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First drive: Renault back on Aussie roads

Soft-roader: Plush ride and off-road ability bode well for Renault's Scenic RX4.

They're big sellers in Europe, but can these Renaults cope with rugged Aussie conditions?

25 May 2001

RENAULT'S initial relaunch range of cars is now on Australian roads, and our initial drive indicates they should perform quite well.

Australian motoring journalists were actualy given the chance to drive all four Renault models in Europe last month, but yesterday's Australian launch provided the first opportunity to sample the RX4 soft-roader away from sealed roads, and the chance to drive all cars in local conditions for the first time.

The 200km launch drive program over typically undulating, pock-marked regional Canberra and ACT roads proved all models are well equipped to cope with local conditions, despite minimal changes to their French specification.

The Scenic RX4 is the most significantly modified vehicle, featuring firmer spring and damper rates than its European counterpart for sportier handling with less bodyroll.

As with the Scenic it is based on, the RX4's cabin is particularly well isolated from wind and road noise, although the 2.0-litre engine's reluctance to deliver a satisfying level of torque in the bottom half of its 5750rpm rev range saw the tacho needle in our vehicle hovering mostly above 3000rpm. And it is here that the engine's slightly coarse, uninspiring note becomes the over-riding noise within the cabin.

Then again, none of the RX4's compact SUV rivals offer particularly spirited performance. Otherwise, the Scenic all-roader is surprisingly capable transport, delivering an abundance of storage compartments (including a chilled triple cupholder) and even more versatility than the market leading CR-V, thanks to removable rear seats.

Like CR-V, the driving position is a little truck-like, but the constant four-wheel drive's ground clearance and off-road ability is at least that of its Honda rival.

Most of all, while a degree of understeer and bodyroll was evident during ambitious cornering, the RX4 delivers an impressive ride that absorbed even the largest of the ACT's road holes and lumps without fuss. With a CR-V matching price, the chunky, Euro-styled Scenic RX4 is a welcome new addition for compact SUV shoppers.

Similarly, the base Scenic also provides highly versatile family transport in a funky new European bodyshell. As with the RX4, safety is well catered for, including five lap-sash belts (though the centre rear does not have pretensioning), ABS with EBD, four-wheel discs, adjustable headrest for all seats and a total of six airbags, although of course the horizontally-split tailgate opens to the traffic side.

Performance is hardly white knuckle stuff but at least the 2.0-litre Scenic is up to the task of transporting five full-size adults and all their luggage.

The $40,000 Megane Cabriolet is refreshingly well equipped and offers fuss-free, top-down motoring with a surprising degree of chassis integrity and more than pedestrian levels of handling dynamics.

Torque steer is never an issue when utilising the 1.6-litre four-cylinder's peak torque of 148Nm, which does not arrive until 3750rpm. The Megane cabrio will complete with more powerful 2.0-litre engines in the 306 and Golf cabrios, but it has the price to match.

Indeed, if performance is your bent, the Clio Renault Sport delivers it in spades.

With brilliantly sharp and responsive steering, enormous grip levels, plenty of performance from its higher output 2.0-litre, 16-valve engine and chassis balance to match Peugeot's outstanding 206 GTi, it should sell itself.

With its pricetag just $1000 higher than the Pug, its bold styling and superb front-drive handling are a huge boon for those in the hot-hatch market.

For our detailed examination of specification and pricing, see our story Renault says bonjour to Australia, also in the New Models section

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