FRENCH MARQUES SEEM to be leading the way in the super-mini market, with Peugeot's innovative 1007 garnering praise for its cyclist-friendly sliding side doors, funky interior and flexible layout. French competitor Renault has launched its own mini-MPV contender in the shape of the Modus, a scaled-down version of the successful Scenic MPV.
In many ways, the Modus is a Scenic in miniature, bearing a close resemblance to its larger sibling from the front to begin with. Inside, and up front in particular, it has the feeling of a bigger car with an impressive amount of space and head room, helped by a thoughtfully ergonomic interior and panoramic sunroof that helps make the cabin feel so airy.
Renault has pulled out all the stops optimising the cabin space, managing even to squeeze some extra load space over the Peugeot 1007's 967-litre maximum boot capacity with the rear bench folded flat, within a similar footprint. Like the 1007, however, there's not so much room for your supermarket bags with the seats in their usual arrangement, but there is the welcome addition of a handy 'boot chute' - a split rear tailgate - making it easier to dump your shopping in a hurry if it starts to rain.
The Modus sticks to a traditional 4-door sedan set-up - no sliding doors here - but Renault has adopted the innovative flexible seating arrangement popularised by the Opel Meriva, with the rear bench folding flat, or sliding back to afford two passengers more legroom, or converting to a passably comfortable three-seater with a flick of the wrist.
Inside, there's a sensible beige-and-black interior and matching dashboard, hiding a full complement of tricks: switches adjusting the dual sunroof; a 6-CD player with fingertip control mounted on the driver's column; air-con switches and a decent-sized glove compartment.
Two of the six airbags are concealed here (the 1007 boasts seven) as are the switches to turn them off - handy in a prang when parking. But with wheels in every corner and large, bat-eared, blind-spot-reducing mirrors this shouldn't be a problem as all-round visibility in the Modus is excellent.
Gloucester Road on a wet Monday morning in commuter traffic is probably not everyone's idea of a fun drive but it's as good a place as any to try out the Modus. Around the rain-soaked streets of Wan Chai, the mini-MPV feels chunky and planted, stopping comfortably at pedestrian crossings thanks to its ABS/EBD set-up, and with all that glass around it's easy to spot trouble up ahead.
Like the Peugeot test drive last May, it lacked a little steam up Garden Road, with both 1.6-litre engines requiring a heavy right foot to push through the perceptible lag between notches in their automatic gearboxes (drive-trains in contemporary Japanese offerings seem smoother and quieter than their French counterparts). Switching to the semi-manual mode of the Modus gave a faster response to gear changes up steep inclines and made the drive up to the Peak a whole lot easier.
On paper, the Modus and the little Peugeot aren't far apart. Like the 1007, Renault has achieved a Euro NCAP (European new car assessment programme) 5-star safety rating as it did with the Scenic and Megane, and both cars are equally powered (around 110bhp), have similar dimensions and a list of features as standard for a price tag under HK$180,000.
The 1007 may be a hard act to follow, with that safety-conscious side door making the standard sedan layout look all the more dated. Yet the Modus' emissions are kinder to the environment and although more expensive than the Toyota Yaris (HK$129,000) or Honda Jazz (from HK$127,800), there's more interior space in the European marques, with both French runabouts topping the rankings in terms of safety, sturdiness and (arguably) style.
So, making a choice between the two French contenders may come down to a matter of personal taste. The Modus represents a good buy coming in HK$25,000 cheaper than the trendy 1007 which is funkier with its choice of 12 different interior styles. With the Modus, beige makes a comeback - if you don't mind that, you'll be picking up a versatile super-mini that's as safe as anything available in Hong Kong today.
At a glance: Renault Modus 1.6
What drives it? A 1,598cc, 16-valve, 113bhp four-cylinder engine with a 4-speed automatic gearbox with semi-manual mode, riding on 15-inch alloys.
How fast is it? 113 brake-horsepower at 6,000rpm, and 151Nm of torque at 4,250rpm, making 0-100km/h in 12.3 seconds, and reaching a top speed of 184km/h.
How safe is it? It has front lateral and curtain airbags, front and rear side-impact protection bars, anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD) with brake assist (BA).
How thirsty is it? Renault says: urban, 10.4 litres per 100km; extra urban, 6.2 litres; combined, 7.7 litres.
Hong-Kong friendly? According to Renault, the Modus puts out 163g/km CO2, the fug equivalent of about 1.3 Smart ForTwos.
Availability: HK$159,000 from Wearnes Motors (HK) - Renault. Tel: 2927 3538