Renault Vel Satis

Test venues: Mid Wales and the Derbyshire Dales

Renault has always been at the forefront of innovative car design, but the Vel Satis - which went on sale in April 2002 - was one of the French manufacturer's bravest design decisions. It follows on from the success of the radical and striking new Megane.

Aimed at the 'middle ground' of the luxury executive E1 saloon car sector, the Vel Satis is 13 centimetres taller than conventional rivals and targets potential customers of the Mercedes E Class, BMW 5 Series, Volvo S80, Audi A6 and Vauxhall Omega.

Vel Satis was developed in 42 months at Renault's Technocentre, near Paris, and is built at the Sandouville factory. It offers a radical breakaway from the traditional saloon-car design, which has been the norm in this diminishing sector in recent years.

The car is available with four engine options, from the 2.0-litre petrol and 2.2 diesel units to the range-topping 3.0 V6 dCi and 3.5 V6 powerplants. Prices range from 20,730 for the 2.0 turbocharged model, rising to 30,850 for the 3.5 V6 Auto.

My test car was equipped with the 3.5 V6 unit and the five-speed Proactive automatic transmission, which is coupled as standard to the V6. A six-speed manual version is fitted to other models.

The throaty range-topping V6 delivers an impressive 245 bhp and a whopping 330Nm of torque. In all driving situations there is bags of power for overtaking, even on the narrowest roads through the congested Derbyshire Dales on a Bank Holiday Monday. Over 800 miles I averaged 24.2 mpg on a variety of roads in Wales, Shropshire and Derbyshire.

But the Vel Satis offers more than just driving performance. It has a myriad of extras, which make any journey that much more pleasurable. Models are available with three trim options - Expression, Privilege and Initiale. Expression versions are available with the two smaller engines in the range, but standard features include an automatic parking brake, rain sensor wipers, tyre pressure monitor, Renault's card for access and ignition, variable power steering, traction control, cruise control, electrically-assisted boot closing, climate control, alloy wheels and variable power steering.

My test Initiale featured an additional full colour Carminat satellite navigation system, heated screen wash, heated front seats with position memory, electronically-folding door mirrors, leather and wood gear trim, rear window sunblinds and 18-inch alloy wheels. You will also be impressed with the cup holders and storage space hidden behind the alder trim and a useful sunglasses holder above the driver's head.

I was fortunate to be able to test the Vel Satis in ideal conditions, ferrying four adults to Borth for a golf competition. The front 'armchair-like' seats offer ample head and leg room and are easily adjusted for maximum comfort. For rear seat passengers leg room is impressive and there is plenty of interior storage space for small items of luggage and clothing. The boot will comfortably hold several overnight cases and three or four sets of golf clubs. In its class the Vel Satis has unequalled interior space.

Behind the wheel the raised driving position gives you the feeling that you are driving a four-wheel drive vehicle. Controls are easily at hand and simple to use, although the satellite navigation system is complex and requires a fair amount of practice to perfect. Likewise the six CD multi-changer 'Auditorium' system offers excellent sound quality and is conveniently positioned within the dashboard, but is not the easiest of systems to fathom out for a first-timer.

The 3.5-litre engine offers enough acceleration to cope with all driving requirements, although the suspension is a little soft for my personal preference and the Renault-designed 'trigonal' rear suspension felt a little detached from the front over bumpy roads in Mid Wales when there were two fully-grown adults sitting in the rear seats. Nevertheless, road noise and wind buffetting has been reduced dramatically by excellent noise proofing and build quality.

Renault insists that the four-cylinder options will make up the bulk of sales, with the 2.0 turbo unit accounting for 40%. Renault claims that the 3.5 V6 version I tested will constitute a mere 15% of sales, although the factory is targetting around three per cent of the sector with the Vel Satis range. Vel Satis models fall in the Group 13 to 16E insurance brackets.

If you are tired of the conventional run-of-the-mill executive saloons and have between 20 and 30K to spend on a luxury, functional vehicle, this striking and radical additional to the sector could be right up your street. To make that investment a little more attractive, Renault also somewhat surprisingly claims that residual values will be on a par with the Mercedes E Class.

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