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WATCHING Michael Jackson on TV the other night, I thought of the Renault Laguna. It wasn't just devotion to duty on my part. As the singer plausibly accounted for the transformation of his physiognomy from that of a young black man to that of an even younger white woman, I saw that the questions his metamorphosis raises (How do we know what we see is real? Does a person have an immutable core?) were applicable to the Laguna. Will a car always be the way it seemed in the beginning, or does it change deep in its soul with the addition of a primary colour, a rear spoiler and a bit of fancy plumbing in the engine?

The new Laguna 16V has been getting a lot of attention lately, due to the conflation of various arresting stereotypes on the advertising hoardings. A bit of "Marilyn Monroe-on-the-airshaft" iconography is recreated with the image of a woman's three-quarter view, skirt blowing up around her nether regions; some pre-EC "naughty French" claptrap accounts for the "Ooh la la" slogan. The critical erotic updraught is provided, of course, by the passing Laguna.

Why all this risque 1950s imagery? Because Renault is desperate to make the Laguna appeal to a different market. This extremely well-conceived and decently engineered car was set up last year as a motorway-pounding rep machine, a rival to the Mondeo and the Citroen Xantia. Now, Renault is finding out if there's any spare sales potential in the leisure market too.

The substantive difference in the revamped product lies in the engine. The Laguna's original weakness (a leftover Renault 19 powerplant, quiet but routine) has been pepped up to make this car a "0-60-in-10" contender. All the original Laguna's virtues are still present, of course - fine handling, excellent ergonomics, crisply efficient controls, supple ride and luxury-car attributes in a mid-market vehicle.

In this sector, all cars seem to have the same small-wheeled, big-hipped, high-beamed stoop. The Laguna, while sharing these mannerisms, somehow manages to look significantly different with its short, dipping nose, steeply-raked windscreen, sinister grinning grille and humped boot - an accurate signifier of above-average boot space, now given even more cachet by the sporty spoiler perched on top. The cabin is open and light, with the kind of low-slung, faraway facia that makes driving relaxing and visibility reassuring. The seating is very supportive and comfortable, and the rear legroom is excellent for the class.

The first Laguna's engine was its weakest point, and this is what the company has addressed with this groovier model. The revamped engine is a modification of a Volvo design (Renault and Volvo have maintained a long engine-swapping partnership), and this time it is more responsive to progressive acceleration, delivering middling-to-decent performance without fuss. The real performance dividends, for a 1995 sporting model, are in fact fairly modest - but the impression of smoothly applied force, coupled with a very competitive price and extremely intelligent handling, may just be enough to break the Mondeo stranglehold.

GOING PLACES: Beefed-up original engine, giving a quietly persuasive 0-60mph in 10 secs, 30-70mph acceleration likewise. Crisp gear change, useful torque through thoughtful ratio-planning, and closer gearing than the rest of the range. Stress-free in either urban or open-road use.

STAYING ALIVE: Driver's airbag as standard, self-tightening seatbelts, standard anti-lock braking system and side-impact protection beams. Excellent visibility. Excellent handling on the twistiest of roads. The suspension has been tightened significantly over the original models, with little sacrifice of suppleness. All in all, a very good ride.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Spacious for the class, for big people and big luggage. Class-leading boot room, seating a little over-absorbent but driving position very good, generously variable.

BANGS PER BUCK: Driver's airbag, power steering, anti-look braking, ignition immobiliser, remote central locking, rear wash/wipe, electric windows at front. Fuel consumption less than perfect, though, at approximately 26mpg in town, 32mpg on motorways. Price: pounds 14,810.

STAR QUALITY: Excellent aesthetics within a category of car that is usually very bland. A relaxing ride, with improved engine, space and stability.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Improvements not all they might have been.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Mondeo 2.0 Si (pounds 16,000) - quicker, not so thirsty, engine, but noisier and fractionally less relaxation on the road. Nissan Primera 2.0e GT (pounds l6,700) - fast and fairly agile, but blander in design, and expensive. Rover 2.0 Si (pounds l6,295) - quick, well-groomed, although not so roomy; less able on the road and less striking to look at.