For the money being asked for the Renault Master Bus, you could get a very small people-mover, or this ultra capable large 12-seater. It's great.
The 2017 Renault Master Bus is a box ticker. What do I mean by that? Simple. It ticks boxes for business buyers who need a bus on a budget.
Need something easy to drive to ferry people from A to B? Tick. Need 12 seats? Tick. How about a boot that’s big enough to store that many people’s luggage? Tick. Need it to be suitable for drivers with only a car licence? Tick. Want it to be diesel? Tick. How about automatic? Yep, tick.
And because we mentioned the budget – vital for business owners – it is worth noting you get everything you see here for just $59,990 drive-away. While ours was a boring, yet very easily re-sellable white, there are 10 colours available to choose from, three metallic (adds $1000) and seven solids to choose from.
We’ve been trying to get our hands on one of these buses through Renault Australia for some time, but to no avail, yet a friendly dealer – AMR Renault in Sydney – was more than happy to lend us the keys to one of their demo buses for a few days. So, thanks to Jeff and the crew for helping us out.
That $60K d/a price tag includes the aforementioned car-licence-friendly-12-seat capacity (11+ the driver), all the safety kit you need for commercial operators, like safety glass breakers, a fire extinguisher, and three-point seatbelts for all seats. There are no side or curtain airbags, but as a bus the Master is not alone in that respect.
There’s a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors, and the masses of glazing in the rear make over-shoulder glances while reversing a breeze, while the split side mirrors (with lower blind-spot sections) and auto-dimming rear-view mirror make for good vision from the driver’s seat.
Some buses have a higher-set pneumatic suspended driver’s seat to allow a little extra vision over those in the back, but that’s not the case here (you can option an air-suspended seat for $690). However, it’s not too much of a detriment to the vehicle, as there’s height adjustment if you need it, and the mirror vision is adequate through the cabin.
It’s a big bus at nearly 6.2 metres long, with a 4.3m wheelbase, almost 2.5m high and nearly 2.1m wide, easily large enough to cope with the questions asked of it. In fact, it’s questionable as to whether you really need it to be that tall, because it limits your ability to park it underground.
But that height is a huge benefit – a few of our crew are six-foot, and Australia’s self-proclaimed tallest motoring writer, Mike Costello (at 6’3” or 6’4”, depending on the day) found it to be only needing a minor stoop to get to his place on the bus. More on that soon.
One issue that could arise for the driver is that there’s no walk-through access to the main cabin. Even if you fold down the middle front seat, it’s a bit of a yoga move to get back into the main passenger area. That means you’ll have to open the electronic rear side sliding door (complete with a thoughtful fold-out step).
That door. It was a problem during our test, with our brand-new demo bus exhibiting an annoying issue of, by law of averages, not closing properly on roughly every third attempt. The door itself would actuate, but it wouldn’t seal the deal – along with leading to an annoying beep, it meant the cabin wasn’t secure, and couldn’t be secured when parked, either.
As one of my fellow CarAdvice testers, and a passenger on this test, put it, “that door really is the undoing of this bus”, while another said, “typical French engineering”. It's an optional extra, too, at $1690, and we'd expect it to work better than it did for the money, else you could just tell your occupants to slide the door themselves.
Building on the strengths of the regular Master, there is plenty of in-cabin storage up front, including overhead bins for folders, dash-top caddies for loose items, and the middle front seat folds down to reveal a set of cupholders and a flat surface for storing bits and pieces.
The media system is a basic single-din CD player with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and USB and auxiliary connectivity, and the aux jack – if you plug a microphone into it, and select the aux input, you can talk to those in the back. The Bluetooth audio streaming is good, and there’s a second USB port up front if you need to charge another device. Renault’s odd little audio control stalk on the steering column may take some getting used to for new drivers.
There's the option of a touchscreen media unit with satellite navigation for $890, while another item we reckon could be worth splurging on is the auto-dip high-beam lights with auto headlights and lane-departure warning (for $690).
From the driver’s seat the level of comfort is quite good. The front suspension is well sorted – it rolls over bumps nicely, even sharp ones, and the steering is excellent, making it feel a lot smaller than the size of the vehicle. On my drive to the Hunter Valley I didn’t feel as though I was driving something so large, such is the excellence of the engineering on offer here.
