It’s not that many years ago that French giant Renault seemed to be in trouble. Sales outside the fiercely patriotic domestic market were falling at an alarming rate, a consequence of the fact that aside from the well-regarded RenaultSport cars based on the regular Clio and Megane hatches, the volume selling models were all facing strong competition and lacked that certain “je ne sais quoi” or dose of French chic which had made them so popular in days gone by. Whilst bold moves such as those undertaken by Renault UK who axed half of the models in the range at the end of 2010 were helpful in tackling some of the profitability issues, it was clear that increased sales would only come from new models. New models that people wanted to buy. Having more or less invented the family hatchback with the R16 in the 1960s and the smaller R5 in the early 1970s, and the people carrier in the 80s with the Espace and its smaller brother the Scenic in 1996, it was perhaps surprising that this once innovative and forward thinking brand had largely ignored the huge sales swing to Crossover vehicles that some will say was accelerated by an in-house but rival brand, the Nissan Qashqai. Finally the car which looked like it could compete in this segment appeared at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show. Called Captur, a name that had been used on a rather different looking concept vehicle first shown at the 2011 Geneva Show, it was based on the underpinnings of the 4th generation Clio which had been launched the year before, and the already popular Nissan Juke, though with a wider track to create more space inside. Although another French car, the Peugeot 2008, arrived at exactly the same time, it was clear that this car was just what the market had been looking for, and sales quickly took off, with the model soon becoming third best seller in its class, before the first year of production was up, and it now ranks in the top 20 best selling cars in Europe, with just under 200,000 units finding buyers in 2015. It is clearly an important car, and yet although I’ve seen them on the rental fleets in a number of European countries almost since launch, the model has always eluded me. Until now, when Hertz Italia offered one to me, as an upgrade to the Punto-sized car I had booked for a weekend based in Bologna. With relatively few miles in plan, and as I had not yet driven one, I took it, though with some misgivings, as I had sampled its close relative, the Clio, and not been as impressed as the motoring press by what I had found. So, was the Captur any better?
A range of diesel and petrol engines are offered in the Captur, all of them familiar from installations in other Renault models. Petrol power comes from the 3 cylinder 900cc turbo unit, putting out 90 bhp, or the larger and older 1200cc engine which generates 120 bhp, but not surprisingly, the test car was diesel powered. In Italy, and indeed other markets where the Captur is sold, this is the familiar 1.5 dCi unit, and it is available with 2 power outputs, of 90 bhp and 110bhp, with the less potent of these also available as well as with the standard 5 speed manual transmission, with a 6 speed automatic gearbox. Selecting this brings the CO2 rating up from 98 g/km to 103. Trying to decode the Italian registration document that was in the glovebox, in an effort to figure out which one I had got (there are no clues, even under the engine bay), I concluded that it was almost certainly the less powerful of the two, and a highly subjective and potentially misleading assessment from its on the road performance would suggest that this was the case. At least I hope so, as anything more than decently performing, this Renault was not. When starting it up, the sound was very unlike that of any other current diesel, or indeed the noise that I remember from the Clio test car of a couple of years ago, which left you in no doubt, as a rough engine was one of the many things I complained about. The same unit has been civilised more than somewhat and there is none of the characteristic diesel rattle at any time. Underway, there is a slightly unusual, but not especially loud noise when accelerating, which I think is probably also related to the gearbox, which in the case of the test car was an automatic. The way the car drove, it really seemed like a CVT, but I understand it really was a 6 speed affair. You could say that my incorrect guess suggests that it was so smooth that you could not detect gear changes, or you could conclude that the whole set-up was that bit sluggish, so making the changes between gears difficult to detect. On reflection, I think the latter of these is not entirely unfair, as official performance figures suggest that the car tops out at just 106 mph and has a 0- 100 km acceleration time of 13.5 seconds. You were more aware of the need to change gear when slowing down, a process which initially was hard not to make a bit too jerky. The pedal itself was OK, modulating quite well, but the transmission clearly had to think hard about what to do. A conventional pull-up handbrake is fitted between the seats. Much to my relief, the steering on the Captur was not as bad as that on the Clio, either. Anyone used to a Ford or Mazda would think it light and it is, but it is not vague, and it is not really that over-assisted. Probably just how most customers would want it. You’re not going to pick a Captur for its “fun to drive” attributes, as, let’s be honest, it is not. This is a car to get people and stuff from A to B. Take a corner with some gusto and it rolls, but the roadholding is such that it appears to hang on, not that I was taking too many chances, as the fog remained resolutely dense all weekend, and once I had seen a lorry on its side in a field (on a straight road), I think I realised that this was not a day for tearing around anywhere. Instead, it was more appropriate to enjoy the fact that the Captur rides quite well, smoothing out the bumps, not that there were many on the roads I went on. Having driven around 100 km, I found I had burnt 4.5 litres of “gasolio”, which is around 1 gallon, thus giving an average fuel consumption of just over 60 mpg. Almost all of this mileage was on country roads, where speeds were low, but even so this is quite impressive. Visibility is generally good, with a lot of glass at the front of this Renault, and although there are swept up side windows behind the rear doors, it was not too hard even at angled junctions to see what was required. A reversing camera – I believe an optional feature on the car – was fitted, which presented a clear image on the central display screen, making reversing particularly easy, though applying just a delicate amount of throttle to inch back a bit further seemed quite hard, as it came as an “all or nothing” until you were underway.
