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Kadjar replacement ploughs a new, high-tech furrow aided by a quirky hybrid set-up

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After Carlos Ghosn was arrested in 2018, there were doubts about whether the alliance he masterminded between Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi would survive. So far it has, but it’s necessitated a major reboot. That’s resulted in shares becoming more equitably divided, as well as a plan for each brand to focus on the segments and regions it is strong in, and for the others to benefit from that expertise.

But those plans were only rubber-stamped earlier this year, following a period of looser collaboration. One of the products emerging from that transitional era is the new Renault Austral. While it shares its CMF-CD platform with the Nissan Qashqai, that is about where the similarities end. The two look nothing alike, have different interiors and multimedia, and even use vastly different powertrain concepts. It’s a fundamentally different approach from the often extremely conspicuous component sharing among cars in both the Volkswagen Group and Stellantis. 

The steering wheel looks smart and has lovely Alcantara inserts but the rim is a bit chunky and the squared-off shape isn’t as nice in general use as your everyday round wheel

So straight away, the Austral is one of the more interesting and individual entrants to a class that is extremely popular, rather crowded and therefore very competitive, although hardly inspirational. 

Available in the UK as a full-hybrid E-Tech model only, it is powered by the latest iteration of Renault’s unusual hybrid system with its unsynchronised and clutchless gearbox. As such, it takes the fight straight to the hybrid versions of the Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Honda ZR-V and its estranged Qashqai sibling.

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The range at a glance

MODELPOWERFROM
E-Tech196bhp£34,695

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Only the full-hybrid E-Tech is offered in the UK for the time being but other markets get a choice ofmild hybrids as well. The UK range is also limited to the more upmarket trim levels. The only grade not to get the Esprit Alpine styling is Techno.

DESIGN & STYLING

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renault Austral e review 2023 02 panning

The Austral replaces the Renault Kadjar and is just as visually different from its predecessor as it is mechanically. It’s 52mm longer and 7mm wider and adopts the new family look introduced by the Renault Mégane E-Tech EV, with crisper lines, C-shaped headlights and large wheels.

As for its powertrain, we have seen the E-Tech hybrid before, in the Clio, Captur, Arkana and old Mégane PHEV, where it used a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder and four-speed gearbox. The Austral has an upgraded version that’s more suitable for bigger, heavier cars and takes in some of the lessons learned from the original iteration.

Intrusive lane keeping assist is a common bugbear in modern cars, but the Austral’s works well and can be easily turned off with a button. Other car makers, take note.

While the concept remains the same, every element has evolved. The petrol engine is a new, torquier 129bhp 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder that was developed for this application. The electric motor puts out more power and the battery is bigger and now cooled by the air-con system to allow for more electric miles and sustained acceleration. Also, an extra gear ratio has been added between second and third gear, specifically to reduce the engine revs during high-load situations such as climbing hills on the motorway.

It still operates according to the same principle. It’s not quite as simple as saying there are five ratios for the petrol engine and two for the electric motor, because one of them is shared between the two. In total, there are 15 combinations, making it apt that Renault calls it a ‘multi-mode’ gearbox. Thanks to the unusual design, it is normal for the engine to use one ratio and the motor another, meaning the gearbox is effectively in two gears at the same time.

The engine is permanently engaged to the gearbox, with no clutch to decouple it, and instead of synchronisers there are dog clutches. To make gearchanges possible, the transmission can be slipped into neutral while a smaller electric motor adjusts the engine revs to match the speeds inside the gearbox. It’s also possible for the engine to be put in neutral so it can drive the generator.

In other countries, the Austral will also be available with mild-hybrid three- and four-cylinder engines, but only the full-hybrid E-Tech is coming to the UK. A plug-in hybrid version seems likely.

INTERIOR

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renault Austral e review 2023 07 front seats

Like the exterior, the interior design of the Austral follows the direction set by the Mégane. It’s much more angular and layered than Renault interiors used to be, and the fascia is dominated by a black panel that has two screens and two air vents.

Where the Mégane has an excessively eclectic grab bag of materials, including some slightly unpleasant ones, the Austral strikes a better balance and everything you’re likely to see feels pleasant. 

It’s quite common to find minor quality issues on Renaults, like a loose air vent or wobbly gear selector. This Austral was no different: the driver’s door card creaked and one of the windscreen washers missed the windscreen. It’s nothing major, but Renault should work on this.

As with the technical spec, it’s remarkable how different the Austral is from the Qashqai. You won’t find a single button that’s shared between the two, and where the Nissan is more square and businesslike, the Renault is more flamboyant and techy. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but at least it sets the two apart. 

