Friday, 23 November 2007

Test Drive - Renault Mégane Scénic

The concept of practicality is a very flexible and malleable thing. When mountaineering, for example, the practical notion would be to adorn yourself with a lovely warm coat, some kind of rope gizmo and a nice pointy set of crampons. Attire yourself in such a way at the beach, however, and you’re probably going to have a pretty rubbish time; you’ll get all sweaty, kids will tie your ropes to nearby groynes and you’ll probably spear some voluptuous young beach maiden on your spiky shoe. Nightmare.

The point is that it’s hard to find a suitable catch-all solution to anything beyond a narrow set of parameters. Cats – good as pets, bad as kitchen utensils. Pencils – handy for doodling, unsatisfying as cushions. The Mégane Scénic – well, what’s this good for? Primarily, it’s very accomplished at hiding stuff. If you need to get a few pounds of heroin across the border, this is the car for you. Trust me.

You see, this thing has cubbyholes everywhere. Lift the dinky handles protruding from the carpet, you’ll find little boxes for your sandwiches under the floor. Pull out that plasticky thing from under your seat to reveal a voluminous storage drawer. That’s useful, isn’t it? You can put your cds in there, maybe a small map or something too. And what’s that little black cylinder wedged in the cupholder? Ooh, it’s a removable ashtray. Super.

It’s not bad at shifting people about either. We managed to get five rambunctious and fidgety adults plus numerous suitcases and posh wedding outfits into it with relatively little shoehorning and almost no faces pressed against glass. Considering that it’s not even the biggest of the big Renaults that was reasonably impressive, in an ‘I’m driving a small van’ sort of way. The bold styling is also very welcome in a sector dominated by the we-think-price-is-everything Citroën Xsara Picasso.

So, a practical car, then? Hmm… it is and it isn’t. Sure, it has Tardis-like load swallowing capabilities, but all this melts away when you actually get to the act of driving: it’s just one irritation after another. Program the satnav – no problem. The clever little box can direct us to a tiny and remote hamlet via the complex déviations of central Lyon. But how do you get the bastard to play a cd at the same time?

After ten minutes of fiddling, you just have to give up and resign yourself to the fact that there is to be no music. The lovely aircon’s kicking in now, and the cool wafts keep you sanguine. Snick it into first, reach for the handbrake… and it’s not bloody there. But of course, why would it be? It’s far more logical to have a mini handbrake – a fingerbrake, if you will – by the door under the dash. There’s a little lever to pull, a button to press, a light to extinguish; sod it, it’s probably off, let’s go. You put your foot down. And nothing happens.

Nothing’s still happening.

You count to five.

Suddenly the turbo comes on boost in a tidal wave of thrust. This lasts for a good second and a half before everything gives up again, you shift up a gear and have another excruciating wait for action. The dCi 130 engine is an impressive unit in terms of frugality, don’t get me wrong – in fact I’m reasonably sure we didn’t actually use any diesel at all throughout the entire weekend – but it was clearly designed by a gaggle of moronic cack-handed berks with no interest in useable dynamics or driving pleasure whatsoever. The gut-wrenching chasm of turbo lag is enough to make a grown man weep; in truth it’s borderline dangerous. The fact that the ludicrously floppy gearbox gives you no clues as to what ratio you could end up with next makes the whole experience tremendously frustrating, although in fairness to Renault this may not be their fault. It’s a hire car after all. People will have abused it. I know I did.

The stupidest thing of all is that, from the driver’s seat, you can see so little of what’s going on behind you. The beyond-inadequate wing mirrors are tiny enough to seriously imperil any motorcyclists in your blind spot (the blind spot being any part of the scenery that isn’t directly in front of you) while the glass area is oddly small, the thick and chunky pillars preventing you from having any idea of what’s going on around you. It’s much like driving a Transit van really – you just have to remind yourself not to give a toss about anyone else and simply follow your own agenda.

So, it’s big, it’s frugal, it can take a lot of cargo and an equal amount of abuse. But is it practical? Well, mostly. It served more than adequately as a well-equipped runabout for a small gang of inebriated ne’er-do-wells and it didn’t misbehave. Wasn’t any fun though, and a car that serves no thrills is fundamentally pointless. What the Scénic really needs is the old V6 Clio’s tweaked 3-litre unit – you might as well embrace the fact that you’ve got no idea what’s behind you by getting the fuck away from it as swiftly as possible, right? Go ahead, take your crampons to the beach… at least no-one’s going to mess with you.