Aren’t vans supposed to be anonymous? Quiet achievers and loyal tools of trade? Not when they’re the new Renault Trafic finished in electric Bamboo Green paint.
But it’s not looks we care about, it's how fit-for-purpose this French option is. And it has some fairly sizeable shoes to fill, given the previous one was still adjudged as second-best in class even at the end of its life-cycle.
The previous Trafic was a slow-burn success for Renault Australia, echoing its steady progression. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, given Renault has been Europe’s top-selling LCV brand for the best part of two decades.
With a much greater focus on servicing commercial customers, and a number of high-profile fleet deals under its belt (eg. Australia Post), Renault Australia’s biggest move has in fact been into the light commercial space.
But the van segment is undergoing a period of flux. Sure, the staples of the class — the HiAce and iLoad — are unchanged. But the new Ford Transit Custom has been edging the Trafic in the sales race of late, and there’s a new (perhaps overpriced) Mercedes-Benz Vito to be contended with, plus the new Volkswagen Transporter just around the corner.
That’s why this brand-new one, launched in May, is so important. Since then, we’ve pitched the stretched version against its best rival, said Transit Custom — a battle that ended in stalemate.
Now, we’ve run the ‘L1H1’ short-wheelbase version through our Melbourne garage, though not the eye-catching $32,990 range-opener, with its fairly demure outputs of 66kW and 260Nm and lack of cabin-dividing bulkhead and reverse-view camera.
Instead, we have the upper-spec Twin Turbo version that retails for $36,990 plus on-road costs, which gets a more potent version of the same common-rail 1.6-litre turbo-diesel engine, now with 103kW at 3500rpm and 340Nm at a low 1500rpm.
On top of that, we added the Premium Pack for $1990, which gives you curtain airbags, wide-view mirrors, a smartphone dock, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite-navigation, an upgraded sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels, Java cloth seats, chrome and gloss-black cabin highlights, and seat heating.
Good value, that. But then again, curtain airbags should be standard here, as they are on the Ford Transit Custom.
Total price? $38,990 plus on-roads, which is $3000 more than an equivalent manual, diesel SWB HiAce and $2500 more than an iLoad CRDi. In terms of the Euros, its the $38,690 Volkswagen Transporter TDI 340 that shapes up as a key rival, as well as the $37,490 Transit Custom.
Vans aren’t just A to B transport. They’re mobile offices, places where the average driver spends hours every day. And this is an area where the Trafic holds a hell of a lot of appeal.
Unlike the top-selling Toyota and Hyundai, the twin-turbo comes standard with a bulkhead that separates the cabin from the cargo area, and though there’s still some booming, it’s vastly more refined up front than the class average. The large window within also makes it easy to check on your stuff.
In typical van style, the driving position is commanding, with the signature cabover appeal, though it can be a minor effort to clamber in. Still, it’ll feel like the last word in ease to anyone familiar with contorting into a HiAce.
The driver’s seat (unlike the passenger seat) has decent height, rake and lumbar adjustment and an armrest, the wheel is rake-reach-adjustable, and the pews proved comfortable enough after a marathon stint. Kudos for the digital speedo too.
You get deep wide windows, and dual-view side mirrors with a section that shows your wheels in relation to the kerb. On top of this you also get a reversing camera on twin-turbo versions (another reason to shell out) in the rear-view mirror, and sensors.
The interior presentation is better than before, especially with the options pack as tested. That 7.0-inch touchscreen media system is generally simple to operate, and the Bluetooth for us was glitch-free and fast to re-pair (though Matt’s experience included a small gremlin).
The plastics used in the cabin are hard but also hard-wearing, which is preferable in this class, and there are enough old Trafics kicking around Europe to trust the model name’s longevity. That said, the actual fit of some of the panels isn’t up to Volkswagen standard.
The standard layout for the Trafic is three-abreast, with a fixed twin passenger bench (that would struggle to house two adults, frankly, given the way the gearstick intrudes) and the single driver’s seat. This middle seat flips down and converts into a handy working table.
