The Independent Road Test: Hello, this is your computer speaking: The Renault Safrane is strong on gadgets, space and style but, in its 2.0-litre form, is weak on power and personality, says Phil Llewellin

Winning the equivalent of a bronze medal in the Car of the Year awards gave the new Renault Safrane a good start in life. Only the Nissan Micra and Fiat Cinquecento attracted more points than the French challenger, which went on sale in Britain last month.

The replacement for the long-serving Renault 25 represents an pounds 800m assault on the market for 'executive' cars. Creating a new model is a brutally expensive exercise and a huge gamble for any manufacturer.

Like many rivals in this play-it-safe class, the Safrane is a five-door hatchback with a smooth, wind-cheating shape that looks attractive but lacks a strong identity. Gone are the days when France was synonymous with such offbeat cars as the Renault 16, which deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential post-war designs.

What the Safrane does provide is a lot of space. A six-footer has plenty of room for head and knees when seated behind a driver of the same height. The mid-range 2.0-litre automatic featured here also commends itself by providing exceptionally convenient audio equipment (operated by controls within a finger's stretch of the steering wheel) and fully automatic air-conditioning.

Children of all ages will love the voice that delivers 'Welcome, the vehicle's computer is now checking systems for you' and other messages. Among other Gallic gimmicks in the Safrane's rather vieux chapeau amusement arcade is a display of dancing spanners.

What information were these and other symbols intended to convey? There were no answers in the seven-volume library that occupied most of the dashboard locker, although this did include a 250-page guide to Renault's worldwide dealership network. It was good to know that Senator Motors, Great North Road, Lusaka, were the people to contact if we had a problem in Tanzania.

Not providing a handbook must have been a mistake. But failing to include headlight washers in the otherwise impressive list of standard equipment suggests a strange sense of priorities.

The newcomer extends Renault's reputation for comfortable seats, which are trimmed with cloth on this RT 2.0 model. The only real complaint involves having to adjust the angle of the driver's backrest with a notchy lever. A small wheel - the alternative favoured by many manufacturers - is much smoother and far more precise.

Smooth is not what you want a steering wheel to be. The rim of the Safrane's appeared to have been coated with Teflon, which did nothing to flatter the power-assisted system's feel. It makes parking easy, of course, and works well enough on the open road, but the element of 'communication' that keen motorists appreciate is absent. That said, most drivers will be delighted with the Safrane's blend of ride comfort and cornering ability. Anti- lock braking is standard.

Performance is the big drawback, even when the latest version of Renault's four-speed automatic transmission is in the S-for-Sport mode. I am not concerned about infantile sprints when the traffic lights go green. What the 2.0-litre Safrane lacks, on this evidence, is the mid-range punch that is so often needed to take safe advantage of overtaking opportunities. I frequently abandoned the attempt, or resorted to selecting a lower gear by hand rather than relying on the automatic to do the work.

'One wonders if such modest acceleration has anything to do with the French love of snails,' was the sharpest comment about a car that offers good value for money but lacks flair.

Specifications

Renault Safrane RT 2.0, pounds 19,250. Engine: 1,995cc, four-cylinder, 135bhp at 6,000rpm. Four-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 119mph, 0-60mph in 12.8 seconds. Fuel: 23-27mpg on unleaded.

Comparisons

BMW 520i, pounds 20,795. Is a hatchback essential? If not, will the budget stretch to this six-cylinder, 24-valve, 150bhp saloon? Strong performance and excellent handling are big assets.

Citroen XM 2.0Si, pounds 17,601. Clever suspension and slightly 'different' styling are links with Citroen's trailblazing past. Performance similar to the Safrane's. Adding the optional air-conditioning and ABS removes the XM's apparent price advantage.

Ford Granada 2.0 GLX, pounds 20,820. Still a popular choice for the middle-flight executive. Air-conditioning, an expensive option, underlines the Safrane's appeal.

Rover 820SLi, pounds 20,785. Stylish, well-equipped hatchback with a dash of character. Polished walnut adds class to the interior. Reasonable performance and economy from 2.0-litre, 136bhp engine.

(Photograph omitted)

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