By Ben Whitworth
10 April 2008 16:43
When it arrived late last year we gave Renault’s Laguna a bit of a pasting for its dull looks and overall lack of appeal. There wasn't much wrong with its driving dynamics, and Renault’s claim for best-in-class refinement and quality didn't seem too wide of the mark, but it was sorely lacking in sparkle. The Sport Tourer estate went some way to addressing the yawnalot styling, but given the all-round excellence of the Mondeo, not to mention the sheer sexiness of the upcoming Insignia, the Laguna fell instantly into the also-ran category.
Although the sector in which the Laguna competes may be shrinking by around 7 percent per year, it's still worth a million sales across Europe. And that's worth pursuing. Renault expects this new GT halo model to help it maintain its 9 percent market share.The GT flagship – available in both hatch and Sport Tourer estate format from May 2008 – not only premieres two new punchy 180bhp and 205bhp petrol engines, but also Renault’s Active Drive chassis with four-wheel steering. Which, for a car seen by many as motorway fodder, seems pretty damned exotic. Exotic prices too – the range kicks off with the £21,050 petrol hatch, followed by the £21,220 diesel hatch, the £22,000 petrol estate and is topped by the £22,170 diesel estate. Ouch.
So tell me how this Active Drive thingy works on the new Renault Laguna GT…
The system was jointly developed with Renaultsport over four years with the help of Japanese components giant Aisin – which makes sense given the Nissan-Renault alliance. Sitting above the rear axle is a compact electrical actuator that handles the steering of the rear wheels via a simple pivot and some trick wheel hubs. This is electronically hooked up to a battery of sensors that monitor steering input and road speed. One hundred times a second the front wheels, ABS and ESP inform the rear wheels what they’re up to.
Below 38mph the rear wheels turn by up to 3.5deg in the opposite direction to the front wheels. Above that all four wheels turn in the same direction, again by up to 3.5deg. Now 3.5deg doesn't sound like much but it slashes the car’s turning circle to just 10.8 metres – that’s the same as the Clio supermini’s – for exceptional low speed manoeuvrability.
At pace, it significantly enhances high-speed stability and boosts active safety levels – by countering the centrifugal force that pushes the tail outwards during cornering, it raises the speed that corners can be taken.
The system is also full integrated into the Laguna’s recalibrated ESP function, and the four-wheel steer system also detects when the GT brakes on mixed surfaces and automatically adjusts the rear steer angle to keep the car stable.
My, that’s all a bit complex.
Yes it is. Although the hardware is pretty straightforward, it’s the advanced software that makes the difference. Which is why Renault has patented every facet of the system – and why according to Renault, the first GT customer was BMW.
Unlike early mechanical four-wheel steer systems like Honda’s Prelude and Mazda’s 626 that sent all sorts of uncomfortable squirms and wiggles through the rear end during cornering, the Laguna GT’s project manager Gabriel Toffolo claims the speed of the electronic link between front and rear and the complexity of the four-wheel steer software precisely measures the amount of rear steer needed, eliminating any kind of secondary movement at the back, even when accelerating through that 38mph threshold when cornering.
The 4ws system in its entirety weighs just 19kg, so there’s no discernible weight penalty. At the moment it’s unique to the GT but expect it to become an option – at around £750 – on lesser Laguna models. And Renault claims the four-steer technology will only be available on all-new models, so expect it on the upcoming Laguna Coupe and next-gen Megane too.
What else does the GT get?
Two new engines – a 180bhp diesel and a 205bhp petrol, both of 2.0-litre capacity, both turbocharged and both hooked up to six-speed manual boxes. Oh, and a raft of tepid go-slightly-fast styling bits and pieces. You get some rather lovely 18-inch alloys (although given the size of the wheelarches, 20-inchers would look even better) a larger front air intake flanked by (horribly fake) lateral gills, black headlamp surrounds and wing mirrors, twin split exhaust pipes, stylised GT logos on the B-pillar and smoked rear lights.