The back seat experience wasn’t so shiny. Over some truly terrible back country Hunter Valley roads my passengers described the ride as somewhat “fierce” at times, but when the road was a normal suburban or main-road quality, there were zero issues, aside from some rattling of the seats. Many, nay, all loved the glass roof section – which some incorrectly decided was a sun-roof, and very “luxury”, but even if it’s real purpose is an emergency exit, the light it let in was appreciated.
The bus's seat placement is not reconfigurable, which could be a downer for some buyers, though the legroom and shoulder room on offer is fine for the most part. You might find yourself with one arm holding the grab handle on the seat in front, though, as the seats are set up so they intersect with the pillars that run down the side of the bus, making it a bit squishy if you’re a broad-set person.
Access, aside from the door, was lauded by all, with particular emphasis placed on the pop-out step, the “old lady” hand-rail to help you get in, and the amount of glass on offer for people to see out.
All the seats recline (it wasn’t a wine tour, so they weren’t tested for their snoozability), and two of the rear seats have ISOFIX attachment points for the child seats of little ones, which is a thoughtful gesture.
There's even an optional pack with rear curtains, LED ceiling lights and four USB sockets. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to sample the rear air conditioning system, though we found it weird there weren't individual vents above all the seats – rather, there is a bank of vents up the back above the cargo area.
Under the bonnet is a 2.3-litre turbo diesel with 110kW of power (at 3500rpm) and 350Nm of torque (at 1500rpm), which, while lower than we’ve come to expect from some diesel engines of this size, is easily enough to haul the Master Bus along at highway speed, even up steep hills with cruise control activated, and with people on board.
It's not as potent as the 2.3-litre twin-turbo they use elsewhere, but it does the job. Renault isn't required to state a claimed fuel use figure for the Master, but we saw a commendable 10.1 litres per 100 kilometres on our trip, which included freeway, country and urban driving, both loaded up with people and occupied solely by the driver.
It’s a front-wheel drive vehicle, with a six-speed semi-automatic transmission that takes some acclimatisation. For instance, when you’re accelerating from a standstill the gear-changes mimic a manual shift – you can choose to lift off the throttle and attempt to smooth things out, or keep your foot flat, though the latter tends to make it lurch as the gearbox de-clutches.
You can learn the behaviour of the gearbox, and as semi-automatic or robotised transmissions go, it’s not a terrible one – but in our experience there are no good ones, unless you’re driving a prime-mover.
Parking the Master Bus was our biggest concern, with its height limiting our opportunities somewhat, and its automated manual shift between reverse and drive taking some getting used to. The length and width of it, though, not to mention the vision from the driver’s seat through the glass, was easily manageable for a non-expert bus driver like myself.
In the cargo area – accessible by a pair of barn doors that can be opened to 90 or 270 degrees (with magnetised stoppers to ensure the doors stay put in the wind or on a slope) – there’s a huge 3.5 cubic metres of space. Yes, that’s 3500 litres of cargo room, and to give you an idea of how good that is, we typically say anything over 500 litres is a ‘good size’ for a family. Yeah. It’s huge, and could possibly negate the requirement for a trailer to be towed behind, especially if you’re a suitcase Tetris master.
If you need to tow, the braked rating is a handy 2.5 tonnes, and the payload of the Master bus is 1252kg, with a gross vehicle mass of 3890kg. The Master Bus’s kerb weight stands at 2638kg, and only when it has people on board and you’re braking into a higher-speed corner is that weight noticeable. It really is surprisingly nimble.
Because Renault’s commercial vehicle range doesn’t get the same five-year warranty cover as the regular range, you get a three-year/200,000-kilometre plan instead: still not bad, especially if you’re going to clock up plenty of kays, and there’s roadside assist included, too. And on that topic, servicing is due every 12 months or 30,000km at a cost of just $349 for the first three services.
If you need seats and space, and you don’t want to spend a heap of cash, you need look no further than the 2017 Renault Master Bus.
Thanks again to our mates at AMR Renault for the loan.