Seated high and mighty behind the wheel of the 2018 Renault Trafic SWB 103, I’m rolling along the motorway at 110km/h, engine ticking over just north of 2000rpm, manual gearbox in sixth, listening to a podcast through the USB input, and I’m struck by just how bloody enjoyable this van is to drive. If you’re a delivery driver or tradie who needs a larger van, and the lack of an automatic isn’t a deal-breaker, you’re going to love the Renault Trafic.
Loaded up with one of my rusty old Vespas (it’s actually priceless patina not rust), a couple of toolboxes (no, not including me behind the wheel) and assorted boxes of ratchet straps and tie-downs, there’s no doubting the durability of the Trafic either, with its huge load space, LED lighting and useful tie-down points.There’s plenty to like about this French workhorse – before you even look at the price. Makes you wonder why so many people buy HiAces…
As tested, the Renault Trafic SWB 103 will set you back $37,990 before on-road costs. The 103 refers to the kilowatt output of the 1.6-litre twin-turbo engine, and there is also a 1.6-litre single-turbo version (85kW) that costs $34,990 before on-road costs. Given how impressive the more powerful variant is that we’ve tested, stump up the extra three grand. It’s definitely worth it.
The 1.6-litre diesel punches out 103kW at 3500rpm and 340Nm at 1500rpm, and is mated to a really impressive six-speed manual transmission – more on that in a minute. The frugal 6.2L/100km claim on the combined cycle is backed up by a real-world figure of 8.0L/100km after more than a week behind the wheel. That included laden and unladen running, two 200km+ highway runs, and plenty of stop-start driving around town. On the subject of stop/start, that system is excellent too, and we’ll also cover that in a minute.
Step up into the cabin, and a few things become immediately apparent – firstly, there’s an expansive view forward, and almost none at the rear three-quarter thanks to the solid sides. There’s a decent (if small) camera that pops up in the rear-view mirror, though, and it’s broad enough to assist when you’re reversing, so that helps out a little. Forward visibility is excellent.
The storage space in the cabin is the other thing that grabs you – mainly that there’s so much of it. The dash-top storage shelf area isn’t somewhere you’re going to want to leave a mobile phone or expensive laptop on a hot day, but it’s perfect for wallets, cables, paperwork and folders while you’re running around. There’s also a 12V socket up there too if needed. You could plug a satellite-navigation unit into that socket, for example, but the proprietary Renault system is good enough that you won’t need an auxiliary unit.
The passenger gets a fold-down cupholder, the door bins are massive, and there’s a clever fold-out storage pocket ahead of the driver’s knee, which is ideal for anything small like house keys or a wallet. Twin, dash-mounted gloveboxes ahead of the passenger also keep valuables safe. Under the passenger side of the seat, there’s a door that flips open (inside the work area) that allows you to fit longer items through if you need extra floor space.
You can fit three adults across the bench seat in relative comfort, although two occupants will be more comfortable for longer trips. The other thing you’ll want (in any van really) is the solid cabin partition wall. It makes the cabin easier to heat or cool, cuts down noise, and stops objects from flying into the cabin under emergency braking.
Our Trafic only had a sliding door on one side, which is fine in standard trim, and in most cases you don’t want to be standing out in traffic on the driver’s side trying to get things out of a van anyway. The LED lighting is excellent, and it’s super bright at night, which made loading and unloading the Vespa a cinch. There’s no messing around in the dark trying to find ratchet straps and tie-down hooks, put it that way.
The rear barn doors are really clever. They open in two stages, first to a 90-degree angle with the load space, but then to a full 180-degree opening, which makes loading wider objects a lot easier than it would be otherwise. With the doors out of the way, it gives you so much more room to manoeuvre something that might require two people to load. Much smarter than most other vans.
On that subject, the load height itself is near-perfect, and not just for motorcycles or scooters. It makes loading heavier items easier on your back, and the flat floor means you can slide them forward up to the cab divider easily as well. The tie-downs are sturdy enough for a motorcycle too, and once strapped in, the Vespa didn’t move over more than 100km between stops.
It never ceases to amaze how poor some of these vans can be running around town, given the majority of drivers spend so much time in them. However, the Trafic is one of the new brigade that is a lot more car-like than ever before. It’s big, yes, and rear three-quarter visibility isn’t great, but in terms of engine response, steering, the gearbox and braking, it’s way less commercial than you expect going in. If you’re new to the van world, take our word that the Trafic is a significant step forward from vans of old.
The stop/start system is the first thing that deserves mention. It’s snappier, faster and more intuitive than some luxury vehicles we’ve tested. I’d just stepped out of a diesel Land Rover Discovery Sport and the Trafic straight up embarrassed the Land Rover system. The second you depress the clutch, the engine fires back into life, there’s no shuddering or strange noises, and no delay that can be dangerous if you need to make a speedy getaway across traffic. It’s an excellent system that is one of the few I’ve ever left active for the duration of my week behind the wheel.
Either around town or on the motorway, the 1.6-litre is effortless and efficient. Likewise the manual gearbox, which is as enjoyable to use as much more sporting iterations of the breed. In these days of competent automatics, a manual gearbox (especially in traffic) can get really annoying really quickly. Not the ’box in the Trafic. It’s got a short throw, is precise, and I never tired of using it.
The Trafic gets up to highway speed quickly – and stays there – too. The engine never seems to be working too hard, and when you slot the gearbox into sixth on the freeway, the overdriven ratio means the engine is only turning around the 2000rpm mark. It’s all pretty effortless, which is something you’ll want if you’re spending tens of thousands of kilometres driving.
The ride is competent too, even when the Trafic is unladen. It somehow manages to absorb everything but the sharpest bumps with a measure of comfort, and it’s only those really nasty speed humps that register a crash through the cabin. Load it up, even with just a few hundred kilos, and the ride gets even better.
Another factor that is worthy of mention is the turning circle, in that it’s much tighter than I expected it to be in a van of this size. It means that you can negotiate tight city streets and three-point turns with ease. The more time you spend in the Trafic, the more it feels like a much smaller van – not much different to driving the stablemate Kangoo to be honest. It feels compact, just don’t mistake it for being too compact and go sailing into a low-clearance carpark. It would be easier to do than you think.
The Trafic is covered by a three-year/200,000km warranty, and most owners will get to that within the first three years too.
Like the dual-cab ute sector, the working van sector is an interesting one. Newcomers like Hyundai have shaken the game up recently, but plenty of buyers still opt for favourites like a Toyota HiAce without really thinking about the European options. Vans like the Renault Trafic are cost-effective, quality options that should be in your consideration set.