– Spacious interior
– Good ride quality
– Excellent fuel economy
– Not very fast
– Average handling
– Controls feel too soft
Renault tries very hard to be unique with their car designs. And in all honesty, the French automaker always succeeds. And that is the very reason for their poor sales in the GCC. Unlike the Europeans, middle-class Arabia is very conservative, and Renault’s quirky new models weren’t going to cut it here. So Nissan — Renault’s brother-from-another-mother — came to the rescue with a car dull enough to suit local tastes. Say hello to the Renault Safrane.
The story behind the Safrane is enough to confuse even Einstein. The original French-built Safrane was last seen in the 1990s as a luxury liftback. The badge has been resurrected for this car, which is essentially a Korean-built Samsung SM5, wholly designed by Nissan and sold as the Nissan Teana in some countries. The new Safrane sedan uses largely Nissan components under the skin, including the Altima front-wheel-drive platform. So basically, this is a Nissan from Korea masquerading as a French car.
The midsize Safrane attracts almost no attention on the road, even though we have yet to see another one on the streets. Our V6 version is far from ugly however, with a swoopy profile, 16-inch alloy wheels, and dual exhaust tips. The only Renault trademarks are the indicator lamps on the front doors. But it simply does not stand out at all. In short, it is the anti-thesis of a real French Renault.
The interior does not stand out in design either, but it is the quality and the space that is most noticeable. There is ample legroom and headroom, possibly even a bit more than the Altima. All the upper door and dashboard materials are of the soft-touch variety, while the fake wood and beige leather actually look good. The comfortable front seats have minimal bolstering, signalling the Safrane’s unsporting intentions. The spacious rear bench has a pass-through hole to fit long items in the already-huge cargo compartment. And there are four covered cup-holders, pop-out front door pockets and a small storage cubby in the central armrest. Overall quality was great, with only the plastic inner door-pulls looking a bit cheap.
The Safrane V6 comes with a reasonably good-sounding CD stereo with an AUX input and a subwoofer, with settings shown on a sizeable monochrome LCD that is also shared with the dual-zone a/c. While we didn’t push the limits of the Nissan-sourced a/c thanks to the pleasant December weather, it did seem strong in the afternoons, and comes with rear vents. Other features in our seemingly mid-range tester included steering-wheel stereo buttons, power windows, electric mirrors, sunroof, driver-only powered seat, six airbags, trip computer, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, and an ‘intelligent’ keyless entry system that allows the big card-like key-fob to stay in the pocket always, although a knob still has to be turned to start the car. Most buttons were back-lit, but not the mirror controls, which we had to hunt for at night. Cruise control, parking sensors and a powered passenger seat were missing in our tester, but overall, the mid-range Safrane impressed us with its equipment levels, given its price.
The 2.3-litre V6 is among the smallest production six-cylinders we know of, although this low-displacement Nissan engine is supposed to compete with Japanese four-cylinder midsizers. With 170 hp at 6000 rpm, and 226 Nm of torque at 4600 rpm, its numbers are similar to its competitors. We managed a 0-to-100 kph run of 10.9 seconds, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Thanks to two extra cylinders, there is strong mid-range power during overtaking, and the engine feels less stressed in general. We also managed a very impressive fuel consumption figure of 10.2 litres/100 km, which is almost in compact-car territory. The 2.0-litre engine choice probably drinks less, but we’d avoid that underpowered lump.
The Safrane is designed to loaf around, and feels very comfortable doing so. The 5-speed automatic is smooth when left alone, but suffers from delayed shifts when changing gears manually with the tiptronic function. There is also a very slight delay in throttle response, while the steering is overly soft, with no feedback at any speed. The engine is well-muffled and much quieter than the larger grunting V6 in the Altima, while wind noise is kept well at bay until 100 kph, after which the rushing sounds increase noticeably. While the suspension is less firm than that of the Altima, the ride quality is comfortable without feeling floaty at all. As we said, loaf around at under the speed limit, and the Safrane feels like a luxury car.
Hustling it around corners and throwing it from lane to lane, the car has a noticeable amount of body roll, while its 16-incher 205/65 tyres run out of grip earlier than other V6 midsizers which come with wider tyres, at which point it safely understeers. However, it still continues to feel stable thanks to its controlled body motions. Drive in a zig-zag pattern, and it doesn’t start swaying like a Camry. The stability control in our tester, which can be turned off, also cuts the power if a tight turn is taken too fast. The ABS-assisted four-wheel-disc brakes work fine, if not eye-poppingly impressive. With very soft steering, a dead-soft brake pedal, and even a soft accelerator pedal, it is hard to be precise when driving fast, but then again, the Safrane has so far presented itself strictly as a comfort-biased cruiser.
That last sentence pretty much sums up the car. Oddly enough, we ended up liking the car. We’d trash any other sedan with the driving characteristics of this car, but the Safrane isn’t out pretending to be a sports sedan like its Japanese cousins. It also comes with a uniquely practical engine, sizeable space, and a comfortable cabin all for the price of a Honda Civic. The only other cars that comes close in value is the Kia Optima, the Hyundai Sonata and possibly the Mitsubishi Galant, but the Safrane has the peace-of-mind of Nissan engineering behind it. If that’s not a good deal, we don’t know what is. And hence, the Safrane is the first ‘Nissan’ midsizer to enter our recommended list.