How Do You Solve a Problem Like Laguna?

Last week we poked a stick at PSA’s sector-D saloon offerings to see if there was any life in them. Today we cast a glance towards their domestic rivals and ask how Renault can keep churning out Lagunas at a loss of around €3,500 a pop?

The 2014 Renault Laguna – image via autompv

Last year, Renault sold 16,019 freshly minted Lagunas across Europe and given it probably isn’t offered in too many markets outside the territory, that’s probably about as good as it got. What keeps Renault shooting themselves in both feet when on the face of things, more successful players are picking up sticks and leaving for good? 
The Laguna hasn’t been offered in the UK since 2012; the primary reason for this being that nobody was buying them. There were a number of significant factors at play; amongst them being the collapse of the C-D sector in the face of overwhelming competition from the German prestige brands added to the current model’s somewhat lumpy aesthetics. But the primary reason has to remain the spectacularly skewed legacy of its immediate predecessor.

The 2001 Renault Laguna-2 - image via auto-mane
Pretty car. The 2001 Renault Laguna-2 – image via auto-mane

Renault launched the second generation Laguna in 2000 as part of a similar movement upmarket that produced the Avantime and Vel Satis. The model shared its floorpan with Nissan’s contemporary Primera and featured styling based upon that of the well regarded and thoroughly excellent 1995 Initiale concept. Laguna-2 was a very handsome motor car and probably the most credible large Saloon Renault since the 25; certainly the most thoroughly resolved of the Patrick le Quément-era. Good looking, comfortable in time-honoured French big car fashion and with its five door hatchback or ‘Sports tourer’ estate bodies; spacious and versatile. Fitted with a range of engines from 1.6 litre fours, up to a 3.0 litre V6, there was a Laguna for just about every budget. Renault didn’t skimp on safety either, the model being amongst the first to achieve a full 5-star result in Euro-NCAP safety tests. Technology was also a major selling point; Laguna featuring keyless entry and all manner of electronic gizmo’s for the owner’s comfort and above all, convenience.

Even better looking than the hatch? Laguna Sport-Tourer - image via cars-data
Even better looking than the hatch? Laguna Sport-Tourer – image via cars-data

All of which was just dandy except that Renault engineers skimped on development and componentry because the full list of potential Laguna-2 issues would run to several hundred more words than either you or I are likely to have the stomach for. The litany of woe does make for truly horrifying reading nevertheless. Items like a fault with the automatic transmission preventing Renault from delivering four cylinder models until two years after launch. ECU’s regularly malfunctioned or failed completely causing Which Magazine to call on Renualt to recall the model. There were turbo failures, gearbox problems – (a common Renault failing), brake pedal and heating system failures. More bizarre faults included wheels warping for no apparent reason and a design fault causing a recall because owners were unable to attach child seats to the ISOFIX mountings.

Laguna-2 interior - image via sobrecoches
Laguna-2 interior – image via sobrecoches

The Laguna was initially a strong seller on the strength of its looks, practicality and overall appeal, but as reliability issues mounted, the car’s reputation plummeted. In 2005, Renault essentially relaunched the model, with significant changes to the appearance and specification with fresh assurances from Renault that the problems of the earlier models had been resolved. While better than its immediate forebear, it rapidly became clear Renault hadn’t expunged the car’s failings. It isn’t overstating matters to describe the Laguna-2 as amongst the least reliable cars of recent times, scoring second from bottom in the 2002 Which reliability survey of cars up to 2 years old. It was also the 4th least reliable car in a 2007 Warranty Direct reliability survey with a reported 55 faults per 100 cars in addition to coming 4th from bottom out of 137 models in a 2003 Top Gear survey.

Laguna-3 - better but so much uglier. Image via es.autoblog
Laguna-3 – better but so much uglier. Image via es.autoblog

The current Laguna-3 was pitched as a quality car aimed at more upmarket rivals when it launched in 2007. Renault made much of its improved fit, finish and material quality, saying they had listened to owners unhappy with the previous model’s failings. But they badly misjudged the car’s appeal and its positioning, being forced to price it a good €5000 less than anticipated. According to analyst, Max Warburton of Berstein Research, the Laguna was “a poor product that fell flat on its face” According to their figures, the model lost over €1.5bn to date and a loss of over €3,500 per-unit.

Following the model’s withdrawal from the UK market in 2012, Renault continued to offer the model in the Republic of Ireland – in fact it appeared on Renault’s Irish website until late last year, although I can’t believe any were sold. A bizarre situation, given that the main point of pulling it from RHD markets was to reduce costs. The Laguna III sold in decent numbers in the Republic, but was eclipsed by the smaller (and cheaper) three volume Fluence, which proved a more compelling sales proposition – although it too is faltering now.

With auto magazines now showing speculative renderings of a forthcoming Laguna replacement, it appears Renault are not quite ready to surrender the D-segment to their rivals just yet. But without the benefit of the Chinese market to bolster sales, Renault will struggle to make useful money on a car such as this. Having rebadged the Samsung SM5 for the European market to no great affect, Renault is facing a massively shrunken sector and will have no choice but to once again convince buyers to pay a premium price for a mainstream product. Renault have faith their Initiale Paris designation will prove sufficient to lure customers out of PSA’s less than stellar D-segment offerings, but can they convince anyone else?

Memories are long and it will take considerable time to banish the legacy of the attractive but fatally flawed Laguna-2. A good start would be to consign the Laguna nameplate to history, but either way, the journey back to credibility and increased sales looks even rockier over at Boulogne-Billancourt than it does at their bitter rivals on Avenue de la Grande Armée. In fact, it may already be too late. Despite a 4.1% rise in French car sales last month, Automotive News yesterday reported the bulk of the increase has been made up of non-French marques. Oh dear.

