Rental Car Review – French Minivan Edition

As I walked up the street in Lusanne, Switzerland last August and peered into the windows of the line of parked cars, my first thought was, “This doesn’t look like the right way back to the hotel.”  It was not, in fact, the right way and I was lost in a town where no one spoke English for 2 hours.  In the rain.  My second thought, however, was, “Not a single automatic transmission!”

Therefore, it came as quite a surprise that neither of our group’s rental cars sported a manny-tranny despite our having requested to row our own.  Nevertheless, the cars that we got were completely devoid of preconceptions.  Our whip for the first half of the trip was a Renault Scenic, followed by a Citroen C4 “Picasso”.  The only reservation that I had regarding either brand was their reputation for creating bad cars.  I gave both a pass since they were French and not really meant to be taken seriously anyway.  I’m making an exception for the Renault R5 Turbo, but still, it was based on a Le Car.

Let's get it le'on!

In comparing these two pillars of Gaelic engineering, it is necessary to point out that both are built for the same purpose.  It is not style. It is not excitement.  No, it is simply to haul around a good number of people efficiently.  These are, pretty much, minivans.  Sure, you could call them MPVs since there’s no sliding doors, but they both serve the same purpose.  Also note that this comparison is not scientific.  These vehicles were not driven on the same roads, were barely compared back to back and everything that doesn’t have a number attached to it is completely subjective.  Don’t like it?  Get your own blog or read some French magazine.

Exterior

The Renault we rented was relatively good looking, though modest as one would expect a minivan to be.  The conservative styling was attractive enough, particularly in the black hue slathered on its sheet metal.  From the front, it looks about as sporty as one could hope for in something meant as a soccer shuttle. I’m not sure how Citroen got the rights to use the name “Picasso” for any of their lineup, but I am particularly confused as to how an artist’s name can be applied to the C4.  Our copy was light purple and can best be described as a cross between an Easter egg and a suppository.  The little cutouts in the window helped entertain the eye and pull it away from the otherwise terrible lines and I do like Citroen grilles.  Otherwise, adjectives like “dumpy” and “portly” come to mind.

Interior

I wanted that little shifter, but Noooooo...

I had always thought that the Japanese were masters of maximizing interior space, but apparently the French can do it just as well!   The Scenic boasted excellent interior trimmings with tasteful accents.  Obviously, the hard plastics were plentiful, but at this price point, it is no great surprise.  Little touches like pull up shades for the back seats, a customizable dash board and fold down trays made the Renault quite pleasant for occupants and drivers alike.  Also handy were the third row folding seats that allowed us to cram 7 adults into the car in relative comfort as we drove up to the Medieval mountainside town of Eze.  Also plentiful were little storage bins.  The designers apparently looked for every nook and cranny not utilized and stuck a storage bin there.  I’m sure that these would be horrible if you were to buy the car 2nd or 3rd hand since the lids would most likely be busted or lost by that time, but for our purposes, they were nice.  The main downside was that the A-pillar was difficult to see around when making turns and really became quite a handicap on tight, French mountain roads.

The Citroen sported many similar features as the Renault, but most of them seemed more half-thought-out.  For instance, the window shades that pulled up from the bottom of the window on the Renault, pulled out from the side of the Citroen’s window leading to it catching frequently and allowing the sun to shine over the top of the shade and directly into my eyes.  There was no third row of seats, but there was plenty of space for storage.  The center glove box was refrigerated and held a six pack of Grimbergen, so that was nice.  Visibility was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, the C4 Picasso must have the largest windshield of any car available.  The sun shades could literally be pushed back to give you another 8 inches of glass stretching beyond the driver’s head.  Strangely, and I don’t know if this is in all Citroens, but the steering wheel hub does not move with the steering wheel.  It is a little disconcerting at first, quite frankly.  It makes sense, when you think about it, that you would want all of your buttons to remain in place, regardless of when you steer, but I was not in favor. The purpose of each car is made all the more clear by the inclusion of a second rear view mirror that seems to have the expressed purpose of watching the children in the back seat.  The “I saw you hitting your sister” feature could be hidden on the Renault, but not the Citroen.

Power

The Renault was smooth, competent and actually quite delightful to drive.  The delivery was never jarring and the 1.5L diesel was certainly never overwhelming. The Citroen was the exact opposite of everything in those last two sentences.  The official Citroen website describes it as, “the perfect accompaniment to the HDi 160 engine, delivering a smooth yet responsive drive.”  In fact, the automatic 6 speed was, quite frankly, the worst transmission I’ve ever driven.  Apparently, it is not a proper automatic, but rather a manual transmission with a slipper clutch forced to behave without driver input.  The result is that as you press the accelerator with any force, the transmission drops out of gear, takes a smoke break, applies mime makeup and then comes back to swap cogs.  It caused a great deal of cursing and was by far the reason most stated that everyone should avoid driving this car. Suspension They’re fine.  Both of them.  Both are soft and kind of lazy.  They stink for taking aggressive roads, but they are minivans.  It was a bit unnerving as I approached 190 km/h on the Autobahn in the Renault how light it started to feel, but I wasn’t in a C63, here, so I’m giving it a pass.

Verdict

I could actually see owning the Renault Scenic.  Sure, I would need another vehicle, but the utility, the engine and the styling just plain works. Some people might get past the Previa looks of the Citroen, but I can’t see how anyone who has ever driven a car before could saddle up, put it in drive and think that the transmission was anything other than horrific.  Maybe the manual version is tolerable, but the automatic would be a deal breaker.  In a time when the field of people-movers is so tight, a failure like that is simply unacceptable.  Let’s hope that the engineers have the automatic simply as a fall-back for lazy Americans renting cars and that their standard transmission, the one found in their real cars is competent.  Maybe I’ll get to drive one on my next trip rather than be burdened with the ease of putting it in D.

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