Renault's become a popular Hybrid brand, so it makes sense that this is the form in which we get the marque's sleek-looking C-segment SUV, the Austral. It's not premium, but it's not really mainstream either. It is though, a rather interesting all-rounder.
Britain is the biggest market for Hybrid cars in Europe. Didn't know that; probably you didn't either. Where that becomes significant is that it means we get models that otherwise we probably wouldn't have seen. Like this one, the Renault Austral. The Austral is the French maker's Qashqai-sized C-segment SUV, the follow-up to a Renault Kadjar model that sold so relatively poorly here that it originally wasn't going to be replaced. But the French marque needs a contender in this class and noted the warm reception given to self-charging full-Hybrid versions of the Clio and the Captur. Selling the Austral here with such an engine suddenly seemed to make sense. So it is we get this model - but only with that kind of engine. Let's take a closer look at the Austral E-Tech full hybrid.
Where its predecessor the Kadjar was not really much more than a re-skinned version of its Renault Nissan Alliance cousin the Nissan Qashqai, the Austral is rather more its own car. It has a slightly more electrified CMF-CD version of the CMF-C platform that underpins the Qashqai. And, surprisingly, it ignores that Nissan's clever semi-electric e-POWER engine technology too, opting instead for a self-charging full-Hybrid powertrain that Renault says delivers a better balance of speed, acceleration and efficiency. This is not the 1.6-litre four cylinder self-charging full-Hybrid set-up already used by Renault's Clio, Captur and Arkana models. Instead, it offers a lighter, more eager 1.2-litre three cylinder take on the same kind of technology that delivers a far more satisfying end result. And a surprising amount of power from such a small capacity set-up - 200hp. That means 62mph in 8.4s, which to give you some C-segment SUV full-Hybrid perspective, is a little faster than a Ford Kuga but a little slower than a Kia Sportage. Lots of other Renault Group engines will fit beneath the sculpted bonnet (principally the 1.3-litre 12V and 1.2 48V mild hybrid units from the Qashqai that make up the bulk of the Austral range in other markets), but no other units other than this rapid E-Tech Hybrid are being offered here. As with all full-Hybrids, the tiny size of the non-plug-in system battery means you won't go very far on EV power alone, but that's not really the point of HEVs, which instead use battery charge to enable to cut in and out more frequently in urban driving. A more unusual touch for a full-Hybrid in this class is the availability (at the very top of the range) of 4-wheel Steering. The '4CONTROL' system in question comes with a more sophisticated multi-link rear axle and at low speeds, the rear wheels turn by up to 5 degrees to facilitate a smaller turning circle - at just 10.1m, it's around the same as that of a Clio supermini. We can't see many Austral customers stretching for a version with this expensive feature fitted though.
This Gallic mid-sized SUV should sell itself to you in the showroom. Renault's been going through quite a purple patch of form when it comes to exterior design (most recently with the Megane E-Tech Electric) and this Austral is another good-looking effort from Laurens van den Acker and his team. Particularly when it's dressed smartly in the 'Alpine'-trimmed form you'll probably want. Not much extra spend is required to get the interior you'll probably want. All variants come with twin screens, a 12.3-inch one for the instrument dials and a 12.0-inch display for the 'OpenR' infotainment monitor. The latter runs the Android system used in the aforementioned electric Megane and it works as effectively here. Surrounding all the displays is a quality of trim and finish that you might even be tempted to call 'premium' if you didn't already know you were sitting in a Renault. All models also get a 9.3-inch head-up display and a sliding centre console armrest. Rear seat space isn't any real step forward from the old Kadjar, but it's class-competitive and a couple of adults will be reasonably comfortable, aided by a sliding bench base. The boot capacity - rated at 440-litres - is at the lower end of what you might hope for in this class, but it's better than what you'd get from a Ford Kuga Hybrid and will probably be satisfactory for most customers.