There are many storage areas in the cabin, big door pockets, a laptop cubby, small hidden storage spots under the seats accessed from the rear, and a few cupholders (typically for a French car, they’re more exiguous than their American cousins).
It remains available in two lengths, with the L1H1 measuring 4999mm, about 200mm longer than before, albeit on an unchanged wheelbase. This added length is handy, as the old Trafic lagged behind the class-leaders in cargo-holding capacity.
Payload capacity of 9kg is lower on the (still front-wheel drive) short wheelbase versions than before at 1235-1237kg.
The new model claims 5.2 cubic metres of space in L1H1 guise (up 0.2m3). There’s between 2537/3750mm of load length in the L1H1 models, which is a huge step up on the old one. Additionally there are more (we make 16) load attachment points on the floor and the walls, and Renault claims that existing cargo area fit-outs such as racking or refrigeration units that had been applied to second-generation Trafic models will fit in the new model easily.
You can option a range of configurations for the Trafic, including dual sliding side doors (a single sliding kerb side door is standard) with or without glazing (non-glazed is standard), and the choice of the standard forklift-friendly barn-style rear doors or a tailgate.
So, in short, the new Trafic is more commodious than before in the rear, better equipped and more comfortable.
On-road, it remains one of the best vans you can buy. That new engine has a small capacity of 1.6 litres (barely half the 3.0 HiAce), but despite being force-fed by two turbos (one for lower revs and another higher) it feels largely un-stressed.
Au contraire. It’s extremely flexible, with its 340Nm on tap from 1500rpm, and 270Nm from only 1250rpm. This means it doesn’t take much time or application of the right foot to be right in the engine’s strong zone. You can also tow 2.0-tonne braked trailer.
The biggest issue for the brand — read more on that here — is the lack of an automatic transmission, in a segment dominated by them. European tradies like manuals, and that remains Renault’s focus. And Ford’s, too, given the manual-only Transit.
There are two saving graces for those who are dubious about working a third pedal — understandable if you’re in traffic 8-hours a day delivering. One, the manual has a precise action and light clutch, and two, that engine is so tractable you can potter around without shifting overmuch.
We did, however, have an annoying squeak in our test car’s clutch, whenever we applied the pedal. Some WD-40 called for, perhaps?
Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption is just 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, and on our unladen drive loop we managed high 7s. This is a low figure for the class, and another indication of how little stress the engine is actually under. Forget the ECO mode that dulls the throttle, it’s extraneous to anything but Euro emissions tests.
We tested the Trafic on its launch while laden, but not unladen. That’s why here we didn’t load it up. Safe to say it’s important to have a view to both. Even on 17s, the suspension shelters the cabin from the worst of the road’s sharper bumps.
Over larger obstacles such as speed humps, the rate of recovery from the rear was impressive as well, with the body settling down rapidly, more so than most. It also feels stable at highway speeds - in our case this included a run over the Westgate bridge in Melbourne on a blustery day.
The steering is light, though seldom vague, and the turning circle typically tight at about 11.5m. In terms of ride and steering, it’s there or thereabouts with the excellent Transit, as you can discover here.
From an ownership perspective, Renault is working hard. Odds are you’ll buy your Trafic from a Pro+ dealer trained especially to deal with commercial customers.
You get a three-year/200,000 kilometre warranty shorter than Hyundai, then), while capped-price servicing (at $349 per calendar year for the first three scheduled services) is also available. Maintenance is due every 12-months or 30,000km, whichever comes first – far better than the HiAce, which has six-month/10,000km intervals.
All told, the Trafic is an impressive offering. If you don’t mind shifting your own gears, it’s a good bet. This is Europe’s HiAce, so we’d be inclined to trust the engineering, while its comfort and refinement levels makes the better-selling vans here in Australia feel ancient.
We understand the appeal of buying what you know, but that’s really all the more reason to introduce yourself to the Renault, isn’t it?
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.