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First drive: 2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.

First drive: 2024 Renault Rafale
Renault is hoping the Rafale will take the fight to German premium models, but is the newcomer really that good?

   



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2024 Renault Rafale

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

Renault's head office must be a pretty lively place right now, with so many new models arriving this year. But this, the Rafale, is possibly the most ambitious of all. It's not that Renault expects to sell them by the bucketload (although the brand certainly wouldn't complain), but it wants to use the Rafale fastback-SUV as a conquest car that prises loyal customers from their Audis and BMWs. It's a bold mission statement, but is it really feasible?

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2024 Renault Rafale E-Tech Hybrid 200 Iconic Esprit Alpine
Price: Rafale from £38,195 (£44,695 as tested)
Engine: 1.2-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol with two electric motors
Transmission: six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Power: 200hp
Torque: 205Nm (petrol engine only)
Emissions: 105-107g/km
Economy: 60.1mpg
0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Top speed: 111mph
Boot space: 535-1,709 litres

Styling

The Rafale looks rather familiar, doesn't it? If you thought we'd accidentally used pictures of the Peugeot 408 to complement this review, you can be forgiven, but there's no badge-engineering going on here. In fact, the Rafale is based on much the same underpinnings as Renault's Austral and Espace SUVs, the latter of which we don't get in the UK. Anyway, the reason for the similarity is apparently that Renault's design boss is a former Peugeot employee and he seems to have brought his ideas with him. Presumably in carbon copy form.

Were this a Chinese car maker's effort, we'd be laughing about copyright infringements, but as it's Renault, they'll get an easy ride. And in fairness, the Rafale looks great. Yes, it's like the 408 in a lot of ways, but it's slightly more cohesive in our eyes, and the Renault detailing gives it a distinguished look. It's more than attractive enough.

Interior

The Rafaleís interior is a bit familiar, too, because itís largely taken from the Austral. That means it looks pretty cool, with a two-screen arrangement including a Google-powered infotainment system and a digital instrument cluster. Because the tech is Google-powered, itís quite intuitive, and it comes with Google Maps in place of a conventional navigation system, which works really well.

In fact, the tech is the highlight of the cabin, but there are other neat touches, too. The carpet in the door bins, the sliding armrest that looks like an aircraftís thrust levers and the panoramic glass roof fitted to top-of-the-range model are all quite cool, as are the illuminated badges in the seat backs of high-end variants. But better still is the Ingenius armrest in the back, which includes clever swivel-out holders for your phone, so you can watch YouTube hands-free from the back seat.

But for all this good stuff, the Rafale has a slight issue Ė particularly if it wants to compete with the premium players. Thatís the quality on show in the cabin, with some plasticky bits on show despite reasonable overall quality. Particularly plasticky are the buttons on the wheel and the stalks behind it, which includes the gear selector and the audio controls, as well as more conventional functions. So itís an ergonomic problem, as well as a quality problem.

Practicality

Because the Rafale is quite large Ė itís around the same size as a BMW X4 Ė it has plenty of space inside, especially when compared with the Q3 Sportback and X2. The rear passenger space is particularly impressive, with heaps of legroom and adequate headroom even for rather tall passengers. Despite the fastback roofline, itís a surprisingly spacious thing.

And it comes with a competitively sized boot, which measures 535 litres with all five seats in place. Except it doesnít, because that doesnít count the underfloor storage, which takes the total well beyond the 600-litre mark. And if you fold the seats down Ė something they can each do individually Ė you can extend the space available to 1,709 litres, and that should be more than enough for any prospective customerís needs.

Performance

Like the dashboard, the Rafale's powertrain is effectively lifted from the Austral, so there's a 1.2-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and a pair of electric motors, as well as a 2kWh battery. Yes, the Rafale is a hybrid as standard, albeit a so-called 'self-charging' one, rather than a plug-in hybrid, which is set to join the range later this year.

Until that comes, the only option will be the 200hp E-Tech Full Hybrid, which drives the front wheels via a complicated gearbox with six gears but effectively eight ratios. The system offers adequate performance, with a 0-62mph time of just under nine seconds and a 111mph top speed, but economy is the name of the game. It'll return more than 60mpg on the official economy test, and low emissions will play well with some customers.

Another bonus is the smoothness of the 1.2-litre engine, which steps ahead of Renault's 1.6-litre hybrid system by making a more pleasant sound when it's pushed. And the thing is so quiet that you can't really tell whether the engine or the electric motor is powering the wheels. The only catch is that gearbox, which is a bit hesitant and indecisive at times, and spoils the powertrain slightly.

Ride & Handling

More of a weak point than the gearbox, though, is the way the Rafale drives. Renault says it has set the suspension up to reduce body roll, and though the Rafale doesnít lurch or wallow in corners, it doesnít stay flat either. Thereís a kind of progressive lean as you pitch it into corners that doesnít feel sporty, but doesnít feel scary either.

The problem is that this reasonable body control comes at the cost of ride comfort, with an edgy, brittle quality to the way the Rafale takes bumps. It isnít disastrously savage, but itís very firm, particularly at lower speeds.

And because the steering is less than exemplary, it isnít an especially enjoyable car to drive. Our test car came with the 4Control four-wheel steering thatís fitted as standard to all but the basic Techno model, and it gives the car a nervousness and tetchiness thatís really disconcerting, particularly in combination with the lifelessness of the wheel. Yes, it means the turning circle is good, and yes, you can soften the edge slightly by dialling down the agility setting in the Perso driving mode, but itís generally unpleasant in any mode and any situation, if only because it makes it difficult to drive the car smoothly.

However, there is one feature that weíre big fans of, and thatís the little switch by the steering wheel that allows you to turn off the safety features that annoy you most with just a double-tap of the button. Obviously, itís cleverer than that Ė you set a preset of features you like and dislike, and the system loads them all up Ė but it means all those things that have to be deactivated every time you start the car can go away almost immediately. Hallelujah.

Value

Rafale prices start at just over £38,000, which pays for the basic Techno model. Or at least it will when the Techno arrives later this year, offering a reversing camera, massive wheels and wireless phone charging as standard, along with the big touchscreen and digital instrument display. It's a comprehensive kit list, and you don't really need much more, but we suspect most customers will be drawn in by the sportier Techno Esprit Alpine and Iconic Esprit Alpine variants, which get goodies such as a head-up display and heated seats in exchange for price tags of £42,195 and £44,695 respectively.

Verdict

Renaultís assertion that the Rafale is a proper premium rival is a little misplaced Ė it doesnít have the solidity or the road manners for that Ė but it has its strong suits. Spacious, high-tech and easy on the eye, it isnít without its plus points, but those weaknesses and the premium price tag suggest it might struggle to find favour with customers in the UK.



James Fossdyke - 5 Jun 2024



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2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.

2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.2024 Renault Rafale. Image by re.








 

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