Ooo, shiny. What is this fine-looking thing?
This is – are you ready? – a Renault. Yes, honestly. The company that currently specialises in boring family carry-alls and hardcore hot hatches has actually turned out something sexy. It's the Laguna Coupe Concept, a debutante show car at last month's Frankfurt Motor Show. And we've just driven it. Alongside its swoopy, muscular bodywork, the Coupe Concept is also a showcase for the Laguna’s tricked-up 4RD all-wheel steer chassis, and an all-new 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engine. This 261bhp, 406lb ft powerhouse is so good its first official appearance will be in an Infiniti, otherwise known as Nissan’s answer to Lexus, which launches in Europe next year. What's it like to drive? CAR was the first UK magazine to drive it, so click 'Next' to find out what it's like on the road.
But hold on. You said Laguna – that's one of those boring family cars you were just on about, isn't it?
Exactly. The whole point of this exercise is to show Renault can do style as well as the next manufacturer. Which, depending on the angle you catch the Coupe Concept at, could conceivably be any of the likely suspects from Italy. Or even - whisper it -Aston Martin, especially around the tail lamps. But with the swage line running from headlight to tail, there’s also something uniquely French about its design. Renault feels the new Laguna hatch and forthcoming Sport Tourer (nee estate) prove it now does quality and reliability in keeping with class expectations (time will tell on this). Privately, officials acknowledge the considerably less than stimulating looks, though. The Coupe is dedicated to redressing this balance. Forget practicality, it's a Renault you'll simply want to own.
So is it just a concept?
Far from it. The interior, with its madly asymmetric seats, three-dimensional see-through instrument binnacle and touch-screen display system incorporating 'light therapy' imagery, is as concept car wacky as you can get while still using conventional pedals and a steering wheel. But the exterior is a different matter entirely. We are here to tell you right now that Renault is building this car, and we've already scooped the production car. It will be on display at next year's Paris Motor Show. And 90 percent of the outside is staying exactly the same. This was confirmed by Renault's design director for concept cars, Stephane Janin, who was on hand to show us round the Coupe. Most of the shutlines and bodystyling is completely fixed, so just the unique show car details will change.
Like what exactly?
The lights for starters. The general outline won’t change but you'll have to imagine the rear ones fill the space completely, and say goodbye to the LED-only headlights. The alloys will get smaller – the concept rides on unique 'anodised dark-chrome' 20s – the exhaust won't be incorporated into the rear diffuser, and the production version won't have wheelarches quite this wide. The interior will be standard Laguna, too, but with higher quality materials. And although Janin says Renault is putting style before practicality for the first time in years (we reckon the last time was 1998's Renault Sport Spider, which only had a windscreen on the options list), you can forget about the scissor doors. Thank goodness. They rise up making access to the front pews easy enough, but it's tricky clambering in the back. Expect conventional hinges for production.
What about that 'four-wheel steer chassis', and the drivetrain?
The 4RD system, as Renault is calling it, uses active steering on the rear wheels to improve low speed manoeuvrability and high-speed dynamic response. Developed by Renaultsport – the separate division responsible for Renault's exceptional hot hatchbacks, not to mention the Formula 1 team – it'll appear first on a GT version of the ordinary Laguna in May. Although it sounds like another high-technology Renault reliability risk, initial reports from development mule drives are highly favourable, and it could transform the Laguna's sporting appeal. All Coupes will be front-wheel drive, with a range of manual and automatic gearboxes. Renault expects the 3.0-litre diesel to be the biggest hit, but the Coupe also borrows 2.0-litre petrol and diesel units from the Megane, plus the luscious 3.5-litre petrol V6 from Nissan's 350Z. However, this concept car is fitted with a rather more humble 1.6 petrol and a clunky auto gearbox. As ever with show cars, the driving impressions we gathered were nominal - it's slow, steers pretty badly and we were unable to go much above 20mph on Renault's private test track in Paris. But our drive was enough to prove that the Laguna Coupe has bags of presence, is roomy inside and has a great driving position (although the A-pillars create an annoying blindspot).
So another French prestige car... don't they always fail?
You could make that argument. But it seems Renault is genuinely interested in establishing a reputation for real style with this car. It's got some recent unpleasant experimental memories to banish, too – clearly someone important wants to forget Reanult’s last large coupe, the MPV-alike Avantime. Janin unashamedly cites classic GTs from the likes of Ferrari as an influence; this is about aesthetic proportion and sex appeal, not otherworldy quirkiness. Which ought to help sales. How do you define prestige? Renault sees its main competitor as Peugeot's 407 Coupe, and the pricing will be tailored to match. Let’s hope that means £25K or so, rather than nearly £30,000…
Fair enough. Any other exciting Renault news on the horizon?
The Koleos SUV goes into production in 2008, and is also set to look remarkably familiar to anyone who saw the concept version. Plus Janin is promising another desirable Renault ‘concept’ at the Geneva Motor Show in March. Let's hope that Renault is rediscovering its style. If this Laguna Coupe is anything to go by, it's well on the way. There's even word that Renault is preparing to revive the Alpine badge, for a new sports car at the end of the decade. Now that sounds exciting!
We can’t say for sure how well the Laguna Coupe will drive – Renault wasn’t about to let us throw around its one-off show concept, even on a test track. But our brief drive shows that the concept is spot-on in terms of design and packaging. Dial in the standard Laguna driving experience and Renault has a sure hit on their hands. This car looks even better in the metal than the pictures, and Renaultsport’s involvement with the chassis is surely a positive sign. It’s definitely one to watch out for in 2008.