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If you can remember the bad old days of van driving, you might get a big surprise when you try out French car maker Renault’s terrific new load carrier, advises Dave Moore
Back when I was a roadie (and weren’t we all in the 70s) I could have done with a Renault Trafic. Most of the commercial vans on offer from hire companies for bands were rear-drive, devoid of niceties, lacking even a radio unless you paid the hirer more for them.
Heaters, sound-proofing, accessibility from anywhere but the back doors was not an option and the engines, mainly yanked from small sedans were patently not designed to cope with dragging a couple of tonnes of amps and other equipment along the motorway at anything like the open road speed limit.
It’s not like that now, as I found out after spending a few days in the Trafic, pretending to be that European phenomenon: ‘White Van Man’ which is a reference to the law-defying, nominally unlabelled independent van-drivers that ply that continent at obscene speeds and with seemingly many missions to complete between dawn and dusk and all points in between. I’d always wondered why they always seemed so cheery and bright.
I think I found out. With an ear-bleeding stereo - even in standard trim - air conditioning, cruise control and one of the best driving positions in ANY vehicle, the Trafic is surely every White Van Man’s Lotto wish. Especially when one’s memories of a 1970 Commer panel van are cold nights spent sleeping in the back for the sake of equipment security, while the band slept in the hotel. When thick sheets of ice, formed on the van’s inner walls by my own condensed breath, would fall on me in the morning, dislodged by wake-up fists pounding on the body. Those were the days.
Renault’s Trafic is the biggest seller in the commercial van market in Europe. The van is now in its third generation and part of a three-way co-development with Renault’s partners Nissan and GM/Opel/Vauxhall. Tradies, deliverymen, small businesses and hirers love them and Renault is hoping such a love affair will continue down-under, where those other commercials, pickup trucks are out-selling ordinary cars.
Launched in this part of the world mid-year, the Trafic arrives in New Zealand to fill the slot between the petrol and electric Kango and the heavyweight Master models. For the time-being we get the Trafic in my test vehicle’s form. With a 1.6-litre twin-turbo diesel direct-injected 103kW dCi 140 four-cylinder engine (a 90kW version is also being looked at) with a six-speed manual gearbox (an auto again is being looked at).
It's darn quick, with its 340Nm of torque being available at 1500rpm, which allows a nifty sub ten-second zero to 100kmh time - though the factory says it’s slightly slower than that. Never mind, with its snick-snick six-speed gear lever mounted close to the wheel-rim, you’ll never miss a shift and once hooked-up into a top-gear cruise-controlled 100kmh, you note that the rev-counter needle is pointing at little over 1000rpm.
Which probably explains my van’s 7.4L/100km economy figures, though a standard stop-start function would also help. And it wasn’t as if the Trafic was empty, either. For part of my test, the unit had a lifetime’s worth of books, two settees and yes a fair swag of musical equipment filling its uncluttered snag-free load area. While that’s probably nothing like what a White Van Man might pack into his (or her) Trafic, the Renault factory advises that unloaded versions can be nursed down to just over 6L/100km - impressive stuff.
With just one way into an out of the old Commer van, loading and unloading was a one-man affair, while the Renault’s twin sliding side doors and big, wide barn type rear opening mean that awkward stuff can be loaded or removed with relative speed by as many people as you want.
With a 2.9m long load area with a width of 1.3m between the wheel arches the Traffic is contrived to cope with all the usual builder’s equipment and materials and if a load is a little longer, there’s a low-mounted load-through trap under the passenger seats for longer items. When not being used this way, an intrepid White Van Person can carry a good-sized suitcase and hide valuables and special equipment. The Trafic’s internal load rate is 1274kg while towing capacity is 2000kg and whatever the weight, the Renault has an automatic three-level Load dependant electronic stability programme.
For the human part of the Trafic’s load, the three-seat (one, plus two) cabin is sealed off from the load area by a solid bulkhead with rear-view glazing and it’s a pretty peaceful place from which to conduct your day’s deliveries. There’s a tonne of dash top stowage, and a sensibly-placed area for USB-charging your smartphone and mounting same. The cabin door pockets are huge and will take a clipboard and lap-top with ease and keep them out of sight when parked up.
I had to check the van’s specifications before I could readily believe the engine’s relatively small volume as what it does with its 1.6-litres is nothing short of miraculous. Our band’s Commer Van had a 2.6-litre Humber Hawk engine, and it never really felt it would ever actually reach any destination it was aimed for, while the Traffic would vacuum-up the main highways with the smooth refinement of a family car, the engine barely drawing breath even over the main divide. While the old Commer never actually broke down, we spent our time hunched over its very poor seating expecting it to do so any minute.
Off the main highway, the Trafic’s other talent made itself felt. In vans of old, braking and cornering were merely incidental abilities. The Trafic’s balance and poise - regardless of load was uncanny, with little understeer and a level of grip that was remarkable. It also rode well on all surfaces, so fragile loads can be carried with confidence, while White Van Man’s lunch and flask is unlikely to suffer from the vagaries of New Zealand road makers - or earthquake repairs for that matter.
No wonder Renault-borne White Van Men have such a cheesy grin. Being furnished with a four-wheeled ‘office’ with the comfort and practicality of the Trafic would tend to crack a smile from the most hard-pressed driver. They might even admit to the boss that they actually enjoy their job.
As standard, the $49,990 Trafic packs stability control, Grip Xtend traction control, hill start assist, rear parking sensors and Bluetooth plus auto lights and wipers, a retractable tablet bracket, leather steering wheel rim and a reversing camera and sensors. A MediaNav 7.0-inch colour touch-screen infotainment set up is a $1500 extra cost option. Our car’s alloy wheels were also a special option.
The Trafic comes with a 36-month/100,000km warranty, and similar length roadside assist package and service intervals of 30,000km or every year, whichever comes first.