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First drive: Master baits auto buyers

Quick-shifter: Renault’s Master automatically increases its appeal.

Renault’s big Master light commercial van relieves drivers with an automated gearbox

Renault logo31 May 2005

RENAULT has released a ‘robotised’ automated gearbox in its fledgling Master range of van and cab-chassis commercial vehicles.

Dubbed ‘Quickshift’, it mates with the same 84kW 2.5-litre dCi common-rail turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine that delivers 290Nm of torque at 1600rpm as the continuing manual Master.

It is only the second vehicle in the large van segment to offer a clutchless transmission after the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

The company describes the transmission’s $2200 premium as attractive and competitive.

Quickshift is based on the Master’s existing PK6 six-speed manual gearbox. The inclusion of the electro-hydraulic mechanism means it is now known as the PA6.

It offers six forward gears that can be selected via a console-placed joystick lever.

The gearbox consists of a north-sited ‘+’ change-up and south-sited ‘-’ movement for Tiptronic-style sequential shifting without the need for a clutch.

Conversely that is flanked on the left by an ‘A’ (for auto) mode while a neutral and reverse plane exist to the right.

An electronic control unit featuring seven different ‘fuzzy logic’ modes to help select the ideal ratio according to the vehicle’s speed, the driving style, brake times, ratio of acceleration and road gradient. A fuel-economy optimising highway mode is among them.

There’s a ‘snow’ feature for higher-gearing take-offs when conditions are too slippery and a ‘load’ mode that changes the gear ratio threshold when weightier cargo needs to be carried.

Renault says that Quickshift’s numerous advantages include more efficient use of the engine’s power since it operates within the engine’s peak torque area at all times.

The upshot of this is up to 10 per cent better fuel consumption.

 center imageAmong other attributes, Quickshift is virtually impossible to stall, uses engine braking advantageously, boasts a ‘creep forward’ feature for easier low-speed manoeuvrability, and will change to the appropriate gear if the driver forgets or makes a mistake.

It’s also maintenance-free since the gearbox is lubricated for life, requiring only an oil-level check at service time.

Quickshift will only be available on the up-spec Integral model since that already accounts for about 70 per cent of Master sales.

Significantly the gearbox has been released just two months after its European debut.

This reflects Renault’s newfound focus on emerging and overseas markets.

According to its local director of operations Rudi Koenig, this is an example of the importance the French are basing on markets outside of Europe, where now there isn’t that 12 or six-month lag as there previously was.

A similar gearbox for the Trafic mid-sized LCV is also being investigated, but no date has been set as yet.

Renault recently dispatched an engineer to ascertain the Master’s initial dust, noise, vibration and harshness properties over 8000km of varied testing across Australia’s east and Tasmania.

Previously no such exercise has been performed by the company for Australian conditions.

The Master has a vital role to play in Renault’s local fortunes, as it forms part of the company’s LCV strategy that now commands 30 per cent of its total volume here.

Launched in August last year, the Master has averaged 14 sales monthly since (although achieved 31 sales in April). Renault wants to see the Quickshift help Master breach the 40 per month mark.

It expects the auto to eat into manual sales, with the ratio settling into a 50:50 mix within a year.

Like the smaller Trafic and Kangoo, the truck leads the light commercial vehicle (LCV) segment in Europe.

Locally however the vehicles are still in their gestation period as far as commercial vehicle buyer acceptance of its vehicles are concerned, says Renault.

"We are still the new kid on the block," says Mr Koenig.

But the company believes as the numbers of Renaults on our roads grow and their reliability record is established, LCV buyers will switch more readily to the French models.

Master has already made in-roads with small-to-medium enterprises such as tradespeople.

These are buyers who recognise that a ‘premium’ LCV like a Renault can promote as well as push along their business activities. They also appreciate the security advantages of a closed van compared to the more traditional Holden or Falcon utilities, says Renault.

Year-to-date sales until April show that the Master is number four here with 57 sales, behind the third-placed Fiat Ducato (158), then Iveco’s Daily at 216 and 532 of Mercedes’ refreshed Sprinters.

2005 Renault Master pricing:
Short Wheelbase Low Roof (L1H1) Air: $39,990
L1H1 Integral: $41,490
L1H1 Integral: $43,690 Quickshift (a)
SWB Mid Roof (L1H2) Air: $40,990
L1H2 Integral: $42,490
L1H2 Integral: $44,690 (a)
Medium Wheelbase Mid Roof (L2H2) Air: $41,490
L2H2 Integral: $42,990
L2H2 Integral: $45,190 (a)
Long Wheelbase Mid Roof (L3H2) Air: $41,990
L3H2 Integral: $43,490
L3H2 Integral: $45,690 (a)
Long Wheelbase Cab Chassis (L3H1) Air: $38,690
L3H1 Integral: $40,190
L3H1 Integral: $42,390 (a)

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

RENAULT’S entry to the large LCV market should give it a firmer foothold now that the Master offers automated shifting.

Similar in concept and operation to sequential shift manual gearboxes like Alfa Romeo’s Selespeed, there’s a automatic-like ‘A’ position when the driver wants to play no part in shifting gears.

Without the aid of a torque converter, the shift feels and sounds like the truck is changing the gears complete with a ‘phantom’ clutch all by itself due to a familiar rise and drop in revs between gears.

While not exactly seamless, it’s smooth enough for most urban-bound drivers to be satisfied.

Likewise, the Tiptronic-style manual-shift option is just as easy, and is aided by the gear-lever (that’s accurately described as a joystick) that’s handily positioned high on the console.

This means the left hand falls naturally to exactly where the stick is sited.

Renault’s sprightly performance claims also appear to be accurate, with the Master managing adequately quick take-off and mid-range acceleration times. It certainly doesn’t feel slow or sluggish for the type of vehicle it is.

Driven mainly on the open road (a seemingly absurd choice given the inner-urban duties such vehicles mostly perform) the Master remained secure and stable at higher speeds, with no steering waywardness.

The Master’s cabin comfort and presentation elements are also competently executed, with plenty of storage places and clear and easy controls.

With standard driver’s airbag, seatbelt pretensioners, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist and air-conditioning, it seems Renault is also keen to lure buyers seeking value for money in an accommodating premium Euro package.

On the other hand a non-adjustable passenger seat seemed an oversight, particularly as the test vehicle was the better-equipped Integral model that is the only one to offer Quickshift.

It adds a passenger airbag, power windows and mirrors, central locking and an alarm to the base Air’s package.

All in all the Master with Quickshift shapes up as a competent and comfortable entry from a manufacturer that, though new in this segment locally, has a quarter of a century experience in the LCV markets across Europe.

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