Laguna: Renault calls this low-key, anonymous style "classical"
It may look dull, but this supersized motorway muncher is a safe haven from modern-day stress that drives with classic French serenity, says John Simister

Specifications

Model: Renault Laguna 2.0 dCi

Price: from £17,650. On sale now

Engine: 1,995cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 150bhp at 4,000rpm, 251lb ft at 2,000rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox (six-speed auto optional), front-wheel drive

Performance: 131mph, 0-62 in 9.5sec, 47.1mpg official average

CO2: 158g/km

Why should we buy one car rather than another with the same assemblage of attributes? Because there might be one aspect of the car that draws you to it: the look, or a good servicing deal. What you as a carmaker want, then, is to make a car with a unique selling proposition, or USP. Something that will cause the sale to go your way.

If that something is too steeped in fashion it will wither and you will have to design a new model. So something unadventurous might be a better long-term choice, provided there's something else tempting on the menu. Our task this week is to find that something else in the new Renault Laguna, because the style is unlikely to do the job.

Renault calls this low-key, anonymous style "classical". Maybe even a bit "conservative". This is deliberate; the all-important company fleet chiefs have told Renault that the Laguna has to be this way if they are going to buy it.

But it is possible to make a car attractive, beautiful even, without condemning it to future fashion limbo. But the Laguna is just a bit odd with its conflicting frontal lines and gratuitous angled crease along the flanks, an oddness borne of Renault's seeming determination to strip it of any recognisable Renault design characteristics.

Where's that distinctive Renault nose the company worked so hard to instil in the public's awareness? Where's the factor that makes people recognise, in today's brand-obsessed world, a car of the Renault brand? After all, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Clios, Scénics, Méganes, Espaces, all are popular, all are liked. Here, though, is a car with a face that thinks it might belong to a current Peugeot but is not quite sure.

Compare this identity-shyness with the confidence of rivals. Ford's Mondeo set a new face-template for the whole Ford range. Peugeot's 407 is immediately recognisable with its fully focused visage. The German brands have obvious design characteristics. And, most interesting of all, Citroë*'s new C5, chasing the same fleet buyers as the Renault, manages to look like a Citroë* (apart from its Germanic tail) as well as being particularly handsome.

All right, let's just take the view that design is so subjective that we can't comment on it. Let us instead assess the new Laguna on objective, practical, functional grounds. Renault, like everyone else, has made the Laguna a bit "premium" in the hope of chasing buyers away from the German brands, like it tried to do with the last one. Unfortunately, the idea was scuppered by reliability problems even though the car had the right sense of quietness at speed and softness in its cabin.

This time, there's a more contemporary take on an upmarket cabin. As ever in the premium wannabes, there's a little too much hard plastic below the areas immediately reached by hand, a kind of quality Plimsoll line with hard door mouldings and a hard glovebox lid, and this scuppers notions of genuine competition with the posh German rivals' cabin ambience. But there are sumptuous finishes here, and the Laguna is one of the few mainstream cars that uses wood trim well in its top models.

But we were looking for that something else. Maybe it's the way the Laguna feels to drive, thanks to quicker-acting steering, sharper handling and much attention paid to the insulation of road noise and bumps, this last attribute always one of the old model's best features.

Or maybe it's the fact that Renault trumpets the new car's quality, citing millions of test kilometres and a new system of checks to ensure nothing can go wrong. This, time, hints Renault, it's for real: in customer satisfaction surveys, the Laguna should score as well as the best cars in its class.

There will be quite a choice of engines for Lagunae. So far, all bar one are of 2.0 litres: petrol units of 140bhp or, with turbocharger and automatic transmission, 170bhp, and turbodiesels with 130 or 150bhp. Other engines will later bracket this range, including a new 3.0-litre V6 with 265bhp. And that current lone non-2.0-litre? It's a 110bhp version of Renault's little 1.5-litre turbodiesel, with a CO2 score of only 136g/km – impressive in such a big car. Early reports suggest this Laguna is livelier than you'd expect, too.

The Laguna I've been driving is one of the 2.0-litre dCi turbodiesels, this one with the 150bhp engine and the Dynamique S trim level. It costs £19,700 and is entirely pleasant. It also has an enormous boot, as it should do because, like most other new cars in this part of the market, the Laguna is too big. Such cars have now expanded just beyond the point of convenience; they don't fit happily into standard parking bays, manoeuvring them is like berthing a ship, and two of them can no longer pass each other in narrow lanes.

Anyway, the Laguna's diesel engine is very smooth and quiet given its innately percussive combustion process, and pretty lively. Economical, too; on a return trip from Herts to Hants the fuel gauge's needle did not move. There's a coccooned, insulating feel to the Laguna's progress – very welcome in an age of disintegrating roads and too many cars with over-firm suspension; this new Renault flows along like French cars used to do. And it cruises with serenity, the engine humming distantly, the passage of wind and road mere aural incidentals, its air-con discreet.

You might expect, then, the Laguna to feel squashy and unfocused if asked to change direction, but you would be wrong. The steering is, as Renault promises, alert and crisp, and the Laguna strings corners together in, again, that fluid French way. Soon, there will be Lagunae available with four-wheel steering in which the rear wheels are made to point in optimal directions to aid agility. With such a promising starting point, such Lagunae should prove very pleasing. There is to be a coupé, too, which looks 200 per cent better than the five-door hatchback and racier even than the Sports Tourer estate. All the coupés will have the four-wheel steering system.

It's a pity the regular five-door looks so unexciting, because the Laguna is better than you would think. Best to think of it as discreet rather than dowdy, a car which keeps its talents to itself. A top Initiale version is quite an appealing prospect for someone who travels thousands of motorway miles. It would be an automtive haven, insulated from the nasty competitive world in which status counts for too much and peace of mind for too little.

There. I like the Laguna. Bet you didn't think this road test would end on that note.

The rivals

BMW 318d from £23,760

Entry-level 143bhp diesel 3-series is much more expensive than Renault and shows the price paid for a "premium" car. Delightful, very economical, popular.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi from £17,595

The Renault's deadliest rival is roomy but very wide. Design is more assertive, driving qualities are firmer, 140bhp Peugeot-sourced engine has a shade less verve.

Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI from £17,662

German but only semi-premium, today's Passat is competitive on price and flows well on British roads. Its 140bhp engine isn't the smoothest, though.

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