The Austral may have its tech front and centre, but Renault hasn’t neglected usability. There are rocker switches for the main climate control functions and the heater setting for the seats is fairly easily accessible on the screen. 

All the buttons on the steering wheel are real buttons too. The centre console design is only a partial success. The drive selector is mounted on the column, which is very convenient when manoeuvring and liberates centre console space. The various bins aren’t especially deep, though, because they sit on top of the hybrid battery. As a result, when you want to put anything in the cupholders, you have to slide the phone tray back, making the rear storage bin inaccessible and rendering the palm rest redundant because it will be too far away from the screen.

The Austral’s rear seats offer usefully more leg room than those of the Qashqai and the Kadjar and only very slightly less than the Kia Sportage. However, the Renault can’t match the Kia for boot space, being 157 litres down. Useful as it is, the sliding rear bench can’t quite compensate for that deficit. 

The rear seats also don’t fold completely flat, but the handles positioned in the boot area to release the seatbacks are a useful touch. It’s an otherwise fairly practical space, and if you choose a trim level without the Harman Kardon stereo (and its subwoofer), there is a big space under the floor that can optionally house a spacesaver wheel. 

Renault austral e review 2023 14 screen 0

Multimedia system

We have previously tried Renault’s new Google Android Automotive-based multimedia system in the Mégane. It worked well in that car, so having the same system projected on a larger, 12.0in screen can only be a good thing, because it gives a bit more room to various shortcuts and widgets.

Being Google-based, the native navigation is Google Maps, which is excellent, and it comes with the benefit that you can simply log in to your Google account and have your home and work addresses, as well as the recent searches you made on your phone or other devices, waiting for you. There is also an app store, to which third-party services are added occasionally. One recent addition is Waze navigation. To keep everyone happy, there’s wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which integrate very well with the native interface. 

Renault persists with its media stalk behind the steering wheel and it works well once you get used to it, although a physical volume and tuner button in the centre console would have been welcome.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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renault Austral e review 2023 19 engine

Due to the unique way Renault’s E-Tech hybrid system operates, the Austral is one of the stranger cars to do standing-start sprints in. Because there is no clutch or torque converter to slip, the car always needs to set off on the electric motor, with the engine in neutral. Given that the electric motor has only 67bhp to get 1696kg of SUV moving, the Austral gets off to a slightly slow start. 

By about 12mph, the engine can spin fast enough to be able to idle, so from then on it can help with motive power. Until about 45mph, when it needs to perform a gearchange. Because the gearbox is unsynchronised and the integrated starter-generator needs to carefully adjust the engine revs to shift, this takes about half a second – during which time the electric motor again needs to do everything, and the acceleration tails off noticeably.

The car then accelerates smartly again until about 75mph, when another gearchange is needed and you feel about 1.5sec of noticeably diminished acceleration. It appears to shift into top gear at 108mph (one of the gears is skipped under maximum acceleration), when the car actually slows slightly because the electric motor can’t maintain this speed by itself. It then starts accelerating again briefly until it hits its limiter at 111mph.

It’s all slightly odd, but the good news is that in normal driving you’re generally unaware of the black magic going on in this drivetrain. So long as you’re not flat out, the motor has enough power to fill in the gaps during the engine’s gearchanges, making them smooth to undetectable. The engine is also impressively refined and only under hard acceleration can you make out some three-cylinder thrum. The sole exception to that is when it needs to fire up from cold to urgently put charge in the battery. Then it can sound slightly rattly, but that lasts only a few seconds at most.

Because the battery is quite large for a full hybrid, at 1.7kWh, the Austral can genuinely drive meaningful distances in electric mode, making town motoring more pleasure than pain. Overall, it’s a more refined powertrain than any of the Austral’s rivals from Kia, Toyota, Nissan or Honda possess. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the Austral missed its claimed 0-62mph time by half a second and proved slower than the Kia Sportage.

As a driver, you have absolutely no control over the car’s gear selection, so one might be surprised to find paddles behind the steering wheel. Instead, they control the level of regeneration, which is made possible by that big battery and the fairly beefy electric motor. There’s not as much retardation available as in an EV and you won’t find a one-pedal mode, but there’s enough for it to be worthwhile. The brake pedal is a bit soft and oversensitive but easy enough to attune to.

RIDE & HANDLING

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renault Austral e review 2023 03 cornering rear

Take a look at the technical specification of the Austral in its range-topping Iconic Esprit Alpine trim, like our test car, and it sounds like something more exotic than a mainstream crossover. It’s not at all common to see a multi-link rear axle and four-wheel steering in this class.

