New car test: Renault Austral: Broad Spectrum

The new Renault SUV replaces both the Kadjar and the Espace. It definitely has a few assets in store to achieve it. Its style is restrained and elegant, the interior is pretty modern and welcoming, not to mention the now compulsory hybrid engines that are in tune with the times. However, how does it drive ?

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The Austral exterior lines might not be the last word in automotive design but we are quite pleased Renault selected such a classic looking style. Even more so when we think about some German brands’ latest offerings. The design is rather cohesive and oozes solidity and strength,   the big 20 inch wheels reinforcing it even more. Up front, the distinctive Renault C-shaped light signature is there while LEDs with micro-optical technology ensure the car’s rear end cohesiveness. We tested « Esprit Alpine » cars, a somewhat questionable novelty that reminds us of the « Gordini line » Renault offered a few years ago. Once again, no sportiness involved here, it’s rather a neat packaging that uses some satin grey colour to the best effect in combination with a black roof. Some exterior details and the wheel design are specific, too.

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A soothing interior

Getting into the new Austral doesn’t need you to be a compter expert to cope with all the on-board screens. We were delighted to find the OpenR screen is carried over the Mégane E-Tech. It combines two generously sized « L-shaped » digital screens (12″3 for the speedometer and 9 or 12″ for the central touch screen one, according to the trim level). The combo remains distinctive while being ergonomically sound and keeping physical switches for the aircon. The dashboard display can be customized through five menus (fuel consumption, tyre pressure, journey data, eco-monitor and music) as well as eight colours. The Renault Austral stands out from the crowd of its competitors, materials and fit and finish being up there with the category’s best. Our test model was the top-of-the-range Iconic Esprit Alpine, clad in Alcantara. It definitely shows Renault learned from the Kadjar’s relative lack of success . The Alpine version also features Alpine Blue stitching, an embroidered logo on the headrests and a discreet blue/white/red flag inserted into the seats’ interior side seams. A Nappa leather steering wheel with Alcantara inserts is also highlighted in blue. Renault also brags about the centre console sliding handrest, something we don’t see as highly relevant. However, the Austral 16 cm sliding rear seat and the adjustable rear seat backrest are among its most distinctive features. Boot volume ranges from 575 to 1525 dm³.

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What’s under the bonnet ? The engine!

Tech freaks rejoice! The Austral is only available with hybrid internal combustion engines. The entry level engine is a brand new 3-cylinder 1200 cc lump. It is hooked to a 48V battery and a starter-alternator which supports the engine when it starts and accelerates. It develops 130 bhp and 230 Nm torque and uses exclusively an automatic gearbox. You can also choose a mild hybrid 4-cylinder 1300 cc engine This one uses a 12V battery and is also assisted by a starter-alternator. It was a shared development with Daimler and produces 160 hp and 270 Nm torque. This one is hooked to a  (fictious) 7-speed CVT automatic transmission is a (fictitious). The top of the range most powerful version is a full hybrid combining the new 3-cylinder 1200 cc petrol engine with an electric motor that is both both more powerful and torquier (50 kW and 205 Nm) than Renault‘s previous model. The transmission is a new clever unit combining two gears for the electric motor and four gears for the combustion engine. There are no less than 15 different combinations available ! This new gearbox will be a major improvement with higher torque values (up to 410 Nm compared to 350 for the first generation), better power, efficiency and comfort. The 200 HP E-Tech full hybrid engine will take just 5″6 to accelerate from 80 to 120 km/h, thanks to its 350 Nm torque. The Austral gets no less than 32 driving aids that can be divided into 3 categories: driving, parking and safety.

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Trodding along rather than hopping

We drove the Alpine Spirit 200 HP over a 150 km testing route. Unlike some of our colleagues, we were not fooled by the logos scattered all around this SUV. Sportiness is definitely not the name of the game here. The Austral was not slow and always remained composed but any overtaking manœuvre should have you thinking twice well in advance. Even more so that we experienced some throttle hesitation doing so. That’s the kind of detail that takes up a journalist’s tortuous mind but we’re not sure an average driver would notice it. Today’s drivers being more focused on their smartphones’ screen than on their car’s behaviour, it is doubtful they would ever complain about the system’s lack of responsiveness when switching from ride mode to power mode under a flick of the throttle. The problem should soon be solved, according to the Renault people we spoke to.  Some algorithm should be modified to favour the dynamic mode over the eco one. Regarding driving modes, our test car also featured the famous « Multi-Sense Adavanced » with three different driving modes and a customizable one. The Eco mode was really too lazy but we didn’t notice many differences between the Comfort and Sport modes. However, we would probably have been the first to grumble if the steering set up had been too firm… those hacks are definitely never happy !

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Bluffing agility

Our top-of-the-range test car featured the 4Control Advanced system. It is a third-generation four-wheel steering system that improves contact between the wheels and the road, thanks to a specific rear axle. Above all, it allows the car to turn easily in tight spaces, like a… Clio. We experienced it first hand as the Kadjar we tested forced us to reverse in an hairpin whereas the Austral managed to get through it in one go. The suspension set up is quite firm but remains gentle and the car swallowed up the miles very smoothly. Safety aids are not too intrusive and work through switches located on the dashboard (to the left of the steering wheel) or on the steering wheel itself. Both front and back seats were obviously very comfortable too . In Belgium, the price list starts from € 31.800 (for a mild hybrid 130 HP with a manual gearbox in « Equilibre » trim) and goes up to € 44.200 (« Iconic Esprit Alpine » 200 hp with an auto box). The MHEV 160 HP with auto box in « Techno » trim is priced from 35.400€.

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We didn’t mention fuel consumption as it’s always difficult to measure while driving on unknown roads. However, we averaged about 6.4 l/100 km, without even trying to get it as low as possible. We’ll wait to test the car on some of our usual test roads to be more accurate on fuel consumption. However, the Austral is an excellent and nicely designed car. Fit and finish are pretty good and should please most punters, even some really hard plastics can be found in the lower parts of the interior. Its hybrid powertrain is bang up to date and makes it nice to drive with nice feelings, even if some throttle responsiveness problems occasionally plagued overtaking manoeuvres. As we said, these should be solved very quickly. The icing on the cake is a reasonable waiting time, Renault officials mentionning about just two to three months before delivery… (Translation: Dimitri Urbain)

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