x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Road Test: Renault Safrane is bland to the bone

It's a decent car for the money, but Kevin Hackett still finds this luxury saloon to be yawn inducing.

The Renault Safrane looks the part of a luxury car, with massage-function leather seats and wood detailing on the console. Photos by Sammy Dallal / The National
The Renault Safrane looks the part of a luxury car, with massage-function leather seats and wood detailing on the console. Photos by Sammy Dallal / The National

Recently, someone whose opinion I trust told me that people in this part of the world are not interested in my opinion. They just want the facts. Which, if true, kind of makes most of what I write in these pages irrelevant. Like a book reviewer, or someone who writes about films, music, restaurants or even architecture, I am a critic with opinions and I can't help but write them down. If what I write stirs up controversy or debate then I'm happy, because it means people are talking, thinking about something, challenging preconceived ideas.

If all I did was regurgitate facts, you might as well be reading a press release. And if that was the case with every critic, then products, be they films, cars, or anything else, would rarely improve.

And yet, there are times when I struggle to form an opinion; there are occasionally cars that I get to drive that leave no real impression whatsoever, and my automatic response is to simply state the facts. So, apologies in advance if this road test comes across more like a badly conceived sales brochure, but the Renault Safrane actively encourages writer's block.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, this Renault. The Safrane name disappeared in other countries many years ago but the model was resurrected here in the GCC and is now in its second generation. It's built in Korea and its three engines are sourced from Nissan, with my test car being fitted with the 3.5L V6. The other two are a 2.0L in-line four and a 2.5L V6. The four-pot is mated to a CVT transmission, while the V6 models are given a six-speed automatic. All the models are pretty well equipped, even before you start ticking the options list but bizarrely, if you want floor mats, then you'll have to cough up for the range-topping 3.5.

Prices start at Dh66,500 for the base model, Dh85,000 for the 2.5L and, for Dh111,000, you could drive away in the 3.5L, known as the LE. And, all joking aside, this does represent rather a lot of car for the money, and that is exactly how Renault is pitching the Safrane to us. I picked up a sales brochure in the dealership when collecting the car and there's reference within its pages to affordable luxury.

The LE does, indeed, make a decent fist of being a luxurious business machine. As I drive away for the first time, I try to adjust my seat and accidentally activate the massage function, something normally associated with Bentleys and Maserati Quattroportes.

The brochure also mentions the "nobility" of its V6 engine, and this is really where we have to separate facts from opinion, because it goes on to state that it has "generous torque available from low-engine revs and across a very broad range of uses". That will be the opinion of whoever wrote the blurb, because it certainly isn't a fact.

What is a fact is that the V6 is seriously underpowered for such a large car. To get the thing moving with anything like rapidity, you have to throttle the life out of it. Once it is up to speed, things are fine and the Safrane hustles along in near silence, but there's none of the low-down torque or mid-range punch normally associated with a V6 displacing three and a half litres, and certainly none of the character. Perhaps it's been tuned that way so that the front wheels cope with less power than the engine is actually capable of developing - who knows?

The upshot is that, while the luxury-spec Safrane does most things a luxo-barge should, there's still a nagging feeling that you're cheating. Most cars that are built to appeal to the business executive make everything seem totally effortless, but the Safrane seems to be trying too hard. Oh yes, there's the usual beige-coloured leather upholstery and there are bits of wood on the centre console and the swoopy dash (well, the brochure says it's wood), but there's a premium feel with German executive saloons that the big Renault cannot hope to provide its occupants with. And the air conditioning frankly isn't up to much, either.

Behind the steering wheel are some fiddly controls for the (admittedly nice-sounding) Bose stereo and telephone controls, which mainly serve to distract from paying attention to what's going on around about you. And that's far from ideal anywhere, but especially here. But hey, there's an air freshener in the dashboard, so it's not all bad.

The exterior styling is bland but not unattractive, causing me to lament the passing of the Gallic flair that Renault and Citroën used to be famous for. But like I said, it still seems good value on the face of it. To the casual observer, it would appear you've spent more on your wheels than you actually have and, in spirit and execution, it has a great deal in common with the Volkswagen Passat I tested a few weeks ago.

It looks the part but, when it comes down to the nitty gritty of driving the thing, it's a bit of a let-down. But then that's just my opinion, and you might not care about that in the slightest.