Does an eye-catching coupe-SUV body give the new Renault Arkana the edge over other mid-size SUVs? We find out.
Renault isn’t shying away from a challenge. The French brand, which recently announced a complete product overhaul and a renewed focus on electric vehicles, also wants to be a dominant force in what’s called the C-segment, in industry speak. That means offering rivals for everything from the likes of the VW Golf to the Nissan Qashqai. And here is the first new weapon designed to spearhead this assault: the Arkana. It arrives in Australia soon with two variants – Zen and Intens – followed by RS Line early next year.
To all intents and purposes, the new arrival is a family SUV, but it adopts a more aggressive roofline than you’ll find on many of its rivals – to the point where Renault is calling it a coupe SUV. The company’s execs namedrop left-field options like the Toyota C-HR when they’re talking about model positioning, and we’d guess that while it’s slightly smaller, Citroen’s coming C4 is another target.
There’s already a model called the Arkana on sale in Russia but the version we’re being offered in Australia is 95 per cent different mechanically. It’s built in a different factory to the Russian car, in South Korea. Intriguingly, though, the European Arkana is based on the Renault-Nissan Alliance’s CMF-B platform. That’s the architecture that underpins the Clio and the Captur – so not the same underpinnings as the Qashqai or even Renault’s own Kadjar.
What you have here, then, is a smaller, cheaper chassis stretched to the max – to the point, in fact, where the Arkana is actually longer overall than the Kadjar. Still, we thought the full-hybrid version of the new arrival was decent enough when we tried it in late prototype form. This test car features Renault’s 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 103kW and 260Nm, and a seven-speed automatic gearbox. That’s slightly down on the Australian version which will be 115kW and 262Nm from the same engine and through the same auto.
Some of the difference comes from this European-spec unit having 12V hybrid assistance, but it’s basically just an integrated starter-generator that soaks up a teeny bit of energy that would otherwise be lost under braking, and then helps with stop/start and, if you really demand full acceleration, a modest 20Nm boost in torque from time to time.
This all sounds accomplished enough but it’s not quite as convincing in practice. To maintain sensible progress the engine has to rev to around 3500rpm, but the final 1000rpm of that exposes a pretty harsh drone from under the bonnet. It never feels that quick, either, and if you do try to get a hustle on, the gearbox starts to protest. It can be flummoxed at kickdown, and it doesn’t feel entirely worthy of your trust when you’re pulling out of junctions. The extra power in the Aussie version might help here.
The chassis is what really exposes the Arkana’s underpinnings. Even on relatively sensible-looking 18-inch diamond-cut alloys, the low-speed ride is just a bit too brittle for its own good. It feels like the Arkana’s limits of suspension travel are just too easily breached by potholes, and it has a tendency to shimmy over longer stretches of poor road surface.
We’d love to say the trade-off for this is stunning body control and an involving drive but, well, this is a family SUV and it doesn’t really deliver either of those qualities. The steering has consistent weight but is as numb as usual, and taller body pitches and rolls a fair bit on twistier roads. The overall dynamic package is compromised on urban roads, really, and some way short of delivering enjoyment beyond them.
Rolling refinement is half-decent once you’re cruising and the engine has settled down, but there’s a bit of tyre roar from beneath and a surprising amount of wind noise from the front glass area.
Your judgement on the cabin environment will depend on how happy you are with the idea of a scaled-up Clio interior – because that’s what it is. The digital instrument dials are crisp and clear, and on all but the entry-level version you get the 9.3-inch Easy Link touchscreen infotainment system. The portrait-layout display has a pleasingly high resolution, although Renault’s interface and on-screen graphics don’t quite do it justice. Android and Apple integration are both included, naturally.
Elsewhere, you get the simple piano-key buttons on the dash – again, like on the Clio – and our RS Line version had plenty of faux carbon-fibre weave to break up the black plastic. It’s serviceable enough, although you don’t have to look too hard to find harder materials that might be acceptable on a supermini but which are less appealing on a full-size SUV.
The platform’s growth spurt has at least delivered reasonable cabin space; there’s enough room for four six-footers in there, with a surprising amount of headroom, given the sloping roofline. The boot capacity (in this mild-hybrid edition) of 513 litres is comfortably north of what you’ll get in a Golf – or, if coupe SUVs are your sole focus, the C-HR. The cabin has a decent line-up of useful cubbyholes, too.
Renault isn’t pulling any punches as it tries to find fresh customers for Arkana. The list price looks a bit high for what it really is – entry-level starts at $33,990 before on-road costs and goes to $40,990 for the RS-Line version, but perhaps the more powerful local motor and the incoming RS-Line add some shine.