Renault chooses the softest options for its entry to the SUV market

Wed, Aug 27, 2008, 01:00

Entering an already crowded SUV market, Renault's new Koleos failed to make a strong impression in the sector, writes Michael McAleer, Motoring Editor

IT'S LIKE the tardy guest at a dinner party who arrives just as you're clearing up. Doesn't Renault know that being seen in an SUV these days is about as popular as waving a Union Jack down the Falls Road on Bloody Sunday?

One thing is clear from the start: Renault's Koleos is not going to resurrect the SUV market in Western Europe. It's the answer to a request from Renault dealers, rather than customers.

We've yet to meet the avid Renault fan who was chomping at the bit for an SUV, but wouldn't look to any other brand to sate their desire.

We have, however, heard of frustrated Renault sales staff crying out for something resembling an SUV that they could offer to customers who were leaving the brand for models like the Hyundai Santa Fe or Toyota's RAV4.

The Asians had tapped this market well, in every slot and format of SUV from the diminutive Nissan Qashqai to the all-conquering Toyota LandCruiser.

Europeans, on the other hand, largely thought it was a flash in the pan so tried to ignore it for several years. They gave into temptation in recent years, but the heady days of 30 per cent rises in SUV sales seem a distant memory.

This market is rapidly maturing and, particularly in what are referred to as compact SUVs - glorified hatchbacks set higher off the ground - the market is bursting at the seams.

We counted 16 direct soft-roader rivals to the Koleos in roughly the same price bracket. With such a crowded market, what the French really needed to do was call upon their innovative design team to come up with a striking new car that was so beautiful and distinctive that even those who frown on SUV ownership desired one.

Sadly that has not come to pass.

On the outside, the new Koleos, while in no ways ugly, is not distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd.

It's hard to get recognition that it's either new or a Renault. This, remember, is from the company that is about to give us the sharp-looking new Megane, the upcoming Laguna Coupé and has been brave enough in the past to introduce the Vel Satis and Avantime.

All of these cars show a daring design spirit alive and well, something we look for from the French marques.

They should be risqué.

Instead, the front of the car may carry the Renault badge, but the rest seems cut from the same pattern as a dozen other Asian soft roaders. The promise of early concept versions has been lost in the production process.

That's a pity for a car firm whose DNA seems to be comfort and design, with a touch of sporting prowess that's often ignored on the Irish market.

In its defence, this car fits with what seems to be Renault's message to Ireland: a French brand for the family. That's a good message, well maintained by their road safety marketing theme.

However, it makes nothing of the brand's pedigree in motor sports, and it completely ignores its well-earned reputation for avant-garde design.

The good news is that inside, the cabin is comfortable and the controls are regular Renault fare, from the card key and start button to the well-positioned radio controls.

Awash with stowage areas and electronics such as cruise control, speed limiter, dual zone air-con, the only gripe we would have is that the chrome line surrounding the central console stretches up on to the dash in an Opel-like loop that reflects on to the windscreen, and is an annoying distraction.

Overall, it's smart and ergonomically sound. It's not the usual hard, rough plastic fare you usually find in soft roaders that want to look tough even if they are not.

It's a much better place to be than most of its rivals. It's honed for comfort.

In fact that's the overall impression you get from this car: comfort.

Far from a rough or rugged SUV, this looks like a dozen other soft roaders on the outside while the inside gives the impression of a typical family hatchback, albeit a very well-equipped one.

So kudos to Renault on the interior, but the praise doesn't stretch to the drive.

Comfort for the French seems to be related to softness. That works well on seat cushions, but not so much when it comes to driving.

The steering and suspension reflects that softness in ways that may be welcomed by many motoring Francophiles.

French cars were designed to carry eggs across rutted fields unbroken, to keep their occupants in a state of slumber, like travelling on a well sprung mattress. It has its fans, but it's not to everyone's taste.

In modern cars we like a little more control, and for us it's a little too soft and squishy, lacking the sort of direct and responsive feel we seek. The steering feels too neutral. It's not so much about driving the Koleos as being carried along.

On a more positive note, the 2.0-litre diesel engine with 150bhp is well able to haul the Koleos along, proving particularly nippy around town and well able to stretch its legs on motorway runs.

It's a good unit that was well chosen for the car, which weighs in at nearly 1,700kg. It's also pretty fuel efficient, but the CO2 figures could be better for road tax reasons.

If you're okay with being hauled along without strong driving dynamics, then the Koleos could be the soft roader for you.

Then again, if you want that sort of feeling, why would you not opt for a Megane or Laguna? This car, particularly in two-wheel-drive variants, isn't going off-road and it doesn't look distinctive enough to buy for the design.

Finally, the pricing seems out of tune with the rest of this segment.

Renault no doubt benchmarked cars like the Hyundai Santa Fe when they were making clay mock-ups of the Egeus concept vehicle that was the first draft of the Koleos.

The problem is that the Santa Fe - and several competitors - have moved on from then, incorporating seven seats and some extra features. The Koleos is priced within the €40,000 range of these cars, but without the added extras and it also faces several similar rivals priced in the early to mid-€30,000 range.

Two of particular note are the Ford Kuga and Mitsubishi Outlander.

The Koleos will no doubt be welcomed by those who demanded its creation: the Renault dealers.

It's less clear-cut for customers.

With a rather dull exterior, unimaginative drive and relatively uncompetitive price, it doesn't make a compelling case for itself.

Engine:1995cc four-cylinder 16-valve common-rail diesel engine putting out 150bhp @ 4,000rpm and 320Nm of torque @ 2,000rpm.

Specifications:Standard features on Dynamique versions are: folding 60/40-split rear seat to form flat floor; split opening tailgate; underfloor stowage in boot; start/stop button; four-speaker radio-CD with fingertip remote control; cruise control with speed limiter; front and rear parking sensors; 17" alloys; leather steeringwheel and gear lever knob; cloth upholstery (leather optional); foglights; electric parking brake; ABS with electronic brake distribution; auto dual zone climate control; driver and front passenger airbags; auto front wipers. Options include; Bose stereo system (€1,200); ESP on Dynamique versions (€600). ESP then allows options of Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist.

L/100km (mpg): urban:9 (31.4); extra-urban: 6.1 (46.3); combined: 7.2 (39.2)

CO2 emissions:191g/km

Tax bands:VRT: 32 per cent; annual road tax: €1,000

Price:€38,490