Sources/quotes/data: Automotive News Europe/ Dynamics/

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Laguna?”

  1. I know the Laguna Deux’s aesthetics are generally well regarded, but I never really fell for it. Its overall stance can be seen as positively lithe in todays leaden context, but back in the day, it appeared somewhat insubstantial – just as that daft plastic half-lid on the grille, which was thankfully rectified come facelift time. The unnecessarily prominent lock didn’t do the rear a great many favours, either.

    Presented with a choice of Le Quément/Louis Schweitzer era Renaults, I’d go for a properly specced Mégane II each and every time instead. And that one wasn’t the paragon of reliability, either.

    1. I didn´t have a problem with the grille design. It was meant to subtly refer to the R16. They could have perhaps created the same effect using other means though. That said, it seemed better than the facelift. The current car lacks a coherent identity and is very much a design smacking of committee work. How deeply inconsistent is the reality of the car and the intention (Pelato/Pelata) that it should be seen as a smart car you´d expect to find pulling trailered classics to fancy concours events. I´d be surprised if Renault ever gets this sector back. If you think about, every time a designer talks about taking a car into the prestige sector and talks up more emotional or more premium design the resultant car fails. This is also perhaps a function of the fact that these sorts of middle market car are in a declining market. It´s not necessarily the case that trying to make them more premium results in failure but that the two moves are associated. I suppose the also-rans want to try to gain some of the main players´ gloss when they renew their products and so talk up the prestige elements. If there had been no mention of the “prestige” and “premium” and “quality” the Laguna would still have flopped. It actually needed to be great looking, great to drive and well priced. Renault failed on those counts.

  2. I had no idea it was that bad. It looks like Renault had their Citroen XM, Peugeot 605 moment: underdeveloped and over-promised cars.
    A Peugeot dealer told me that Ireland’s demand for C-D class models was too small to do anything but make a batch of RHD cars for the whole year and deliver that in a lump. Renault Ireland might have felt it worthwhile to get a year’s cars before RHD production ceased: 150 or 300 cars would be easy to run off before clearing the lines of RHD tools. I bet the spec was unusually high and colours limited to a few obvious ones like silver, grey and metallic grey.

  3. I too had missed out on the Laguna’s woes. One reason for buying cars like Lagunas and Mondeos is the assumption that they are straightforward tools. It’s much harder to forgive being part of ongoing R&D than if you were driving, say, a Peter Wheeler era TVR.

  4. Another question is how a design process could leave substantial elements so untested as to fail frequently. One, lots of car companies don´t have this problem and two, the aerospace industry has it as number one priority. Aren´t there known and documented methods from aerospace for applying stringent testing of components, sub-systems and whole machines which Renault could have found at Google Scholar? The car´s appearance is about as good as the current Avensis which sells steadily.

  5. There is of course slightly more incentive for aerospace firms to get it right since the RAC won’t answer call outs at 35,000 feet. Such is the cynicism of some manufacturers. Really, when I read that, they deserve to fail.

  6. Of course, things are different for aeroplanes but then cars a bit easier so they could scale the aerospace approach statistically. It´s not as if Renault´s mistake was the result of some special new thing they were doing. Someone in management determined this would happen when they decided to cut some corners somewhere.

  7. Goodness. They will be very rare indeed. That almost makes them seem attractive. Actually, the coupe does look good but I expect its blighted by the same problems as the saloon plus it has a lousy ride.

  8. Exemplary Renaults have come and gone, but there has always been a superficiality to much of Renault’s output, right back to the days of Louis Renault. The Laguna Coupe illustrates this perfectly. Someone produced a very good looking body and stuck it on to a mediocre car, thinking their customers would be too stupid to notice.

    1. “there has always been a superficiality to much of Renault’s output, right back to the days of Louis Renault”

      That’s quite a bold statement. Would you care to elaborate?

    2. Laurent. Don’t get me wrong. Renault 4, Renault 5, Renault 16, all very important cars with depth. And even cars like the 14 had virtues. The rear engined 4CV was a reasonable experiment for the time, but the Dauphine was a nasty car, even if pretty.

      My point is that the last 20 years have seen a return to Renault clothing ‘conservative’ (eg cheap and cynical) engineering under good looking bodywork, such as the current and previous Megane. This is very much in the style of the pre-War Renaults produced under Louis Renault, not a nice man and, in the spirit of unpleasant people, not someone who respected his customer base. Hence flashy looking cars built on lowest common denominator bases.

  9. Sean is thinking of the Renault 18, Renault 21, Renault 8, Renault Safrane perhaps. Maybe the Renault 9 as well. Wasn´t that the four door saloon? And the related 11 too. On the plus side of the books we have the Espace, Renault 4 and 5, Renault Superfive Baccara, Renault 25 and Renault Avantime. Have I forgotten something? Hmmm. It´s a mixed bag, isn´t? You could find a corresponding set from Ford and Peugeot and Opel. Sean? Help us here.

    1. In my answer above, I excluded the Espace because, although Renault deserve credit for having the foresight to produce it, it was also the child of Matra, Chrysler, Peugeot and Trabant. I might have got one of those wrong. It might also prove my point, since the Renault 18 underpinnings on the first version were pretty marginal. And the Avantime was a real tribute to brash old Louis’ ethic.

  10. Still not sure I understand what kind of continuity you see between the company as run by its founder, and what became of it post-World War II.

    1. In theory there should be none. Renault’s company was taken away from the founder’s family into state ownership and, as I said, the 4CV was a fresh start. But after a fair run history does seeming to be repeating itself as their products become more and more vapid. The Captur is just the sort of car I’d imagine Louis would be pleased with.

    2. I think I know what you mean, but this is so far-fetched that I refuse to entertain you any further. Please walk away. I’ll do just the same, and everyone goes home happy.

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