First Drive: Renault Brand Experience 2017 image

Today the French brand is the youngest in terms of model line in Europe, having presented novelties such as the facelifted Captur or new Koleos SUV, the 40 kWh Zoe electric hatchback – and even new additions to the Pro+ commercial range.

With Renault deeply invested in both Formula One and Formula E, there’s no shortage of development and progress for the French, and that slowly, but constantly trickles down to production cars. For example, the Zoe ZE now has a larger 40 kWh battery pack we tested, and the maker also revealed in Geneva last month the electric hot hatch Zoe E Sport concept – showing that sportiness and electric, again, make a good marriage (everybody should thank Tesla for showing the world this is the case, after all). The Renault-Nissan group is of course one of the largest supporters and pioneers of the fully-electric mobility – starting with the Twizy and ending up with the Renault Master ZE, as they even have a full commercial electric range now (cargo Twizy, cargo Zoe, Kangoo ZE and Master ZE). The strategy is advancing and we’re eagerly waiting for the next generation Nissan Leaf, which should take cues from the spectacular IDS concept, as well as for the next generation Zoe, which is thought by the rumor mill to share the same platform with the new Leaf when the successor arrives – bringing a switch to the compact class.

Because Renault has had a string of novelties lately, they decided to treat the press to a full day of trials – and we got to preview the Captur facelift and new Koleos on static display, among others. No worries, we’ll be reviewing them soon as they reach the European markets. More so, we even got to experience some of the newest technologies from the commercial range – Extended Grip, Renault X-Track and Renault Master 4×4, but more on that later. Interestingly, we can tell you the Traffic and Master vans were easily one of the “exciting” parts of the on and off-track activities of the day. The program also included the new Megane GT dCi, as well as track trials of the Clio RS 220 Trophy and competition-grade Clio Cup. But first things first, let’s talk electric mobility – because let’s face it, we need to look forward towards the future.

Renault Zoe ZE 400 – Electric range is everything
Before going out on the road for the trials with the new Zoe version, a few ideas about the Captur and Koleos. The two models feature at the either end of the SUV spectrum for the brand, and we should talk about the Elephant in the room first – the midsize Koleos. We all know that in Europe the first generation was unsuccessful and this is why it’s take so long for Renault to come up with a successor – which is actually not a direct one. The first Koleos was a compact SUV, succeeded now by the Kadjar crossover, whereas the second generation Koleos is a midsize SUV, coming as the flagship in the crossover lineup just as the Talisman is the range-topping passenger car offering. While the Koleos – presented last year in China – is going to make its best case there, in the world’s largest auto market, we could see it having a measure of success in Europe as well, thanks to the hardy appearance combined with the latest design elements of the corporate styling – it’s easy to see the Talisman and Koleos sitting next to each other.

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More importantly, Renault has also updated its offering in the subcompact crossover segment – the Captur. Since we’re dealing with the best-selling European model in the segment, it’s easy to grasp the care that Renault took when refining the model. The word “refine” is suitable here – because the Captur is subtly enhanced, with more personalization choices, better technology such as full LED headlights and additional equipment. There are also high-tech touches – such as the “Blind Spot Warning” and “Easy Park Assist” systems.

On to the Zoe now, which is basically Renault’s response – within the confines of its affordability motto and those of the segment it resides in – to the arrival of long-range electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt/Opel Ampera-e and Tesla Model 3. While not competing directly with them – those are compact cars – we can see Renault promptly enhancing its technology and almost doubling the capacity of the battery pack without actually extending its size. This shows the battery technology is on its way to maturity and we can now have more confidence that bigger advances will be made – to the point where EVs will be able to compete directly with ICE (internal combustion engine) models at least in terms of range. It’s going to be interesting to see how Renault fares when the next generation Leaf and Zoe against the Bolt/Ampera-e and Model 3, while for now offering a direct and basically without any competition in the price range model that has a sizeable autonomy. The Zoe ZE 40 has a NEDC range of 400 km – but Renault is also keen to point out the real-world autonomy is more in the lines of 300km. By the way, the test day was a colder than usual spring day and as such the range suffered even more – there’s still much work to do with electrics, especially in terms of extreme temperature variation, which today has a major influence over range performance.

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Still, driving the Zoe ZE showed why it’s the top choice in Europe in the segment. First off, while it’s a little more oriented towards ladies than you care to admit in terms of design that’s not something to hold it against the Zoe – after all, the name says it all. More importantly, the fluid lines don’t abscond the fact that it’s actually more practical than the Clio – although the two share lots of components. The Zoe is taller than a Clio and as such the most benefit is for the rear passengers, which enter and exit easier and also get more headroom. There are no observable differences between the regular and the 41 kWh version of the Zoe, not from outside (save for subtle badges) and not from the inside, except that your battery meter is going to show more than the 240 NEDC / 170 Renault range – the figures should go up to as high as 400 km NEDC / 300 from Renault. While it’s naturally going to be more expensive than the standard 22 kWh version which remains in production, the advantages trump the price difference – you get the enhanced autonomy and LG Chem’s battery pack actually charges during the exact same time, while the Quick Charge function takes care of fast-charging point access.

