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First drive: Behind the wheel of the Renault Captur

Urban runabout: The chic little Captur is still 12 months away from Australia, but first impression are positive.

Still a year away from Oz, the Renault Captur SUV impresses – but needs a diesel


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9 May 2013


RENAULT’S curvaceous Captur crossover will be a petrol-only, front-drive proposition priced from the low-to-mid $20,000 mark when it arrives in Australia around May 2014.

The high-riding French hatchback – closely related to the new Clio supermini – will take on a mix of upcoming arch rivals such as the Opel Mokka, Peugeot 2008, Nissan Juke and Ford EcoSport in what is one of Australia’s fastest-growing segments.

It may be a year away from launching in Australia, but we’ve been given the opportunity of a first drive in the Spanish-built Captur’s spiritual home of France, and have come away suitably impressed by this urban runabout’s mix of form and function.

Not only does it look fantastic on the road, but on first impression we found it to combine solid cabin practicality with decent ride and handling characteristics – albeit with a few drivetrain flaws.

Before we explain further, let’s cover the key features. Versions arriving Down Under will be armed with a pair of three and four-cylinder turbo-petrol engines, with the company drawing a line through the 66kW/220Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel unit offered in Europe, which chews through a Prius-beating 3.6 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres.

The petrol engines confirmed for Australian-bound Capturs will be the same as used in the new Clio range due in three months.

Base versions using the “TCe 90” will wield 66kW at 5250rpm and 135Nm at 2500rpm via a 900cc turbocharged three-pot matched exclusively to a five-speed manual gearbox – enough to move the car from 0-100km/h in 12.9 seconds, limit fuel use to 4.9L/100km, emissions to 113g/km and allow a maximum trailer weight of 900kg.

That latter figure is also the same for the “TCe 120” engine versions that will probably account for the lion’s share of Captur sales in Australia, since its 88kW at 4900rpm and 190Nm from 2000rpm direct-injected and turbocharged 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is paired solely to an automatic transmission.

A six-speed ‘Efficient Dual Clutch’ gearbox known as EDC, it cuts the race from 0-100km/h by a full two seconds, with only minor fuel and emissions penalties (up by 0.5L/100km and 12g/km respectively).

Citing Australian consumer preferences for petrol engines in the light-car class, Renault says the front-wheel-drive Captur’s low official fuel use figures meant dropping diesel plans was an easy choice to make.

However, the decision will be reviewed if demand for diesel exists, according to the company’s corporate communications manager, Emily Ambrosy.

Excluding the drivetrains, about 1300 out of about 3500 parts that make up the Captur are shared with the coming Clio. Most of these are ‘out of sight’ items relating to the floorpan, some interior bits such as the lower-console area and steering wheel, and most electronic items.

Some heavier duty suspension parts come from the larger Megane series to help cope with the greater loads the Captur needs to cope with compared with the circa-100kg lighter Clio.

In line with most light cars, the front axle uses a MacPherson strut set-up with a lower wishbone and anti-roll bar, while the rear is a flexible torsion beam design.

Steering is via an electric rack and pinion arrangement disc brakes are fitted at the front, while the rears use drums.

Similar to the latest Clio and Volkswagen’s tiny Up city runabout, the Captur achieves a five-star ENCAP crash-test safety rating, despite the absence of curtain airbags or any airbag protection for the rear-seat occupants.

Renault says a concerted effort with high and ultra-high strength steels in key body areas help provide protection to offset the omissions.

The company also adds that – in line with the expected buyer profile and the real-world use of the Captur’s back seat – rear airbags are deemed useless in protecting babies in capsules and kids sat within a child/booster seats. See separate story linked below.

While it is too soon to announce Australian volume expectations, Renault believes the Captur can tap into a downsizing trend across the market.

Younger buyers, small families, downsizers, and empty nesters will probably make up the largest demographic profile.

“We’re keen to offer different products to meet different peoples’ needs,” Ms Ambrosy said. “But it is still an unknown market in Australia.”

So, then: what is the Captur like to drive?

With the segment still in its infancy, it is a relief to learn that the two latest examples we’ve sampled in Europe over the last month – the Peugeot 2008 as well as the Captur – are more efficient-MPV than inefficient-SUV in their packaging.

That’s because both focus on keeping weight and complexity down by ditching a 4WD system that, let’s face it, probably won’t ever get used, thus liberating interior space.

In the Renault’s case, design chief Laurens van den Acker insisted on a more cab-forward silhouette, too, giving the Captur its appealing proportions.

Of course, stretching the windscreen as close to the bonnet as possible has passenger space upsides, which is apparent the moment you slide your buttocks along one of the lofty seat bases.

