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IAIN ROBERTSON

Recovering Renault is making a determined effort to rebuild its product line-up, explains Iain Robertson, and a determination to hit all the right spots might be the most positive business action, without digging too deeply.

 

France used to be a hot bed of design and style evolution. Yet, something happened, which is actually quite hard to pinpoint exactly, that toppled the nation’s enterprises from their pinnacle positions. Personally, I believe that its tacit acceptance of the European idyll is what has worked most strongly against France’s previously proud stance.

 

Most notably, it happened in the food arena; although Gallic chefs have now pulled up their socks, become less lackadaisical and are now racing back to recognition on the culinary front. While the French have seldom been overt and radical in fashion terms, by resorting to prior standards of simplicity and elegance, their design houses are being rejuvenated once more.

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However, France once used to lead in the car scene too. While Peugeot-Citroen and Renault dominate these days, brands as diverse as Panhard, Chenard-Walcker, Venturi, Chapron, Bugatti (now VW Group owned) and Simca have been supplanted by the likes of Ligier, Aixam and the eponymous Microcar. Yet, the Gallic automotive brands still hold around 25% of the entire European new car (and light van) market.

 

While PSA Group, which is responsible for both Peugeot and Citroen marques, has been pursuing a notionally beneficial, albeit Germanic route to survival, Renault has been a little ‘stuck’ in its ‘shakin’ that ass’ ideology of fifteen years ago. Its design boss of the time, Patrick Le Quement, was not just a renowned Anglophile but also penned more than a few radical but stoically French automotive outlines.

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For whatever reason, his services were deemed to be no longer suitable, although his replacement achieved nothing remotely as exciting as his efforts. Intriguingly, Dutchman, Laurens van den Acker, resigned from Mazda and took over the reins at Renault in 2009. He is responsible for both the current Clio and Captur (recent victor in the Caravan Club Towcar of the Year awards) models, as well as the quirky EV, Twizy. While the latter remains something of an anachronism, the small Renaults are a thorough sales success.

 

As you may have read in my test of the most recent Megane, it is clear that his design influence is yet to be felt in the important C-segment and not just a revised Scenic but also a new Megane are set to shake the tree a little in coming months. In the meantime, the vitally important C-segment crossover/SUV combatant is now making its debut. As with every other carmaker worth its salt, not to play in this class is to miss the boat. However, calling your new model Kadjar (pronounced the way it is spelt) might not be the fruitful route to market intended.

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I am told, by the brand manager, Yann Le Graet, who is a Brittany Frenchman (despite the Dutch sounding name) and a Renault enthusiast through and through, that the ‘Kad’ element is a twist on ‘quad’, for going anywhere on four wheels, while ‘Jar’ is a play on ‘jam jar’, or motorcar. It clearly loses something in translation. Enough said.

 

Remove the Renault lozenge from the front grille and the Kadjar could be the ideal photo-fit of any mainstream brand of junior-league 4×4. It possesses shades of Ford Kuga, an inevitable slice of Nissan X-Trail and even elements of Kia, Hyundai and Toyota SUV equivalents. While I might be seeking some more Gallic influences, there aren’t any. Yet, perhaps that is what Renault perceives that it needs to break into a market sector, where it has had no prior traction, if you will pardon the pun?

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As already stated, I feel that a distinct lack of Gallic quirkiness about the Kadjar could be perceived as an error of judgement. For a start, Renault, despite its strategic alliance with Nissan, which has been fairly productive for both firms, ought to be drawing away from its oriental partner and not replicating everything that it does so slavishly. However, the cabin of the Kadjar is very Clio-like; devoid of masses of switchgear, it looks like a very clean and airy design. The instrument binnacle, clad in hide on top-spec Signature versions, sits on a deck of pseudo carbon-fibre but manages to look classy. The minor gauges are digital, as is the centre dial, although a numerical read-out, rather than a proper speedometer, does smack of cheapness.

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The centre console is topped by a programmable touch-screen that is familiar Renault fayre, above which are the centre air-vents and below are the HVAC controls; all very straightforward and uncomplicated. The cabin is moderately spacious, with plenty of leg, hip, shoulder and headroom to meet most requirements and the multi-adjustable driving position is comfortable, supportive and commanding. While I am not a great fan of thick steering wheel rims, at least the Kadjar’s is fairly comfortable, even though its weighty power steering, which is intended to provide a more sporting impression, is artificially heavier than it needs to be.

 

There is a decently sized and proportioned boot in the rear, with some useful below-floor storage slots, while the interior offers a modest amount of carrying space for in-car paraphernalia and a useful grab-handle in the centre console for front seat occupants, even though they are unlikely to find themselves in the mire, so to speak. The car pictured is in Signature Nav 2WD form (4WD adds £1,600 to its £24,795 price tag), powered by a 127bhp version of the company’s most recent 1.6-litre turbo-diesel. Thanks to a healthy slug of torque, the in-gear pull is strong and the car knocks off the 0-60mph benchmark in a decent 10.2 seconds, before topping out at 118mph.

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I also sampled a lesser 1.5dCi model in Dynamique S Nav trim (£22,395), which, apart from the cloth as opposed to leather trim and boasting just 107bhp, is noticeably slower off the mark, although it cruises very sweetly and effortlessly. While it is difficult to tell on an early drive opportunity such as this, I reckon that its fuel return of 54mpg compares favourably with the Official Combined guide figure of 72.4mpg, although a similar return from the 100cc larger unit (OC: 62.8mpg) underscores its marginally greater power-to-weight benefits.

 

Mind you, rated at Group 14E (1.5d), rather than 18E (1.6d) for insurance purposes and a BIK taxable benefit three percentage points lower than the top version’s 18E rating, suggests that fleets might select the lesser model. It would not be a bad choice, as it drives every bit as well as its ‘bigger’ brother, just that it costs fractionally less to live with, even with the drop-off in overall performance.

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Thanks to firmly damped but decent travel suspension, the Kadjar holds its own in dynamic terms. On the testing routes over the high Pennines, close to High Force, the car performed faultlessly. Even mid-corner road surface irregularities did not force it off the chosen line, whether in a power-on, or trailing throttle situations. The build quality is equally faultless, the body possessing superb structural integrity, which ensures that the suspension is able to carry out its task, without complaint. Although refined, the Kadjar is knowingly sporty in its aspirations and manages to impart an impression of dependable grip, minimal body-roll, minimal understeer and the taut handling envelope, which is not normally the preserve of the SUV.

 

Conclusion:     While there is nothing intrinsically sub-standard with the Renault Kadjar, as it performs strongly, is moderately frugal, is priced competitively, is well-built and comfortable, the car leaves me cold. To be fair, this is not an unusual occurrence, as most of the models in this ever-so-popular category do so, with the notable exception of the very attractive Kia Sportage. If you must drive a Renault, then the Kadjar will not disappoint. However, its ‘etch-a-sketch’ looks and dearth of tangible character ensure that it is no worse a proposition than acquiring any of its rivals.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).