Driving the electric Zoe – even in this new, enhanced version, doesn’t feel remotely as if going to find new worlds in a space ship. Renault’s success with the Zoe might be just that – it feels exactly like a normal car, a feeling enhanced by the dashboard, with the central part inspired by the one in the Clio. You do get a fully digital instrument cluster, but that’s become the norm these days. So, save for having an eerie silence until you switch the infotainment system on, there’s nothing to fret when going in this electric. By the way, as many people know, it’s not entirely silent – you do get a buzzing sound, though it only sometimes reminds you of the electric trolley buses of childhood. This is because unlike other electrics, which can be very intrusive on the deceleration process to enhance brake regeneration, the Zoe is by far… very mild. In the normal driving mode you get regeneration, but you’re not going to feel it much, with the system becoming more obvious if you switch to the Eco setting. You won’t do that very often though, because the “gear-less” powertrain provides you with the torque instantly, and you’ll enjoy using it. More judgement on the new Zoe 40 we’ll reserve when on a normal review, especially in terms of range habits.

Renault Pro+ – Extended commercial mobility
The encompassing program with Renault also featured on track trials of some of its models, but we’ll let the sporty ones do the “talking” a bit later. While we don’t usually test commercial vehicles here, the scenario was interesting enough to warrant a try. Next to the track is an autodrome with a not so mild off-road course, and since rain was stubbornly joining us for the experience the commercial vehicle program quickly turned into a muddy adventure. Renault wanted to show us the latest additions to its technologies here – Extended grip, a system offered on the Kangoo, Traffic and Master, and the new X-Track (again for all) and Master 4×4 version. First off, the new X-Track is an official aftermarket transformation made by Poclain Véhicules, and it’s designed for 4×2 vehicles – in a bid to enhance their worthiness on rougher terrains. We experimented just that – a degraded route – and it was all fun in the name of work. The system includes a limited slip differential, a raised suspension, added underbody protection and M+S tires as a standard fitment. With the X-Track you can reach a rural community for example – deliver supplies to them and when coming back empty play a little rally-style. Just a thought.

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Even more proficient is the new Master 4×4, the result of a partnership with Oberaigner Automotive, a German specialist with AWD. You get a new panel in the central stack to switch from 4×2 to AWD when the rough gets rougher. Beyond that there’s even more you can do – the model also has a demultiplier, so going up or down steep muddy hills becomes a child’s play – even if the driver is not familiar with the basics of off-roading. Of course, the suspension is again modified – sitting 65 mm higher up front and 58 mm at the rear axle. Protection is also included, as are the mud and snow tires.

Renault Motorsport – Speed for the masses
The French company told us they are involved since four decades ago into the world of Formula One – and we remember when they revolutionized the motorsport by taking up the turbo. Everything else is history afterwards – more than 600 GPs, 168 victories with 12 titles for the Constructor and 11 for pilots. And we also remember when they decided to slap silly every hot hatch fan with the introduction of the Clio V6 back in 2001 – a great Porsche-like widowmaker… And the parallel isn’t accidental, the Phase 2 Clio V6 that appeared in 2003 was the most powerful serial produced hot hatch in the world at the time with 255 bhp (190 kW), the extra performance coming with assistance from Porsche. Today the brand’s motto, “Passion for life” makes way to more mainstream products – with the company clearly looking to setup the RS sports division much in the way BMW or Mercedes do with M and AMG. The best example is the Megane GT, which is made with input from Renault Sport and even has a unique characteristic for the segment – steering back wheels. We met the latest evolution of the sporty hatch – the Megane GT dCi. The model snatches the highest level 1.6-liter dCi version that can be found in the Talisman for example – the biturbo unit comes with 165 horsepower, which is even a tad more than on the Espace or Talisman. Throw into the mix the 4Control four-wheel steering and six-speed EDC dual clutch automatic transmission and you have an affordable, efficient hatchback that will be a great companion for low travels… to the Nurburgring, for example.

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Since it’s labeled as a GT, you’re not going to get the same sharp, sometimes bitey feeling you’ll get into the Clio RS 220 Trophy, which is a statement to how well the chassis works with this turn-in angle adjustment of the rear wheels. With the track wet, the Megane GT remained composed on every turn. But switch to the feisty RS – and forget about the EDC thanks to the steering-wheel paddles – and you’ll get a workout. There’s a fine balance, you’re easily going to put better times than in the GT, even with that diesel torque, but cross the line and hope you remembered not to switch off the ESC. And then this was all just preparation for the main track event – a few laps in the Clio Cup. Here, no mistakes were allowed – fortunately the track is already well known since we warmed up in the other sporty models. Here, once you get strapped in, the motorsport feeling is poignant – and the Clio Cup is actually a rather inexpensive way of having access to this wondrous world. By the way, although still very much FWD, the Clio Cup can be mastered into a rear-happy car if you know what you’re doing (though experimented is advised without too much spectators, because you’ll get the hang of it after mandatory spin-arounds). Everything inside is like in a fully-fledged racer – and you forget it’s a tiny subcompact hatch the starting point – including the sequential gearbox. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are off the chart and you’ll love the smell of gasoline (maybe that was only in my had, since actual smell of gasoline would have made the support team come running) – along with the hard brake, the great exhaust noise and the bobs coming from each gear change. And it’s done the right way – minus one gear forward, up one gear backward – every automaker doing a manual gate for their automatics take notice, this is the correct way of doing it. At the end, we also had the great laps seated in the co-pilot’s chair when expert pilots from Renault Sport showed us the proper way of getting around the track. Fun, indeed.