By Kevin Miller
The Renault Scenic was the pioneer of Europe’s MPV class, and has been that segment’s best seller for over a decade, with over 3.3 million units sold since 1996. The third generation of Renault’s popular family vehicle was just launched in June of this year. Based on the French automaker’s new Megane platform, the Scenic is a vehicle similar in concept to the US-market Mazda5 or Kia Rondo.
I was fortunate to spend a long weekend in Switzerland with the new Scenic, and I came away quite impressed. My time was spent in a Scenic Dynamique TCe 130, which is the mid-range car with the mid range gasoline engine.
Entry to the Scenic is gained using the Renault Card, a key fob unlike any I’ve seen in the US. Flat and shaped like a credit card, it could literally be kept in one’s wallet, rather than needing to be kept in a pocket or purse. Doing most so-called Intelligent Keys one better, the Renault Card unlocks the vehicle automatically when it is approached, and automatically locks when the driver (or whomever is carrying the key) walks away. One fault I experienced was that the car would sometimes lock itself when I got out just to walk to the trunk, with the Renault Card in my pocket. Once inside the Scenic, the vehicle is started using a dash-mounted pushbutton.
The TCe 130 moniker specifies a gasoline-fueled, turbocharged 1.4 liter four-cylinder engine, good for 130 HP. While that sounds like an incredibly meager number for a spacious five-passenger people hauler, I was amazed to never find the Scenic down on power (though I only ever drove by myself with few belongings in the car). Whether cruising on Swiss motorways at 140 kmh (87 mph) or climbing passes with grades as steep as 25% in the Jura Mountains, the Scenic did a commendable job performing. Its smooth-shifting, 6-speed manual transmission has nicely spaced ratios, and gears were easy enough to find that I never missed a shift during my four days with the car. Clutch actuation was light, and feel was good enough to prevent me from stalling, even when setting off on steep grades.
The Scenic Dynamique TCe 130 is equipped with an automatic electric parking brake. The brake is automatically set whenever the car is turned off, and will release when the engine is running and the clutch is released. The self-releasing feature allows the brake to be used to hold the car in place when starting on a hill. This type of parking brake function frees up space for a very clever sliding console between the front seats, which is deep enough to hold a laptop (or a very large bag of Switzerland’s finest paprika-flavored potato chips). That console slides forward to give room for a center passenger in the back seat, or slides back to allow a purse or briefcase to be set between the front chairs.
The interior of the Scenic Dynamique I drove was dressed in nice-looking charcoal-colored cloth with yellow stitching. Interior trim pieces were black with matching yellow accents. The seat upholstery is comfortable, and the optional, upgraded headrests have adjustable “wings” in all five positions, which can fold out (with central hinges as well as one at the top) to support a sleeping head; while difficult to describe these headrests were the most innovative I’ve experienced in any car, and would allow adults or children to sleep in comfort. The steering wheel and gearshift were both leather-wrapped. Dash plastics were rich and padded, and controls had an expensive look and feel.
The dashboard features a central TFT electronic display rather than any actual needle-type gages. The electronic display for speed and tachometer is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the US, even in a car as modernistic as the Toyota Prius. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the information presented so electronically, which makes it seem as though I’m playing a video game rather than driving a car. Too, the fact that it is in the center of the dash rather than in front of the driver was somewhat irritating, as I’ve found in other cars with center-mounted instruments (Mini Cooper and Toyota Yaris, I’m looking at you). The driver can choose between several different layouts for the display, which include various depictions of outside temperature, time and engine RPMs, but always displays the speed in large, clear numerals colored either white or black.
Other interior features included dual-zone automatic climate control, roll-up sun shades built into the back doors, a small convex mirror for looking at kids in the back seat, and amazing amounts of storage. In addition to storage on the dash where the instruments would normally be located, both front seats and both outboard rear seats have a drawer underneath that can slide open for storing small objects- a laptop probably wouldn’t quite fit, but nearly. Additionally, there is a storage compartment in each footwell: front and rear, left and right; their carpeted lids have latches and hinges, and each bin would probably fit a package of Oreos. Also, the three rear seats slide individually fore/aft to trade off cargo space for leg room.
Perhaps that last statement was a bit misleading, because even with the back seats fully rearward, the Scenic still has ample luggage space. A foldable hard cover keeps the cargo out of view. In addition to sliding the seats forward to increase cargo space, they can also be folded forward, though doing so does not result in a flat load floor- it instead results in a load floor with folded seats at the front. The seats can be removed from the car, which looks to be an awkward, heavy task. The front passenger seat can also be folded forward to create additional length for hauling large cargo.
