MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Renault Laguna in 0-60 seconds

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THERE are cars that whisk you eagerly away, and there are cars that don't. This doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with speed alone, but with subtler blends of good handling, relaxing ergonomics, crisp controls and, of course, adequately lively performance. The Renault Laguna 2.0-litre is one of the former kind. The company is marketing it as a luxury car in a non-luxury price bracket, a popular game with motor manufacturers lately, but in this case it stands up to scrutiny. And Renault, small-car builders par excellence, know all about how difficult this is; their forays into the bigger leagues have met with distinctly mixed fortunes. The Laguna, a replacement for the dated 21, is a Mondeo rival, and brilliant at it.

Apart from the grille, which looks like Tom trying to convince Jerry he's all heart, the Laguna is a very pretty car, and quite unconventional despite generally obeying the rules of the class. The nose is short and dips low, the windscreen starts at such a rakish angle on the stubby bonnet that it seems to stretch forever to the roofline, and its boot humps upwards suggesting the generous stowage space the Laguna offers. The design results in a particularly airy cabin, with low fascia and excellent visibility. Complete with plush seating, good driving position adjustment and legroom in the rear, the Laguna's mini-limo marketing image survives scrutiny.

But the Laguna's trump card is its road-handling. The refined but rather dull Renault Safrane has had a lot to do with the chassis set-up - but this new car definitely isn't dull. The engineers have tweaked existing suspension designs so deftly that the handling measures up to the best in the class. The impact of this on both fast A-road driving and town use is startling. Other Laguna virtues are the siting of radio controls on the steering column, insulation against noise, a driver's airbag, engine immobiliser and beefed-up crash protection compared to the old 21. The engine is the least distinguished feature, but that whisk-you-away quality is so intelligently concocted from the car's overall chemistry that it doesn't matter.

GOING PLACES: Quiet, moderately sparky engine giving 0-60mph in just over 10 secs (improved construction quality has added weight and slowed performance), but with a smooth build of power rather than a blast. Smooth gear change, gearing designed to give plenty of torque without changing down. An easy, relaxing car to drive.

STAYING ALIVE: Standard driver's airbag at present, passenger-side airbags due. Self-tightening seatbelts, standard anti-lock braking system, side-impact protection beams and excellent visibility. Very good handling, though with a fraction more roll than a Mondeo because of the soft springing. Superb ride quality, and very responsive power-steering feel.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Very roomy for the size, for people and luggage. Boot space leads the class, good legroom in the rear. Seating a bit squashy but very comfortable; excellent driving-position adjustment and front- seat positioning with electrically variable inclination in RXE trim.

BANGS PER BUCK: Airbag, power steering, anti-lock braking, ignition immobiliser, central locking, rear wash/wipe, electric windows at front. Fuel consumption approx 25 mpg in town, 35 at motorway speeds. Price: pounds 13,935

STAR QUALITY: Distinctive design, limousine ride, spaciousness.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Engine not in the same class.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Citroen Xantia 2.0i (pounds 14,200): obtrusive engine noise, smaller boot, bigger rear legroom, the old Citroen individualism. Ford Mondeo 2.0i GLX (pounds 14,400): terrific handling, clattery engine, thirsty. Nissan Primera 2.0 LX (pounds 12,945): good value though lower spec, excellent engine, good chassis and furniture. A strong contender.

(Photograph omitted)