Friday, March 15, 2019

Forget French flair – Renault’s short wheelbase Master van may look smart, but once aboard you’ll find a thoroughly practical and easy-to-live-with load hauler.

Photo: Handsome looks, good view out, well-thought-out proportions which hide the van’s size until you get up close.

Renault vans might not be on the average Kiwi’s radar, but they’ve been the number one selling van range in Europe for 20 consecutive years, according to the New Zealand distributor. First launched in 1980, the Renault Master wasn’t exported to New Zealand until 2014, so it’s only now filtering onto business shopping lists.
It’s part of a line-up here that includes Kangoo and the 1.6- litre Trafic long wheelbase (LWB) van, as well as this Master, in short-, medium- or long-wheelbase variants. That will give you the choice of anything from eight cubic metres of cargo volume to 13, and payloads from 1.6 to 2.2 tons. There’s also front-wheel drive with a lower load floor, or rear-wheel drive, four lengths, and up to 12 lashing points as standard. We tested the short wheelbase (SWB), rear-wheel drive van which, like all the range, gets the 2.3-litre turbo-diesel engine, a laid-back torquey unit which gets along at a relaxed pace – turning over at just under 2000rpm at open road speeds.

Renault claims a thirst of 8.0l/100km for this van, but we returned it at 10.4l/100km – admittedly our test route contained very little highway, and a lot of hills and urban going. We averaged just 27kph for the duration, so though the van was never full, nor was it driving at its optimum pace for frugality. Speaking of driving, this Master was fitted with Renault’s automated manual transmission, which is a bit of an acquired taste.

Photo: Sliding door on pavement side only, unless you pay extra. Rear doors can open wide to ease loading. Plenty of space for a pallet between the wheel arches.

You can drive it like any other auto by simply keeping your foot on the throttle as and when needed, and letting the Master control its own gear changes. However, you will drive more smoothly if you take a more active role by easing your right foot off the throttle as the gearbox swaps cogs, as you would in a manual, but without the need to use your left foot at all. It takes a little bit of a change of mindset to do, as it’s easy to think of an auto as requiring no input at all, but once you’re used to it, it’s seamless, without ever requiring your left foot to get in on the action. Also requiring a bit of familiarity is the stop-start system, which will auto-stop the engine at lights, then auto-restart it again when you press the throttle. The aim is to cut fuel use – and emissions – in busy urban traffic, but again, it takes a certain mindset to leave the system to get on with it, rather than to think ‘shit, it stalled’ every time it goes quiet… The Master is also fitted with Energy Smart Management, in which the alternator recovers the kinetic energy produced when you brake or decelerate, and stores it in the battery to help power electrical functions like the heater, lights and radio.

Photo: Good ergonomics and plenty of storage – lots to like in this simple cabin. Roomy lower door bin that’s hard to reach on the right, but smaller upper bin and small cubby make up for it.

As for the rest of the working environment, it’s very much been designed for those who spend a lot of time in that cab. Which means as well as stuff like auto headlights and wipers to take the thinking out of vision in poor conditions, and cruise control with a variable speed limiter, to make it easier to avoid tickets, there are a lot of little touches you may not know you wanted until you have them. There are two hooks high on the cargo wall from which to hang a coat hanger or coat, overalls or even a bag, and there is also space behind each seat for a day pack, certainly with the seat adjusted for our 167cm-tall tester. Plus there’s seatbelt height adjust, so shorter and taller drivers can be equally comfy with where the diagonal belt cuts across; common in cars, but not in our experience so far in vans.

As well as a huge lower door bin there’s another smaller one higher up and a wallet-sized one right by your elbow, two deep bins to the left of the gear lever – one shallower, including depressions for cups – and one beneath it. There’s a tray above the glovebox, a cubby above the rear-view mirror, and a tray each side below the roof, for clipboards, papers, etc – or an iPad for that matter, to keep it safely out of view when it’s not in use. Plus of course there’s Bluetooth hands-free, two USB ports and an aux jack, as well as two 12V dash power outlets.

Out back the left sliding cargo door is standard, with glass, but a right-side matching door adds $1500 to your bill, and wasn’t fitted to our test example. We’re assured our tester was the standard item, fully glazed as you see here. All the doors were easy to open, the sliding side door only reluctant to close on some hills, and the rear doors swung wide to allow forklift access for our load. Given our test route includes steep hills, some strewn with gravel, we were glad of the rear-wheel drive for better slowgoing control. The Master showed no signs of fluster in test conditions, perhaps in part thanks to hill start assist – and if it starts turning pear-shaped, ABS and ESP can cut in. Really the only fly in the ointment for us was the lack of a reversing camera – sometimes reversing sensors alone just won’t cut it. Otherwise at $53,990 this Master stands up well to the competition, certainly well enough to expect that we’ll start to see more of the diamond badge plying Kiwi delivery routes in coming years.