24 March 2000

FRENCH 4WD IS MORE

PRACTICAL THAN POSEUR

Renault is not a name usually associated with off-roaders. But

its new 4wd Scenic RX4 is rather good, says John Henderson

RENAULTS Scenic RX4 is the ideal country car but they dont seem to know it. Asked who would buy this four-wheel-drive Scenic, Renault chief executive Louis Schweitzer summed up a vague buyer profile with "a yuppie type of customer".

True, 80% of small sports utility vehicles like the Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are bought by townies seeking "lifestyle statements", but Mr Schweitzer is doing an injustice to a car more practical than poseur.

With the RX4, Renault has improved the Scenics versatility by increasing ground clearance by 90mm (3.5in) and adding full-time 4wd with help from Austrias Steyr Daimler Puch. A viscous coupling acts as an automatically-locking centre differential and varies the torque going to each pair of wheels according to grip, aided by electronic traction control on the front.

The extra transmission bulk is accommodated by removing the spare wheel well and using a new rear subframe with coil-sprung suspension instead of torsion bar springs. The spare lives on a side-opening rear door with lift up window, which replaces the conventional hatch.

The RX4 sits between 4wd cars like Subarus Impreza and off-roaders like Freelanders and CR-Vs. But the interior, unchanged from the 2WD Scenic, feels much more spacious than most rivals, especially the Freelander. Theres a mass of stowage bins, ranging from a little fascia-top cubby to one under the rear seats long enough to take a shotgun, plus an air-conditioned coolbox.

On the road, a new front anti-roll bar and 4wd mean the RX4 doesnt roll much more than the standard car while improved traction makes it less likely to run wide.

On dry loose tracks the RX4 suffered no scrabble even on slopes difficult to walk on without sliding. It has no equivalent of the Freelanders Hill Descent Control but first gear is low and ABS with electronic proportioning of rear braking effort allows use of the brakes on slippery descents. Ride is excellent and there is little steering kickback.

The Scenic RX4 goes on sale on June 1 with a 140bhp, two-litre, 16-valve, variable valve timing petrol engine, to be joined later by a new common rail direct injection 1.9 turbodiesel. Though the petrols 138lb ft peak torque is at a high 3750rpm, more than 125lb ft is available from 2000 to 5500rpm, making it fairly flexible. The refined 105bhp 1.9dCi turbodiesel we tried in a 2WD Scenic is more flexible, with torque peaking at 147lb ft at only 1500rpm.

Among the rivals, only Hondas CR-V matches the petrols power and while the Freelander and Suzukis Grand Vitara have diesels neither are as powerful or frugal.

Prices range from £18,200 for the RX4 Sport Alize 1.9dCi to £19,600 for the leather-trimmed Monaco 1.9dCi.

SCENICRX4 DATA

&#8226 Models: Renault Scenic RX4 2.0 16V and 1.9dCi

&#8226 Engines: Petrol, 1998cc, four-cylinder, 16-valve. Turbodiesel, 1870cc, four-cylinder, eight-valve, common rail direct injection

&#8226 Outputs: Petrol, 140bhp @ 5500rpm, 138lb ft @ 3750. Diesel, 105bhp @ 4000rpm, 147lb ft @ 1500rpm

&#8226 Transmission: Five-speed manual (no low ratio box)

&#8226 Drive: Full-time four-wheel-drive with viscous coupling and front electronic traction control

&#8226 Brakes: Discs with ABS all round and electronic proportioning on rear

&#8226 Payload: 525kg

&#8226 Towing capacity: 1300kg

&#8226 Fuel consumption: (Combined) Petrol, 29.7mpg. Diesel, 38.2mpg

&#8226 Warranty: One year unlimited mileage with RAC

&#8226 Price: Petrol, Sport Alize £18,400, Monaco £19,400. Diesel, Sport Alize £18,200, Monaco £19,600.

Left: RX4 puts up the dust on Moroccan launch.

Above: Side opening rear door and lift-up window replace conventional hatch.

Top: Under-seat cubby hole useful for things youd rather not have on view.