Renault introduced the third incarnation of its Laguna range at this years Frankfurt motor show. A key model in achieving the goal of selling an additional 800 000 vehicles a year by 2009, we drove the new Laguna in Austria.
Radically restyled both inside and out, with an especially strong range of diesel engines, new Laguna will be the key catalyst in Renault boss Carlos Ghosn's vision of turning the French manufacturer from mass manufacturer to recognized premium brand.
Looks French, feels better
With new Laguna, Renault has adopted a distinctively French styling design. The overall proportions edge towards being lopsided with the high side crease running along the shoulder the only recognisable universal design element recognizable. Overall the aesthetic is distinctive though, with the estate being the prettier of the two designs.
Interior architecture is a revelation. Not only is it incomparably better than the old Laguna, it might become the class leading cabin in the segment.
Sweeping and spacious, with stylish but legible controls and lovely soft touch materials, it represents a striking departure from the usual mid-range sedan interior designs.
The centre console section curves away from the front occupants into the firewall, and footwells are flat and roomy, echoing the overall spaciousness of the cleverly packaged interior.
Environmentally friendly diesel power
A certain tension permeated this year's Frankfurt show with uncertainty as to what the extent of Brussels mandate considering the lowering of CO² emissions may be. With this in mind, Renault has committed itself to selling one million vehicles emitting less than 140g/km of CO².
With new Laguna, engines have been downsized and all are mated with either manual or automatic six-speed gearboxes. Four petrol and five turbodiesel engines are included in the model range.
On the launch route in Austria we only got to drive the 1.5dCi turbodiesel (81 kw/240 Nm), 2-litre dCi, which is available in three states of tune (96-, 110- and 127 kW with 320-, 340- and 380 Nm of peak torque) and the 2-litre turbo petrol version (125 kW/270 Nm).
The engine ranges will finally be topped by a 3.5-litre V6 petrol and 3-litre dCi turbo diesel.
The 3-litre dCi engine is of particular interest. Producing 195 kW at 4000 r/min and 550 Nm at 1750 r/min whilst still emitting less than 200 g/ km of CO² it is sure to convert many petrol-sniffing sports sedan fans when it arrives next year in the form of the Laguna GT.
The 1.5dCi turbo diesel is a raucous little powerplant that produces a distinct turbo whine when pressing on, but consumes just 4.9 l/100 km.
Mated to the light shifting, yet slightly notchy six-speed manual gearbox, it never felt underpowered. It did feel unrefined though, especially when piloting it from the Laguna's very comfortable interior.
The 2-litre turbocharged petrol is swift, yet the choice power plant is undoubtedly the 2-litre dCi in mid range tune producing 110 kW and 340 Nm.
A refined unit, its quick-reacting glow plugs starts instantly once the start button is depressed. On the move, even when coaxed along, cabin and driveline vibration is noticeably absent.
Audibly the characteristic start-up and low speed diesel clatter is non existent. You simply waft along on an elastic band of torque, whilst marveling at the 6 l/100 km economy and feeling environmentally-smug with the car emitting only 158 g/km of CO².
With 340 Nm of torque and practically no turbo-lag it combines seamlessly with the six-speed automatic gearbox.
While the 2-litre turbodiesel powerplants proved to be the pick of the engines, exceptional chassis balance and handling characteristics come as standard across the range.
Equipped with an electric pump unit rather than pure hydraulic assistance to aid fuel economy, the power steering ratio has been tightened too. The damper rates have been tightened by 20% at the front and 50% at the rear.
The front axle is a McPherson-type arrangement. The diameter of the anti-roll bar has been increased from 19.5 to 24 mm.
Light and compact, the supple rear axle is in the form of an H, with anti-roll bars varying in diameter from 28.8 to 30.5 mm. The consequence is a striking balance between cosseting ride characteristics and neutral cornering ability.
Winding through smooth and twisty Austrian Alpine roads, power steering was precise with surprisingly sharp turn-in
Ride quality is high too, although a touch fidgety with the 18-inch, 225/45 wheel and tyre combination. It would be interesting to see what a mix of indifferent South African road surfaces would do to the general quality of ride.
The previous Laguna was the first car ever to achieve a five-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating and new Laguna was always going to have to the unenviable task of improving on these high safety standards.
Equipped with between six and eight airbags (depending on trim level the thorax airbags are an option), new Laguna has door mounted sensors to detect the severity of a side impact, the biggest culprit in car related deaths.
The front seatbelts have double pre-tensioners to prevent submarining.
One active safety feature we did not have the opportunity to put to the test was the new four-wheel active chassis system. Developed by Renault Sport Technologies, this system allows the rear wheels to turn in the opposite direction to the front ones at speeds below 60 km/h at a maximum angle of 3.5 degrees.
This allows a reduced turning circle - by as much as 10% - on models equipped with the 18-inch wheels, remarkably improving urban maneouvrability and parking nimbleness. Above 60 km/h the system reacts in the opposite way by turning the rear wheels in the same direction as the front ones up to maximum slip angle of 3.5 degrees.
Although it might sound counter-intuitive, Renault claims the new system dramatically increases cornering speeds whilst negating understeer.
During emergency maneouvres the active chassis system works with ABS and ESP to ensure optimal stability. The active chassis system is to debut on selected Laguna models during 2008.
Distinctively French in its styling with a dynamic yet cosseting ride and equipped with frugal diesel engines, new Laguna makes a strong case for itself.
When it arrives in South African next year potential buyers would probably be those wishing to gravitate to a something more distinctive than the usual German fare or at least something more exciting to drive than the clinical Japanese alternatives.
Quality will be key. New Laguna has ushered in massive build quality investments from Renault in both industrial engineering and after sales service, and although the interior, for instance, is beautifully built, a two-day test drive is hardly an apt unit of analysis for durability.
If the quality outcomes are commensurate to the industrial investment Renault has made, it might have a strong brand image builder on its hands. If not, it will be nothing more than a heroic failure.
This would be a shame really, especially considering the exciting Laguna GT and disarmingly pretty Coupe versions Renault has waiting in the wings.