But this week the French company — Europe’s top LCV brand for more than a decade running — fought back by launching the Trafic Crew six-seater.
The Trafic Crew is based on the long-wheelbase (LWB) variant, and costs $3500 more than its three-seat cousin, at $42,990 plus on-road costs — about $2000 more than the equivalent iLoad and $3000 more than the (five-seat) HiAce.
The ace up its sleeve over its three-seat twin is a second row of seats accessed by two sliding doors, with two ISOFIX anchors, vast amounts of leg, shoulder and head room, ample storage space, three adjustable headrests and a trio of lap-sash seatbelts.
There are also hidden tubs under two of the back seats, and a solid steel bulkhead with a see-through window behind the occupants to protect them from cargo, and isolate them from signature van road noise. It's well-sealed and expensive.
The seats are more spacious than any dual-cab ute's this side of a RAM 2500 that costs triple the price, while the cargo area is a very useable four cubic-metres, which is bigger than a Kangoo Maxi's, and two-thirds the size of the Trafic three-seater.
For context, the cargo area is 150mm longer than the iLoad crew van's, at a minimum of 1740mm. The Trafic Crew’s load length also grows to 2423mm for flat items thanks to an under-seat storage nook.
There’s also 1268mm between the arches (enough for a standard pallet), twin-side door openings that measure 1391mm and a loading height of 1387mm, plus a maximum 1118kg payload that pips the Hyundai and trounces the HiAce crew.
There are six tie-down points as standard, as well as rear barn-style doors that open 180 degrees (you have to pay extra for the twin doors on some rivals). Good for forkies.
As we know from experience with the extant Trafic range, the driving position is commanding. It’ll feel like the last word in ease to anyone familiar with contorting into a cabover HiAce.
The driver’s seat (unlike the passenger seat) has decent height, rake and lumbar adjustment and an armrest, the steering 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.
Equipment-wise, the base Trafic Crew at $42,990 gets standard features such as front, side and curtain airbags for front occupants (none for the back row, as is familiar in the segment unfortunately), a load-adaptive stability control system, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, LED daytime running lights and 16-inch steel wheels.
There are also cloth seats, manual air-conditioning, a leather steering wheel, electric front windows, a rear-view camera in the rear-view mirrors, parking sensors, Bluetooth phone and audio, and two USB points.
Over and above the regular base Trafic, the Crew also gets the dual glazed sliding side doors, the rear seats with under-cushion buckets, a rear 12V socket, anti-slip passenger floor covering and door/roof trimming.
For another $2490 you can option the Premium Pack, which adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a deadlocking system and anti-theft spare wheel holder, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav and a better audio system, a heavier-duty 800A battery, dark upholstery, leather/silver dash trims, a heated driver's seat, and body-coloured bumpers.
You can also option the Lifestyle Pack for $2990, which gives you the Premium Pack plus extras such as rear LED interior lights, climate-control air-conditioning, keyless entry, roof speakers, and rear sun blinds. Yet this pack also deletes the nifty flipping rear seat bases with hidden storage. Instead, the seats recline, albeit only slightly. Don't bother.
Under the Trafic’s bonnet is the familiar flagship twin-turbo diesel engine. Its capacity of 1.6-litres is diminutive, but its 103kW at 3500rpm and 340Nm at 1500rpm outputs are competitive. The 0-100km/h sprint takes an acceptable 10.8sec.
The engine is matched as standard to a six-speed manual gearbox, though Renault Australia is confident of sourcing a long overdue dual-clutch automatic option by late 2018, which is expected to bolster sales by 50 per cent.
Unlike the rear-drive Hyundai and Toyota (where the driven wheels are under the load rather than ‘pulling’ it), the Trafic’s engine torque goes to the front wheels, though its 2000kg braked towing capacity and 2940kg maximum GVM are competitive.
The engine is a tractable cracker despite its diminutive size, with a heap of low-down torque (270Nm from about 1200rpm) for effortless urban crawling, and what proves to be a strong mid-range as you row through the six forward gears.
There’s no automatic still, unlike all rivals, but light is at the end of the tunnel there, too. And at least the manual has a nice predictable shift action and a light clutch that nevertheless has sufficient resistance at the take-up point.
The real highlight of the driveline is its noise suppression. There are very few vibrations into the cabin, making the driving environment much more pleasant day to day, and making cabin conversation and calls via Bluetooth clearer. This where that bulkhead helps too.
Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption is 6.2 litres per 100km. With its 80-litre fuel tank, the range can therefore feasibly exceed 1000km. We recently had a three-seat 103kW Trafic on long-term loan and averaged 9.0L/100km over 1880km of hard driving.
Dynamically, the Trafic remains among the best in class alongside the Transit and Transporter. Its urban ride is cosseting, booming from the cabin is non-existent thanks the the steel and glass bulkhead, and the body settles quickly after hits even when unladen.
The steering is light, though seldom vague, and the turning circle is tight at about 11.5m. In terms of ride and steering, it’s there or thereabouts with that excellent Transit, as you can discover here.
Being a work van, you can have almost any option under the sun, from basics such as a plastic cargo floor cover and wooden panels, to various racking options inside and out and beyond.
From an ownership perspective, Renault is working hard. Odds are growing that you’ll buy your Trafic from a Pro+ dealer trained especially to deal with commercial customers. The downside is that Renault lacks the sheer scale, or Australian business experience, of Toyota, which has nailed the market with an otherwise inferior offering for good reason.
Renault has a three-year 200,000km warranty for light commercial vehicles, three-year roadside assistance plan, capped price servicing for the first three scheduled services (at $349 per capped price service, with 12-month/30,000km intervals) and Renault Financial Services, an in-house provider.
The Trafic Crew is a very strong player in a niche market. The presence of a bulkhead and the sheer size of the rear seats (despite a lack of adjustability) makes it comfortable for a handful of people, while driving manners remain outstanding and Renault's hunger for sales growth infers good service.
If you're one of the small number of buyers after a van that can lug a handful of people, as a kind of dual-purpose vehicle, go and kick the tyres.