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Renault goes after Audi and BMW with a genuinely interesting new coupé-crossover

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The phrase ‘flagship model’ doesn’t associate quite so readily with Renault as it does, say, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or even Volkswagen. Indeed, you could argue that no Renault model has been quite so overtly positioned as such since the dearly departed Laguna, or even the Safrane. To say less of the Avantime and Vel Satis. 

So there’s immediately a slight psychological hurdle to clear in positioning the new Renault Rafale, a chunky but handsome coupé-SUV. What role does it play for Renault? And who is it for? These are especially poignant questions given the company’s simultaneous renewed focus on the affordable small car market with the launch of compact models including the Clio, Captur 5, 4 and Twingo. Where does a large, quasi-luxury SUV fit into this picture?

The Rafale is, in case you’ve (understandably) lost count, Renault’s seventh SUV, effectively slotting into the cigarette-paper-sized gap between the technically related Austral and seven-seat Espace, with which it shares its fundamental chassis. While those SUVs, though, are practically minded family cars through and through, this one is aimed much more obviously at the executive market, with a more overt premium aura and more heavily accentuated dynamic credentials. 

Renault has lofty ambitions to upset the German stalwarts in this segment, with the likes of the Audi Q3 and BMW X2 mentioned as benchmarks, and bosses are confident that while the Rafale opens up a new segment for Renault and takes the brand into new price territory, there is substantial market demand for such a car. The D-segment market, the French firm notes, is the fastest-growing in Europe, and sportback SUVs in that sector are particularly in vogue. Conversations about re-entering this sphere with a lower-slung saloon, fastback or estate, we’re told, didn't last very long. 

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The Rafale is available from launch with Renault’s unusual (and almost impenetrably complex) E-Tech Full Hybrid powertrain, combining a 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine with a with a pair of electric motors – one to provide supplementary traction power and the other serving as an integrated starter-generator – for 197bhp and 0-62mph in 8.9sec. A small 2kW battery under the driver’s seat, meanwhile, allows for engine-off driving over short distances. 

A four-wheel-drive, 296bhp plug-in hybrid, riding on a chassis fettled by Alpine and equipped with a 22kW battery for 62 miles of electric-only range, will land later this year, starting at £48,140 as an alternative to the likes of the Mercedes GLC 300e and Volvo XC60 PHEV. 

In keeping with Renault’s commitment to offering as simple a line-up as possible, there are just three trims available from launch: Techno, Techno Esprit Alpine and Iconic. They're priced from £38,195, £42,195 and £44,695 respectively and available in a choice of five colours, with one set of wheels and one upholstery configuration. Standard kit is generous at all levels, but mixing and matching of options will not be tolerated. You want the 360deg camera? It’s Esprit Alpine trim or bust.

DESIGN & STYLING

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The Rafale cuts an imposing and eye-catching figure on the road, insofar as a mass-market family SUV can ever really stand out. It's perhaps no surprise that the hand that sketched these creased, muscular lines was previously deployed to assist in the creation of the similarly conceived and equally remarkable Peugeot 408. If the coupé-SUV truly must exist as a concept, the Rafale proves that it can at least carry some visual allure.

Unlike Renault’s new electric cars, the Rafale eschews nostalgia-fuelled retro appeal for a cleaner-cut, more modernist look that brings it into line with the latest Megane and Scenic, although there is at least a small motif on the sunroof depicting the outline of the 1930s racing aeroplane from which it takes its name. A curious source of inspiration, perhaps, but a good embodiment of the value Renault places on heritage as it fights to carve out a distinct identity in the face of intense competition from new rivals in every segment. 

The Rafale is a deceptively large car, occupying only slightly less road than the Hyundai Santa Fe, and has one of the longest wheelbases in its segment, at 2740mm, bolstering its utility credentials and no doubt widening its target audience to encroach on the turf of some straighter-backed rivals. 

