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Car reviews - Renault - Laguna - Privilege diesel 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Design inside and out, space, comfort, safety, practicality, nimbleness, brakes, quality, features
Room for improvement
Ride quality on 18-inch wheels, feel-free steering, unappealing driver dynamics

22 Dec 2008

IN MANY hidden ways, the new-generation Laguna vies for the title as this year’s most improved car.

Like an automotive Robert Downey Jr., it has been to rehab after a heavy-handed shakedown and turnaround brought on after years of quality waywardness and near-career killing reliability shenanigans, to emerge reborn and refreshed.

But our question is: has the French firm (with Nissan in tow – remember?) taken the traditional Japanese approach to quality a little too far?

Because there is something – perhaps a whiff of the bad old days of Datsun – about this shiny new car, as we shall explain a little later on, that isn’t apparent in the dealer showroom.

First, though, here’s all the good oil on the Laguna.

Renault says it tested 120 prototypes over six million kilometres, “... in extreme conditions throughout Europe, Argentina and Malaysia (with) over 30,000km of testing were also logged in Australia.”

The company strove for this to be its most quality-focussed product ever, adding that the X91 Laguna underwent the most stringent reliability and durability regime yet devised by Renault during research and development. The electrical componentry alone has been exhaustively tested and retested.

All this is part of the Commitment 2009 goal to have Renault as a ‘Top Three’ global player for quality. And the latest Laguna is the shining example for the world to ooh and ahh over.

Unlike the old X74 Laguna of 2001, which suffered from more than its fair share of quality problems, brought about by faulty electrical items like the novel card-key starter. Early owners especially endured persistent breakdowns and frustrating failures, but it is Renault that has had to endure lingering consumer doubts, particularly in homeland Europe.

So Renault set to work on the Laguna’s interior as well, which now majors on style as well as simplicity so the consumer can see, touch and feel for him/herself how far it has come.

And, indeed, the cabin is another big step forward for the Euro mid-sizer.

There is an attractive, flowing look to the fascia that mirrors the Laguna’s quite striking exterior styling, housing a fine set of simple instruments that are noteworthy for their big numbers and crisp design.

The centre console is arguably one of the prettiest currently presented in a mainstream passenger car, with its perfect symmetry and easy usability.

Only a small amount of time is needed to familiarise yourself with the elegantly compact climate control settings, set above an equally straightforward audio/stereo interface.

Our car was not fitted with the optional satellite navigation system, so the large central screen is replaced by an information display for the audio, clock and outside temperature. As with the rest of the Laguna’s cabin, it blends in beautifully.

Yet these are likely to not be noticed, since the fit and finish certainly supports Renault’s claims of being world class.

The nicely padded dash top and door trims are matched by various other smooth plastics surrounding the cabin, as well as metallic finishes that are very easy on the eye.

We can go on further too – like the handsome tilt-and-reach three-spoke steering wheel that – as with the cornucopia of switches and buttons thoughtfully placed throughout the dash – is of an appealing tactility.

Have no doubt about it: this Renault is a class act inside. And a comfortable one for the front occupants, thanks to seats of sufficient adjustment and support, plenty of storage spaces for bits and pieces, and ample lighting.

Two reasonably tall rear occupants will also be well accommodated, with air-conditioning outlets from the centre console, a fold down centre armrest, window blinds besides and behind them to keep out the blazing sun and a pair of cubby holes and cupholders, but – as per usual – the centre rear person will have to be small and hardy to stay happy stuck out back there.

This car is a big hatchback, and so down go the rear seat backs (but not cushions, so it isn’t as deep as you might expect it to be), to reveal a fairly cavernous if shallow load area.

Yet even with the seats folded down, the interior remains a quiet and refined place to be – as long as the roads are super-smooth.

Because Renault, in taking a leaf out of Japan’s book of high build quality and nicely presented interiors, appears to have forgotten a thing or two about road noise suppression, supple ride quality and sufficient body control.

Like an old Datsun 200B, the latest Laguna manages to be both too crashy over small road irregularities and too loose through a tight corner.

