Motoring: Why Doesn't Anyone Buy The ... Renault Safrane

IT'S A great name, in some ways. `Safrane' is agency-invented, oozing plushness, softness, warmth and the air of being pampered on a sofa so yielding it threatens to swallow you. That's the Renault Safrane, a soft sofa of a car in which to escape from the cruel world.

The French are good at cars with soft seats and supple suspension. The French, however, are not so good at creating big cars that people actually want to buy, mainly because the Germans have appropriated the big-car template and everyone thinks that Germanic is how big cars should be. Against such a mindset, the Safrane never stood a chance.

It was launched back in 1992, and even became What Car?'s Executive Car of the Year. I know because I was a judge. It won because it was such a great stress-buster: smooth, serene and laden with gadgets. It was also the first Renault to be built to standards, and using materials, which at least tilted towards the neighbours over the Rhine. After the friable Renault 25, this was an advance.

Left-hand drive markets could have a Safrane Quadra, with four-wheel drive, and even a Safrane Biturbo with BMW-humbling pace and a lot of bodykit. But such image-builders were denied to UK buyers, because there would be too few of them to justify the effort. So, deprived of glamour, the Safrane was not a success. To buy one was to seem unthrusting, complacent, a couch potato. Secondhand values are pitiful. No wonder they make great minicabs.

In 1996, the range got a new look. There was an attempt at a distinctive "face", although the result was more Hyundai than anything else. Asked why the new look wasn't more in line with the fierce frown of the Laguna and the first Megane, Renault's then UK marketing director replied that there was no point in making the car look like a Renault because no-one would want to buy it. "Big Renaults don't sell," he said, "so we have given it its own identity."

It didn't work. There hasn't been a UK ad campaign for the Safrane in ages, and soon it will die. Its replacement will be the angular, futuristic Vel Satis, a boldly un-German saloon. Attack, after all, is often the best form of defence.