The 2021 Renault Captur Ain’t Great but Is Still Charming As Hell

As an American car enthusiast, I associate European roads with tiny, diesel-powered vehicles–the archetypal forbidden fruit of the brown, manual, diesel wagon, as it were. But times are changing, and quickly. Half of all European new car buyers chose a crossover or SUV during the first six months of 2022, a first. At the same time, hybrids and EVs are on the rise as government regulations and incentives pave the way for an electric future

Much like the mid-size crossover in the States, the subcompact, B-segment crossover is Europe’s fastest-growing and most important car segment, making up more than one million sales over the first half of this year. People there want small, tall cars, and the 2021 Renault Captur plays a similar role in the European family as the Honda CR-V or perhaps the lifestyle-focused Subaru Forester does in ours—though its execution is quite different.

Maddox Kay

Yet, with EVs on the horizon and more powerful and efficient gas engines as options in the meantime, Renault’s charismatic second-generation Captur is a symbol of where European cars have been rather than where they’re going, and it’s hard to see a compelling reason to buy one over the competition. Regardless, that didn’t stop me from being very charmed by it.

2021 Renault Captur Review Specs

  • Base price: €26,940 ($28,350 as of this writing)
  • Powertrain: 1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder | 6-speed manual | front-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 90 @ 4,600 rpm
  • Torque: 118 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
  • Curb weight: 2,646 lbs
  • 0-62 mph: 11 seconds
  • Fuel economy: 5.8 L/100 Km (41 mpg U.S.; 37 mpg observed)
  • Quick take: Capturs the heart, not the mind.

Captur What?

The Captur is Renault’s smallest two-row crossover, sharing that distinction in some emerging markets with a Renault-badged Dacia Duster. It’s almost identical in size to a Honda HR-V or Toyota CH-R, and six inches shorter than a Corolla Cross. The one I’m reviewing was a Hertz rental that I picked up while on vacation in Portugal.

Maddox Kay

Renault released the Captur with the first wave of B-segment crossovers in 2013, and the current generation, based on the subcompact Clio V platform, hit the ground as a 2020 model. It shares bones with the second-generation Nissan Juke (RIP, funky friend) and the forthcoming Mitsubishi ASX. The Captur’s main competitors are the Volkswagen T-Roc and the Ford Puma, which are Polo and Fiesta-based, respectively.

Its stylish appearance and inviting interior offered a playful alternative to buttoned-up Volkswagens and Fords, and customers dug it, making the Captur Europe’s 11th-best-selling car in 2021.

Wearing the Fun Hat

Stepping into the Captur feels a bit like putting on a fun hat. It stands out from other small crossovers, with a road presence that belies its miniature size. I think the front end and side profile are sharp without trying to be aggro. The interior delights with pleasant touchpoints and supportive seats that didn’t grow too firm over a four-hour highway journey. Shameless but tasteful influences abound, as Renault’s headrests strongly resemble Volvo’s patented head restraints, while the gauge cluster, infotainment, and HVAC controls could be lifted from a current-gen Audi. The seats’ gray and silver accents soften the bank vibe common to all-black interiors. It all works together, and the Captur is an upbeat if not downright cheerful place to be.

There’s plenty of space in the hatch for a week’s worth of luggage, and the back seat offers copious legroom, even for your six-foot-two writer. Rear headroom is a bit cramped, though–after all, this is a small car that happens to be on stilts.

Setting off is easy enough, with clear sightlines and easy controls. The Captur steers accurately, and the ride is damped for smoothness, clearly set up for Lisbon’s cobblestones over Estoril’s hairpins. The Renault’s suspension tuning keeps head toss to a minimum, and its top-of-the-pedal brake bite (despite rear drums) inspired confidence, even on 20% grades.

As for tech, CarPlay works mostly seamlessly, although the phone tray is slightly small to accommodate a plugged-in iPhone 13 Max, and the standard sound system has decent bass and treble. Lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist are included and intervene more aggressively than I would like. There is some ergonomic weirdness: the center controls lack a volume knob, meaning the passenger doesn’t get an easily-accessible way to turn up the French house music. Making matters worse, the driver’s volume controls are confusingly placed on the end of a stalk just below the wipers, with a skip/scan wheel on the back of the stalk. Finally, there’s a kick-down switch at the bottom of the gas pedal’s travel, which I can only assume is a carryover part from the 140 automatic model. The Captur’s limited power means I kicked it frequently on highway hills, sparking momentary confusion.

