RENAULT has long promoted the cute and cheeky Clio as a fun car, with a fun image.

But the latest version of Renault's runaway best-seller is a bit like a schoolboy getting too big for short trousers: it has now become a wee bit more than a supermini.

Clio III is still very young-at-heart, and will carry whatever va-va voom advertising campaign - Ben and Sophie now, isn't it? - Renault wish to build around it.

The car, though, is also very grown up, and stepping confidently towards Astra and Focus territory, having blossomed beyond Corsa and Fiesta fare.

Clio versions one and two were always a little more than par for the supermini course - you don't sell nine million of them in 14 years without having that certain je ne sais quoi - and here we are in autumn 2005 with the new Clio III presenting an even more formidable package.

The sell-off of the old Clio's final production run is probably the reason why Clio III is available in three-door form only for now, with the five-door version debuting in the UK immediately after Christmas and a RenaultSport version also on the cards for next year.

While the body styling choice might be temporarily limited, the engine range certainly isn't. There are three petrol choices - of 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6 litre sizes - and one diesel, a four-cylinder 1461cc unit that comes in three different power outputs - 68, 86, and 106bhp.

The performance and frugality of the 1.5 litre dCi in 86bhp configuration should make this diesel the subject of more forecourt deals than the other power plants; and of the four trim choices, the Expression, just up from starter Extreme, should do good business, too.

The Expression is followed by Dynamique and Dynamique S, with Clio III prices ranging from £8,895 to £12,650, with the trailed 1.5dCi 86 Dynamique costing a more reasonable £11,150.

The 86bhp diesel flows nicely through all five manual gears, touching 62mph in 12.7 seconds, and rarely needs pushing when under the stress of a full passenger load.

Yet it still returns 64.2 mpg on the overall fuel cycle. With that smoothness comes minimal engine noise intrusion, and this Clio III has a top speed of 108mph.

Handling and ride quality is up quite a few notches from the previous generation Clio, with cabin space the other main beneficiary of Renault's redesign. The little-big car is 21cm longer overall, and taller and wider, too.

Three doors don't seem to matter when rear passengers get the va-va room treatment.

Comfort has also had a major boost - the Clio is now the kind of car you can happily spend a long time in. There are deep, well-padded seat bases, lots of rake on the front chairs for long legs, and sensible adjustment levels.

Common sense has prevailed in dashboard layout - the presentation leans to the basic but lacks nothing for it while still providing the lucky occupants with a range of features such as one-touch electric windows, sports upholstery and body coloured electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors.

Taking in the Clio from the outside, the supermini has more presence, and more front-to-rear styling flair. The French love their little curves, and Clio III's bodywork is no exception.

Safety is award-winning with a variety of airbags, ABS and electronic brake assist on the Dynamique. Security matches that, and the roll-call of kit numbers 60 items -impressive.

Finally, don't be put off by the price tag, which, though it gets steeper with each new generation, actually incorporates a host of extra features which makes the Clio III more like a mini-megane than an average entry into the supermini segment.