Motoring: Auto Biography: The Renault Safrane in 0-60 seconds

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LIKE trying to change the navigational line of an aircraft carrier, shifting perceived wisdom about what kind of machine a manufacturer is best at is a job requiring foresight and patience. BMW and Mercedes will wrangle with it in the near future when they try to convince the world for the first time that a small car is entitled to bear their badge. Renault, with the problematic nine-year-old 25-series and its successor, the Safrane, is attempting the opposite - continuing to promote the notion that a marque that is synonymous with chic super-mini motoring can also be the builder of a decent mid-market limo.

This is the car that those silver-templed men are supposed to drive in office hours. It is, therefore, nobody's idea of exciting motoring, being designed as a car that makes long journeys quiet and painless and establishes what Renault call a 'cocoon' of tranquillity. The Safrane is a big hatchback and its general aesthetics are muted to the point of invisibility. It is not in any hurry to tempt you into indiscretions - you have really to tell it you want to hurry, emphatically flooring its throttle pedal to shake that substantial body-frame out of its stately glide.

The compensations for this rather anonymous dignity are the ones you might expect from an execmobile (lots of legroom and bootroom, silent operation, comfort, good finish and build quality) plus one that you might not - agility. Once you get used to it, the Safrane is a surprisingly deft driver, its luxury-class suspension not neutralising its handling qualities, which impressively counteract roll and lurch. The steering feel is a little inert, but the car is stable and even-tempered both in tight cornering and on country-road twisters, and lies about its size very plausibly. It's also immensely comfortable, even by boardroom-car standards - full air-conditioning is fitted across the range - and an exhaustive list of extras on the top models even includes a set of buttons on the seat squabs whereby you can make fine adjustments to the inflation of the furniture to mould it to your delicately proportioned posterior. Only the device that warns you against leaving the lights on goes a little too far. First comes a sinister chord-sequence, like the prelude to the corpse falling out of the closet in a Fifties whodunnit - then an elocution-class elevator-voice intones 'Lights Not Switched Off'. What happens if you ignore it? A bullet in the the head?

GOING PLACES: quiet, refined and discreetly powerful V6 engine on the top-range 3.0 litre RXE, 0-60mph in 10 secs. Almost imperceptible shifts from smooth auto-box, though over- enthusiastic at change-downs on deceleration. Other models 2.0 litre engines, giving 0-60mph in 11 secs (manual), 12 secs (auto).

STAYING ALIVE / HANGING OUT: heavy and safe bodyshell, with side-impact bars, height-adjustable belts, standard air-conditioning. Anti-lock (ABS) brakes standard on RXE models. Safe, predictable and agile handler. Power steering a little light and inert at lower speeds, but well-weighted at cruising speeds.

CREATURE COMFORTS: its overriding strength. Interior design a little fussy, with door-trims full of extraneous handles, arm-rests, lumps and bumps, and facia rather shelf-like. Otherwise extremely luxurious and generously specified. Driver's seating position and passenger's 'relax' position electronically adjustable, rear legroom excellent, voluminous boot. Seat contours adjustable by inflation controls on RXE. Standard air-conditioning.

BANGS PER BUCK: power steering, ABS brakes (RXE), central locking and alarm, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors standard, 'comfort pack' with extensive seat adjustment etc on RXE, plus computer- controlled suspension. Fuel consumption up at big automatic levels, around 16.5 mpg in town, approx 28mpg at motorway speeds (2.0 models 22mpg/30mpg). pounds 25,650.

STAR QUALITY: quiet, safe, very comfortable and unexpectedly nippy luxury hatch.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: steering light at lower speeds, throttle response delayed, body-styling undistinctive.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Rover 827SLi ( pounds 24,795): more personality and performance, fewer luxuries . . . Ford Granada EFi GLX ( pounds 20,820): less dignified, less expensive, but well- equipped, comparable performer . . . Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 ( pounds 26,700): slow, expensive, and few extras, but quiet as breathing and will go forever . . . Citroen XM 3.0 V6 SEi ( pounds 26,720): faster, wackier, comfortable, traditional Citroen, won't necessarily go forever.

(Photograph omitted)