Unfortunately, at no point does the Austral embody the ‘spirit of Alpine’ that the Esprit Alpine name suggests. The steering is very quick, with less than 2.3 turns lock to lock, but without any feedback or even just some weight to push against, it ends up feeling very nervous and makes the car hard to place on the road because it’s easy to steer too much.

That feeling is exacerbated on the one hand by sitting up high in an SUV and on the other by the slightly rudimentary four-wheel steering system.With the best four-wheel steering systems, whether they are fitted to a sports car like a Porsche 911 or an SUV like a Range Rover or BMW iX, you are not obviously aware of their presence as a driver. They make the car feel smaller than it is and subtly more agile.

In the Austral, the 4Control system adds to the feeling of nervousness in some corners and makes the car feel like it’s crabbing in others. It does reduce the turning circle, which is useful, but because of the out-of-sync response of the system, it never feels natural. Go around a tight roundabout and it feels as if the car is starting to oversteer, as the rear end swings around. Adjusting the severity of the rear-steer in the drive mode menu is an amusing gimmick, but you can’t help feeling like you’re doing the engineers’ work for them.

After a while, you end up configuring the various drive modes to suit certain situations and you do attune to the chassis’ disjointed reactions. Thanks to 235-section Michelin Primacy 4 tyres, there is enough grip. However, the Austral’s chassis always remains curiously unsatisfying. No one is expecting a family crossover to handle like a hot hatch, but rivals manage to feel more intuitive and confidence-inspiring, which is something that anyone will appreciate, whether they are an interested driver or not.

Renault austral e review 2023 02 panning 0

Comfort & Isolation

It looks as though the Austral’s chassis was tuned for directness and response, a goal that it has achieved in a way, just not very well. The problem is that it has also compromised the ride. On the 20in wheels of our test car at least, the Austral harshly bump-thumps its way across broken surfaces. A soft-riding car in the best French tradition this is not. 

Higher speeds suit it better. Bigger bumps on B-roads don’t faze it excessively and the wooden secondary ride is less of an issue on the motorway. Our test equipment recorded 68dBA at 70mph, which puts it on a par with rivals for acoustic refinement.

The tall driving position is SUV-appropriate, and the seats are fairly softly padded, with headrests that adjust in multiple directions. That the range-topping trim level lacks any sort of thigh support is baffling, however, and despite the Alpine logos, the seats offer next to no lateral support.

 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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renault Austral e review 2023 01 cornering front

The Renault Austral’s pricing starts from £34,695 for Techno trim. Being a hybrid and fairly well equipped as standard, it’s no surprise that it’s quite a bit more expensive than rivals in their entry-level specifications. For instance, you could have a Seat Ateca from £27,330. 

However, compared like for like with hybrid rivals, the Austral looks quite competitively priced. A range-topping Iconic Esprit Alpine costs £39,495, and the sole options are special paint colours. That’s only very slightly more than an equivalent hybrid Nissan Qashqai Tekna or Hyundai Tucson N Line S and cheaper than a Kia Sportage GT-Line S, never mind the Honda ZR-V Advance. 

It gets better on PCP finance, because Renault tends to offer favourable deals and the Austral is predicted to hold its value quite well. As a result, it’s the cheapest of the lot by about £20 a month. Then again, if you’re not fussed about the hybrid part, you could have a more premium-feeling Mazda CX-5 mild-hybrid automatic for the same monthly outlay.

If you cover a lot of miles, the hybrid powertrain could well be a big selling point, because the Austral proved economical over its week with us. Renault seems to play the WLTP game well because we didn’t match the official figure, but 44.8mpg is still a good result given that it includes performance testing. On gentler motorway runs, you will get closer to 50mpg, and steady town driving will improve that figure further given how much the Austral manages to drive on electric power alone.

VERDICT

renault Austral e review 2023 22 static front

The Renault Austral follows the Mazda CX-60 and Hyundai Ioniq 6 in being a car that’s quite likeable for its creditable attempts at innovation with clever tech but falls down because of just one or two fatal flaws.

There is genuinely a lot to like here. The quirky E-Tech hybrid system has matured since its earlier iterations and now works very well, effortlessly providing an appropriate level of performance as well as impressive fuel economy. The on-board tech actually makes the driver’s life easier rather than needing constant babysitting. It’s roomy enough, competitively priced and sharply designed.

The option of four-wheel steering brings technology normally reserved for much more expensive cars to the mainstream. However, it also proved part of the Austral’s undoing, because its artificial responsiveness requires too much effort from the driver. And even when going in a straight line, the wooden ride makes the car plain uncomfortable.

For many drivers and families, the Austral E-Tech will tick a great many boxes, which makes it frustrating that it can’t finish the job with fit-for-purpose chassis tuning.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Renault Austral First drives