Renault's new Laguna is fast, frugal and fine-looking – but foggy responses make it an anaesthetised drive

Is there such a thing as a beautiful car any more? Not a car which shouts or shocks or even just surprises, but which actually makes you slightly drunk with a good aesthetic, sensual feeling, as a classic Ferrari, for example, might?

It is getting harder. Pedestrian-protection legislation is the chief ruination of modern car design, although there are ways of reconciling "pedpro" (as the industry calls it) with beauty. Take Jaguar's XK coupé – low and sleek and classical, and pedpro-compliant thanks to a bonnet able to pop up and cushion an impact. But too often it's all about angles and blocks and slashes and edges, and serenity is banished. The nearest we get to it is serenity's poor relation, boredom.

This week's test subject illustrates the problem and, better, offers a solution. The current Renault Laguna is designed, according to Renault, to look "conservative" and thus appeal more to fleet managers who might find fashion-abhorring cars worth more when disposal-time looms. Conservativism here could have been interpreted as classical elegance, but instead the Laguna is just a dull collection of unappealing, disjointed shapes.

But then came this coupé version. It's obviously visually related to the hatchback but suddenly all the lines have come together. Seen from the side it is really rather elegant. Not groundbreaking, true, but the sort of shape that evokes a warm, comforting feeling. The roof is low and sleek, the rear side windows melt into the confluence of roof and flank, the tail is tight and trim and tranquil.

And the nose? Well, that is a bit of a challenge, with its big, bright-metal latticework grin worryingly like that of Peugeot's recent stylistic blind alley, but it's certainly dramatic. This car – priced from £20,585 to £27,460 – has plenty of presence in the rear-view mirror of the car in front.

Now, though, comes the conundrum. Too many cars today, especially those of family-saloon size, are just too big. They have crossed over the boundary of sensible, practical, everyday-usable size so they can't pass each other in country lanes, and they bung up urban streets. Their thick pillars make matters worse because drivers can't judge exactly where the extra bulk ends. And all this is bad news for the coupé versions, because coupés are meant, by their nature, to be more lithe and compact. Look what a lumpen device the Peugeot 407 Coupé is for proof. (And try to recall how beautiful was its smaller predecessor, the 406 Coupé.)

The Laguna Coupé is also too big, bigger than its shape makes you think it is. Yet its rear-seat space is restricted in typical coupé fashion, with tight headroom and leg space. What, then, is the point of it, beyond pandering to vanity? Is it, for example, particularly engaging – "sporty", even – to drive?

The credentials are promising. If it's a GT version, which our test car is (albeit with a 180bhp, 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine rather than the 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 or 3.5-litre petrol V6), then it comes with 4Control. This is a four-wheel steering system similar to those briefly popular in fast 1980s Japanese cars, but nowadays cleverer in the way it tailors the small amounts of rear-wheel steering to cornering forces, available grip and so on.

Up to 37mph it turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts, speeding steering response and tightening the turning circle. Beyond that speed, with lateral forces rising, the rear wheels instead steer the same way as the fronts, increasing stability in a lane-change, say. Sounds good, yes?

Unfortunately, the Laguna Coupé GT is one of the most anaesthetised and least engaging cars I have driven for a long time. Any attempt at driving with subtlety and finesse is lost in a fog of imprecision in the responses of gear lever and accelerator pedal, while the brakes are snatchy and the steering is that of an arcade game.

Such aloofness could be explained, if not justified, if the Coupé wafted you along in a bubble of calming insulation, but the ride over bumps is jittery and the tyre roar on coarse tarmacadam is wearing. The overall effect is that you finish your drive feeling less good about life than when you started. And then, when you open the driver's door while berthing the beast in a tight parking space, so you can gauge the gap, your ears are assaulted by a warning screech alerting you to the fact you haven't engaged the electric parking brake. Grrrr!

Misused technology has spoilt this fast, frugal, handsome and luxurious car. Apart, that is, from the keyless entry/exit/starting system activated with a conveniently flat transponder card. That, at least, is brilliant.

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