The incredibly popular small SUV segment is one part of the market that Renault has been surprisingly absent from in Australia in recent years, with the French establishment’s lineup lacking a model to slot between the tiny Clio-based Captur and the Nissan X-Trail-based Koleos.
Better late than never, then, Renault has decided to introduce its previously Europe-only Kadjar to our market, and it’s not at a bad point in time either, with the new-to-us 2020-plated model benefitting from the facelift and mechanical upgrades of the 2018 European models.
While it could be easy to dismiss the Kadjar as a mishmash of different parts-bin items to conjure up a car to fill a gap in their lineup – the platform and unibody are taken from the Nissan Qashqai, the engine is the same basic unit seen in a Mercedes A-Class, and the transmission is similar to that found in the Alpine A110 – it comes together as an impressively uniform package in reality that plays on the strongest points of its shared underpinnings.
Launching with a simple three-tiered range comprising the Life at an all-important $29,990 starting point, the middling Zen on test here which starts at $32,990, and the range-topping Intens at $37,990, just one drivetrain option across the range makes buyers’ lives easy when visiting the dealership.
The options list is equally easy to navigate, too, with metallic paint such as the Iron Blue of my tester charging an additional $750, and a panoramic sunroof and auto-dimming rear-view mirror a $1000 for the Zen, although this was foregone on this particular car.
Given the short options list, you’d expect it to be pretty well-equipped otherwise, and that certainly is the case with the Zen which looks to be the real sweet spot in the range. Bringing a digital instrument cluster, seven-speaker Arkamys audio system, seven-inch touchscreen R-Link 2 infotainment system with smartphone mirroring, digital radio, and in-built satellite navigation, keyless entry and push-button start, dual-zone climate control, and automatic headlights and wipers.
All Kadjar models also come with autonomous emergency braking, a reversing camera, and front and rear parking sensors, while the Zen and Intens also add side parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring, and lane departure warning.
While certainly very generously equipped, there are a few things that do feel to be missing, however. While I’m totally okay with items like heated and power-adjustable seats or a standard sunroof only being included on the range-topper, some features such as radar cruise control or a 360-degree camera would be nice to have, especially with both being available on the Qashqai it’s based on.
A larger infotainment screen would be nice, too, given there’s easily enough space to accommodate it, while my greatest criticism by a mile has to be of the laggy digital speedo which jumps in intervals of as much as 10km/h if you give it the beans meaning you won’t know you’re speeding until well after you already are, especially as there’s no analogue dial to accompany it. This has been an issue with Renaults for some time now as well, so it’s a little disappointing to see that nothing has been done about it yet.
These few foibles aside, I really like the Kadjar’s interior as it’s very spacious and cleverly designed, with more than ample room for passengers in both rows and a handy grab-handle on the centre console for the front passenger, and a well-sized boot with a two-tiered segmented floor that can be divided in half – perfect for holding your shopping bags in place.
In the Zen, quilted cloth seat trim with leatherette-clad bolsters and a faux leather-wrapped steering wheel certainly lift the cabin ambience, as do the well-cushioned armrests, matte-finished infotainment screen, and the climate controls with very cool digital displays inside the dials that double as buttons. There are a few bits of tack to be seen that try to spoil it – the shifter feels rather cheap, the harsh plastic of the rear door cards feels incredibly low-rent when compared to the cabin plastics up front, and the centre console squeaks every time you lean your knee against it when going around a corner – but it’s otherwise a perfectly pleasant and comfortable place to spend time.
I will make mention, too, that I think it’s actually rather a good looking thing, as although it struggles to hide its Qashqai origins from side-on, the new front and rear styling and unique wheel designs go a long way to improving its looks.
Under the bonnet of all Australian-delivered models you’ll find a 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine which, as mentioned, is also found in cars such as the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and was co-developed by Renault and Merc as a cost-saving measure. It’s also one of the very first cars in Australia to be fitted with a petrol particulate filter – a hard thing to make work with our high-sulphur fuel.
Making 117kW at 5500rpm and 260Nm at a low 1750rpm in this application, it’s got more than enough grunt to out-gun the Qashqai’s 106kW/200Nm naturally aspirated 2.0-litre, even if its 9.6-second 0-100km/h time isn’t what you’d call particularly remarkable.
It’s a brilliant little engine though – very smooth and refined, with enough pulling power down low to satisfy most given it’ll easily spin its wheels off the line, although it definitely feels happiest when you get it on boost above 3000rpm as its low-displacement can be felt as it tries to spin the turbo up.
I’m most impressed with its frugality on fuel, however, as after 650km of driving which included plenty of time stuck in traffic and driving it hard with it happily boosting away, it used a mere indicated 7.1L/100km, which makes its 6.3L/100km claim look entirely believable and achievable, although in saying that, it does require 95RON at minimum as is the case with most Euro cars.
Although all-wheel drive is available on some variants in Europe, it’s front-wheel drive only for Aussies much like the Qashqai is as well, which is fine given no one will be planning on off-roading one of these despite the black plastic cladding.
A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is the only transmission option available, and this new Alpine A110-derived ‘box is a marked improvement over Renault’s older EDC transmissions. It feels much smoother around town and far more responsive and intelligent when you really pin the throttle.
While with a relatively high centre of gravity, fat sidewalls on the tyres, and torsion beam rear suspension this was never intended to be the best-handling car in the world, the Kadjar actually handles better than you may expect despite what should be letting it down.
The Qashqai link is clearly shown here as both feel largely identical in the handling department – a little understeer on the limit due to the chubby tyres on the smaller 17-inch wheels and some body roll from the solid rear end, but right on the money for the class and the type of car.
Ride comfort is excellent as well, it should be mentioned, although from other reviews I’ve read on the Intens, its larger 19-inch wheels do spoil its comfort factor somewhat, but on these smaller wheels it’s most impressive.
With Renault offering a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and roadside assistance for the same period if you get it serviced within the brand’s dealer network, that should bring some peace of mind to owners worried about the typically expensive fixes that come with European cars, and although reliability is still always a question mark, particularly when it comes to electrics. Carbuyer in the UK, where the Kadjar has been around for some time now, reports that 20.3% of owners who responded in their 2018 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey did encounter one or more problems with their cars during the first year of ownership, although it does mean that four-fifths didn’t.
While the cost of ownership does look pricey compared to most rivals at $2385 over the first five capped-price services, which is nearly a grand more than a Qashqai over the same period, the Kadjar’s long 12 month/30,000km service intervals does mean that for those doing, say, double the average amount of driving each year, it’s actually far more economical over time.
There’s a lot to like about the Kadjar as it’s pleasant to look at, nice to drive, incredibly economical, well-priced, and has a clever and spacious interior. If you’re looking for a small SUV with a bit more pep than the class norm, or you’re the sort to be racking up countless country miles, this is certainly a car well worth having on the shortlist.
2020 Renault Kadjar Zen List Price: $32,990 | As Tested: $33,740
Pros: Peppy and incredibly efficient turbo engine, comfortable and roomy interior, smooth ride and fairly sorted handling
Cons: No radar cruise control across range, squeaky centre console and cheap trim in areas, laggy digital speedo
In a nutshell: There’s a lot to like about the Kadjar, and it manages to stand out in a typically bland and uninspiring segment.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Renault Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author. Additionally, our friends at MPF Detailing also gave it a complementary Express Detail for us prior to our photoshoot.