It's really a bit of a bargain

R O A D T E S T The new Laguna, although thirsty, is a pleasure to drive and gives passengers an uncommonly comfortable ride, says John Simister

Renault UK is rather pleased with itself. Note the numbers of snarling-nosed Lagunas plying our motorways to see why. The Laguna, a sort of French Ford Mondeo with a generous dose of added flair, has been a roaring sales success of the sort that its Renault 21 predecessor never came near: 54 per cent more Lagunas were sold last year than Renault predicted pre-launch.

So it is in upbeat mood that Renault has plugged two glaring gaps in the Laguna line-up. There is now a diesel version, smooth and quiet (for a diesel) without being especially quick - a turbo-diesel, due later in the year, should fix that shortcoming. And there is also a Laguna with sporty overtones, powered by a new 16-valve engine developed with Renault's technical collaborator Volvo.

High time, too. For we have seen Renault Laguna racers winning British Touring Car Championship races, off and on, for a year or more, while Renault Vl0 engines are the most powerful in Grand Prix racing today.

The Renault Laguna RTI 2.OS 16V, to give the newcomer its full title, costs pounds 14,810 andlooks a bit of a bargain compared with similarly powerful rivals. As an RTI, it has more or less the RT trim level that forms the middle of the Laguna range's stages of smartness.

So you get electric power for the front windows, the mirrors and the sunroof, and a six-speaker stereo system with a richer, more realistic sound than many and remote controls on the steering column. Alloy wheels, and a pack which "for technical reasons" combines air-conditioning with a speed-variable version of the normal power steering, are optional; racy but reasonably discreet front and rear spoilers are standard.

Other niceties include a leather-rim steering wheel, firmly bolstered seats with geometric patterns on the upholstery and turquoise piping on their edges, while anti-lock brakes and a driver's airbag (a passenger's one is optional) help improve your life expectancy. Particularly praiseworthy is the three-point seat-belt for the centre rear passenger, something which should be fitted to all new cars.

Like all Lagunas, the 16V has an intriguing interior with a dashboard cleft in two by a dark-grey top that sweeps down to become a centre console. Unlike some past Renaults, the Laguna is solidly built out of high-quality materials, and the cabin is a sumptuous, homely place to be. The engine, however, causes a considerable character change. Lagunas to date, even the V6, have been a bit soft and laid-back, but this new one is crisp, eager, keen to give a good time.

In essence, the new 2.0-litre N-series engine is four-fifths of a five- cylinder Volvo 850 motor (or, alternatively, two-thirds of a six-cylinder Volvo 960 motor, for all three units are part of the same family). The design is a joint effort between Renault and Volvo, with some Porsche input also, and all these engines are built by Volvo in Sweden using castings supplied by Renault from France. This is not the only Renault/Volvo contra-deal, incidentally; Volvo makes floorpans for the Renault Clio, and the Dutch-built Volvo 400 models have used Renault engines for years. Volvo and Renault were set to merge not long ago, until Sweden pulled the plug, but technical co-operation continues despite the board-level cooling of ardour.

The new engine's 140 bhp is a fairly average output for its type, but Renault claims near constant pulling power across a very broad speed range. This characteristic, combined with short-legged gearing which causes the engine to rev quite high for a given road speed, makes for lively acceleration with vigorous pull in the higher gears, The power delivery is smooth, too, and made all the more pleasurable to exploit by a precise, easy gearchange.

If you want to have fun, then, the engine rises to the task. But it is equally content to amble, without feeling torpid should you suddenly call for some extra thrust. The only problem is one of thirst; my experience is that brisk driving might get you no further than 25 miles on one gallon.

But that is not too high a price to pay for a combination of ride comfort and cornering ability unsurpassed by any rival I can call to mind. The secret, one that French car engineers know better than most others, is to match soft springing with firm damping of body movements, so that the wheels soak up bumps but passengers are not thrown around in corners. The resultant fluid progress is complemented in the Laguna by precise, consistent steering and unerring stability, so you always know exactly where you are and what the car is doing. Few cars inspire such confidence while offering such suppleness.

Renault's latest Laguna is an uncommonly complete car, a pleasure to drive and a pleasure for passengers alike. It is a better bet than a BMW 318i, as well as costing rather less.

SPECIFICATIONS

Renault Laguna RTI 2.OS 16V, pounds 14,810

Engine: 1948cc, four cylinders, 40bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Top speed 127mph, 0-60 in 9.6 seconds.

Fuel consumption 27-32mpg

COMPARISONS

BMW 318i, pounds 16,875

Regarded by many as a cut above the morass of Mondeo-class cars, in this form the BMW does not offer any more than the Renault - except a higher price and less equipment. Neither ride comfort nor the engine performance can match those of the French car.

Citroen Xantia VSX 2.0, pounds 16,930

As with the BMW, this Xantia cannot match the Laguna's pace (a 16-valve version is yours for another pounds 1,275). Equipment is plentiful, however. The Xantia is a handsome car with a combination of ride, comfort and handling poise nearly as good as the Renault's, except that the steering and brakes feel more nervous.

Ford Mondeo Si, pounds 16,210

The Si's 16-valve 2.0-litre engine is common to all Mondeos, but the Si gets firmer suspension and shorter-legged gearing to make it feel sportier. Compared with the Laguna, the Mondeo lacks fluidity of movement and quality of fittings. The less sporty GLX is cheaper, at pounds l4,820.

Nissan Primera eGT, pounds 16,740

This is praised by keen drivers, who love its potent engine and sharp

dynamics, but thoroughly cursed by

passengers, who get fed up with the fidgety ride. The British-built

Nissan is a fast-ageing design now. The forthcoming SRi version is

cheaper, but uses a less powerful

engine.

Vauxhall Cavalier SRi 16V, pounds 15,350

The Vauxhall is the darling of many a company fleet operator, but its coarse driving qualities show the design's age. The best part of the ride is the punchy, economical engine. An

all-new Cavalier, which will be called Vauxhall Vectra, is to be launched

later this year.

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