Alaskan set to lift Renault's status

Renault is expecting big things from the impressive-looking Alaskan utility, potentially here in mid-2017.


STARTING at the top is the logical plan for Renault’s entry into the one-tonne utility sector, the Alaskan, the local distributor says.

Renault New Zealand has confirmed it will have this French-flavoured spin from the NP300 Navara next year, in common specification to Australia.

The joint approach also gives insight into the probable launch schedule: Our neighbour’s distributor is aiming to have Alaskan on sale by June. Renault NZ acknowledges that, if the Aussies have it by then, then so might we.

The Alaskan lineup seems as broad as the Navara selection offered by Nissan in New Zealand.

At the international unveiling in Medillin, Colombia – yeah, they revealed a truck referencing a cold climate location in a part of a hot country where, as a past home of some of the world’s biggest drug cartels, the word ‘snow’ has a whole different meaning - Renault outlined it will provide single, double and cab plus formats, with a short or long bed, wide and narrow bodies, plus three choices of engine.

But we can forget about a mass attack here, at least initially says Sal Marti, operations and sale coordinator for the Auckland-based distributor.

“All configurations and variants are available but I guess it would be logical, with the way that the market is working at the moment, that we prioritise the higher specification.”

Those tradie traydecks require two things Renault doesn’t have here. First, recognition that it’s an everyman brand and not an elite Euro. Second, massive brand power – the worksite sector is a blood bath for discounting and special deals; without ability to play the numbers the tiny Renault operation knows it doesn’t stand a chance against the big guns. All too hard until the brand is comfortably established in ute-dom.

By starting at the top allows an easier run. Up here – though no-one ever admits it – profit margins are fattest and the pickings are good: It’s where sector leader Ford and closest rival Toyota achieve most spectacularly with Ranger and Hilux; Holden, Nissan and Volkswagen also reap good reward from their respective glammed editions.

Renault’s hope is to enter with doublecabs in rear- and four-wheel-drive, both in seven-speed automatic form and with the 140kW/450Nm 2298cc twin turbocharged four-cylinder diesel that, while already in the flagship Navara ST-X, is actually a Renault mill, having been initially placed in the Master van line.

“We’re still a couple of months away from a fully confirmed line-up but that seems the best direction in which to be head. We might broaden into a fuller range at time – Renault, after all, has been No.1 in Europe in the commercial van sector for 18 years,” commented Marti.

“But logically it makes sense to start at the upper end. Renault is very much a user-chooser brand and while it’s not inconceivably we might broaden, a lot more vehicles are sold in the upper end of the market.

“That’s where we feel we have to take the first step.

“Also, we don’t need to be potentially pushing for a huge market share – although we will certainly be looking for a massive incremental growth on where the brand is today, we don’t imagine that we will be pushing for No.2 in the market place (currently held by Hilux).”

Price has still to be determined but concession that those Navara ST-X equivalents, which span from just under $53,000 to $64,990, cannot necessarily be viewed as providing a barometer does seem sobering.

Does this suggest the Renault could be sparring with dearer fare – the $66,450 and upward Toyota Hilux SR5, the$69,490 Ford Wildtrak and the incoming Volkswagen Amarok V6 turbodiesel, which though as yet unpriced could well break $70k?

Marti suggests it’s not useful to get too fixated on potential stickers – “we’re still very early into the product planning” – but does offer that his office has taken note of the healthy update of top-flight utes and also that Nissan and Renault, though now married, try to operate as separate entities at sales level.

“I guess all of the premium sector vehicles would be the obvious rivals,” he said, adding that this was also a reason why the brand has decided to avoid citing any one competitor.

Even if it pricey and limited in format, the healthy state of the ute and SUV sectors makes it likely that Alaskan could still achieve status as Renault’s best-seller here. However, that will demand giving the brand’s image more of a lift.

“We know the vehicle is going to be good … we know Renault performs well as a brand but we still have to build stronger awareness of Renault in New Zealand.

“If you look at Australia it is doing very well, but here we feel more New Zealanders need to experience it. 

“We don’t deny we’re aiming for those people who might be buying on looks and an opportunity to be seen in something a little bit different and special - we know that happens.”

He doesn’t disagree that NP300 and Alaskan are closely-conjoined “for obvious reasons” but says the Alaskan will nonetheless be promoted on its style and tech, and as a top European choice.

The latter might intrigue: Regardless that it will source from Renault plants – with the Barcelona, Spain, facility more likely to supply here than factories in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Cordoba, Argentina - the model’s DNA is hardly wholly French.

While Renault has gone to some trouble to reshape the exterior, the platform is Navara-pure and, so too the cabin. Aside from a change of steering wheel and some switchgear, Alaskan and Navara are identical inside.

That’s not to say it’s a disappointment: What is refreshing is that it has kept the muscular looks first seen on the striking same name concept that caused such a stir at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show.

It’s a shame the design study’s roof-mounted pod doesn’t seem set to make production, though, and the factory build car’s wheels aren’t as monstrous, either; with a downsize to 16 and 18 inch rims.

However, the headlights and DRLs, grille, foglight surrounds, pumped arches, tail-lights and profile are all unchanged in the transition from concept to road, while a set of side steps and roof rails are new additions.

Navara’s multi-link coil sprung suspension is continued with, but Renault is suggesting it has retuned the settings, saying it has gone for class best handling and 'premium' comfort – another hint that it sees best promise from the lifestyle end of the ute market.

That said, like the Navara, the Alaskan will be tough for those who use it for work.

Renault says, as well as its 1000kg payload, the Renault ute it has a best-in-class tow capacity of 3.5 tonnes and has a ground clearance of 230mm.

Also, the double cabs have an electronically-controlled limited slip differential that works with all-wheel drive to help shuffle torque across both axles to maximise traction and a locking rear diff will also be offered.

Keyless-go, and a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, plus 360 degree visibility, thanks to four bumper-mounted and door mirror cameras are available as options but might well become standard here.

“We haven’t made any decisions on specification but if you look at how we provision Renault product here you will see that we like to favour a good level of equipment,” Marti says.

“From what we’ve learned about the ute sector there is a lot of interest in those passenger-orientated utes with a reasonably high specification.”

The Alaskan is the first of two spin-offs from NP300. Mercedes Benz, too, has announced plans to use the Nissan as the basis of its own ute, also a first effort behind their badge.

Like the Renault, the Benz product will be have its own fresh sheet metal but unlike the French and Japanese duo it will come with its own engine and transmissions.