Renault Austral review: price, specification and peformance put hybrid SUV in contention
Qashqai rival brings impressive efficiency and some unique technology in its bid to be a contender
Family SUVs are big business for virtually every car maker and Renault is hoping the Austral can secure it a bigger slice of a segment in which it has previously struggled.
A successor to the forgettable Kadjar, the all-new Austral has done away with basic petrol and diesel options in the UK and comes only as a full hybrid looking to stand out among the likes of the Nissan Qashqai e-Power, Toyota Rav4 and HEV versions of the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.
At first glance it doesn't do much to stand out, with fairly anonymous looks. While manufacturers have some fun in the smaller B-SUV segment, in the Austral's class everything feels less adventurous. Renault’s trademark C-shaped headlights and taillights make an appearance, and the large grille is dominated by a huge Renault badge but apart from that and a couple of pinched creases on the bonnet and wings you could be looking at a Vauxhall Grandland.
The interior is more successful thanks to smart, high-quality material choices that are a match for any rivals and some nice user-friendly touches. The drivers’ view is dominated by a 12.3-inch configurable instrument display which joins seamlessly with the upright 12-inch multimedia screen. Beneath that screen are a simple and most welcome bank of physical switches for the dual-zone climate control and a clever sliding wrist rest that helps stabilise your hand when using the screen and houses a wireless phone charging plate.
Renault claims the Austral offers class-leading rear legroom and while I didn’t get the tape measure out it certainly felt spacious enough for a couple of fully grown adults while those in the front seats are also well catered for. Boot space, at 550 litres, is better than a Qashqai but down on the Sportage. Renault has placed the battery under the front seats rather than allowing it to eat into the boot space. This could cause headroom problems inside but doesn't and even with the massive fixed-pane panoramic roof of the Iconic Esprit Alpine trim there's plenty of space while that huge roof allows light to pour in.
The Austral uses the same basic CMP-CD platform as the Nissan Qashqai but, somewhat surprisingly, a completely different hybrid drivetrain. Instead of Nissan's weird engine-as-a-generator e-Power setup, Renault has redeveloped the E-Tech full hybrid system from the Clio and Arkana. At its heart is a new 1.2-litre turbocharged three-pot, accompanied by a 50kW traction motor and a 15kW intelligent starter-generator, which helps torque fill, drives reverse and harvests braking energy to charge the 2kWh battery.
Renault says it went down this route because its entire focus for Austral was economy. And it had proven to be a smart move as the Renault setup is smoother, quieter and more efficient than the Nissan option.
The EV motor can power the Austral up to 70mph and beyond as long as you're not too heavy on the throttle - offering smooth linear and silent progress which is enhanced by impressive cabin sound deadening. A heavier right foot will prompt the engine to kick in but this is more noticeable in the brief hesitation while everything aligns and less in the noise of the engine, which is well subdued.
Officially, the Austral will do up to 60mpg - markedly better than the Qashqai e-power or anything else in its class - and 55mpg+ is easily obtainable in the real world as long as you don't drive like your hair is on fire.
On that note, 197bhp was once more than enough for a family car but in the Austral it feels merely adequate. Zero to 62mph takes 8.4 seconds and progress feels quick enough without ever feeling truly speedy.
Sport mode sharpens the throttle and adds weight to the steering but, most noticeably, adds more bite to the Austral's 4Control rear wheel steering.
This feature is standard on top spec cars and is unique in the class, offering up to five degrees of turn from the back wheels to aid low-speed manoeuvring and high-speed stability. Depending on the drive mode its effects range from barely noticeable to a sharpness that makes a real difference to cornering and makes the car feel smaller and more agile on the open road and around town. It also gives the 4.5-metre-long Austral a turning circle of 10.1m - smaller than a Clio or Mini.
4Control brings multilink rear suspension in place of more basic cars’ torsion beam. We've only driven the multilink car but the ride is disappointing. It feels too firmly damped and that leads to a jittery and unsettled ride at low speeds and occasionally harsh jolts at higher speeds. A family SUV like this either needs softer damping or smaller wheels and thicker tyres. And although the 4Control brings a more immediate feel to the steering, the Austral’s driving experience is largely pretty dull, just like most of its rivals.
The fact the press briefing spent as long telling us about the car’s Google integration as it did talking about its mechanical bits hints at where driving experience ranks in Renault’s planned progression from car maker to tech firm.
Condensing that 40-minute lecture into a few words, the Austral’s OpenR operating system runs on Google's Android Automotive, bringing Google Maps, Google Assistant and access to the Play Store’s selection of car-friendly apps directly to the ultra-sharp and responsive central screen. That's great news in terms of ease of use and functionality, with a simple interface and wealth of apps to choose from but there’s also wireless Apple CarPlay as standard for fans of fruit-based devices.
The Austral is also laden with driver assistance technology, from fairly standard stuff such as blind spot warning and lane keep assist to more advanced kit like adaptive cruise control, hands-free parking, rear collision avoidance and matrix LED headlights.
Those smart adaptive lights are standard across the range, as is a 9.2-inch head-up display, 12.3-inch instruments, 12-inch multimedia screen and 19-inch alloys. A £2,000 step from Techno grade to Techno Esprit Alpine adds electrically adjustable heated massage seats, a heated steering wheel, power tailgate, adaptive cruise and 20-inch wheels. Another £2,800 brings 4Control, a panoramic roof, wireless phone charging, a 360-degree camera and Harman Kadron 12-speaker sound system on the Iconic Esprit Alpine.
It's a strong specification but one that’s matched almost feature-by-feature and pound-for-pound by the equivalent Sportage and Qashqai. Where the Austral’s real strength lies is in the refinement and frugality of its hybrid motor and the spaciousness and quality of its interior.
Renault Austral E-Tech Iconic Esprit Alpine
- Price: £39,495
- Engine: 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol with 50Kw electric motor
- Power: 197bhp
- Torque: n/a
- Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
- Top speed: 108mph
- 0-62mph: 8.4 seconds
- Economy: 57.7-60.1mpg
- CO2 emissions: 105-110g/km