IRONICALLY, Renault, a pioneer in the field of people-movers courtesy of the Espace and the Scénic, has until now not had a high-bodied compact to compete with cars such as the Honda Jazz, Hyundai Getz and Citroën C3. The ageing Clio has done a great job in the classy small-car segment, but it doesn’t really go head to head with these taller rivals when it comes to interior adjustability or the sense of passenger space – admittedly often merely psychological – that derives from their elevated seating positions.

But the product planners have set that to rights with the Modus, a new “mini-MPV” that rides on the Renault/Nissan B platform, which currently also underpins the Nissan Micra, and is also to be used for the next-generation Clio. Taller than the competition – it’s a full 65 mm higher than a Jazz and 100 mm up on a Getz – and with a wider stance, the Modus stands out from the crowd in more ways than one. After leaving our test car in the parking lot of a busy shopping centre for a few hours on a Saturday morning, a security official informed us that it had caused a near riot, with scores of people swarming around it, wanting to know its vital statistics.

These days, for many people the most important stat is price, and we dare say most of the onlookers would have been quite pleasantly surprised. Initally, three Modus models will be offered in South Africa. When it comes in a month or so, the entry-level 1,2 Authentique will sell for R110 000. The 1,4 Expression is priced at R125 000, and the current rangetopper, the 1,4 Dynamique featured in this first test, is listed at R135 000. A 1,6-litre petrol model and a 1,5-litre diesel are to be launched later, but both are apparently unlikely to reach us before 2006.

More radical than a Clio, the Modus’ styling is crisp and funky – though some of our test team rated it “girlish” – with flowing lines and eye-catching leaf-like indents around the deep side glass on the two flanks. Striking detailing includes large light units front and rear, a mouth-like air-intake stretching across the full width of the vehicle below the front numberplate, and repeater indicators in the exterior mirrors – the latter probably devilishly expensive to replace if damaged…

Our pre-launch test unit came with a “boot chute” – a neat downward- opening hatch in the tailgate that allows you to drop smaller items into the luggage bay without opening the hatch – but, sadly, the option is not to be offered in South Africa as, for reasons that remain unclear to us, the variation has apparently not been homologated by the SABS.

The1,4-litre 16-valve engine in the Dynamique is basically the same unit as the Clio’s, though power and torque delivery have been reprofiled to cope with the extra weight and greater frontal area. Peak outputs are 72 kW at 5 700 r/min and 127 N.m at 4 250, with 90 per cent of maximum torque on offer from 2 000 r/min upwards.

Suspension follows the standard small-car formula, with MacPherson struts in front and a torsion-beam axle at the rear, and brakes are ventilated discs in front, with solid discs at the rear. ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are standard. Also standard on the Dynamique are 15- inch alloy wheels, fitted with 185/60 tyres. There’s a full-size (steel) spare, with quick release system.

Open the driver’s door – carefully, or you could get your nose bashed by the top corner, as happened to one of our testers – and there’s easy access to the well-lit interior, which has a feeling of spaciousness accentuated by the slim pillars and large glass area. Despite the use of hard plastics for the facia, the fittings have a quality look, and the style is unusual, continuing themes from the exterior. The instrument cluster is in a central pod atop the facia, a position not to everyone’s taste. The liquid-crystal display is clear and easy to read, with a large digital speedometer surrounded by a curved strip tachometer, and flanked by fuel and temperature gauges, as well as a readout for the trip computer. Following established Renault practice, oil level is checked electronically at start-up – just as well, since the engine bay is cramped.

As you’d expect from a modern people-mover, there are clever utility features. The star turn is Triptic, a rear bench that can seat three people while offering restricted legroom, or provide a huge amount of space for two (but limited luggage space) by pushing the two outer squab cushions inward, which allows the unit to slide backwards between the rear wheelarches. This also exposes two drinkholders at the sides. The whole unit tumbles forward station-wagon style, providing a large flat load floor, although this moves the front seats forward into a position that tall drivers will find slightly cramped. With the back seat in its rearmost position, the luggage bay took 160 dm3 of our ISO luggage, the capacity rising to 240 dm3 with the seat in its furthest-forward slot. With the back seat tumbled forward, there’s 976 dm3 of load space.

Storage compartments abound… there are lidded stash spaces in the driver’s and frontseat passenger’s footwells, on the top of the facia (our car’s had an illfitting lid), and of course the usual cubby. The test car also had a handy storage bin under the front passenger seat, accessed by raising the cushion, as well as a storage drawer under the driver’s chair.

Comfort and convenience equipment on the Dynamique version includes electric exterior mirrors, electric front windows (with one-touch), air-conditioning, remote central locking and an RDS radio/front-loading CD unit, with remote controls on the steering column. Passive safety equipment includes loadlimited and pretensioned front seatbelts, three rear three-point seatbelts, side impact protection bars in the doors, six airbags (front units for driver and passenger, side bags and curtain bags), a front passenger airbag deactivation switch, and ISOFIX mountings on the front passenger seat and the outer rear seats. The Modus achieved five stars in the EuroNCAP crash test programme, the first supermini to do so.

The seats are mounted high up, and the driver’s offers a good range of adjustment (including height). Our test team found them all extremely comfortable, though some would have liked more side support from the individual front chairs.

Unlike the “card-start” Mégane range, the Modus starts with a conventional Clio-like key. Typically, the test car’s still-tight little four – the car was supplied with the odo reading a little over 200 km, and we only managed to up the total to 740 km by the time the car’s performance- testing slot came up – churned over a few times before firing up and idling very quietly. The revs had to be upped to a couple of hundred above idle to prevent stumbling on take-off, but the unit pulled smoothly and sweetly on the move. Clutch and brake pedal were super-light, the gearshift positive and reasonably slick, and the electric variable-assist power steering had very little feel, although some of the test team came to like it very much after some acclimatisation.

For a mini-MPV, the handling is impressive, and there’s plenty of grip, allowing the front to track true up to quite high limits before plough-on understeer sets in. Ride is super-comfy – among the best in this class – soaking up all but the harshest bumps, and body control is extremely good, instilling plenty of confidence.

Weighing in at a hefty 1 240 kg – 177 kg more than the last Clio 1,4 we tested – the Modus took around 1,8 seconds longer to get to 100 km/h (13,65 seconds), and its 182 km/h top speed fell 8 km/h short of its stablemate’s. But one has to take into account the newness of the engine. In any event, the performance figures are actually slightly better than those of similar high-bodied 1,4s such as the Honda Jazz and Citroën C3.

Although the pedal feels light in normal use, emergency braking is outstanding, the test car averaging 2,93 seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-rest programme without any fade. Fuel economy is reasonable: the Dynamique’s CAR fuel index worked out at 8,24 litres/ 100 km, which gives a potential range – driving briskly – of just under 600 km on the 49-litre tank. But heavy-footed drivers could do worse, as our tank-to-tank measurement of 8,73 litres/100 km showed after some particularly hard use.

Test summary

With its extrovert style and proven Clio mechanicals, the Modus looks set to be a winner. It might not have the biggest load volume in its class – that honour still goes to the Honda Jazz – but it is an attractive and practical high-bodied small hatch. Its ride is superb, safety credentials are top-notch, and pricing – model-for-model roughly a match for the equivalent Clio, as promised – is keen, considering the high level of standard equipment.

Original article from Car