With its latest crop of Lagunas, Renault has shown it can produce a big car that holds the road and handles well

Dull, most people have said of the recently launched Renault Laguna. Those people have even included Renault's senior management, although they preferred to couch the opinion in terms of conservatism, classicism and discretion. Dull cars go out of fashion less quickly, is the official line, will keep their value better and keep company fleet managers happy.

We motor industry commentators leapt on this, of course, and the car has hardly received rave reviews. But I have just been driving the next wave of Laguna variants, in the shape of the Sport Tourer estate, and I'm thinking the new Renault has been sold a little short.

The Sport Tourer looks more dynamic than the hatchback, for a start. Its rising waistline makes for a rakishly tapering "daylight opening", as car designers call the side window area, and the very convex rear window has a slope that adds to the rakishness, even if it does little for the Tourer's load-swallowing ability. The frumpishness that stymies the hatchback is happily absent here.

It still looks awkward from the side, though, like many new cars, because it has such a ludicrous front overhang to help meet pedestrian-impact legislation and score a top Euro NCAP crash-test rating. One of these days a mainstream car maker is going to take a deep breath and reconfigure its front-wheel-drive powertrain so the driveshafts run in front of the engine instead of behind it, but until then, cars are condemned to be ungainly.

The Sport Tourer name suggests cargo capacity might not have been a priority, and so it proves. There's a good wide load bay, with extra compartments under the floor, and the rear seats' backrests spring down at the touch of a button, but this convenient feature has been allowed to overrule the more important matter of estate-car usefulness.

The problem is that the seat cushions neither fold forward, to make space for the folded-down backrests, nor cantilever down and forward out of the way to achieve the same result. Instead, the backrests merely fold on to the cushions and the boot floor is shaped to flow into them. This means the floor slopes uphill and any luggage placed on it is going to migrate rearwards.

This seems to be a recurring theme in new cars; I recently drove the hatchback version of the new Mazda 6 and it has the same fault. Is a one-movement, spring-assisted backrest fold really that important?

A pleasing Laguna touch, though, is the pull-out load cover, which retracts in a gentle fashion. It sums up the whole car, really, which has a languid, progressive precision about the way it moves and the way its controls operate. The interior is tranquil both visually and aurally, with a handsome dashboard trimmed in good-quality materials. Even the air-conditioning is laid-back, with a setting called "soft" to give a gentle, diffuse flow of air.

The Laguna is a big car, its size falling just short of being a nuisance when manoeuvring or squeezing along lanes. This combination of size and insulation from the elements leads you to expect a car that floats along the road in the way large French cars used to do, but the Laguna is better than that. Its progress is indeed quiet and supple, but it takes corners without lurching and can be placed precisely. That it both rides and handles so well is an impressive achievement.

Most Lagunas will surely be sold with diesel engines, so the petrol-engine range is currently restricted to a couple of two-litre units, one with a turbocharger, 170bhp and automatic transmission, the other without turbo, with a manual gearbox and 140bhp. The latter is the one I drove, and it works as well as most other two-litre engines. But, as is so often the case, there's no obvious reason to choose it over a similarly rapid, more relaxing and more economical diesel except that it costs less.

Yes, even the smallest Laguna diesel is more expensive, even though it has a capacity of just 1.5 litres and produces 110bhp (not long ago an impressive output for a petrol engine of this size, never mind a diesel). Renault is proud of this engine and calls it Eco2, trumpeting an official average carbon dioxide output amazingly low for a car this size.

You would expect such a little engine to struggle with a big Laguna, but it doesn't. Of course it isn't as fast as a two-litre petrol version, but it moves briskly enough not to frustrate its driver. There are also three two-litre turbodiesels in the range, though, of 130, 150 and 175bhp, and these will be better at hauling laden Lagunas at speed. The 150bhp was extremely economical when we tested it in the hatchback, but anyone who enjoys a genuinely rapid car will get on very well with the 175bhp engine.

The cheapest Sport Tourer so fitted costs £20,100, but with 280lb ft of torque on offer it's tempting to find the extra money. This 175bhp diesel Laguna goes more like a gale than the wind. In the Sport Tourer it lets you reach 62mph in 8.9 seconds, but it feels a faster car than that because this figure undersells the way it pulls from low speeds in the higher gears. Very powerful diesels, running a lot of turbo- boost pressure, can be harsh and noisy but this one is smooth, quiet and runs with unusual glee to 5,000rpm. And its 174g/km CO2 rating is remarkable in a car with such pace and punch.

Try a Laguna Sport Tourer with either extreme of diesel engine. You may well be pleasantly surprised.

SPECIFICATIONS
Model: Renault Laguna 1.5 dCi Sport Tourer

Price: from £17,300

Engine: 1,461cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 110bhp at 4,000rpm, 177lb ft at 2,000rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 116mph, 0-62 in 12.3 sec, 53.3mpg official average, CO2: 139g/km

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