(Pocket-lint) - French brands have never really succeeded in selling larger cars in the UK. There's one notable exception: the Renault Espace, a ground-breaking people carrier that did will in the 80s and 90s.
But in 2017 — despite there being an all-new Espace which can be bought elsewhere in Europe, but not the UK — people carriers are old hat. It's all about SUVs. So Renault is having another crack at the big car market, this time with the Koleos.
Yep, a large car with a comically inappropriate Greek and Latin translation, for whatever reason. Is it enough to, um, get excited about?
Renault Koleos review: No seven seat option
There's one thing we have to get out the way from the off: open the boot and there's no third-row rear seats. Renault says it is prioritising comfort and individual passenger space in the Koleos — giving everyone a captain-like seat and lashings of legroom — which means there's no 7-seat versions.
This seems like an odd move, particularly given the Koleos shares its underpinnings with the Nissan X-Trail, a car that is available as a 7-seater. It's a decision we suspect will lose the Koleos sales, especially when you consider that as well as the Nissan, there's formidable competition in the form of the Skoda Kodiaq, Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe. If you want a good value 7-seater SUV, there's really quite a lot of choice, and we can't help wondering if Renault's passed on the extra row of seats in order to ensure the Koleos doesn't cannibalise sales of the Grand Scénic.
Still, for the three people left in the world who want a non-premium 5-seater SUV, the Koleos isn't entirely without appeal. Renault is true to its word when it says the vehicle is spacious inside. Indeed, the car is almost American in its internal proportions — with only the panoramic glass roof encroaching on head room for the very tallest of drivers. Rear legroom is very generous. Boot space is, as you would expect, also considerable, at 475 litres seat up — with a flat load lip when the false floor is in place, which can be removed to create a deeper load bay.
Renault Koleos review: Pumped-up design
Large SUVs can be brutish, aggressive and bulky looking, but as the Koleos follows the design path set by other recent Renaults, it looks softer. It certainly still looks big, though, which ticks the "presence" box. Nobody is going to mistake you for a weedy MPV driver in this.
The Koleos is all pumped-up volumes, big wheels and lashings of chrome. The standout elements are those elongated front lamp graphics which run into the bumper, including a chrome strip which, unusually, runs right the way along the edge of the bonnet.
It's a design that's purposeful without resorting to full-on aggression, and those softer surface forms speak of its French origins — a key differentiator over the hard-edged Germanic lines of some of its competitors.
Details have become a Renault design hallmark, so the Koleos gets the extended LED-technology front headlamps that were first seen on the Mégane. These create a very distinct look at the front, and the rear lamps carry on the theme.
In top-spec Signature Nav versions, you get the 19-inch wheels of the car shown in our pictures, giving the Koleos a nice stance.
Renault Koleos review: Interior
Inside, things aren't quite so exciting. It's not an unpleasant cabin, but in terms of its thematic design and architecture, the Koleos is rather hum-drum. There's nothing that really stands out by way of an intriguing details or differentiator from the norm, bar the tablet-orientated touch screen that's standard on Signature Nav spec models.
"So what?" you might say — many premium brands also avoid those standout, wilder designs. Which is true, except that in an Audi or Mercedes the simplicity of the theme acts as a backdrop to the fine materials and ultra-high quality details. Unfortunately, despite the Koleos top models featuring leather and wood, much of what you can touch and see is shared with much cheaper cars like the Megane, and it shows. The wood finisher on the dashboard feels like a cheap afterthought. It's not outright bad, it just lacks the flair we've come to expect from Renault, or the depth of perceived quality you'll find in a premium brand. Forgettable, is a word that springs to mind.
Renault Koleos review: Equipment and technology
One reason for choosing a Renault, historically speaking, is the level of standard-fit equipment you'd find compared to the competition. It's here the Koleos continues the family tradition.
There are only two trim levels available: Dynamique S Nav and Signature Nav. We drove the top-of-the-line Signature Nav model, which starts at £29,800. The Dynamique S Nav is well equipped, though, starting at £27,500 for the 1.6 DCi 130 two-wheel drive model. S Nav models feature parking cameras, blind spot warning, a raft of safety features (like emergency brake and lane-keep assist), a panoramic sunroof (which opens rather than being fixed), part-leather upholstery, keyless entry and a 7-inch R-Link 2 multimedia system with TomTom Live sat nav, DAB radio and Android Auto / Apple CarPlay capabilities as standard.
Signature Nav models, as reviewed, add 19-inch alloys, an electrically operated tailgate with foot sensor for hands-free operation, full LED headlamps, leather seats (heated and electrically operated up front), and the 8.7-inch touchscreen running the R-Lint 2 system.
