Road test: is the Renault Koleos Sport the quirky choice?
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My fingers run from one side of the steering wheel to the other, hoping not to accidentally trigger a self-destruct sequence or change the display language to Korean.
I’m looking for something that should be quite straightforward; how to make my music louder.
The flanks of the Renault Koleos’ steering wheel feature a pair of innocuous rocker switches — each a logical placement for volume adjustment but both are dead ends. Buttons for Bluetooth controls and buttons for menu scrolling exist, as do two typical stalks stabbing outwards from the steering column but still I struggle.
Eventually, someone ends the madness by pointing it out to me.
Obscured by the steering-wheel is a stubby little lever. On its tip are two buttons; one for volume up and one for volume down. Behind them, perhaps the size of an old-world Kiwi 50c piece is a rotating dial to twirl for switching songs.
Renault has long flown under the radar in New Zealand, to the point where some readers may be surprised that under the sheet-metal, this Koleos SUV shares the same CMF-CD platform as the Nissan X-Trail.
However, any assumptions that conventional Nissan bones could overcome typical French swagger are greatly mistaken.
It starts with the volume controls and leaks out to other portions of the cabin. Even the key fob isn’t immune from such innate oddness — being approximately four times the size of any other. You’re never likely to lose it, I suppose.
In general, the cabin is a core Koleos strength. It’s well appointed, with our foundation Zen-spec car featuring faux-leather upholstery, soft-touch plastics across the dashboard, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Contrast stitching, a pair of grab-handles on the centre console and just enough “metal” to elevate the cabin to feel like a more premium place than most.
But there are less-stellar quirks in play, too, such as Renault's decision to not make a right-hand drive bezel for its automatic shifter. This results in the icons for “Park”, “Drive” et al, being almost completely hidden by the shift lever in general driving. It’s disconcerting, to say the least.
There isn’t a huge amount of space in the front, nor in the boot (458L is fine, if not spectacular compared to, say, the 615L you’ll get in a Volkswagen Tiguan). This doesn't compute when you consider the Koleos comes with a huge 2700mm wheelbase.
It’s only when the rear doors are opened that it becomes clear where the surplus dimensions have been spent. Rear leg-room is above average for this segment, with class-leading knee room an important statistic for those wanting to make use of their SUV’s practicality prowess.
All of this makes it rather complicated when we get down to the nitty gritty of dollars and cents.
The Koleos begins at $39,990 for the base two-wheel drive Zen — exactly the same price as the equally French Peugeot 3008, the all-rounder Hyundai Tucson, the ageing Mitsubishi Outlander, the attractive Mazda CX-5, the Koleos’ X-Trail evil twin, and the Skoda Kodiaq — Driven’s 2017 family car of the year.
The all-new Holden Equinox, SEAT Ateca, and Honda CR-V are a smidge less, while the aforementioned ubiquitous Tiguan is four grand more.
In other words, it’s an extremely crowded house.
It’s only made more confusing that this model is the $44,990 Koleos Zen Sport — an entry-level model outfitted with the sharp visual kit. It slots underneath the $49,990 Intens, which is the cheapest 4WD variant. The pair come with the same engine and FWD format, while the Intens Sport and Intens turbo-diesel are priced at $54,990 and $56,990 respectively.
Zen models come fitted with a digital speedometer and a 7.0-inch R-Link touch screen that includes satnav, Bluetooth connectivity, a reverse camera, and an interface that's both quick and thoroughly customizable. Intens models trade that for an 8.7-inch portrait touch-screen fitted with Bose audio among other bells and whistles.
The Sport models come with embossed seats, revised badging, a body kit, and four enormous 22-inch wheels wrapped in four 265 rubber bands.
Pleading a case for the Koleos is hard. Several of those aforementioned rivals come with a third row of seats, and more toys and safety equipment. Our Zen Sport dodged safety tech such as lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring, but came with emergency brake assist and electronic brake distribution.
However, few of those alternatives look quite as good.
I get that aesthetics are a point of individual taste and all, but it’s hard to deny that the Koleos stands out when parked up at the supermarket next to the rest of its rivals. Chrome is used in abundance, but not abused. Some panels are louvred and creased, but are never overly complicated. This is a well-balanced and handsome wagon in its standard form.
The Sport form may be a little too much for some. Its deep splitters and low-slung profile are shouty additions to a svelte base, with two-tone paint simply emphasising the kit (darker shades help its appearance immensely). And, perhaps disappointingly, the Sport set-up is merely an appearance package.
Not that this matters to most SUV buyers much once they are on the road. A sporty trim on a contemporary SUV is the equivalent of wearing active wear to the mall. It's all about appearances, and the beauty of the Sport is that those huge 22-inch wheels don't compromise the driving experience.
Incredibly well-damped suspension means that the Koleos Sport feels much more supple than it has any right to. And if you stick with the comfort-geared focus, the Koleos follows through with well-weighted steering, a 126kW 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that provides adequate response (for a 2WD) and 2000kg of braked towing capacity, and a stepped “X-tronic” CVT that's one of the most satisfying in the segment.
Drive harder than that and you'll find that the no-name tyres aren't the stickiest under stress, and that engine — a “shared” naturally aspirated unit — is harsher and more droning than its more modern turbocharged rivals.
And maybe that's the best way to nail down the Koleos. Continental panache, in arguably its most accessible package. An entry-level European SUV with miles more living space than any of its contemporaries, for much less money.
It may not quite have all the frills, but it's unique. And we like unique.
2018 RENAULT KOLEOS ZEN SPORT (2WD)
Pros: Undeniably handsome, spacious and comfortable, surprisingly good CVT, some charming quirks
Cons: Some not-so-charming quirks, could be better equipped, Sport not as attractive as “normal” variants
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