THINK OF RENAULT in this country and you think hot hatches, quirky MPVs and more recently entry cars like the Sandero and Logan. It’s particularly the locally built Sandero hatch – which regularly features as one of the top ten best selling cars in South Africa – which has rejuvenated the Renault brand here.
But now Renault’s thrown a R500000 coupe amongst the hundred grand bargains, swapping its utilitarian Crocs for some fancy French leather loafers. The Laguna Coupe is supposed to showcase the fact that Renault can do luxury in a uniquely different way to the usual German, Japanese and British contenders.
Renault is realistic enough to realise owners of Audis, BMWs and Mercs won’t just jump ship to a brand with no local track record in this segment. So they won’t be bringing in more than a hundred Lagunas in the first year. But the hope is that this fully specced car crammed full of kit, where the only option you pay for is metallic paint, will woo first-time luxury car buyers and current Renault owners looking for something different.
It certainly looks different, even beautiful from some angles. That’s true especially from the rear, where it might be mistaken for an Aston Martin as it cruises past.
A lot of S-words pop up when you describe the design of the car. Words like stylish, sleek, smooth. I had one guy at a traffic light and another at the petrol station asking me what car it was and declaring it ‘gorgeous’. You can say that kind of thing in Cape Town, even if you’re a Bulls supporter. In profile and from the rear I’d say yes, but the design at the front becomes too fussy for my taste. Overall it turns heads though, in an appreciative way.
The inside is classy enough, but not as impressive as the outside. The good includes comfortable, well bolstered leather seats, (very) soft-touch dash and trim, decent leg- and headroom in the back and appealing black and aluminium trim and panels. It feels well put together, but still doesn’t rival the interior of a Jaguar or one of the German trio.
The bad part is the rotary dial and accompanying buttons behind the gearshift which one uses to access the navigation, trip computer and entertainment system. It’s unnecessarily complicated and finicky. You’ll get used to it eventually, but there are far easier systems to use where one push of a button does the job instead of lot of twiddling and pushing that one has to do in the Laguna
Even though there’s a 3.0-litre V6 diesel available in European markets, Renault South Africa has decided to only bring in the petrol model. It’s Nissan sourced 3.5-litre V6, a detuned version of the engine used in the Nissan 350Z
It’s a bulletproof mill, which in the case of the Laguna is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Put your foot down and the big coupe gathers momentum quickly. It will dash from 0-100kph in 7.71 seconds and cover a quarter mile in 15.69 seconds. The downside is that this high revving motor has to be wound up to get the best performance out of it, and consequently you’ll be punished for your exuberance at the petrol pumps. At normal highway speeds it’s quiet, refined and a comfortable cruiser, but it becomes slightly thrashy once you bury the accelerator.
The handling of the Laguna is a bit of a revelation. Generally the ride is supple and comfortable, as one would expect of a French GT. But it has an ace up its sleeve called ‘4Control’, an all-wheel steering system. At low speeds the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels which reduces your turning circle. It makes those tricky parking spaces at the local Spar a lot easier to negotiate.
At speeds higher than 60kph the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels which increases steering precision and reduces body roll in corners. Sounds like a gimmick? It isn’t. It doesn’t turn the Laguna into a sports car, but it certainly is much more fun to drive than we thought it would be. Even though the steering is light, it’s accurate and the car is easy to place in a corner. The brakes are good as well. From 100kph to zero took just 2.82 seconds and 40 metres, on par with many a smaller and lighter hot hatch. Our road test engineer, Peter Henkel, was suitably impressed with the dynamics when he took the car around Killarney race track at pace.
So the Laguna is a beautiful car that offers decent performance and is fun to drive. It comes standard with a range of kit that would set you back another fifty grand or more if you had to add it to your German coupe. It deserves to succeed, but the reality is that most people will still prefer the heft, badge and reputation of the Teutons. Also batting in the left field is Volkswagen’s highly capable Passat CC, which is cheaper and more powerful than the Laguna and has a great DSG dual-clutch transmission and four-wheel drive.
Renault’s other big challenge is to also change the modus operandi of dealers used to selling Sanderos so that they can now cater for clients that expect luxury service and attention to go with their luxury purchase. According to Renault a lot of in-house training has gone into this aspect of their business. If you don’t believe in following the herd and you’re in the mood for some French uniqueness, you can put that claim to the test. The car won’t disappoint you, but then neither will any of the rivals.