Although the dashboard of the Captur follows the Renault house-style of a couple of years back, it is actually different in detail from the one you will find in a Clio in most regards. One characteristic it does share is that it, along with the door casings, are made from the nastiest hardest plastic that Renault must have been able to find, but one other bad thing it avoids is there appeared to be no sharp edges as there are in the Clio. Some redemption comes from the fact that the steering wheel in the test car was leather wrapped. and there is visual contrast in the use of piano black inlays around the central r-Link display screen, and the outer air vents, otherwise you get a lot of black on the dash. The overall layout is refreshingly simple. The instruments are electronic, with a digital speedometer in the centre of a display which has a rev counter on one side and a fuel gauge on the other. Under the speed reading is a coloured bar which glows red, orange or green depending on how economical the car thinks you are being. There are only a couple of buttons on the steering wheel boss, for the cruise control, with the audio repeaters on a rather bulky pod which is mounted to the right of centre, like a giant column stalk, below the conventional one that operates the wipers. Lights and indicators are on a stalk to the left. The centre of the dash is dominated by the display screen which although sitting quite high does not have its upper surface protruding over the surface behind it, so avoiding the “stuck-on iPad look” that you get in the Clio. The screen is colour, and touch sensitive, and also on the small side. Alongside it is just one control knob to turn the radio on and off and adjust the volume and above a toggle for up and down. Everything else you need to do from the screen, or for audio functions, the repeater pod on the column. It is a shame that you get an empty 50% of the home screen for the navigation system even on a car like this one where it is not fitted – a constant reminder, I guess, that you cheaped out on ordering the car! Also in the system is an Eco section, which will tell you not just your average fuel consumption and speed, but rates your for acceleration and anticipation. Below this unit are the climate controls, with a large knob at the left, a series of buttons and a smaller knob on the right, in a slightly stylised figure of 8 loop. And then below that is the large Start/Stop button and the slot for the massive key which is like an extra large credit card. And that is pretty much it.
When you first look inside the Captur, it does not look that remarkable or distinctive, but open the back doors and see the striped pattern on the back of the front seats, and you can see how the designers wanted to inject a bit of something unusual into what would otherwise just be a very ordinary family car. If you want to go further down this route, there are a number of personalisation options available. In a bid to increase the liveability of the Captur, the seat covers are removable. Apparently Renault have taken out a patent for this, though all I saw was a zip around the seat covers, which hardly looked like anything that radically new to me. Although this is a crossover-style car, it does not feel it when you get in. but once installed on the driver’s perch, you are aware of a greater feeling of space all around you than you would get in a Clio, so it is not hard to see the appeal of this category of car. Everything that you need to alter to get comfortable is manual, with the seat backrest adjuster wheel on the inside of the seat rather than between seat and door pillar, where it is a tad easier to access. The column had an in/out as well as up/down movement on it, allowing me to set it higher than it had been left, and hence to get a good driving position. With plenty of glass to the side and in front of you, you do certainly do not feel hemmed in, and the seat proved comfortable from the limited time I actually spent sat on it. Rear seat occupants do quite well for a car of this size, with particularly generous headroom, and a decent amount of legroom unless the front seats are set very well back. Being a front wheel drive car, there is no transmission tunnel to get in the way. There is a slider for the rear seat, though it was only after reading online about the spec of the car that I went back to check and see if it was there. The slider is for the whole seat cushion, and is hard to access and even harder to use, proving both awkward and with a heavy seat base to move. It does allow you to increase either the legroom or the boot capacity. Even with the seats set forward, the boot does not appear that generous, but there is a false floor, to gave a loading bay that is flush with the tailgate base, and under this floor there is a good sized additional area, or you could always remove the floor altogether. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and simply drop down onto the rear cushions, giving a flat load bay, though there is a bit of gap between them, depending on where the rear seat cushion is on its sliders, which a bit of carpet matting does not really cover very effectively. Inside the cabin, the most notable thing is that rather than a glovebox, there is a slide out drawer, which is very commodious. This is not something I’ve seen on other cars, and is an idea that would merit replication elsewhere. There are also door bins on all four doors, a lidded cubby on the very top of the centre of the dash, a recessed area in front of the gearlever and a small recess and two rather small cupholders in between the seats.
In Italy, there are 4 different trim levels available: Life, Zen, Intens and Hynoptic. I believe the test car was a Zen, as when I selected the colour (Bianco Averio Perlato, with Nero Etoile roof, or cream and black in plain English!), it declared that this is not offered on the Life and indeed the other features I found on the car seemed best to match those of the Zen as shown on Renault Italia’s website. The entry level Life, starting from €16,950, comes with ABS, Stop/Start, the electronic key card, manual air conditioning, a 4 speaker 20W AM/FM stereo with CD slot, MP3, AUX and Bluetooth, front and rear electric windows and a puncture repair kit. 16″ steel wheels and a lack of front fog lights are a recognition point. You can’t get the automatic gearbox with the diesel (that rather convinced me I had not got a Life trim) and the range of personalisation options is very limited compared to the rest of the range. Upgrade to a Zen, from €18,350 and you get a leather wrapped steering wheel, front fog lights and a variety of 16″ alloy wheel designs, all round electric windows, as well as the slightly unusual interior trim. The Intens, from €19.500, brings 17″ alloys, an upgraded R-Link 6 speaker audio system and standard navigation, what they call “Easy Access System 2” for keyless entry and exit, a cornering function on the fog lights, auto headlights and rain sensing wipers as well as automated climate control. The Hypnotic, starting from €19,650 adds privacy glass. There are lots of options and option packs, which allow you to customise your Captur to the way you want it. The roof in contrasting colour is clearly a popular option given the number you see on the road. The test car had the City pack, which costs €300 and provides a rear parking camera and parking sensors, a useful though not that essential feature given how easy the Captur is to place on the road. The entry level 90 bhp Diesel engine adds €2000 to the cost compared to the 90bhp 0.9TCe petrol unit.
I will be honest and say that my expectations for the Captur were pretty low. I suspected it would prove to be very like the current Clio, but with a roomier body, and the Clio that I encountered a couple of years ago had so many things that I actively disliked that I declared it to be my “Lemon of the Year”. The Captur turned out to be more different than I thought, and many of the things that caused such distaste for the Clio were actually not present here. I am not going to go as far as saying that I particularly liked it, as I did not really feel any emotion for it at all, It struck me as a perfectly acceptable appliance sort of a car. There are plenty of buyers out there for whom that is all they want, and so I suspect that if they like the looks, and the colour and get a good financial deal on one, they would probably be perfectly happy with it. I would certainly take one in preference to a Mokka, but then that particular car looks to be a contender for my 2016 “Disappointment of the Year”, or “why does anyone buy this, there are far better cars out there” award. There are unquestionably better cars than the Captur, too. The Skoda Yeti remains my absolute favourite in this sector, as it has just about everything going for it from looks, to value, to ownership experience, quality, how it drives, roominess. Everything, in fact. But if you are faced with a Captur, well, just imagine the poor soul driving the Mokka and consider yourself about half-lucky!