Getting Here From There 

There is nothing quite like visiting a parallel universe for sorting out one’s sense of place. As if I weren’t destabilized enough already navigating my way linguistically through the land of oui and non and je ne sais quoi, I was being gently warned by my contact at Renault headquarters in Paris, Monsieur Michel Riolfo, to anticipate the “watchful eyes.” He then dropped keys into my palm for a dapper green jelly bean of a sport/utility vehicle, dubbed Scénic RX4, and bid me a pleasant adieu.

Truth be told, it was the best I could do, at first, simply to keep my own eyes peeled for the appropriate directions west out of Paris and the corporate warrens of Boulogne-Billancourt. For all the inherent swagger affected by Renault’s new Err-Eks-Quatre, I must certainly have appeared the lolling hippopotamus amidst a cloud of tsetse flies as the entire Gallic race of would-be Formula One pilotes hectored me out of the city. It was not until I’d reached the northwestern verge of Forêt de Rambouillet that I’d begun to harmonize with the rhythm and customs of French highway manners. It was only then that I first became aware of the “watchful eyes.”

Downshifting slowly for a stoplight outside La Queue les Yvelines, I sensed rather than saw the ratty old Citroën 2CV—the classic deux chevaux—shadowing my pace. I looked over my left shoulder. Monsieur Citroën’s gaze was locked in my direction, but I never once caught his eye. He was mesmerized by the new Scénic RX4, to be sure. M. Riolfo had said it would be just so.

Certainly the fact that I was sporting about western France and Brittany behind the wheel of an exotic new vehicle not yet visible in showrooms had something to do with my otherwise unwarranted popularity. Renault’s new headliner for 2000 is an all-wheel-drive people pod described in France as a compact monospace, or minivan. Although it is based on the well-established Mégane compact car platform, the RX4 is an important departure in many ways. Nothing else in the automotive world shares the RX4’s zoomorphic, aardvark shape. Muscular plastic cladding surrounds the entire lower perimeter, suggesting the articulating armor of a lunar lander. A gleaming cover for the spare tire punctuates the RX4’s already exotic design statement with an appropriately outlandish bustle at the nether end.

But I can assure you that the RX4’s experimental feast of new looks is not enough in itself to turn so many heads in a land where every appearance is posed and even a drag on a cigarette is a choreographed expression. As Renault well knows, the RX4 is perhaps most remarkable for being a genuine sport/utility vehicle in the all-American idiom. Under all that Gallic drapery lies a full-time all-wheel-drive compact SUV just like the multitudes that burgeon North American highways. Renault’s marketing gamble is all the more dramatic in the context of French SUV ownership registrations totaling only 17,500 vehicles in 1999, or just 2.5 percent of France’s overall new-vehicle market. I’m convinced that the heads turning to view my RX4 were animated more by culture than consumerism: Is this what the leading edge of an impending SUV avalanche in France might look like?

The RX4 is fun and easy to drive, but patently unusual. Driver’s seating feels solitary and remote from the steering-and-instruments binnacle that partially wraps around both driver and front passenger. Elsewhere, space management is both quaint and clever. Roomy stowage wells live under the front seats as well as under the rear floor. The cargo bay measures 14.5 cu. ft., expands to 64 cu. ft., and uses an ingenious, removable shelf both to support small items on top of it and to conceal larger ones below.

The manual five-speed transmission shifts crisply through the gears. The viscous-couple AWD system is a front-to-rear setup that employs electronic traction control to apportion drive torque away from whichever wheels are prone to slip at any given moment. Ground clearance over 8 1/4 inches invites ambitious if not hard-core trail-busting.

Only the twin-cam 2.0-liter powerplant is likely to jar North American sensibilities. Its 139 ft.-lbs. of torque provides respectable pulling power off the line, but alas, 136 horsepower runs out of steam before an American thinks it should. And yet an American also thinks that a 60-liter (15.85 gal.) gas tank should not require over $70 to fill (at the equivalent of $4.43 per gallon). It is with newfound respect for this harsh yet incontestable reality, then, that I wonder whether the RX4’s mileage rating of 20 miles per gallon/city, 29/hwy. is even good enough—even in the U.S.

At which point, suddenly, the idea of an American in Paris test-driving a new French SUV with no U.S. prospects isn’t quite so bizarre after all. A distinctive, clever SUV with decent mileage is riding trends of ever-growing importance to U.S. auto buyers. But would Renault ever dare return to North America after the Dauphine debacle of the ’60s and the Le Car letdown of the ’70s? I, for one, couldn’t bet on that. Then again, there is a certain ring to the name Nissan Scenic RX4. And there does happen to be a wonderful variety of more powerful four- and six-cylinder Nissan motors now available to managing chaperon Renault. One has to wonder, as Gallic heads turn to view the striking new Scénic RX4, whether some of them can envision an eventual French reinvasion of North America by fashionably odd SUVs.

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