There’s no doubt that the Renault Austral E-Tech has serious kerb appeal, but what’s this classy full hybrid like to drive?
Over the years I’ve driven dozens of electric vehicles. And if you can charge from home and you’re open to a change of mindset, there’s every reason to switch.
However, running an EV is not without its issues, thanks to the patchy public charging infrastructure and high price of electricity at rapid chargers.
Which brings me to this week’s test car – the Renault Austral E-Tech. It’s a full hybrid, so there’s no need to plug it in to charge, and in theory it can travel up to 683 miles between fuel stops. No range anxiety there then!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an EV evangelist, but for many motorists not ready to make the transition to 100% electric or without off-street parking, a full hybrid is the next best thing.
Sure, they are not as kind to the planet as EVs, but the Renault Austral E-Tech can run in EV mode for reasonable distances, emits as little as 105g/km CO2 and can achieve up to 60.1mpg.
And as full hybrids go (its rivals include the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid, Nissan Qashqai e-Power, Honda ZR-V and Toyota RAV4), it’s definitely one of the best.
About the same size as another of its competitors (the Kia Sportage), Renault’s stylish replacement for the lacklustre Kadjar is a looker.
Priced from £34,695, the range begins with the Techno, which features 19-inch alloy wheels, matrix LED headlights, flush roof bars and parking sensors with rear-view camera, plus a hands-free key card with keyless entry.
The Techno Esprit Alpine adds 20-inch wheels, black carbon fabric and Alcantara upholstery with blue stitching, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, electric power tailgate, electric driver and front passenger seats with massage function for driver, traffic/speed sign recognition, and adaptive cruise control with lane centring.
Top-of-the-range Iconic Esprit Alpine gets 4Control Advanced four-wheel steering, a 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, 360-degree Around View camera, panoramic sunroof, and wireless phone charging.
So, as you can see, the Austral is well equipped. Additionally, all versions get a 12-inch infotainment touchscreen, a 12.3-inch digital driver’s display, 9.3-inch head-up display, plus a range of Google services built-in, including Google Maps, Google Assistant (voice control that works), and access to Google Play.
The Austral’s 196bhp hybrid system uses a gutsy new 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, two electric motors and a small 2kWh battery.
Feeling swifter than the official 0-62mph acceleration time of 8.4 seconds, the Austral can travel in EV mode up to 70mph unless you plant your right foot, in which case the engine kicks in.
And joy of joys, there’s no CVT gearbox, which means the revs don’t go sky high when accelerating. Instead, the Austral E-Tech has a seven-speed automatic transmission (which uses Renault’s Formula 1-derived clutchless technology), driving the front wheels.
Our Techno Esprit Alpine test car also had four-wheel steering, giving the Austral E-Tech a 10.1m turning circle – that’s city car levels of manoeuvrability.
On the move, it allows the rear wheels to turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels at speeds of up to 30mph, helping to increase manoeuvrability. Plus, at speeds above 30mph, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels, for improved stability.
In fact, there’s a lot of clever stuff going on, including a suite of 30 advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
The Renault Austral E-Tech always starts in EV mode, then zips along smoothly, delivering an impressive blend of electric and petrol power, enhanced by impressive cabin sound deadening. If you’re in hurry, there’s a hesitation while the system decides what it’s going to do, but broadly speaking, it’s a very slick.
The ride is firm, but such is the joy of that punchy electrically-boosted powertrain, all is forgiven.
It’s set up for sporty handling, and works well. The steering is on the light side and the four-wheel steering turns in rather too eagerly initially, but you get used to it and after a while your confidence grows.
There’s also decent grip from those big wheels, and when pushed on more challenging roads, body lean is kept in check and it’s more agile than you might expect for a crossover.
There are four levels of regenerative braking accessible via the steering paddles, and after a while, you learn to charge the battery on long downhill runs or when coasting and braking, ready to deploy when needed. And the good news is that 55mpg is relatively easy to achieve, and in town you can get closer to 60mpg or more.
The Renault Austral E-Tech is dark inside – everywhere from the seats to the headlining and door cards. That said, it has a premium feel and it seems solidly put together.
There’s plenty of space up front, even if the lowest driving position is a tad high for taller drivers. Sliding rear seats allow you to juggle space between rear passengers and boot capacity. At its most generous setting, boot space is a useful 555 litres, rising to 1,455 litres with the rear seats flipped down.
So, the Austral E-Tech isn’t perfect, but after a few days it really grows on you. And let’s face it, 600-odd miles out of a tank of petrol is very welcome.
Verdict: The Renault Austral E-Tech is one of the best full hybrid family SUVs on the market. Good-looking, classy, packed with tech, practical and economical, it should definitely be on any family car shortlist.