Storage options, safety credentials, seating versatility, value for money, ride quality
Room for improvement
Absence of cruise control, requirement for premium unleaded petrol, steering kickback, suspect driver ergonomics
By TERRY MARTIN 01/08/2001
IT MIGHT be a latecomer in the fledgling mini people-mover segment in Australia but the Renault Scenic is in fact the reason we have such clever, compact vehicles here at all.
This is, after all, the car that sparked an uprising in Europe last decade with its tall, petite exterior masking acres of space and outstanding packaging inside.
It won instant favour with the masses, spurred other manufacturers to follow suit, and now, five years on, has arrived in the Antipodes to take its place in the war against big-displacement cars and four-wheel drives.
What a task it has ahead of it. Other so-called mini-MPVs - the Kia Carens, Daewoo Tacuma and Mazda Premacy - have had no impact on mainstream consciousness.
But despite being copied, undercut and, in the case of the new Holden Zafira, outsmarted in the seating stakes, the Scenic has emerged with plenty of arsenal to make its presence felt.
A fair slice of Renault's $20 million launch budget will help, naturally enough, however those drawn to the flexible five-seater as a result will find a persuasive sub-$30,000 package that combines a long list of equipment with strong safety credentials, excellent use of interior space, smart seating arrangements and a unrivalled array of storage options.
In the case of the Dynamique model tested here, good engine performance is there as well.
Cruise control is the one grave omission in a features list that includes (single-zone) climate-control air-conditioning, a trip computer, leather/cloth upholstery, remote locking, power windows and a CD stereo.
There is also no shortage of safety gear, with all models fitted with dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and lap-sash seatbelts and headrests throughout.
And, significantly, the Scenic has performed better in independent crash tests than its major rivals.
A plethora of interior space is complemented by individual rear seats that can each recline, slide, fold, tumble and be removed with consummate ease, leaving a flat floor. The retractable seatbelts can also unclip at both hip points to keep the area clear.
The bolstering and narrow rear seat width (up to 455mm) can make them awkward for child restraints and adults, while the centre-rear position cuts into rear visibility via its pillar-mounted seatbelt and roof-mounted child seat anchorage point.
Yet when unoccupied, the rear headrests hunker down on the seatbacks to provide a better view through the back window - and when filled with kids the rear compartment offers good comfort and plenty of entertainment with flip-up trays, maplights, a power socket, good visibility and ingenious underfloor bins that are part of an impressive collection of storage compartments.
There are under-seat drawers, a dashboard box, lockable glovebox, bins in all doors, map pockets behind the front seats, lidded cubbies in the luggage area and a wide bolthole revealed whenever a rear seat is tumbled.
And let us not forget the coolbox at the centre console, which gets more attention than it deserves - it's ugly, unsuitable for drink bottles, obscures the front power outlet when the lid is up and comes at the expense of a useful spot for a mobile phone or loose change.
Even with all seats occupied, the cargo area is generous in size, simple to access via the main hatch or rear window and contains tie-down hooks, another power socket, parcel shelf and a full-size spare wheel under the floor - though no more seats, as found on the Zafira, which could be a decisive factor.
From the driver's perspective, the Scenic has the requisite high-set driving position, good seat comfort, a bonza height adjustment lever and useful stereo controls mounted on the steering column.
The position does not come without annoyances, though, including unorthodox pedal placement, a difficult reverse-gear collar on the manual gearshift, two-piece front windows, visible warning lights and rear window switchgear separated from the main door-mounted control pad.
Climate controls are also set too low for simple adjustment while in transit.
Like the top-spec Privilege model, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that features variable valve timing and delivers 101kW at 5500rpm and 188Nm at 3750rpm powers the Dynamique.
It is enough to shift the 1290kg vehicle and a small family without strain. The engine gets a bit raucous at high engine speeds, but unlike the heavier RX4 version, the driver does not feel the need to dwell in this portion of the rev range and can extract good performance much lower down.
Fuel economy is respectable but the requirement for premium unleaded a burden faced at each fuel stop.
The light clutch and manual transmission action are unobtrusive, though the steering is high-geared and necessitates plenty of twirling of the tiller. The Scenic also suffers badly from steering kickback whenever the front wheels encounter a bump during a turn.
On the whole, the driving experience is predictable and safe. The tyres provide good grip, bodyroll is evident but not excessive, the ride is particularly well sorted and the brakes are effective.
General refinement is good, too, apart from wind noise across the windscreen and wing mirrors on the highway.
Designed for a life of urban toil and the occasional country sojourn, the Scenic will reward those who support its cause.
But the French legionnaire is a long way from home.