Inside there’s an aluminium-topped gearlever, Alcantara-clad sports seats embossed with the GT logo, red needled dials behind the chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and perforated aluminium pedals. It’s an understated upgrade that does little for the gormless hatch, but turns the Sport Tourer estate into something rather easy on the eye.
I take it the diesel will be the key seller?
Yes. Renault’s sales suits reckon nine out of ten GT buyers will go for the dCi option. Understandably too. It doesn’t seem that long ago that a blown 2.0-litre petrol engine with 180bhp was seen as something special – am I the only one impressed with a diesel that pumps out enough power to scare a few hot hatches?
It’s a terrific engine – refined, smooth and revvy – that suits the GT’s character very well indeed. Its variable vane blower results in sharpish throttle response, and once above 1500rpm acceleration is addictively brisk. Definitely more so than the estate’s modest 8.7 second sprint time to 60mph suggests – with the Euro IV-compliant unit revving cleanly and quietly to its lowish 3750rpm peak power and onto its highish 5250rpm redline.
By comparison the petrol – derived from the Renaultsport-developed unit found in the fiery Megane Renaultsport – feels weak-kneed. It’s slightly quieter but doesn’t exactly sing up to its modest 5000rpm power peak, and the engine note is dull and characterless. It’s thirsty too – driven briskly it’ll struggle to top 27mpg.
Put me in the driver’s seat on a mountain pass, please
Toffolo is right – there’s no need to acclimatise yourself to the four-wheel steer set-up – you just get in and drive. Because it works so harmoniously you’re never aware of the system’s involvement. The only giveaway is that the Laguna corners with an unexpected enthusiasm, as if blessed with an incredibly grippy front end, a much shorter wheelbase and a very obedient rear end.
It’s only when you get into a standard two-wheel steer Laguna that you realise just how effective the rear-steer set-up is and how its enhanced degree of body control allows you to fully exploit the performance available. You can lean really hard through corners before there’s even a whiff of understeer. Whipped through a snaking road it feels small, agile and focused enough to really hassle a hard-driven 3-series or new C-class. Honestly.
It’s not particularly talkative, but there’s a satisfying degree of precision in the steering. Because both axles are steering, less steering input is needed, allowing you to sew a string of corners together with the smallest of wrist flicks. The ride is also excellent – tweaked by Renaultsport, it’s beautifully damped and compliant, treading a very well judged line between comfort and firm body control. The big brakes also deserve praise for easily reining in the engine’s ready punch.
Given the ho-hum appeal of the standard Laguna, the GT is an oddly compelling package. What impresses is the cohesive way in which the Laguna’s powerplant, steering and chassis work together rather than as disparate parts. In diesel estate guise, it’s deceptively fast, very refined and frugal – an ideal hushed and roomy long distance cruiser, but with plenty of dynamism, tackling corners with a relish that will quickly put a grin on your face.
I really liked the Laguna GT until I reminded myself of the pricing. At just over £22,000 the dCi Sport Tourer – the pick of the range given the thirst of the petrol and the visual dullness of the hatch – is a hugely expensive bit of kit. Sure, it’s loaded with luxury and safety kit but at that price most keen-to-haggle drivers will be tempted by the prestige and stronger residuals of a BMW, Mercedes or Audi – albeit one with far fewer trinkets.
The GT may not have customers beating down the door of their local Renault dealer – that’s the (high) price of being an early technology adopter, but as a showcase for Renault’s Active Drive chassis, it’s really rather impressive. Particularly when you imagine a new rear-steer Renaultsport Megane…
|On sale in the UK:||May 2008|
|Engine:||1995cc turbo 4-cyl, 180bhp @ 3750rpm, 295lb ft at 2000rpm|
|Transmission:||Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|Performance:||8.7sec 0-62mph, 136mph, 42.2mpg, 177 g/km CO2|
|How heavy / made of?||1563kg/steel and aluminium|
|How big (length/width/height in mm)?||4695/1811/1445|