French finesse: Renault Koleos

Has the ugly duckling in the SUV world turned into a swan? Renault’s newest Koleos has stolen the style card from its Nissan X-Trail stablemate, but still has a tough job to stand out against the big rivals. Angus Boswell drives it.

The Koleos didn’t have a great start in life. Back in 2006 it first landed like an ugly duckling in a brand-new pond where fellow medium crossover SUVs were making a big flap in the popular imagination. Somehow the Renault seemed awkwardly styled inside and out, and even a little effeminate. The unfortunate pointy nose meant it had a decent approach angle, and its Nissan-derived part-time all-wheel-drive system gave it credible performance off-road. But it looked beaky, and the sales volumes went to the X-Trail and Qashqai which also shared its Renault-Nissan C Platform.

The facelifts in 2011 and 2013 didn’t help much, and nor did the local marketing association with South Africa’s braai masters, so the second generation which arrived in 2016 needed to be a game-changer. And it was, in many ways. Here was an all-new car based on the Renault-Nissan CMF-C platform, still shared by the X-Trail, but with a distinct and restrained Renault flavour. This Koleos was a car with decent proportions, showing obvious SUV cues like roof rails, raised ground clearance, and bulked-up wagon silhouette. This time, it was all about elegant European form and design sensibility – certainly when compared to its X-Trail stablemate, which remains a generic pastiche of frowning hawk-eye bonnet and grille, swoopy overblown wheelarch curves and forgettably fussy character lines doing nothing much.

Give it a second look

A quick glance at the new Koleos does not do it justice. Let it roll by slowly and you’ll realise it’s really rather good, with functional wheelarch creases, narrow headlights and rather Germanic linking lines on the tailgate to disguise the bulk. Our test model had LED headlights and two-tone 18-inch alloys, denoting its upper-spec Dynamique status, rather than the bright single colour of the lower Expression model.

The 2016 model was given extra spec in 2019, and this latest 2021 model has been given a thorough rework, focusing on user experience. The quality inside is a pleasant surprise, the build and materials choices excellent. The Dynamique gets a leather interior, up from fabric, but what shines is how well it’s put together. There is space aplenty too, because it has a long wheelbase and the focus was clearly on making the five available pews comfortable. The front seats are deep and wide, with electrical adjustment for the driver and front passenger, but a surprise is the design of the second row, which is set high to offer a good view out (vital for keeping the kids happy) and generous leg room. Things like a big glove box and deep centre console with two USB ports and a sliding central armrest with a storage top all up the interior convenience factor.

A high-definition portrait-orientated 8.7-inch capacitive touchscreen dominates the centre dash (slightly smaller 7-inch on the Expression model), and looks properly integratedinto the dash, with Renault’s R-LINK 2 system offering clear graphics and easy integration of sound, navigation and other functions. It links seamlessly to smartphones and the sound system is superb. At the same time, there are enough analogue buttons to easily get to primary HVAC and other vehicle comfort functions. The Koleos range is intended to show Renault does premium, so on top of things like cruise control, the Dynamique offers a tyre pressure monitor, blind spot monitoring, an electrochromatic rear-view mirror, reversing camera, and parking sensors front, rear and to the side. Bootspace is a generous 464 litres, which felt big enough, but is slightly less than the Nissan X-Trail’s 550 litres. Another thing, the doors open very wide – useful for getting in awkward objects and decrepit parents-in-law.

The Drive

So it’s good to sit in and the toys and driver comforts integrate well, but how does it drive? I didn’t expect a race car, as this is clearly positioned as a family wagon. The steering has some feel, and the other controls have a heft that speaks of quality – all good. The engine is one with a long-service history in the Renault-Nissan stable: a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol with 126kW and 233Nm. It is supposed to have been fettled over the years to reduce fuel consumption, stated at 8.8 litres/100km in the combined cycle, though in the real world it was slightly thirstier. It’s mated to a X-Tronic Continuously Variable Transmission, which before was not quite right. Happily, it now works with less hesitation, and hooks up very firmly when you push the throttle flat and want to overtake. Definitely a substantial improvement, and now very close to a traditional automatic, with the benefit of less mechanical complexity.

The ride and handling I thought was well judged. It is compliant and offer fussfree driving around town, without being soft and rolling on the corners. It feels solid, dependable and difficult to unsettle. I drove on national roads and some dirt, finding it equally at home on the dirt, with no bumping or crashing, so it will be a good gravel traveller. Renault appears to have sidled the 4×4 version out of its local line-up, perhaps for pricing reasons, but it is available in other markets and our 2WD front-driven Dynamique handled South African roads with confidence. Nissan by contrast has retained the shared ALL-MODE 4×4-i system for its local X-Trail line-up, but there’s a price penalty, and, in truth, most Koleos buyers probably won’t miss having the extra driven wheels. Where’s the elephant in the room? For all the polished interior, stylish exterior and fine finishes, the Koleos struggles to stand out in a very crowded medium SUV segment. While it looks good, the engine is a tad thirsty and it lacks real fizz. Local buyers have defected in droves to the VW Tiguan, Toyota Rav4, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage. These offer (for the top rivals) a bigger service network, peppier and more frugal drivetrains, plus equivalent driver technologies – often at a lower price point. It’s a pity, because the Koleos is a decent car with lots of quality tech.

Model line-up & pricing

• 2.5 Dynamique CVT 4×2: R584 999

• 2.5 Dynamique CVT 4×4: R634 999

*Both models come standard with a 5-year/150 000km mechanical warranty and 5-year/90 000km service plan with 15 000km service intervals.

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