With the back seats in place, the two outboard positions are comfortable places to be. Legroom is ample, and the backs of the front seats each have three storage pockets, plus a fold-out picnic tray with a round hole intend to hold a cup. The center seat’s backrest can be folded forward to create a barrier between the two remaining seats, and serve as an armrest. The backrest angle of the rear seats is not adjustable. North American families would complain that the back seat doesn’t have any cupholders other than the ones in the picnic trays- and those are open-bottom ones intended to hold traditional cups. The front seat does have two cupholders on the floor ahead of the center console, plus bottle holders in the front doors.
In addition to the lack of rear cupholders, there were few other faults. These included a stereo which was too quiet (Volume =32 is the highest setting, which offers insufficient power for listening at speed on the motorway). Also the stereo’s controls were unnecessarily complicated- using flush-mounted buttons for all controls, making it nearly impossible to operate without spending a lot of time with eyes not on the road. The audio remote control mounted to the steering column was not much better. Also, the large cowl over the electronic display sometimes vibrated when driving over imperfect pavement, which was a déclassé touch in an otherwise nicely-appointed interior.
On the road, the Scenic is incredibly quiet. Whether around town or on the motorway, the engine is only heard as a distant sound. Road and wind noise are also very hushed, certainly better than the Volvo V70 I drive stateside. The ride height is, umm, high. The Scenic’s center of gravity is definitely higher than is optimal; as such the Scenic is not the best choice for carving alpine passes. While there isn’t noticeable body roll, I noticed my body being tossed about during such driving, just due to the fact that I was sitting so much higher than the tires. Braking was always strong, whether slowing from 140 kmh on the motorway or slowing as I headed down incredibly steep mountain roads.
The electric power steering worked just fine, (and offered an excellently tight turning radius) but offered very little feedback as I ended up exploring the Scenic’s handling limits in the Juras. While I never heard any tire scrub noises, the car’s tall center of gravity did not invite me to push the limits. However, it always felt light on its feet, with just me in the car. A tradeoff for all of the quiet isolation offered by the Scenic is clearly this lack of feedback to the driver.
The Scenic has good visibility, except to the rear for parallel parking. That is alleviated by a reverse parking sensor (front sensors are available, but my car didn’t have them). When the car is in reverse, the reverse sonar system has a display integrated on the TFT screen which shows locations of obstructions behind the vehicle. A rear-view camera and Bluetooth phone connectivity among the options that my Scenic didn’t have.
Other available equipment that the Scenic did have was electrically-actuated child locks in the rear door (like Volvos), cruise control with speed limiter function (set the limiter instead of cruise control and the car wont’ let you accelerated past your set speed), four auto-down/auto-up windows, rain-sensing wipers, and built in grocery bag hooks in the cargo area.
I covered about 400 km in my long weekend with the Scenic, and the car’s trip computer told me that I averaged 47 km/h for my trip and used 8.8 liters of fuel per 100 km, equaling about 26.6 MPG (US) combined, which is among the best of any vehicle I’ve reviewed for Autosavant. Note that that economy was achieved with about 150 KM on the motorway between 100 and 140 kmh, and the rest was going up and down mountain passes all day, so I’m pretty impressed. My fill-up cost around $54, at just over $1.50/liter.
Notable is that fact that my dress shoes (size 13) were too wide /long to work for driving the Scenic- perhaps this is the reason Europeans invented driving shoes. The toe of my shoe hit the trim under the dash, so I had to scoot my foot back; which caused the widest part of the shoe to get caught between the brake pedal and the center console trim.
I mentioned before that my Scenic was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. The optional CVT automatic is available only with the largest gasoline motor which is a 140 HP 2.0 liter (non-turbocharged) four, or with a 150 HP turbodiesel four. A 110 HP 1.6 liter gasoline four is available, as are seven diesel-powered fours ranging in power from 85 to 160 HP, only with six-speed manual transmissions. Renault also offers a Grand Scenic, which offers a third row of seating.
The Renault Scenic Dynamique TCe 130 I tested costs CHF 32,500, plus an additional CHF 1,350 for the Pack Luxe (which includes the dual-zone automatic climate control, sliding storage console between the front seats, Renault-Card hands free keyless drive, electrically adjustable and electrically foldable exterior rearview mirrors, and five Grand-Comfort headrests), and CHF 700 for metallic paint, for a grand total of CHF 34,550. At an exchange rate of $0.923= CHF 1, that is about $31,890 in US funds.
With all of the upcoming fuel economy mandates in the US, would a car like the Renault Scenic appeal to US consumers? Unfortunately, probably not. With the most powerful engine being a 160 HP diesel (140 HP is the top gasoline offering), and with the fact that most of the engines are only available with a manual transmission, Europe’s favorite MPV is probably too European to appeal to American buyers. With too few horsepower and too few cupholders, the Scenic highlights the difference in vehicle preferences between Europeans and Americans. That said, I though the Scenic was a very capable performer, and it offered incredibly clever interior storage solutions unavailable in the US, as well as the most comfortable headrests I’ve ever experienced in a car. If it were offered in the US, it would be on my shopping list.