IT’S A TOUGH GIG BEING A MEDIUM VAN, LIKE RENAULT’S 2016 MASTER: A WHOLE 6.2 METRES OF BODY LENGTH, STRETCHING 3.73 METRES UPWARDS AND OFFERING A WHOPPING 2.2-TONNE PAYLOAD.
And it's got a working life ahead of it of being whipped around city streets and along country lanes as if it’s a small hatchback.
In the case of the Master, this capability comes for the price of a large passenger sedan –$49,990 plus on-road costs.
We are testing the long wheelbase version in rear-wheel-drive. But you can also go front-wheel-drive and accept a half-tonne payload reduction.
There are also short and medium wheelbase versions with that 1.5 tonne payload and front-drive, or, at the top of the tree, a 2.1 tonne-payload extra-long wheelbase model.
Vehicle Style: Medium Van
Price: $49,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 120kW/360Nm 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo-diesel | six-speed manual
Fuel Economy claimed: not available | tested: 10.6 l/100km
The third-generation Renault Master is now five years old. A big seller in Europe, it competes locally on price with the Fiat Ducato and Volkswagen Crafter, both of which it outsells.
The pricier Mercedes-Benz Sprinter however is the hardest-hitting rival – it’s the top seller in the class, with 2681 sales so far this year (to November 2015) almost double the Master’s 1387-unit tally.
Despite a huge range, pricing for the Master only spans between $40,990 (short wheelbase, low roof, front-drive) and $54,490 (extra-long wheelbase, high roof, rear-drive).
All models get a 2.3-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine and choice of six-speed manual or single-clutch automatic transmissions. Our manual rear-driver is one of two variants to get 120kW and 360Nm (LWB and ELWB with manual only), where the others get 100kW/340Nm or 110kW/350Nm.
- Standard equipment: power windows and mirrors, keyless entry, multi-function trip computer, air-conditioning, cloth seat trim, cruise control
- Infotainment: Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, AM/FM radio, CD player and 6 speakers
- Cargo volume: 12,400 litres
Function comes first, second and third with medium vans, and the Renault Master has clearly been designed with that in mind. Its dashboard is brilliant, with enough nooks and crannies to satisfy the best – and worst – organized tradie.
The three-across seating is comfortable, and folding the middle perch down reveals a handy tray with another two cupholders to double the total count. The French still aren’t fans of coffee spots, though – the Master’s are small and shallow.
Renault desperately needs to upgrade the infotainment system to replace the single-DIN stereo of the current model. Navigation is optional, as is a reverse-view camera mounted awkwardly in the flip-down driver’s sunvisor.
The Master isn’t alone in having a potentially life-saving safety feature such as a reverse cam on the options list, and rear parking-sensors are standard, though we see no reason why vans should be exempt from technology now standard in $15K hatchbacks.
Similarly, only dual front airbags are standard and the side/curtain airbags available overseas are not on the options list (they’re optional on Crafter and Sprinter).
Where the Master starts to make impressive ground on its rivals is in the all-important area behind the front seats. This Renault provides cargo volume totalling 12,400 litres or 17,000L if you choose the $51,990 extra-long wheelbase version, with a 2.2-tonne and 2.1t payload respectively.
A Crafter can do 14,000L total volume for $50,200, with 80kW/300Nm at work under the bonnet and a 1.3 tonne payload. To get to the bigger 2.0 tonne payload, and 17,000L volume, the price rises to $57,890 and engine output to 105kW/340Nm.
A Ducato can do 13,000L ($48,000) or 15,000L ($52,000), a 2.0 tonne payload, front-wheel-drive with a stout 130kW/400Nm and standard single-clutch auto transmission.
Meanwhile it takes a $59,650 Sprinter to match the Master payload.
With twin barn doors and a sliding side-door, access to the Renault’s load area is easy. A person of 178cm height can standard comfortably inside, and this is only the ‘mid roof’ version.
The extra-long wheelbase model raises the roof by another 26cm – just watch entry into carparks.
ON THE ROAD
Engine: 120kW/360Nm 2.3 4cyl turbo-diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, leaf spring rear
Brake type: ventilated front and rear disc brakes
Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering, 15.7m turning circle
The Renault Master drives comfortably and very competently.
There is no excessive noise, vibration and harshness that can sometimes afflict commercial vehicles, and the steering, although quite slow and relaxed, is nicely weighted and makes for an effortless drive.
The six-speed manual is a delight to shift. First gear is ultra short, perfect for when the Master is all loaded up and faced with a hillclimb from standing start. By 25 km/h the engine is all out of breath at 4500rpm.
Second gear is so effortless that without a full load and on flat ground, it is the default choice to start in.
The other gears are closely packed, while at 110km/h in sixth the diesel is spinning at 2800rpm.
To retain payload capacity, Renault offers a $2500-optional six-speed semi-automatic transmission that is basically an ‘automated manual’.
Although we haven’t experienced this transmission in the Master, single-clutch autos are low-tech, lurchy units and the engine only gets 110kW/350Nm – so test drive carefully.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the Ducato has the same type of auto, VW doesn’t offer an auto at all, while only pricier Sprinters have an excellent Benz seven-speed auto.
The Renault 120kW/360Nm diesel is refined and punchy without being outstanding. It can sometimes feel breathless and slightly underpowered, even without a load, although fuel use (10.6 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed testing) is manageable.
A Ducato stacks on 40Nm more torque, however, as does the Crafter if you drill hard enough into its three-engine range and are prepared to spend more.
For sheer output, the Sprinter takes the bacon with its 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 producing 140kW/440Nm and linked to a seven-speed auto. You can get one with a 1.95 tonne payload but for an eye-watering $67,740.
For its seat comfort, ride comfort, suspension control and general feeling of solidity, the six-wheel Renault Master scores, particularly for the price.
ANCAP rating: The Renault Master has yet to be rated by ANCAP
Safety features: Dual airbags, ABS and ESC, reverse-view camera.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Ducato is most competitive on price, but we’re weary of its single-clutch auto being the only option and even the top model is adrift on cargo volume and payload compared with the identically priced Master.
A Sprinter with seven-speed auto would be an excellent pick, along with its optional safety gear, but it is extremely pricey.
The Crafter is manual-only, is reasonably priced with a small engine/payload, but expensive when rivalling the Renault’s specification.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Master is not the 'gruntiest' in the segment, and its infotainment and safety technology needs an upgrade.
However, for the price it asks you to pay, it offers great driveability, refinement, cabin comfort and storage, and cargo volume and payload.
Bundle in a three-year/200,000km warranty, three-year roadside assistance and three-year capped price servicing, and the Master long wheelbase and extra-long wheelbase versions become especially tough-to-beat medium vans.
It’s a four-star choice for the manual model driven here, but we’ll reserve judgment on the single-clutch auto.