Astounding home turf success hindered a wee French crossover’s travel plans but it’s here now to lift its maker’s image.
Long-drawn local market arrivals are not unexpected for French brands, of course; they’ve long been challenged to promptly serve their farthest-flung right hand drive market, so arrival only now of a car that is considered a 2013 model on home turf is in itself nothing unremarkable.
Renault New Zealand would nonetheless perhaps have preferred a less drawn-out travel plan. When relaunching this brand in February of 2014 the since-departed boss identified the Captur – by then already comfortably established in France - as potentially being a bigger long-term hope than the new Clio hatch, from which it is derived, that back then was the only new model they had to sell.
Fortunately, desire for crossovers and sports utilities has only increased; this year to date, passenger models with some degree of soft-roader intent or ambience have captured 34 percent of new vehicles sales.
It’s an astounding infiltration that does not include one-tonne utilities that many Kiwis are now considering to be the same sort of thing, though under the classification system they’re considered commercial vehicles. Were tray decks included, the count would be above 50 percent.
Ironically, it’s that self-same perfect storm scenario for SUVs that has kept Captur from getting here until now. Europe has also gone gangbusters for the same formula, not least in the compact mini-SUV format where front-drive purity - a fact that ensures immediate off-road impotency - is a commonality that fails to impede sales.
The king of the urban chic babies has been Captur; 196,000 home turf sales in 2014 alone was a stunning count for Renault, which had expected a more modest reaction to a model that effectively replaced its Modus people-mover, quite a different thing.
But celebration was also tempered by cost; to meet home demand, Paris until relatively recently has had to temper its right-hand-drive production plan.
We can also blame our neighbour for factoring into the car’s delayed arrival. New Zealand and Australia share a common specification and the challenges of reconfiguring it to meet the pedantic Australian Design Rule requirements reportedly kept pushing it out of its allocated build slots in Renault’s Valladolid factory in Spain.
Even after all that was sorted, it has taken another 10 months for the model to cross the Tasman (nominally a three-day boat ride) because, newly-installed Renault NZ boss Tom Griffiths explains, he needed to ensure the dealer network was fully ready for this product.
But, anyway, it’s here now and Griffiths believes there’s a decent chance of making up for lost opportunity against other front-drive pure offers - Ford’s EcoSport, the Holden Trax, Peugeot’s 2008, VW PoloCross, Mazda CX3, Citroen’s Cactus and also the Juke from partner brand Nissan.
Given that it is, intrinsically, an elevated road car it might also be expected to make intrusion into the wider small car sector, which has been second only to SUVs for growth this year, perhaps even as a Clio substitute, though the boss personally cannot see it.
“We know the small crossover market that has grown 18 percent year on year, so we expect it to be a robust little product for us.”
All the same, he is keeping things simple by not bothering with a 1.0-litre entry car and a lower trim level across both engine choices provided across the Tasman.
So for NZ just the flagship Dynamique, which comes with a feisty 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol and six-speed automated manual transmission in front drive with a specification so fulsome –– a high-definition reversing camera, rear parking sensors, an 7.0-inch touch screen-based infotainment system with satellite navigation, automatic windscreen wipers and headlights and Renault’s ‘smart card’ keyless entry system - that, essentially, just three items (leather trim, zip-off seat covers and roof rails) are on the options list.
All good so far? Perhaps, though anyone taking the time to cross-shop within that selection will notice that the Renault is, at $35,990, a bit pricier than some other options, not least when it is still smaller than most in overall dimension and engine size.
Renault’s response to this is to suggest the specification is more generous than average for the category. It also argues that some compact cars are just too big for their own good, in dimension and engine capacity.
The latter contention is … erm, ‘surprising’. To my mind it’s a position that might hold water back home, but in our local a ‘bigger is better’ environment this sort of thing might provoke some degree of je n’comprende Gallic shrugging, not least when considering a turbocharged direct-injection petrol engine that makes 88kW at 4900rpm and 190Nm at 2000rpm.
Even though design cleverness and a six centimetre increase in length and 200mm height improvement over Clio makes Capture relatively roomy for its type – with better space utilisation than that Nissan – it is still obviously a car that will potentially struggle to enable fully as a one-stop choice for, say, a family of five.
Also, that price here is unfortunately about $4000 above the usual sticker price carried in Australia, though at time of launch the gap was one third greater again, due to our neighbour having put theirs on pre-Christmas special.
However, it is undoubtedly striking, if not chic. Clever design features including deep painted door sills and some special paint job make it appear lower and sportier and lend a distinct personality that the usual chance for personalisation will accentuate.
The interior fit out is understandably closely related to Clio’s, with a simple, uncluttered dashboard and a touch-screen controlling many functions around the car. Coloured trim accents brighten up and support the ambience of playfulness Renault is chasing; notwithstanding that in this market most new buyers are in a 50-plus demographic, they want Capture to appeal to a youthful audience – hence the bold graphics for the seats, yellow needles for the instruments and bungee cord seat pockets.
The materials look tough and well suited to families, even if some feel a little cheap to the touch. A colleague demonstrated how the main instrument console shows up fingerprints.
Seating is reasonable for four adults and the rear bench can be slid backwards and forwards by 160mm, increasing boot space or passenger legroom as required. The boot provides surprising room, enhancing from 455 litres to 1235 litres with the rear seats folded down. Typical Euro thinking about how these cars are utilised reveals in aspects such as a removable boot floor that’s carpeted on one side and plastic on the other. Those optional seat covers can apparently can be put in your washing machine, or replaced if damaged – that’s a new one on me.
A first drive contained to country and city roads in the Auckland area revealed atypical small car tendencies and also, unsurprisingly, quite a few Clio characteristics.
Performance falls short of giant-killing, but it’s not bad. A small engine passes muster here because, despite its beefy looks, the Capture actually doesn’t weigh very much: Just 1215kg in the NZ-market form.
All the same, the trick with this 1.2-litre – and that Getrag-supplied semi-auto gearbox – is to keep it on the boil all of the time; lots of revs and no soft-shoeing. The transmission will ask for hand-shifting when you’re running down a winding road and that means stirring up the stick for the sequential override because there are no hand shifters. Left to its own devices, it generally works okay, but the car I drove was tardy to react on inclines. Overall fuel consumption is rated at 5.4-litres per 100km.
Clio is a good handling car and boosting its ride height hasn’t left the Capture feeling awkward, either. It has the same MacPherson strut/Torsen beam suspension layout as Clio, with a spring and damper tune lifted from the Europe-only Clio wagon. Brakes are vented discs up front with finned drums at the rear.
The handling is sharp enough to give a fun experience. The ride quality is a mixed bag, however; as is so often the case, it depends on the surface. The smoother the tarmac, the quieter and more comfortable the car feels.
The coarse chip that covers most NZ country roads will not do it any favours, unfortunately: There’s a lot of road roar and it also gets fidgety on those 17-inch Continental ContiEco Contacts. Also apparent from our day out is that it hasn’t the best steering feel.
Standard safety equipment across the range is comprehensive, including stability control, traction control, hill start assist, a speed limiter and six airbags.
The Capture scored five stars in Euro NCAP testing and also with ANCAP, though it lost points for a lack of rear curtain airbags.
How will Capture fare? It’s certainly a car Renault NZ desperately needs and is playing in a category showing impressive growth. But there’s simply no shortage of opposition and it’s not the cheapest choice by any means.