INTERIOR

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The Rafale bears one of those paradoxical silhouettes that attempts to be both high-rise family hauler and rakish riviera cruiser. It mostly pulls it off to good effect. The rear seats are spacious in all dimensions (I was comfortable sitting behind a 6ft-tall driver) and the boot, while naturally incurred upon by the sloping tailgate, is flat-floored, square-sided and still usefully capacious, at 535 litres - a mere pint of milk less than in the Peugeot 408.

The most obvious trade-off for the Rafale’s slippery silhouette is rearward visibility, which takes a slight knock, but the reversing camera fills the blanks nicely, and the back seat remains a bright and airy place to be.  

The cabin successfully adds a touch of upmarket appeal to an environment that’s broadly familiar from Renault’s more affordable models, introducing a slick slate-effect dash-topper and lashings of Alcantara (60% recycled, natch) and leather. But it’s a fairly dark and drab affair, all told, cheapened by the liberal use of gloss black plastic and hardly enlivened by the subtle tricolore stitching on the door panels. 

Physical switchgear, comes in relative abundance, and is all of pleasing tactility and accessibility. The thick-rimmed steering wheel - gratuitously squared off though it is - hosts familiar audio and cruise control toggles and a panel on each side of satisfyingly responsive haptic buttons, which are all right about where you would expect them to be. 

Continuing a recent run of getting things right when it comes to ADAS and infotainment, Renault hasn't given the Rafale’s touchscreen too much to do. The climate control is adjusted easily using a row of toggle switches and there’s a button to the side of the steering wheel that activates your stored ADAS settings, doing away with the ever-distracting process of deactivating all the legally mandated ‘assistance’ features on the move. 

The screen itself is crisp of definition and its interfaces logically arranged, so it’s quick to get the hang of and easy to use on the move. It’s big, at 12in, but angled and positioned so as not to incur on your field of vision; and because it’s portrait-oriented, rather than landscape, you don’t have to stretch to reach over to the other side of the car at 70mph to change the radio channel. 

It forms part of a wraparound cockpit arrangement, together with a 12.3in digital driver's display and head-up projection that helps to create a cocooning and genuinely driver-focused environment.

That’s augmented by the bespoke seats, which have greater lateral support than those in the Austral to (ahem) bolster its sporting pretences and make the Rafale feel a touch more special than its school-running siblings.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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The Rafale E-Tech is not a fast car, no matter how much Eau d’Alpine it’s wearing. The hybrid set-up musters just 197bhp, which is no great shakes in the context of the 1.7 tonnes it's charged with propelling. The 0-62mph sprint, as a result, takes a pretty uncompetitive 8.9sec.

It would be quicker if both power sources worked together at all times; as it is, the Rafale launches with the engine off, meaning there’s just 67bhp from the electric motor to haul it off the mark - and you feel the deficit. 

When the petrol unit does wake up, it’s mostly as refined and perky as any other three-pot on the market, although the soundtrack is relatively characterless and it verges on thrashiness under full load. 

When the closely related Austral launched last year, it was criticised for the languidity of its clutchless, unsynchronised gearbox, which has five ratios for the engine and two for the motor - with one shared between the two power sources at all times to give a total of 15 ratios. Software updates – also applied to the Austral – have gone some way to rectifying that, and the Rafale shifts much more intuitively, but there’s still a tangible pause between ratios and a little kick when the drive is reconnected, and it’s difficult to guess when it’s coming. 

It’s frustrating to be deprived of the ability to change gears yourself, too, in certain high-load situations, although the paddles behind the steering wheel give enough adjustment over the regen that you can use them in place of the brake pedal when coasting.

The Rafale is a calm car. Nice and easy does it. Progress may not be especially rapid or rampant, but it’s impressively smooth, and frugal to boot. 

RIDE & HANDLING

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Renault took no small risk in naming its new SUV after a racing plane and loudly talking up its dynamic credentials in the run-up to its launch. "Now that Renault has revamped its arsenal of technology for hybrid powertrains, chassis, and electronic equipment," the firm said, "it could no longer deprive its customers of a vehicle born and bred for driving pleasure."

Hmm. Pinch of salt, perhaps. The Rafale is at least aided in this regard, though, by a 20mm wider track than the Austral and Espace, along with 10mm wider wheels and a bespoke chassis tune that boosts steering response times by 30% and reduces body roll by 10%. 

