Car reviews - Renault - Scenic - RX4 Expression
Seating versatility, storage facilities, standard equipment level, absorbent ride
Room for improvement
Sluggish feel, no automatic transmission, off-road limitations, rear seat space
26 Jul 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
AUSTRALIANS have greeted the new breed of mini-MPVS with none of the lust they've shown small four-wheel drives.
Tall, smart and handsome? European? Forget it. Suburbanites want a strong, muscular beggar for punishment to sleep in their twin garage at night, one that will fuel their dreams of escape and adventure.
The rugged image, and good prices stemming from import tax concessions, has helped all-terrain wagons climb to 15 per cent of new-vehicle sales in Australia - with the summit still nowhere in sight - and devastate market segments such as people movers and mid-size passenger cars.
As for mini-MPVs, any hope of stirring the masses now rests with the Renault Scenic RX4.
Not that the Scenic is the best example of these flexible new-age wagons - Holden has the excellent Zafira, Mazda the clever Premacy - but what we have here with the RX4 is the first vehicle that bridges the gap between mini people mover and small four-wheel drive.
If this doesn't get Australians appreciating the benefits of mini-MPVs, and the drawbacks common to all recreational 4WDs, nothing will.
Renault has gone to great lengths to give the sleek, modern Scenic some details which emulate butch soft-roaders built with America, not Europe, in mind. It has overblown plastic bumpers, a tailgate-mounted spare wheel, acres of plastic cladding, 16-inch dual-purpose tyres and an integrated "roo bar" at its nose - potoroo, no doubt, but an eye-catching bit of gear nonetheless.
Extensive mechanical and structural modifications were also made to reflect the RX4's split personality, including fitment of a viscous-coupled on-demand four-wheel-drive system, strengthening of the front MacPherson strut suspension and adoption of a new independent trailing arm suspension at the rear to accommodate a differential.
The result isn't a fair-dinkum-mate, let's-conquer-Cape-York-mate four-wheel drive - none of them are in this segment - but the RX4 does offer an impressive 210mm of ground clearance, commendable approach and departure angles (29.9 and 35.9 degrees respectively) and excellent suspension travel, all of which drivers soon appreciate once off the beaten track.
Alas, the off-road highlights end there. A lack of front-corner visibility, limited underbody protection and a dearth of low-down grunt from the rev-hungry engine can all present problems, while the four-wheel drive system - which automatically sends drive to the rear when the front loses grip and relies on electronic traction control to maintain front-wheel adhesion - is soon brought undone. Being unable to extricate the RX4 from a slippery situation is a constant threat.
The four-wheel drive underpinnings of the RX4 also dampen its performance on the road.
Powered by the Scenic's 2.0-litre 16-valve engine that delivers 101kW at 5500rpm and 188Nm at 3750rpm, the RX4 is 175kg heavier than the front-drive version and suffers as a result in terms of both acceleration and fuel consumption.
The engine gets raucous and coarse at high revs, characteristics the driver is often reminded of while he/she attempts to overcome a lack of bottom-end pulling power. Downshifting into intermediate gears via the five-speed manual - automatic transmission is not available - and keeping the tacho needle above 3000rpm is a constant, but necessary, chore.
Wind noise across the windscreen and external mirrors joins in the chorus on the open road, while premium unleaded is called for at each fuel stop.
The RX4 ride is absorbent across dirt roads and unfunded bitumen alike and shows a degree of control, though with the basic Scenic body jacked up 60mm or so the vehicle tends to careen into corners when pushed and show a preference to understeer rather than negotiate a bend.
The steering is vague, heavier than the front-drive Scenic and constantly interrupted by kickback, which ranges from mild to savage, whenever the front wheels encounter a bump during a turn.
Other annoyances for drivers could include bunched-up and undersized pedals, an awkward reverse-gear collar on the gearshift, two-piece front windows, a left-hand indicator stalk, 'visible' warning lights, an unusual fan dial with separate speeds for recirculation, the unavailability of cruise control and rear window switchgear separated from the main door-mounted control pad.
Let us also add that despite a colossal amount of storage spots throughout the cabin - drawers under seats, dashboard box, map pockets in all doors, coolbox in the centre console, rear underfloor bins, to name a few - convenient placement of loose change or a mobile phone seems to have escaped the interior designer's attention.
Overwhelmingly, though, the interior RX4 interior is comfortable, airy and leaves its rivals for dead in terms of versatility.
The requisite high-set driving position is there, both front seats are supportive and have a superb height adjustment lever, the steering column has useful stereo controls attached and the dash makes good use of colour and soft materials.
Three-point seatbelts and headrests are provided for all five bucket seats, the former unbuckling on the rear pews for clear access when the gymnastics (recline, fold, tumble, removal, all completed with consummate ease) are under way, and the latter hunkering down on the seatbacks when not in use to maximise rear visibility.
The rear seats are really only suitable for school-age children because the bolstering and narrow width hinders either child restraint fitment or adult comfort. And, boy, the kids will have some fun with the fold-up rear trays, half-dozen storage spots, map lights and separate power socket.
Apart from watching rear-seat activities from the internal mirror, some drivers will also be forced to keep a closer-than-usual eye on the external mirrors because child seat tether straps and the centre-rear seatbelt both intrude on rear visibility.
The luggage compartment is generously sized, flat, carpeted and supplied with two luggage tie-down hooks (work that one out), a power outlet and another swag of small-item storage options.
The rear hatch found on two-wheel drive models is discarded in favour of a fussy pop-out window and barn door operation, the latter opening outwards from right to left - the wrong direction for right-hand drive markets such as ours. At least electric assistance means the spare wheel weight is never a problem.
Stand back from the minutiae and the RX4 presents itself as a smart choice amid the ever-increasing number of recreational four-wheel drives.
What it lacks in performance and handling, the vehicle makes up for in packaging, equipment (six airbags, remote locking, trip computer, ABS brakes), ride quality and credentials for light duties out in the bush.
And if this one fails to stir city dwellers from their wild dreams, what hope have road-going mini-MPVs got?
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