Did you see BBC 2's From A to B a couple of Fridays ago? In this marvel of motoring voyeurism we saw the soul of the company-car driver laid bare. We learnt about a world of features, trim levels, sunroofs and status. For example, if a car has the letter 'i' in its model name, its driver is a man (or woman, though they are less bothered by such bijouterie) truly to be reckoned with. Letters after names, like university degrees, confer proper kudos. The lower orders must genuflect to the glitter of gadgets.

Handling? Refinement? Engineering excellence? To company-car people, these vital ingredients matter not a jot - it is the car maker's job to get the basics right.

It is into this philistine world that the Renault Laguna has been launched. The Laguna may well have all worked out beautifully, as 1,000 advertisment hoardings are telling us, but this rival to the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Cavalier is sadly short of i-appeal: the range offers RN, RT and RXE models. Still, there is no shortage of toys - even the cheapest Laguna, a 1.8-litre RN, priced at pounds 10,750, gives you electric windows and central locking, while the 2.0-litre version (pounds 13,935) treats you to a remarkable range of goodies, including a CD player with graphic equaliser, a trip computer, air conditioning, as well as the obvious things such as a sunroof, four electric windows and alloy wheels. All that is missing is anti-lock brakes, which are optional.

The model for which Renault has the highest sales hopes is the mid-range 1.8 RT. It costs pounds 11,775, and gives you 95bhp in return. That is less power than you can squeeze out of a 1.8-litre Mondeo, but for only pounds 25 more than you would pay for the cheapest Mondeo 1.6.

The Lagunas to dream about, though, are the range-topping V6 3.0 (pounds 18,565 with electric everything), and the more accessible RXE 2.0.

The Laguna has a shape unlike that of any Renault before it. You might, initially, take it for a German-Japanese collaboration, with the profile of a Toyota, the round, slightly flared wheel arches of an Audi and the build quality of both; but the stern, snarling snout - Renault's new stylistic trademark - gives the game away.

The mechanical aspect is less radical, with a conventional eight-valve engine sited across the compact engine bay. You will not find any 16-valve technology here, though you do get fuel injection, despite the lack of an 'i' in the model's name. Delivering 115bhp, this engine is simply a bigger version of the motor familiar from the Renault 19 and the more powerful Clio models.

The interior is refreshing. The hooded instrument cluster in front of the driver is mirrored by a glovebox in front of the passenger and a centre console, in a darker colour, which swoops down between them from in front of the windscreen right back to a hinged elbow rest. The seat fabrics, pastel patchworks of colour, are apparently based on the works of Claude Monet, Paul Klee and Sol Lewitt.

Electric seat adjustment and a telescopic steering column help to tailor the driving position, but the pedal layout does not - it gave me the choice of a sore right ankle or a long stretch for the clutch. The high-mileage commercial traveller might be irritated by some other details, too: the door pulls (depressions in a horizontal console which also contains the window switches) collect dust and dirt, and the hinged, satin-black plastic flap which covers the radio is too easily scratched by a fingernail. Finally, giving the Laguna a strong structure has made the windscreen pillars very thick, which creates a feeling of claustrophobia within what is actually a spacious interior.

So far, then, the Laguna achieves a decent score on the company-car driver's mental checklist. But that score goes up as soon as the car gets going. For a start, it is quieter than almost any rival, suffering only from a just-noticeable resonance which unfortunately coincides with our motorway speed limit. So effortlessly does the Laguna lope along that its lack of power does not matter. It is fast enough not to leave you craving more, and it pulls adequately from low speeds.

Then there is the ride, which is supple and silent in the characteristic French fashion. If you like your car to feel a bit sporty, you might think the Laguna's suspension too soft. But it is not: the steering is precise and tells you what is going on under the front wheels, while the roadholding is strong and the handling both fluid and forgiving. Citroen's Xantia, the Laguna's arch-rival, makes an ultimately better job of flattening big bumps, but the Renault remains more cushioned than a Mondeo while matching its handling prowess.

With all these attributes, the Laguna deserves to find favour with company-car folk. They seem to have taken to the slightly eccentric, capable Xantia, and the Renault is considerably closer to the Mondeo mould. Take the low pricing into account, and it can hardly fail.

SPECIFICATIONS

Renault Laguna RXE 2.0, pounds 13,935

Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 115bhp at 5,250rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 124mph, 0-60mph in 10.4 seconds. Fuel consumption, 30-35mpg.

COMPARISONS

Citroen Xantia 2.0 SX, pounds 14,200

A more characterful car than the Renault, roomier and airier. The Xantia takes a little getting used to, but then you are a convert for life. Anti-lock brakes are standard; pricier VSX adds alloy wheels and a cleverer version of the self-levelling suspension.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 GLX, pounds 14,400

Once the standard-setter in the class, but now outsmarted by the Renault. Still a great car with no real faults, except that it costs too much. You need to go to the Ghia (pounds 18,290) to match the Laguna's specification.

Peugeot 405 GTX, pounds 13,995

An old car now, but still a good one. Laguna's arrival has concentrated Peugeot's mind, and air conditioning is now standard. CD player and sunroof? Only on the STI, at pounds 17,215.

Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0 GLS, pounds 13,785

The rep's favourite until the Mondeo came along, but it lacks the driving appeal of its rivals. Again, you must look at the next non-sporty model up the range - the CD, at pounds 16,230 - to achieve equipment parity with the Renault. As with the 405, a new model comes next year.

(Photograph omitted)

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