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Renault’s Austral oozes Frenchness and likeable oddness

The Austral’s hybrid system makes some weird noises, but it’s far from boring

Renault Austral

Renault is seriously hedging its hybrid bets. You see, this new Austral SUV replaces the old, popular and generally pretty mediocre Kadjar. To do so, it has a new platform underneath, the Renault-Nissan CMF-CD platform if you enjoy behind-the-scenes engineering codes. That means that it shares a platform and basic engineering with the Nissan Qashqai e-Power.

The e-Power is a pretty good hybrid, using its electric motor for power all the time, and only switching its 1.5-litre petrol engine on when it needs to top up the tiny on-board battery. It’s more of a range-extender, really, and it works pleasantly, smoothly and mostly very quietly.

Nah, not for us, said the Renault engineers when it came to creating the Austral’s hybrid system. Cocking a classically French snook at the entirely excellent Japanese engineering that was right in front of them, Renault’s people went their own hybrid way. So, the Austral uses a 1.2-litre turbo three-cylinder petrol engine coupled to an electric motor capable of adding 205Nm of torque to proceedings.

So it’s a regular hybrid then, like a Toyota? Well, not quite. You see the Renault set-up uses an unconventional clutch-less automatic, which theoretically offers seven speeds, but which can provide as many as 15 different ratios depending on how it juggles its internal bits and bobs. This is all well and good, but it can add some odd and occasional jerks and herks to progress.


Stranger still is the engine. Because the Austral’s hybrid system battery is actually pretty large (1.7kWh, big for a non-plug-in hybrid) it can drive around for quite some time on just electric power, which is great. Better still, at low speeds the engine can – Nissan style – be switched on to act as a generator, topping up the battery without actually driving the wheels. Neat. Except it’s incredibly noisy. So noisy that the first time it happened I actually worried that I’d broken the car. Or that a Cessna 172 was somehow hovering, in mid-flight, just by my passenger door.

Thankfully neither was the case, but you will have to become used to an occasional pronounced drone when the engine kicks in.

Renault Austral

Such niggles have been known to utterly spoil a new car for me but the good news is that the rest of the Austral is so good that I was able to put that engine noise issue mostly to one side.

The interior is a belter, for a start. Our test car was a pricey (€54,020 as tested) Esprit Alpine model, as Renault tries to spread some of the fairy dust from its (glorious) sports car and (misfiring) Formula One brand to its everyday cars.

That expense does show, though. The seats are gorgeously comfortable affairs, clad in a high-tech mixture of suede and soft-touch material, with neat little French tricolours sewn into the seams. The squared-off steering wheel feels great to hold, while the big 9.3-inch central touchscreen is a joy to use, thanks to the cleverness of the Google-based software. You can even sign in with your own Google account and have all of your regular destinations saved in the excellent Google Maps navigation.

Space in the back is better than decent, albeit not quite as out and out roomy as you’ll find in a Qashqai (it’s also a little darker back there, thanks to shallower side glass) but the boot has a generous 555-litre volume, so it’s certainly a practical car.

Renault Austral

Up front, there are two big storage bins in the centre console, one with cupholders, and you move the sliding lid that covers them back and forth with a large handle that looks like the throttle control from Thunderbird 2. It’s hilariously over-engineered, which does tend to show up some of the cheaper cabin items. The start-stop button is laughably cheap-looking, for example.

The Austral is also rather more entertaining to drive than you might expect. High-end versions, such as this one, come with 4Control four-wheel steering, which not only makes the Austral enjoyably more manoeuvrable in tight car parks, but it can also help steer the back of the car around when negotiating hairpin corners. It doesn’t quite fell like the rear-end is sliding, rally-car-style, but it doesn’t feel totally unlike that either.

There are a couple of downsides, though. For all the low-speed nimbleness of the four-wheel steering system, at higher speeds the Austral just doggedly understeers like any other medium SUV/crossover. The 20-inch wheels fitted to our car are too much for the springs and dampers to deal with, so the ride became too firm at times. And the engine, once again, proves a weak link with initial electric-boosted urgency fading quickly to become almost breathlessness as you ask for acceleration up long motorway inclines. It is economical, though. If you don’t pretty easily match our recorded 5.3-litre per 100km fuel economy, I’d be surprised (although the official 4.6-litres per 100km may be out of reach).

It’s a slightly odd car, and I think that might be why I like it. There are rivals that have much smoother, more silent hybrid set-ups and chassis responses that are rather more consistent. Which is fine and everything, but those rival cars – the likes of the Qashqai, the Hyundai Kona and Tucson, the Kia Sportage – are all pretty dull. The Austral, with its occasionally moaning engine, its mobilised rear wheels, its gorgeous cabin and its permeating sense of Frenchness, is just much more appealing. It’s a midsized crossover that manages not to be boring, both through qualities and quirks. I like it a lot. You may well not, but that’s the beauty of these things.

Lowdown: Renault Austral E-Tech Hybrid Esprit Alpine

Power 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol with hybrid assistance matched to seven-speed automatic transmission putting out 200hp and 205Nm of torque (plus 205Nm electric motor torque) through the front wheels.

0-100km/h 8.4 seconds

Official L/100km 4.6-5.0

Emissions 105g/km

Motor tax €180

Price €54,020 as tested (Austral starts at €45.295)

Our rating 3/5

Our verdict An odd, deeply odd, car in places but overall it’s rather appealing

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring