European car and van manufacturers are on a steep learning curve here in the Australian market. Traditionally, the big van with a GVM of 3500kg has not been a big seller here. The light commercial market was dominated by small light duty Japanese trucks, and for something a little smaller, the Toyota Hiace et al. In recent years, the European van has made considerable inroads into this market.
The Ford Transit sold in quite large numbers, but it was the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which saw this kind of van moving into a strong market position. Since then, a number of Europeans have tried their hand and achieved decent sales here in Australia. One of those brands was Renault, who started to introduce commercial vehicles around seven years ago, with some success.
Back home, the Renault Master is the top-selling van of its kind in Western Europe. It has achieved considerable success, selling in large numbers. This latest model was released in Europe in 2010 and has already sold over 100,000 units. This represents 15.6 per cent of the large van market in Europe.
And, this is the successful formula that Renault is introducing to the Australian market. Its 3.5 tonne GVM van includes all of the sophistication and comfort we have come to expect from the European models that reach our shores. The design is part of a joint program with General Motors, who markets its version of this van as the Opel/Vauxhall Movano in Europe. Holden has shown no interest in introducing this kind of commercial vehicle into the Australian market, it has chosen to instead concentrate its strength in the car market, leaving the field open for Renault.
Prime Mover had the opportunity to drive the new models around a typical urban distribution route in Melbourne recently. This gave the four different models a chance to demonstrate the difference between the various body and transmission options available on the Master.
At first look, there is no doubting this vehicle's pedigree as a modern European styled van, with its modern styling, drooping nose, yawning grille and sweptback lighting cluster. The overall shape of the van is similar to its predecessor but the radical redesign of the front end and the new interior give a completely new look and feel.
The new Renault Master comes with a new 2.3L engine putting out 143hp (107kW) and producing 350Nm of torque. Further down the driveline, buyers have a choice of a six speed manual or six speed automated transmission. The transverse mounted engine drives the front wheels through this choice of transmissions.
The van comes in two body sizes, a medium wheelbase and a long wheelbase. This gives the cargo area a volume of 10.3m³ or 12.5m³ depending on the wheel base. With the automated transmission weighing slightly more than the manual option, this provides payloads ranging from 1596kg for a long wheelbase AMT model to 1645kg for a medium wheelbase manual model.
The sliding side door is wide enough to take a standard pallet and pallets can also go in through the rear doors, which open to 270°. The wheel arches are wide enough to accommodate a pallet. Overall, the medium wheelbase can accommodate two pallets while the long wheelbase can manage three. Rear sill height varies from 543mm in the long wheelbase to 548mm in the medium wheelbase.
Approaching the van, the new styling of the Renault Master is quite striking. The large grille dips below the black bumper bar and the bars on the grille have a number of cutouts along them. Whether these are for cooling purposes or simply aesthetic is not clear but it does give the grille a contemporary look. The lighting clusters in the front wings are also quite dramatic, stretching from the grille almost to the B pillar. The indicators and sidelights sit above and behind the headlights in a large clear unit.
The rear of the van also includes some interesting lighting options. The main clusters on either side stretch from the bottom door hinge quite a long way up the side of the van and include a number of geometric shapes. The offside door also includes a triangular brake light which sits in an area of the door panel left by the cutaway offside door window. This simple shape does make the van instantly recognisable.
Stepping into the van through the driver's door demonstrates the vast difference between these European vans and the Japanese brands which have dominated the light commercial market. It is like climbing into a modern car rather than a commercial vehicle.
Sitting in the driver's seat, the adjustable steering wheel and well-designed seat make it easy to find a comfortable position. The transmission control, whether it be for the manual or the automated, is just to the left hand in a module fixed to the dashboard. The instruments are simple and well laid out and most of the controls are available on the steering column stalks or steering wheel buttons.
Although this van is ostensibly a three seater, the shape of the dashboard mounted storage in front of the middle seat means most people would feel cramped sitting there. The cabin functions much better as a two seater with the rear of the central seat folded forward to reveal a useful and well designed seatback. This includes a couple of drink holders, storage for other odds and ends plus a swivelling desktop which could be used for documents, laptop or simply eating lunch.
There are other useful storage locations scattered along the well designed dashboard with a large pocket in the middle at the top and places to put MP3 players, mobile phones etc. The parcel shelf overhead is full width and simple to utilise. There are also large pockets in the doors designed to be genuinely useful, unlike many of their Japanese/Korean competitors.
Once out on the road, the driver’s seat proves to be comfortable including an armrest which does not get in the way of the forward mounted gear stick. Noise levels are low from the engine but the sound quality in the cabin is improved mostly by the well-designed cargo barrier fitted with a small window. There is no booming sound from the rear of the van.
The engine is quite nippy and the van responsive to input from the right foot. There is enough torque available, when loaded, to get through the gears relatively easily whether using the manual or automated transmission. There appears to be enough available to make getting around the city from delivery A to delivery B quite easy for the driver.
Where the manual transmission is simple to use with a positive feel and well-placed gears, the automated manual transmission is a set and forget option. There are enough distractions outside the van as it moves around the busy city streets to need the driver's full attention and a manual gearbox is one distraction they could probably do without.
The ride is very smooth and car like, both empty and loaded. The van feels well-balanced even though it does not use rear wheel drive. Experience in the past has demonstrated a well-balanced rear suspension on a front wheel drive van can function effectively as long as the load is not concentrated too near the rear doors. On this test drive the load was situated well to the front and no wiggle at the rear end was detected.
Visibility around the van is excellent with the door and windscreen glass quite low around the driver and well-positioned split mirrors keeping an eye on what's going on around the van. The occupants of the cabin are well looked after with driver and passenger front airbags fitted as standard. The braking system uses ABS, EBD and ESP, also standard on all the vans. The brake feel does give the driver confidence in difficult situations, as one would expect from a modern European design.
The sophistication need not stop there, as there are also a number of other options available, if required, including a rearview camera with a screen fitted to the rear of the sun visor and a navigation system fitted above the rearview mirror. Driver's head and thorax airbags can also be added as well as creature comforts like climate control.
As a complete package, the Renault Master comes in as a functional and safe vehicle for many applications. It manages to sit between the larger and heavier Sprinter and Crafter models from Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen and the smaller lighter models from a number of manufacturers. This is a useful, relatively high cube light commercial vehicle which most car drivers would feel comfortable driving. As such, it looks like a useful addition to the options available to the van buyer here in Australia.