All cars except the entry-level Techno have a rear axle that can turn up to 5deg at low speeds to reduce the turning circle and improve agility – giving a 10.4m turning circle to match the Clio – or follow the direction of the front axle at speeds of above 31mph for improved stability in fast manoeuvres. Sure enough, the Rafale is commendably unflappable when pushing on, holding its line even with the throttle applied mid-corner, with a pleasing sensation of rotating around its mid-point that you could just about compare to torque-vectoring hot hatches like the Mégane RS or Audi S3, if you were feeling generous. 

But inevitably the Rafale falls some way short of truly satisfying the keener driver. The steering rack is quick and the chassis agreeably pliant and predictable, which facilitates brisk and steady progress along sweeping roads, but it isn't rewarding or engaging, the steering being rather too numb to ever really encourage exuberance.

It took me a while to get used to the brake pedal, too, which lacks modulation at low speed and can feel a bit like an on-off switch. 

The Alpine-fettled PHEV should go some way to rectifying some of the Rafale’s most obvious performance and handling shortcomings, with four-wheel drive and 296bhp. But the added weight of another motor and a much bigger battery is unlikely to improve the Rafale’s rolling refinement, which is one of its weaker points. 

Body roll is kept in check remarkably well and I quite enjoyed the relaxed, lolloping gait into which the Rafale settles over undulating terrain, but the fussy and fidgety secondary ride goes some way to denting its premium appeal. It’s improved over the Austral, no doubt, but coarser road surfaces and imperfections set the seat base and steering column juddering, and there’s rather too much clonking and thumping over potholes for my liking at this price point. The tyre roar and wind noise at a fast cruise are fairly pervasive, too.

I can’t help wondering whether the Espace’s softer spring rates and some thicker tyres might have helped to cement the Rafale’s positioning as a hassle-free mile muncher.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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Many of the Rafale’s rivals remain available with pure-combustion or mild-hybrid power for a good deal less outlay, but it’s an attractive proposition on paper when compared with its most obvious electrified rivals.

The two-year PCP finance packages start at £289 per month at 0% APR after a deposit of £12,659, and Renault will contribute up to £1750 to the deposit on a 6.9% four-year package. So it undercuts its premium German rivals by a healthy margin, and remains competitive with more mainstream alternatives. 

The Rafale’s projected running costs paint a similarly compelling picture. It’s capable of returning 60.1mpg according to the WLTP cycle, which places it comfortably among the most frugal of the petrol-powered SUVs. I didn’t get anywhere near that on my test route, but I would still anticipate an impressive 45-50mpg to be achievable in everyday running, based on experience of the technically related Austral; and Renault estimates that the motor alone can handle up to 80% of all miles covered in urban areas. 

The Rafale is taxed favourably, too, thanks to its low official CO2 output, but the inbound PHEV will no doubt be the clincher for business buyers, with an electric-only range of 62 miles and a BIK tax rating of just 8%. 

VERDICT

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For all the rebellious, game-changing potential of Luca de Meo’s Renaulution plan, the fact remains that Renault is a business that has to make money. So we can lament its decision to launch an SUV as its new flagship rather than a saloon as much as we like, but ain’t nobody buying a reborn Laguna. So rarely does it pay to go against the grain. 

Happily, the Rafale feels different and interesting enough to stand out in an increasingly crowded – if slightly confused – market segment, with potentially broad appeal across various demographics, and does so at a price point that undercuts some similarly conceived stalwarts. 

The ride is a weak point, and it can’t claim a dynamic or performance edge over any of its core rivals, but from a practicality and value standpoint, it’s well worthy of consideration.

I'd wager the PHEV will introduce a number of important improvements across the board, though, when it lands later this year.

Felix Page

Felix Page
Title: Deputy editor

Felix is Autocar's deputy editor, responsible for leading the brand's agenda-shaping coverage across all facets of the global automotive industry - both in print and online.

He has interviewed the most powerful and widely respected people in motoring, covered the reveals and launches of today's most important cars, and broken some of the biggest automotive stories of the last few years.