If you've driven a new Mégane or Scénic, the system will seem familiar, because it's exactly the same. However, the driver gets a digital, personalisable gauge cluster, which allows you to pick from four different speedo/rev counter designs and colours. We'd really be more keen on it allowing more of the driver's digital display to be turned over to displaying the sat nav turn-by-turn instructions, or having a secondary digital display for selecting radio stations and making phone calls.
As things are, the limitations of the driver cluster means your main point of interface is the centre screen — which, as we've noted before, is a mixed bag. Big thumbs up for its size, multi-touch operation (pinch-to-zoom, swipe etc), the TomTom live navigation service and the standard Android / Apple functionality. We're much less keen on the clunky graphics, occasionally laggy response of the screen and how fiddly it can be to perform basic tasks (adjusting the fan speed manually involves swiping up a climate pain from the bottom of the screen — this took us three attempts from the passenger seat, when we weren't driving.)
Notably, Renault choose between the two engine and two gearbox options for either model. The range starts with the 1.6-litre, 130hp DCi diesel (these two-wheel drive (2WD) models come with a manual gearbox and are the tax-friendly models (128g/km CO2 and £160 tax in year one)). Move up, and you get the 2.0-litre 175hp DCi with four-wheel drive as standard (this comes with a manual, 6-speed gearbox (148g/km CO2) or an Automatic X-Tronic (156g/km CO2 and a chunky £500 first year tax rating)).
Renault Koleos review: The drive
At the launch, Renault only had the top-specification Signature Nav models, in the 2.0-litre 175hp diesel engine, and the X-tronic auto box. Having spent time with the car, we're not sure this would be our first choice, and it's largely down to the auto.
Although big SUVs and autoboxes tend to be a match made in heaven, the X-Tronic auto is a CVT unit. That means it doesn't use actual gear cogs, but a belt to vary ratios. CVTs can be more economical than regular autos, but they have a nasty characteristic — when you put your foot down they tend to be noisy as they don't let the engine revs rise in a linear way, instead immediately flaring the engine up to high revs to deliver power.
Renault has sought to cut-out this characteristic by giving the X-Tronic fake steps, which means that as you accelerate it behaves more like a normal automatic. And it nearly works — certainly this CVT is much more likeable and refined than the type you'll find in a Toyota Prius — but it does still feel like someone's slipping the clutch, some of the time. And when you really try to get away from the line quickly — say when leaving a slightly blind junction — that wailing, sudden high-revving CVT characteristic shows up. So we'd opt for the 6-speed manual gearbox as a first choice.
The diesel engine, on the other hand, is a good unit. It's relatively refined and has few vices. It gets a little noisy at high revs but it's generally quite smooth for a diesel. Despite 175hp not feeling like a lot of horsepower compared to some these days, we never felt that the Koleos seemed desperately slow. Pity, however, that for now Renault isn't offering a petrol or hybrid option — especially given how concerned many people are about diesel pollution, and possible future taxation.
What the Koleos did manage well — in this four-wheel (4WD) drive guise — was a spot of light off-roading. Renault had us attack a muddy hill in the car, set in its 2WD drive setting — there's a switch which allows you to set the car to run in 2WD only, automatically select when it needs 4WD or lock it in 4WD — and half-way up the hill the Koleos on its regular road tyres was defeated by the mud and slope. But stopping and flicking into 4WD lock allows 50 per cent of the power to be fed to the rear wheels — and here the Koleos set off up the hill again with minimum fuss and no wheel spin.
A big SUV is never going to be the last word in driving fun, though, so we think Renault has made the right choice in setting up the Koleos to be easy to drive. The steering is light and it's generally very easy to get on with. The car's quite easy to position on the road and round-town visibility is good, although we felt that the driver's seat didn't go low enough, or the steering wheel telescope out far enough for perfect comfort.
The biggest issue about the way the car drives is ride comfort. On the larger 19-inch wheels of the Signature Nav models, the Koleos crashed and bumped its way around the Cotswolds. By the end of the day we were swerving to avoid the worst potholes.
There's genuinely no such thing as a bad car anymore. And despite some flaws, the Koleos is very far from being a vehicle you should avoid. It's refined, well equipped and — so long as you like the chrome and lights — good-looking for a big SUV.
We think it might be more appealing in lower spec trims though. The DCi 130 engine is hushed and refined in other Renault applications, and mated to a 6-speed manual in the Dynamique S Nav trim, the Koleos looks good value.
But we can't help and look at the upper-spec models, like the one on review here, and wonder to whom it will appeal. Because, unfortunately, this configuration sees the Koleos offer neither the true practicality and people (children) carrying capability of 7-seat SUV rivals, nor has the badge or interior design cachet to compete with the premium brands.
Renault's quest to find another sales smash-hit in the larger car category may have to wait for another day. Oh, and it could really do with a better name.