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First drive: Renault gets Vel Satis-faction

Quirky: Oddball hatchback styling sets the Renault Vel Satis apart from its luxury sedan rivals.

Our first drive of Renault's luxurious new Vel Satis reveals the French range-topper offers much more than just quirky styling

Renault logo27 Sep 2002

By MARTON PETTENDY in PARIS

RENAULT is not expecting big things from its luxuriously appointed flagship when the large Vel Satis hatch goes on sale Down Under towards the middle of next year.

In fact, the French range-topper will be available strictly on an order-only basis, with between just five to 10 customers per month expected to stump up the estimated $80,000 asking price for highly personalised examples of the uniquely styled and highly competent large Renault.

Renault Australia officials admit the company's sales projections - despite being likely to be achieved - have been somewhat ambitious in the past, and it's not about to make the same mistake with Vel Satis.

They also realise that at this end of the pricing scale their new image leader will face stiff competition from established products like entry level versions of the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-class and Audi A6, plus the Lexus GS300, Volvo S80, Saab 9-5 and the car's fiercest home market rival, Peugeot's 607.

But after our first drive in and around Paris, where the flagship of France's largest car-maker has proved hugely popular since being released in March, it seems there's a lot more to Vel Satis than its oh-so-French styling.

Indeed, given its combination of all the traditional luxury car hallmarks with a high level of equipment and performance, Vel Satis may even carve a larger than anticipated market niche from those looking to make a point of differentiation statement with their luxury vehicle.

Described by Renault as its brand ambassador, Vel Satis - which means nothing in particular but has coined the phrase "velocity with satisfaction" - is said to reinvent the tall saloon by being some 130mm higher than conventional luxury sedans.

That translates to a spacious interior which accommodates five adults comfortably with generous legroom and offers a good sized, practically shaped boot with a full-sized spare wheel under its flat floor plus a 60/40 split-folding rear seatback.

Seating is a highlight, with highly crafted, first class airline-style front pews matched to a generous rear bench by the same well finished leather upholstery.

There's an enormous amount of adjustability for front occupants, with a height range that extends from regular sedan level to people-mover height, offering excellent vision in all directions. Seat cushion tilt adjustment is also available, along with a novel double-hinged seatback design that allows precision adjustment for good comfort.

Of course, all this is power operated, and the fully loaded Initiale models we drove also featured seat heating and driver's seat memory. Comfortable yet supportive, the armchair-style front seats are physically massive, feature inbuilt seatbelts and are among the best we have sampled.

Elsewhere the overriding themes are luxury and technology, with a good mix of traditional woodgrain trimmings and useful innovation. The more you look around, the more surprise-and-delight features you find.

Like the large, flip-out front door compartments, the slide-out trays under both front and rear seats, the ventilated glovebox and luggage compartment, and the pop-out cupholders and oddments bin that hide behind the passenger side woodgrain insert.

There are also two rear cupholders, sunblinds for the rear and rear side windows, temperature and ventilation direction controls for rear seat passengers, four overhead grabrails with driver's side sunglass holder, a 12-volt power outlet in the centre console compartment and plenty of overhead lighting.

Of course there's the Renault Card system, which replaces the traditional ignition key and fob with push-button starting and a credit card-style remote control device, while vehicles we drove also featured an automatic handbrake, analogue clock, dual-zone climate control, CD-stacker audio, electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control with speed limiter, parking sensors, Xenon headlights with washers, foglights, Renault's Carminat navigation system with monitor - the list goes on.

About the only thing missing was power operated steering wheel height and reach adjustment (it's manually adjustable).

As the flagship of a company with a solid history in passive safety, there's no shortage of airbags, including twin front, four side and full side curtain airbags, plus five lap-sash seatbelts, five fully adjustable head restraints and a front passenger seat airbag off switch to accommodate infant capsules and the like.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

When it comes to the driving, Vel Satis is a surprise. There's plenty of bottom-end torque available from Renault's top-shelf 3.5-litre V6, which out-performs Laguna's 3.0-litre unit by developing a healthy 177kW at 6000rpm and 330Nm of torque at 3600rpm. It's not just a grunter, however, offering good midrange urge and revving right through to its 6250rpm cut-out with rorty enthusiasm.

Combined with Renault's highly adaptive five-speed Proactive automatic transmission with sequential shift function, progress is smooth and effortless. Weight-saving items like the plastic front quarter guards keep kerb weight to a respectable 1720kg, helping the cause here greatly. Apart from an abrupt third to second-gear downshift, the slick shifting powertrain was otherwise flawless.

Despite the engine's willingness, there's very little hint of torque steer - often the bane of front-wheel drive performance - and the high level of chassis development is evidenced by a typically compliant French ride that smoothes out everything Parisian roads can offer.

This comes despite relatively firm springing that maintains a very flat attitude even during ambitious cornering but can induce some head shake over uneven ground. The ride did deteriorate on second rate French country roads not unlike those in Australia, but it always remained acceptable for a vehicle riding on massive 18-inch alloy wheels.

High speed stability was a highlight, but it is no sports car and it remains to be seen how the firmly sprung Vel Satis handles vicious Aussie road irregularities.

Excellent wind, engine and tyre noise suppression - except for an intrusive roar on coarse-chip bitumen - complements the luxurious ride and gives a lasting feeling of luxury inside the spacious and well appointed cabin. The high level of chassis solidity, superb build quality and attention to detail further the cause.

There's no doubt Vel Satis stands up in all the critical areas luxury car buyers look to - and then some. But it remains to be seen whether distinctive styling, better performance and a bundle of extra equipment are enough to draw significant numbers of buyers away from similarly priced entry levels offerings of the incumbent German class leaders.

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