The elephant in the room: The Captur’s one-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged engine puts out 90 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque. Yes, dear American reader, 90 horses, and they ain’t thoroughbreds. Appropriately short first and second gears mean the Captur zips enough at low speeds to keep up with city traffic, but you must approach highway merges with passion. Plan your passes in advance, and don’t expect to climb any large hills in sixth gear. Unlike low-powered cars that rev enthusiastically and feel faster than they are, the Captur coughs and wheezes up to speed, its tiny turbo screeching all the while. It will maintain an indicated 80 mph on flat ground, but there’s no joy in getting there.

Please accelerate more slowly. I dare you. Maddox Kay

What makes this performance inexcusable is that the Captur’s competitors offer similar or better efficiency with much punchier performance. A base VW T-Roc 1.0 TSI beats the Captur to 60 by over three seconds, with 20 more hp and 30 extra lb-ft of torque. Those three seconds are the difference between slow and uncomfortable. A basic Ford Puma packs 123 hp, and Ford sells a mild-hybrid model that boosts output to 155 while delivering 53 mpg. (To be fair, Renault also offers a 140-horse mild hybrid for 2022, but Hertz didn’t offer me the chance to try this flavor.) While the 1.0-liter Renault’s 41 U.S. mpg is okay, (we saw 37 in four days of admittedly spirited highway and mountain driving), it’s not impressive considering what we’re giving up. If a car is so underpowered that you have to live foot-to-the-floor, it’s not going to be that efficient.

Putting the hamsters under the hood aside, a spongy clutch and ropey shifter aren’t particularly pleasant. They’re easy to manage in traffic, which fits with the Captur’s mission as a commuter, but long, cable-y throws and lots of driveline slack mean you need to slow down your shifts and clutch releases to avoid giving passengers whiplash. This becomes challenging when trying to execute one of those 14-second highway merges I mention above.  

Still, there’s something fun about hustling a small SUV with a manual gearbox around a European city. It’s whimsical in the same way a Jeep Wrangler’s agricultural stick shift is, and the Renault’s compliant ride adds to the effect. It’s got a certain joie de vivre in the way it moves, gliding over cobblestones and potholes and dancing through city traffic thanks to its excellent visibility and tiny turbocharger. 

Maddox Kay

Heading north out of Lisbon on a sunny morning, I couldn’t shake a smile from my face. Maybe Portugal’s beautiful weather and delicious octopus had something to do with it, but I’d like to hold the car responsible. Sure, it’s a shame that the Captur’s driving experience doesn’t rise to the occasion once you push past four-10ths, but considering most buyers will use it as an A-to-B appliance, I’d say it’s all right. They’ll enjoy this thing without breaking the speed limit or leaving the city limits. Cars that feel bored at anything less than a gallop could learn a thing or two.

A Vehicular Fedora

The basic Renault Captur is a vehicular fedora: not the most practical hat in the world, but one you wear because you like the way it makes you feel. In four days of driving it around Portuguese mountains, cities, and coastal towns, it charmed me. I don’t smoke, but the Captur made me want to park by a pier, hop out, and share a pack while talking to dock workers about fishing conditions or graffiti artists about the local street scene. It’s inviting rather than standoffish, a car that lets the world in against many that make it their business to hold the outside at arms-length. This is a car that deserves to be painted a good color, and the silver of my rental—while pleasant—was lacking. A nice blue, red, or even yellow would complement its plucky charm nicely.

Plus, there’s the way people perceive this thing. I don’t think the Portuguese are particularly big on outward displays of wealth, and in a country where foreigners are snapping up swaths of real estate, the Renault Captur marks you as a member of the proletariat—at least until they see the Hertz sticker in the window.

Yet this charm couldn’t overshadow the Captur’s numerous practical flaws. 

It’s a car that doesn’t fit any conventional definition of success. It’s an economy car, but in non-hybrid guise, it’s not particularly efficient. It has a turbocharger and a manual transmission, but it’s the opposite of sporty to drive. It’s like a Subaru Forester minus the brand cachet—a car you buy unbound by rational parameters outside of cost and number of seats. 

Still, though, in 10 years and when gasoline- and diesel-powered cars are banned from European city centers and everyone’s rolling around in a blobby EV, we’ll probably miss the hell out of these simple joys.

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