What we have here is a failure to communicate. The Safrane was designed to be a sleek and roomy five-door executive car in the vein of the 25, but more rounded and easier to the eye both inside and out. What the buyers saw was what must be the most boring premium car ever conceived.
The 1990s were a tough time for large French saloons. Citroën started out bold with the spaceship XM, faced with the daunting task of replacing the legendary CX. Initial reliability woes hit the XM hard, and it wasn’t the success it should’ve been. Peugeot played it safe, effectively blending the 405’s and Alfa Romeo 164’s design together and turned out the 605 – which was, truth be told, not much more distinctive than the Safrane. Even Germans had it hard, with the Scorpio’s mid-90s refresh resulting in a terrible blob unfit for human viewing; Opel produced the Omega B which rusted out in a year or two. With the W210 E-Class being a mere funhouse mirror shadow of the W124, it’s not unreasonable to say the E34 and E39 BMW:s were the kings of the hill and that every Renault Safrane sold was a victory for the French.
This semi-rough Safrane lives here in my town. It’s been driven hard but it still seems to move under its own power. Does it engage your imagination? Click for more pics.
The Safrane was also to benefit from the 1990s drivetrain sharing deal between Renault and Volvo. Thing is, it seems they dealt the iffy cards at first. The Volvo 440/460/480 got the Renault 1.7-litre engines, and Volvo retaliated by saddling the Safrane with the PRV Peugeot-Renault-Volvo Douvrin V6 that is especially known for
its reliability, power, efficiency being the lump that ruined DeLorean.
It’s true the Safrane did get a complete, good Volvo engine lineup at facelift hour in 1996, but having launched with an armful of Douvrin in various sizes and gearboxes that were no good, the damage had been done. Add Renault electronics that were electronics made by Renault, and the whole bouillabaisse was tainted.
The only spot of light in the entire Safrane sage is the Biturbo. Yeah, with some German tuner assistance courtesy of Irmscher (Opel wizards) and Hartge (BMW besserwissers), Renault put together 806 twin-turbo, manual Safranes with AWD and 262 horses – they are seriously rare these days.
So, the part where we throw darts at the Safrane is behind us. What’s left? Truth be told, I would love to love the Safrane. I see what they were going after, I can feel the European Union breath of opening borders, I can detect the way they aimed the Safrane at European autoroutes.
With minimalistic design, Renault wanted the Safrane to be a coolly played
game changer world beater, and that’s why this car being a plain old beater sort of hurts. But it’s the indistinctive styling that places the Safrane firmly into a blind spot. There’s nothing to savour, there’s nothing to save. It just looks like a big Laguna, but uses more fuel than a regular Laguna. For anybody saddled with a Safrane, it’s easily just a hand-me-down car in the hands of someone who won’t find much solace in the V6’s big lungs, especially when one has to insure and fuel it.
Every corner of the Renault is dinged or scraped and there’s rust creeping here and there. The bumpers have cracks, some of which have been fixed poorly. The sturdy five-spoke original alloys have lost their centre caps.
My last Fastback post, the Fiero, received a few eyebrow lifts (though not as much flak as the Smart Forfour) for featuring a car that clearly wasn’t a fastback. The Safrane is more deserving of that moniker, as it has a sleek, flowing roof and a trunklid that only has a handprint’s worth of horizontal plane. It’s not designed to appear to look like a sedan, but something far sleeker.
The tail lights are a wide panel, resembling ’80s shades.
What did they replace the Safrane with? Two cars, both kitted-out MPVs: the Vel Satis and Avantime. They were so left-field they sold a fraction of the units that Safrane managed to shift.
With the Safrane pretty much confined to European soil, it’s not something one would see in the States. Is it even remotely close to something one would import there? Paging Ray of Hatchtopia…
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