Renault has a paradoxical position in the marketplace. Anybody on their way to Gatwick has driven past the dealer in Coulsdon where vast numbers of humdrum Meganes are lined up to infinity and beyond: it is a sight at once impressive and boring. Here is the bleak lost continent of the middle market adrift in dreary Surrey. Yet Renault has a reputation for audacious innovation: the immortal R4, a rural shed on wheels; the amazing R16, still among the most innovative of car designs; the R5, definitive small hatch; Espace, first people-mover; Scenic, first small MPV.
While the poet measured out his life with coffee spoons, the motor industry uses concept cars to calibrate evolution. These are designs presented at motor shows to test the public's reaction to proposed novelties. Here's an area where Renault has been very active: in 1995 a superb machine, called Initiale, was shown, a French liaison between old grand touring notions of what a car might be and a Smithian modern twist.
Some of these ideas emerged in the curious Vel Satis (on sale in France since early this year); others have been available here for some time in the new-generation Laguna (Renault's Mondeo-class competitor). But while the futuristic Vel Satis has established a surreal and adjective-resistant novelty in its appearance, the Laguna has an elegance that I suspect we'll soon see as old-fashioned.
The most expensive Laguna is an estate car with a tongue-rupturing sesquipedalian tag ending in Sport Tourer Initiale, thus exciting memories of the handsome concept car. It strikes the eye, much more so than the ordinary saloon.
Artistically it is a strange but satisfying reconciliation of depressed radius curves, segments, daring slab slides and expressive highlights, all coming together in surprising places. This anarchic display of graphic and modelling bravura should not really work, but it does. In the metal, it achieves stand-out credentials unusual in its class, making the equivalent Peugeot look undistinguished.
Inside the Laguna estate there is lots of luxe, calme and volupte. Soothing colours, generous chairs, ample space. In the long haul up-market, even the plastic mouldings have been given the faux grain of a French luxury-goods leather product. There are also more electronic aids than you have time to use or understand, including a tyre-pressure sensor of Gallicly temperamental demeanour. Get a puncture and the whole system has to be recalibrated. Failing that, every time you start the engine an annoying synthesised voice warns you of a harrowing systems failure. The cumulative effect of a hundred announcements of this mantra in the course of a week burned into my consciousness an unfortunate impression of technological shortcomings.
Only the ashtray is not electronic. For instance, the fully adaptive auto transmission that was a lofty novelty 15 years ago on a Porsche is now on a French jam jar. Renault also provides a keyless locking and ignition system. This is all quite fun, except that the credit-card-sized thingummy does not satisfy the psychological necessity of 'car key' and you find yourself frisking your own inside leg and torso for the errant metal. The same thingummy also requires more operations to start and stop the engine than the old technology.
But these are niggles about a brave automobile proposal. Where the sesquipedalian Laguna really disappoints is in dynamic refinement. Too much effort, I suspect, went into acquiring moulding rights for Vuitton or Hermes grain on the dashboard and writing the code for the electronic protocols to govern the cigar lighter. Better to have given the car more sensitive handling.
Laguna has sleepy steering and a drive-train that feels like a Robot-Chef with congestion (so you lurch down through the gears). I wondered whether this very proletarian nervelessness was a function of the almighty ESP (Electronic Stability Programme), so switched it off to experiment. Nothing seemed to change.
Still, I liked the Laguna Initiale. I would have liked it a lot without the bloody voice. If only the nagging woman had sounded more like the husky vixens they have on Radio France Inter Paris to soothe drivers vexated by urban confiture and less like my shrill gym mistress. But that's the problem of the middle market.
LAGUNA INITIALE - From pounds 20,445 to pounds 22,895.