JUST when I thought I’d identified all the danger signs of advancing age – less hair on top, more out the ears, a default cynicism setting – I learn there’s a new concern to navigate: inveterate SUV ownership.
Okay, I use the term ‘ownership’ lightly, but the fact remains: for someone not fundamentally a devotee of SUVs, I seem to be incapable of escaping them. For me it started in 2014 with Holden’s unlovable Trax; progressed through two variations of quite agreeable Nissan Qashqais, and paused recently after an eight-month stint in Hyundai’s top-spec diesel Tucson.
Now, for this closet rear-drive-wagon lover, it’s back to SUV business as usual. In comes the top-spec Renault Koleos, called Intens, featuring an atmo 2.5-litre petrol four hooked to a CVT transmission and switchable all-wheel drive. It’s priced at $43,490, with our Meissen Blue paint ($600) the only option fitted. (Solid white is the only colour that doesn’t attract an extra charge.)
So the total of $44,090 (or $48,590 driveaway in NSW) makes it a few grand cheaper than my previous Tucson Highlander diesel, but about line-ball with a turbo-petrol Highlander, which is a closer mechanical match. So you’d presume some buyers would cross-shop the two, given the similarity in price, size, and general application.
The next few months will be instructive, then, in terms of evaluating how well Renault has nailed the medium-SUV brief by using the current Nissan X-Trail as platform and powertrain donor.
My first impressions are that the exterior design by Anthony Low (overseen by Laurens van den Acker) has plenty of nice touches, but isn’t quite as chiselled and masculine as the Tucson. I like the semi-clamshell bonnet design, and the lighting treatment, both front and rear, is properly distinctive at night. No visible tailpipe is a curious touch, but the non-functional side vents on the front doors seem a bit of an indulgent affectation. On a more practical level, the rear doors open nice and wide to present a generous aperture to passengers climbing in there, and the black cladding around the exterior edges offers a bit of protection from life’s scrapes.
Ah, but the interior... Sliding inside the Koleos’s cabin is like entering a rich world of luxury compared to the Tucson. My Hyundai may have been the top-spec Highlander, and a mostly admirable SUV, but I’m sure there are cells in Guantanamo Bay with a less austere ambience.
Not so the Koleos, which immediately seduces with proper leather seats (heated and ventilated, but no memory position) an iPad-sized multimedia touch screen (the functionality of which I’ll get to later) and a central TFT instrument display that can be configured into a choice of four displays. The wheel is attractive and nicely tactile, even if the left-side buttons do present an initial challenge in terms of functionality and logic.
A big plus for me (especially compared to the Hyundai Tucson) is the solid-sounding Bose audio system, (see sidebar above) and DAB tuner. I’m also appreciating the glass roof on overcast days, the powered tailgate, and the provision of remote releases for the rear backrests in the cargo compartment (another annoying oversight in the Tucson).
The only ergonomic gripe I can manage at this point is the driver’s seat doesn’t go sufficiently low, and its base is not long enough to provide full under-thigh support.
So, at this point you may be thinking, “Hmm, this bloke is less of a first-world whinger than I recall...” But ... not so fast. Did you read about Koleos’s struggles at Car of the Year last month? If so, no spoiler alert is needed: the moment the driving moves from undemanding urban trundling, the Renault’s challenges begin.
Let’s talk next month.
According to Australia’s Central Agency for Protecting Us from Ourselves, powerful cars are dangerous cars.
They need to be kept out of the hands of young or inexperienced drivers. A P-plater in NSW, for example, can only drive a car with less than 130kW/tonne.
Sounds fair, right? Give a P-plater a V8 or turbo and he’ll wrap himself around a power pole quicker than you and your wife can be tasered for sharing a bottle of bubbly at a zero-alcohol vantage point on New Years Eve. It’s logic, people. Don’t argue.
So sure, I checked my brain at the door and I’m on board. But what about not-so-fast cars? After a few overtaking attempts in the Koleos this month, I’m thinking I would be way safer with an extra 200Nm and a CVT that didn’t make it sound like there’s a Nutribullet behind the firewall.
