Renault Koleos: Value meets capability
The line between crossover and SUV can be a thin one, but the new Renault Koleos is a proud member of the latter club. Bigger and bolder than expected, it’s also solidly built, and not scared to tackle a bit of the rough stuff. But it’s entering a very crowed market …
The Renault South Africa marketing team could have been forgiven for considering last week’s inclement weather in Gauteng as untimely and downright inconvenient.
The deluge of rain coincided with the media launch of the French marque’s latest SUV, transforming access roads into muddy quagmires, while umbrellas became a sought-after commodity.
But while the rain may have drenched a few hapless hacks, it also served as an unexpected – and welcome – opportunity to find out just what the new Renault Koleos is capable of. After all, too many SUVs rely more on image than on capability for their appeal.
After a good soaking, the gravel sections of the test route posed much more of a challenge than the powers that be at Renault would have liked. Huge puddles, concealed potholes, lurking rocks and stretches of greasy mud made for some decidedly interesting driving.
To Renault’s credit, there were no attempts to shorten the route, or bypass the gravel sections. And the Koleos vindicated that decision by passing the test with flying colours.
Admittedly, the launch units were all-wheel drive derivatives, which provided vital extra traction when things got slippery (on tar and dirt). But I have no doubt that the more affordable front-wheel-drive models, which are likely to represent the majority of Koleos sales here, would also have coped.
The Koleos nameplate isn’t new to South Africa. The previous model arrived here about a decade ago, well ahead of the surge in SUV sales we’re now experiencing. And frankly, it looked more crossover than SUV.
When the next-generation Koleos was launched in Europe in 2016, South Africa wasn’t on the launch list. Instead, we got the sexier, trendier Kadjar. And now, the tables have been reversed again: the Koleos has finally arrived.
According to Renault SA, it’s not a question of the one being better than the other, but rather a decision based on price: the Koleos is built in Renault Samsung’s Korean plant, which makes it more cost effective to produce, and cheaper to import, than the just facelifted Kadjar.
Given the current economic gloom, price sensitivity is at an all-time high, especially on big-ticket items, and being able to offer a substantially proportioned SUV like the Koleos at a keen price would have made the choice a no-brainer for the local Renault operation.
Substantial is a good word to describe the Koleos. It’s a lot bigger than you expect, especially compared to the sculpted finesse of the Kadjar: longer and taller, if not much wider.
The styling is bolder too, albeit more SUV-generic, and a little heavyset at the rear. That said, the huge grille with equally huge diamond logo, framed by distinctive daytime running light signatures, is certainly eye-catching and unambiguously Renault.
The rear view showcases some attractive styling touches, including the way the rear taillight clusters extend horizontally, and the unusual brightwork garnish hosted by the rear diffuser. There’s more chrome for the door handles, and the side window surrounds.
But it’s the cabin that is arguably the new Renault’s strongest suit. It’s stretch-out spacious, especially for rear occupants, who really get the business class treatment – certainly in terms of legroom.
That’s because the Koleos is capacious enough to be offered as a seven-seater in some markets, which means there’s lots of room with only one seating row. The boot is substantial, too, and can be further extended by folding the split rear bench seat flat.
The interior build quality is worth mentioning. There’s a real sense of solidity in the way the cabin is screwed together, and while there’s nothing obviously opulent, the materials and finishes find a happy medium between smart and functional.
The cabin comes in two executions – entry-level Expression, and full-house Dynamique. But even the Expression could be termed luxurious in equipment terms.
Yes, it makes do with cloth upholstery, but gets most of the other bells and whistles, including dual-zone climate control, electric windows, remote central locking, and a 7-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system.
The latter embraces all the expected features – Bluetooth for hands-free calls and audio streaming, multi-speaker sound, USB and analogue inputs, and both Android and Apple CarPlay.
The sound is worth an extra mention: with eight speakers and virtual 3D, it’s pretty impressive, even by premium standards. A user-configurable digital instrument cluster adds a further touch of high-tech dazzle.
The active and passive safety measures are pretty comprehensive, including front and side airbags, ABS brakes, electronic stability control and hill start assistance. You also get rear parking sensors, as well as auto-activating headlights and wipers.
The higher-spec Dynamique execution adds leather, electric seats, LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, a keycard with keyless entry and starting, all-round parking sensors, ambient lighting with adjustable hues, and a larger touchscreen.
All models share the same 2.5-litre engine, linked to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The normally aspirated four-potter promises 126kW and 233Nm, but you need to keep it on the boil to make the most of the urge on offer.
I’m not a fan of CVTs, which are notorious for the way the so-called rubber band effect makes it sound like the clutch is slipping. The Koleos adds seven virtual steps as simulated gears to the CVT formula, which helps to make the gearbox feel and respond more like a conventional auto transmission.
It goes some way to addressing the CVT’s rising-rev drone, and allows for greater driving engagement, but it’s still one of the French SUV’s weak points – and there’s no manual or full-auto alternative.
Performance is sprightly, especially given the vehicle’s bulk. To Renault’s credit, kerb mass is impressive at under 1.5 tons for the Expression, and 1,565kg for the Dynamique 4×4.
As a result, the Koleos gets to 100km/h from rest in under 10sec, with decent midrange acceleration to match. It’s no ball of fire, but it covers ground effortlessly, making long-distance cruising a pleasure, with enough pep to ensure responsive town driving, too.
For those who want to take the Koleos off the beaten track regularly, there’s an all-wheel-drive version of the Dynamique. It features three driving modes – front-wheel drive, auto, and four-wheel drive lock.
In auto mode, the system uses a viscous coupling to send power to the rear wheels when extra traction is needed, adding stability in slippery conditions – on and off the road.
If the going gets really tricky, you can lock the system to equally split the power between the front and rear axles, but only up to 40km/h. The 228mm ground clearance also helps, but in fairness, this is still a soft-roader.
The auto setting was more than sufficient to keep the Koleos on the straight and narrow, even in the wet and muddy conditions we encountered during the launch event’s test drive. You could feel the rear wheels adding extra grip when needed, and the Renault shrugged off slippery sections with supreme ease.
Refinement levels are impressive, with both road and wind noise well contained, and a ride that finds a good compromise between taut control and comfort. The Koleos always felt confident and composed, even when driven with enthusiasm.
All in all then, the Koleos offers a well executed, comfortable and ultimately competent package. But will it find enough buyer support to earn it a viable niche of the already crowded SUV segment?
Although it competes in the so-called compact SUV space, the Koleos is more akin to larger contenders such as the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fé in terms of size, even if it lacks their beefier turbodiesel power.
But with pricing starting at just under R400,000, the Koleos delivers attractive value. That alone should make aspiring SUV buyers sit up and take notice. DM
Koleos Expression 2.5 CVT 4×2 R399,900
Koleos Dynamique 2.5 CVT 4×2 R439,900
Koleos Dynamique 2.5 CVT 4×4 R479,900