Renault’s best kept secret
Jemma Rochelle Hawtrey
There has been a lot of talk in the media over the last couple of years about companies that were ‘too big to fail’. It’s a phrase that has become synonymous with the failures of the Bear Stearns and Lehmans Brothers investment banks in the US and, to a lesser extent, various organisations in the UK and other European countries – most notably, in the UK, Northern Rock and BNP Paribas in France.
We are all feeling the results of this situation with higher fuel prices and more redundancies while the need for personal transport increases because of a public transport system that is increasingly rickety, expensive and unreliable.
The other advantage of personal transport is that it can take you – within reason – straight where you want to go and carry a lot of luggage or shopping or belongings with you without issue. So how do you do that reliably on a tight budget?
I have just taken delivery of a 1995 Renault Safrane RT Executive for the princely sum of £500 or so. It’s done a shade under 86,000 miles in 15 years, has so far required nothing more than a single bulb and a replacement boot lid switch and, like all executive cars, it doesn’t so much drive as glide (or, at least, it will when I work out how to get the steering wheel off and straight again) – but ask anyone about Renault models of the last 20 years and you would probably have to remind them that it actually existed.
So why is it that arguably Renault’s best car since the 1940s is a completely unremembered unknown?
It’s certainly not because its uncomfortable or a hassle to drive. It’s not because it was behind the times – no other cars in 1995 had a voice synthesiser to tell you what was wrong with the car and the majority didn’t have steering wheel radio or cruise controls at the time either. (Reliable) voice warnings and stalk radio controls were unknown in the UK at least before Renault introduced them with the 11 Electronique and 25 models in 1985. It has a hatchback body and a boot that can take more than most estates without complaining and, in the more expensive models, came with computer-controlled air suspension and, for a while, bombproof Volvo engines in the 2.5i model.
So – what went, and is continuing to go, wrong?
Personally I think it has a lot to do with the mentality of those who created the banking crisis. I have recently read a book called ‘Too big to fail’ by Andrew Ross Sorkin and I have noticed that, over and above the monumental level of arrogance-fed stupidity displayed by these people, there is a seeming blindness regarding price over ability. My father had two Safranes which followed two of the preceding Renault 25 models – and all of them were rare cars, even though they drove and handled well and are the most comfortable cars I have been in full stop.
So why buy a BMW with seats that more resemble an SS barrack room than an executive office and which costs double the price?
The reason is simple: for some reason everyone thinks that a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz tells everyone you’ve succeeded – that driving around in something barely bigger (or more comfortable) than a Chevrolet Lacetti at four times the price (and likely discomfort) is a way to advertise your success. It’s not – it’s just a way to advertise you have infinite skill at wasting money.
The biggest problem the Safrane had was Renault itself. The car was never advertised and so, unless you knew the Renault range, you wouldn’t have known at the time that the Safrane ever existed. It was even worse with its replacement – the Vel Satis (although, to be fair, looking like a small shed didn’t help it to be sure). Rolls Royce can advertise through word of mouth because they have a reputation that’s been built up over years…
Another issue was there wasn’t enough distinction between the Safrane and the Laguna. The people who would buy the Laguna or Safrane at the time had all the same options and equipment on a smaller car in the Laguna – and, over time, even the engines became the same with a 3-litre Laguna being introduced. The only versions of Safrane that arguably offered something new and unusual were the Biturbo and Biturbo Quadra models with a 258hp engine and 4WD.
It was concluded that there was no market for these models in the UK so they weren’t produced in RHD form. The biggest complaint against the Safrane at the time was that it was underpowered – just imagine what a 260hp 4×4 competitor to the M3 and M5 the Biturbo would have been – at probably less than two thirds the price and a much higher standard specification.
The Renault Safrane is now firmly in bargain basement territory with prices ranging from £400-£800 depending on model and year. In that area it,s not so much the price of the car that counts – it’s the price of the spares and the parts it might need. Renault has always had a reputation for price gouging and sadly that hasn’t changed. However, a little research will be your friend here. For example, it’s possible to buy online for less than £10 a CD with the workshop manuals for eight different Renault cars (from Clio to Vel Satis, including Master van and Safrane).
A lot of the parts like switches and the like are common in more run of the mill Renaults (for example the boot switch for a Megane Scenic will work with a 1995 Safrane). Dialogys will give you all the self-test methodology for the fuel computer and dashboard which will display most of the problems within 5 minutes and save you hours of main dealer ‘labour’ time.
The good, the bad and the automatic…
So, what do you look for in a Safrane?
The best models to go for are the manuals. The automatic transmission used in the Safrane (AD4/AD8) earned a nasty reputation in the Renault 25 for spontaneous self-destruction although to be fair that was more to do with leaking fluid lines than a weakness in the gearbox itself. With my car the automatic is fine although it is a little indecisive at certain speeds (30mph being one of them unfortunately). But it’s done 85,000 miles and is still going strong so I see no reason to doubt it until shown otherwise.
As regards engines:- the 2.5i Volvo based 5-cylinder engine is probably the best balance between power and efficiency and is more than powerful enough to give good performance. Be warned however, these cars are very quiet, and it is very easy to find oneself way over the speed limit without noticing (cruise control is your friend here). I remember one experience on the continent towing a caravan down a long hill where the whole thing began to snake and I looked down at the speedometer to find myself doing 85mph – the engine was purring comfortably the whole while (my pulse rate was almost purring as well).
Unusually both automatics and manuals were available with cruise, in the case of the manuals a clutch switch disabled the cruise mode while changing gear and re-engaged it afterwards.
There are two-litre models but these are somewhat underpowered to say the least and are generally found in the RN base specification cars. These engines are much more suited to the lighter Laguna.
In the Series I Safranes the best balance of power to economy is the 2.2i 12v engine (J7T) which produces 140hp and is a direct carryover from the Renault 25 but with more power.
The 2.2i RT Exec Auto model that I have is middle of the range and came as standard with fuel computer and voice synthesizer warning system. It also has dual area climate control, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors (heated), electrically heated windscreen and mirrors, cruise control with remote, radio cassette with remote and remote central locking and alarm. Leather seats were at first an option as were electric seats with driver memory in some models.
As with all used cars the lower the mileage the better and the better the general condition the less likely you are to have problems with the car. I can think of no more comfortable modern car that I have been in – the only one that rivals it is the Renault 25 and they are exceedingly rare thanks to the Government’s Scrappage Scheme (which I personally think was a disgrace but more on that later).
Cars can regularly be found on eBay where I found mine and its best to ask all the questions you can about the car – as some problems can be expensive to put right (especially leaking heater cores for example).
Another good deal, if you have a little more money and can stand the look of the thing, is the Vel Satis. Granted it was panned when released and didn’t sell well at all but, for £4000 for 2005-2006, example it’s worth looking at and the spec on them is generally astronomical. The best bet with these are the 3.5 turbodiesel models.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.