Roadway interruptions, like railway lines, freeway join strips, and small potholes, seem to be amplified in the Laguna in both volume and feel, completely catching the uninitiated unawares.

Sometimes, running on the Privilege’s standard 18-inch wheels and tyres, it is shocking both literally and metaphorically how abrupt the suspension can be with coping with some surfaces, and there is almost always a thump or a whack to go with it.

Yet larger stuff like speed humps and bigger road bumps are taken into the Renault’s stride, especially with increased speed, while dirt roads and rutted tracks are dealt with, with very little drama.

Unfortunately, the expected dynamic pay-off simply never materialises, so the hapless driver has to put up with a dead-feeling (if agreeably sharp) steering.

Take a corner with some gusto, and the Laguna heaves through, leaning in and running wide through a turn, with little or no feedback or response. There’s no controlling this car with the throttle, and no joy for the keen driver to glean.

Only the tenacious grip from the front end, combined with quite a flat and stable overall attitude from the tautly sprung suspension, keeps the car from feeling flighty or skittish.

We decided to drive along a dirt road at speeds between 80 to 100km/h with the stability control switched off, and the resulting weaving and wandering had us slowing right down real quickly. With it on, the Renault tracked as true as an arrow.

Clearly this car has been devised to run at speed quietly on smooth, straight freeways, and it is here that the Laguna excels. Throw in a curve ball, however, and the Renault’s leaden ways take over.

This is perhaps the biggest single disappointment in this car – hard and loud ride, soft body control, dull steering… Renault needs to beg, borrow or steal a Ford engineer to sort this car out.

However the engine, Renault’s sweet and smooth 2.0-litre dCi turbo-diesel with Euro V-compliancy, is a state-of-the-art example of its kind, delivering 110kW of power at 4000rpm and 340Nm of torque from 2000rpm.

Even in the 1600kg Laguna, it is certainly up to par, being remarkably silken in its responsiveness throughout the rev range, while providing very decent acceleration and ample turn of speed.

This is the sort of powerplant that would convert diesel sceptics if they gave it half a chance.

Check out the economy: we averaged between 9.5 and 10 litres per 100 kilometres with the foot right down quite often and the air-conditioning blaring out arctic cold breezes. Renault says the combined average run results in 7.0L/100km and 185 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre.

But we’re not too keen on the Pro-active six-speed automatic gearbox.

Yes, it does a sufficient job in changing gears, but the calibrations do not seem optimised for the cut-and-thrust of stop-start traffic. We regularly found the car lurching from gear to gear in a very unsmooth fashion, and this had a tiring effect on everybody inside the car.

Perhaps our vehicle suffered a one-off auto-transmission ailment, because we have not heard of other such complaints, and this engine/gearbox combination in other models has been much better – particularly in the underrated Koleos. But in the Laguna it simply served to undermine the car’s relaxing nature.

We can commend the brakes very highly, however, since they do a superb job in hauling the Laguna up in a very short distance during repeated panic stops.

After a week with the Laguna, we were left with plenty of soul searching to do, since the vehicle is – on the surface – better in almost every way to its predecessor.

Clearly there are expectations for this to be one of Europe’s most reliable vehicles, and there can be little doubt to the safety message that this car subscribes to.

But there is a feeling of a job half-done going on underneath this car.

We have grown to really like the styling, enjoy the interior’s look and usability, and appreciate the great engine, economy and straight-line, smooth road refinement.

Yet – on 18-inch wheels we must add – the ride quality is a disgrace, flying straight into the face of what people expect from a Renault, while failing to pay any real dynamic dividends due to the car’s frankly sloppy body control, indecisive automatic gearbox and considerable road noise transmission.

Maybe reform is at hand in the cheaper, non-Privilege model Lagunas fitted with smaller wheels and tyres and we certainly believe the six-speed manual gearbox would probably work better anyway.

Nevertheless, as it stands (and after the very impressive Renault Koleos compact SUV, scintillating Clio Sport 197 and lion-hearted Megane Sport dCi 175), the range-topping, $50,690 Laguna Privilege dCi automatic hatch has shaped up to be one of the year’s biggest letdowns.

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