My first experience was admittedly uphill, with a couple of teenagers on board, the excellent air-con cranking and the ventilated front seats wafting a cooling raft into my back.
But the truck was labouring at 60km/h in an 80 zone, so naturally I pulled into the right lane to pass, and pinned it to the boards.
Then I sat there. And sat some more. As the Nutribullet made frantic, strained whirring sounds, the truckie glanced down with a mix of wonderment and pity, as we had ample time for eye contact. In the rear-view mirror, I swear I saw an octogenarian on a Honda step-thru jammed up my clacker, shaking her gnarled little fist at me to get out of the passing lane.
Okay, I’m kidding, but not by much. The Nissan X-Trail-sourced 2.5-litre atmo four needs 4400rpm to arrive at its 226Nm point of peak twist, meaning there are not a whole lot of Newton metres in the zone you really need them.
The only way to drive around this issue is to flick the shifter to the left to grab manual mode, and thankfully this forces the CVT into some semblance of gear-holding co-operation, and even gives the preferred push-to-downshift configuration. I push a lot.
On the upside, it’s made my driving style ultra predictive: I’m flicking over into manual mode like a cornered ninja; I’m plucking ratios fore and aft like I’m in some speed-croupier competition in the Las Vegas Hilton.
My partner just rolls her eyes and tries to pretend she’s in a relationship with some normal, relaxed, non-journo dude, and turns up the excellent Bose audio.
At least she tries to, but the fiddly plus-and-minus volume touch points on the multimedia screen occasionally attempt to thwart this. That’s my cue to use my left hand to grab gears while my right fingers dance on the volume pod behind the steering wheel; simultaneously tweaking the rotating track-finder wheel.
And get this: I steer, too, while all this is happening. Yep, the Koleos is instilling in me mad multi-tasking skills I had no idea I could master. See? There’s always a bright side.
OCCASIONALLY things go tits-up on a Wheels road test. The severity can differ, of course. I recall one really terrible one; the time at a cafe in some Hicksville town in central
NSW where Jimmy Whitbourn learned from the ‘chef’ that the allegedly freshly caught ocean trout was, in fact, from a river. A table was upended in fury that day. Then there was the Bathurst Disaster of 2011, when Thomas Wielecki, aka World’s Pickiest Eater, and stickler for circular crockery, had to have his meal served on a hexagonal plate.
But sometimes even minor things get in the way, like recently, when a certain 375kW Italian sports sedan that shall remain nameless lunched its own key while parked outside a remote cafe several hundred kays from home. The central locking mysteriously went click with the key clearly visible inside, and that was that; the only fix was to have the spare key sent from Melbourne overnight.
On the upside, it gave me a chance to give the Koleos a decent shakedown on some excellent rural roads when I returned the next day on the recovery mission.
The bare facts are these: around town, where you’d expect most Kolei to do their service, is not where it is at its most agreeable. The steering is woefully low-geared; you constantly need a second bite at the wheel for mundane T-junction turns. The low- to medium-speed ride, too, is in a constant state of mild agitation with any surface short of a billiard table.
And the lack of torque in concert with the CVT transmission can make the throttle feel like more of an attenuation device, rather than a velocity controller.
Thankfully, some of these demerits are assuaged in faster, flowing roads away from suburbia. The powertrain still demands you shift manually if you’re to avoid the snoozy throttle response – and lack of paddles becomes a real shortcoming – but at least higher speeds allow you to keep the engine percolating (noisily) where the torque lives.
The slow steering is much less of an issue when smaller inputs are needed, and progressively loading the front corner, rather than heaving on it, negates some of the body control issues.
Yet the dry-road grip from the Nexen tyres is low, and they’re super skatey in the wet. The brakes held up reasonably well to hard use, but the mushy pedal also irked.
In the wash-up, though, it’s clear Renault has work to do if the Koleos is to fully capitalise on its style and equipment appeal.
This is a company with some supremely talented chassis and powertrain people; you only have to look at the brilliant Clio – the brand’s best car – and even the Megane GT, with its excellent four-wheel steering system.
Then there are the RenaultSport models that have stoked the fires of enthusiasts for almost two decades. The Koleos could benefit from some of that expertise.