Driving position first: a well-padded seat is a great start, as are the super-stylish instruments directly ahead, simple touchscreen tablet-style centre console perched nice and high, and ample room for legs, heads, and shoulders.

Narrow the Captur may be, but cramped it is not. Not for four adults anyway. The rear seat slides, leaving Laguna levels of knee room at its rearmost position, Renault says.

Conversely the long, low and wide luggage area can also better most hatchback boots, too.

Renault hasn’t scrimped on storage space either, but the novel drawer-glovebox fitted to left-hand-drive models will be absent in Oz-bound cars. That’s a shame.

The company is making a big noise about the amount of colourful personalisation available (in Europe anyway – we’ll have to wait and see for Oz), and most of it is trim and/or material related (even the seats can be ordered with changeable covers on upper-spec versions) of varying degrees of taste.

At least Renault is trying. And importantly, the interior feels solid and well crafted., The unexpectedly un-SUV flavour filters through to the actual driving experience as well, though the drivetrain ultimately isn’t as resolved or satisfying as the packaging.

If you’re a gentle, undemanding driver who isn’t in a hurry and wants to maximise fuel economy, the Captur 1.2 TCe with its dual-clutch automatic delivers. In spades too, because pussyfooting around in this pretty little SUV is no hardship.

But most urbanites have traffic warfare to negotiate, and here the Renault starts to falter a bit.

No one expects a baby crossover to perform like a V8 supercar, but we wonder whether the French need to work on the 1.2-litre turbo’s auto transmission software algorithms.

For reliability reasons, the transmission has an overheating failsafe, but the consequence is frustrating turbo lag during full-throttle, off-the-line acceleration – such as when trying to drive across a gap in busy traffic.

Plant your foot and… nothing but a crawl. On countless times during our drive through beautiful Biarritz in southwestern France, we felt the lack of available power was bordering on dangerous.

The same issue is prevalent when overtaking, and there’s not much recourse in downshifting.

The solution, we discovered after querying the Captur program manager, is to use half-throttle, which is counterintuitive when you would normally mash the pedal for maximum forward thrust. Even then, it isn’t exactly fast.

Time to turn up the chip-wick, Renault.

On the flipside, when pottering along in its tight little torque band, the TCe is terrifically smooth and sufficiently responsive, pulling away quickly when required.

Aided by a welcome and effective hill holding function that stops the Captur rolling backwards on a slope while the clutch is disengaged, the gearbox holds on to the gear until quite high up the rev range, isn’t jerky, and downshifts again briskly yet smoothly.

Note, though, that the stability control system can’t be neutered – or, rather, we couldn’t figure out how too.

Not-in-a-hurry-Nana behind the wheel would never think the Captur 1.2 TCe was anything less than a punchy little performer. Indeed, wound out, we saw 160km/h with no sweat.

Renault reckons Aussies won’t buy the 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel that impressed us so much in the closely related Clio IV last year. Maybe the product planners ought to think again.

Moving on to the electric steering, we found it a tad too light at low urban speeds (for our tastes anyway), but the helm does weigh up nicely when the road gets interesting.

Tip the Captur into a tight hairpin and you might be a bit surprised and delighted at how composed and linear it remains, flowing through in a most un-SUV like manner.

There may not be much steering feedback but the Renault’s agility isn’t in question at all. Nor is the braking – despite only having drums in the rear. Our chief engineer reckons advances in electronic stability control technology on this style of stopper have really closed the gap in terms of reaction and feel.

But here’s another but. Our test car wore 205/55 R17 tyres, and on anything other than smooth roads the ride varied from firm to tetchy. Over similar terrain in the 2008, the Peugeot proved to be a picture of suppleness. We expect a little more suspension travel from our French vehicles.

This isn’t a 4x4, but an annoying TomTom GPS meltdown meant our little Captur traversed up a narrowing muddy trail-bike path with more gusto that its resoundingly FWD spec might suggest. We were very grateful for the Territory-exceeding 200mm ground clearance.

After a couple of days of dashing around in the Captur, we feel that the basic ingredients are there for a capable, spacious and enjoyable urban runabout.

It’s also attractive enough inside and out to maybe convince potential buyers of Audi A1s and Mini Coopers to think twice.

But we’d like a whole-lot less lag in the engine from down low. Perhaps the standard 16-inch wheel set-up might ride even better. And how about offering us one of your fine diesels, Renault?

Being a year away, we reckon there still might be time to address at least some of these faults.

Yet even as it is, the Captur 1.2 TCe has what it takes to really take Renault’s sales – and the reputation of all sub-compact crossovers – up to a very respectable level.

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