You can expect prices for this Austral E-Tech full hybrid to sit in the £35,000-£40,000 bracket and customers can choose from three well-equipped trim levels - 'techno', 'techno esprit Alpine' and 'iconic esprit Alpine'. We've already mentioned quite a few of the equipment features in our 'Design' section but here we'll brief you on what else you can expect. The 'techno' trim level gives you most of what you'd need, including 19-inch 'Komah' alloy wheels, matrix LED vision headlights, mirage-effect rear LED lights, flush roof bars, a shark fin antenna, surround parking sensors with a rear-view camera, and a hands-free key card with keyless entry. As with all Austral E-Tech full hybrid models, the cabin boasts a frameless automatic rear-view mirror and automatic dual-zone air conditioning with an air purifier. Plus, the 12-inch 'OpenR' multimedia centre screen has a range of Google services built-in, including Google Maps, Google Assistant, and access to the Google Play store. Two front and two rear USB ports ensure connectivity with the 8-speaker Arkamys audio system. The 'techno esprit Alpine' trim level goes further with its 20-inch 'Daytona' alloy wheels, 'esprit Alpine' detailing and 'black esprit Alpine' carbon fabric and Alcantara upholstery with blue stitching. Plus there's heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, an electric power tailgate, electric driver and front passenger seats with a massage function, traffic & speed sign recognition with overspeed prevention, and adaptive cruise control with lane centring. At the top of the range, the 'iconic esprit Alpine' flagship version further adds '4CONTROL' 4-wheel steering, a 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, a 360-degree Around View 3D camera, a panoramic sunroof and a wireless phone charging station. Safety-wise across the line-up, Renault is offering up to 30 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, including hill start assist, distance warning alert, emergency lane keep assist, an automatic emergency braking system, driver attention alert, traffic & speed sign recognition and cruise control with speed limiter.
Obviously, not being able to plug this Austral in means it's not going to go very far on battery power. The 1.7kWh pack in question is, like most full-Hybrids, there to cut in and out at low-to-medium speeds and obviously does a pretty good job because the combined fuel cycle figure - up to 60.1mpg - is pretty noteworthy, allowing for up to 683 miles of driving range. The CO2 reading - up to 105g/km - is even better, class-leading in fact. We should probably have expected this. Renault were good at this technology when it was based around the ancient 1.6-litre four cylinder engine used in Hybrid versions of the Clio, the Captur and the Arkana. Using the same tech with a more modern 1.2-litre unit, as the Austral does, was only ever going to yield a good result. Of course, official figures are one thing; actual day-to-day returns are another and mindful of this, Renault has provided a variety of e-driving tools to enable Austral E-Tech Hybrid drivers to get as close as possible to the stated readings. As you drive, you'll need to keep a close eye on the central dial, keeping its needle as often as possible in the 'Charge' rather than the 'Power' section. You'll also want to make use of the provided EV drive mode. This is for slow town traffic and when activated, it prioritises battery-electric drive up to about 27mph, providing there's sufficient charge. Renault reckons that it should be possible for an Austral E-Tech Hybrid owner to drive around town at low speeds in all-electric mode for 80% of the time. On the open road, remember to switch the auto gear lever to its 'B' position so that you can maximise regenerative brake energy harvesting and so preserve battery charge.
'Austral', a name which apparently evokes 'images of wide-open Southern spaces and endless possibilities', makes about as much sense as 'Kadjar' ever did. And about as much sense as Renault's claimed desire with this car to 're-conquest the SUV C-segment'. That would have been a stretch with the full Austral engine line-up offered in other countries and it clearly isn't going to happen with just this single plumply-priced Hybrid powerplant on offer to UK customers. Get beyond the rhetoric though and there are things you might really like here. Good looks, a plush-feeling cabin, strong media tech and the low taxation that comes with class-leadingly-low emissions. Your Renault dealer's finance options will probably be sharply competitive and you might even be attracted by the thought of electrification that doesn't require you to plug your car in. A decade or so ago, the Austral would have been a volume model line for Renault. Now, for the right kind of customer, it's a rather interesting left-field choice. And a rather appealing one at that.