-generation Clio. Before Apple CarPlay was even heard of, the Mk4 supermini’s infotainment system introduced a built-in ‘app’ store, so owners could download applications from the cloud.

• Exploring the Mk4 Clio with the man who designed it

These include social media functions, Michelin travel guides, weather reports, fuel price info and even an app that recreates various engine noises through the speakers.

Which of the Renault Clio's technology innovations do you think is most significant? Let us know in the comments...

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