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DRIVING SEAT: Gallic challenge; a matter of OPINION.

Byline: By Alistair Coull and Val Jessop

WITH the latest Laguna, Renault is going all out to capture an even bigger slice of the UK's rapidly expanding diesel market.

With up-to-the-minute looks and a very strong Euro IV compliant engine choice, it is clear that the French company is making its strongest challenge yet in this sector.

One of the latest entrants into the fray is the Laguna 2.0dCi, powered by a 150bhp engine that punches way above its weight.

Replacing the old 2.2-litre dCi which produced an identical power output, the new engine is better in every way.

It's a good deal lighter for a start, which means all sorts of benefits on performance, handling and fuel economy.

Average fuel consumption is improved to over 48mpg - better than its three main rivals - VW Passat, Peugeot 407 and Toyota Avensis.

With a smaller engine you might expect torque response to suffer but the 2.0-litre unit again betters its predecessors, generating 340Nm compared to 320Nm. Put improved torque and less weight together and nearly a whole second is shaved off the sprint to 62mph which is now pegged at 8.9 seconds.

During my week with the pounds 23,050 car, in Initiale trim, the engine proved a strong performer and tolerably quiet, although some of the rivals, particularly the Vectra, is smoother.

The official average fuel consumption is 48.7mpg but on semi-urban journeys the trip computer was showing low to mid-30s. On longer, commuter trips - admittedly mostly on motorways where speeds are obviously higher - it showed no better than 45mpg. Mileage is helped by a smooth operating six-speed manual gearbox, calibrated at a relaxed 35mpg per 1000 revs in top gear.

The Laguna was facelifted last year, giving the car a cleaner front. It loses its fake smile and gains the latest Renault face - with left and right horizontal grilles.

The dashboard also received a makeover and is very smart, although I thought the pale wood dashboard strip, with inlaid darker coloured wood squares, looked as though it was an add-on from the local DIY.

The controls for the satnav system were sited between the front seats, where the handbrake would be if the Renault wasn't fitted with an electronic one. It automatically releases when you move off and automatically re-applies when you stop the engine. Clever, but I prefer the reassurance of a traditional handbrake at lights and on hill starts.

The navigation system screen sits on top of the dashboard under a large cowl to prevent sunlight reflections.

Laguna was the first car to get the maximum five-star rating for occupant protection in the standard European crash tests.

A part from the horrible wood dashboard strip, my only other gripe was about the rear view mirror. I couldn't quite get it into a proper position and I reckon it's because it is set for left-hand drive and lacks the proper arc of adjustment for RHD.

Renault Laguna 2.0 dCi Initiale

ENGINE: 1995cc 16V dCi 150bhp@4000rpm 340Nm@2000rpm

PERFORMANCE: Top speed: 134mph 0-62: 8.9secs

ECONOMY: Town: 37.2/out of town: 58.8/mixed: 48.7mpg

CO2 EMISSIONS: 154g/km

INSURANCE: Group 11

PRICE: pounds 23,050
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Apr 14, 2006
Words:535
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