Have the French brands had a bad press, or is it all true, asks Adrian Burford.
Read a driving impression of a French car on the internet and as surely as night follows day the brickbats fly thick and fast where there's a forum for reader responses. There's nary a good word to be said about anything automotive from the land of Paris, pastis and pan-bagnat.
Everyone has an opinion as to why service is so bad, expensive body (and other) parts take forever to arrive, and resale values are so low. But Citroen, Peugeot and Renault are working hard at addressing their image issues with the last-mentioned being particularly pro-active with a number of marketing and public relations exercises to address perceptions (and some unfortunate realities).
Renault South Africa recently did two remarkable things. Their provocative 'So You Wouldn't Buy A Renault' campaign certainly got people thinking about the brand and its products and they say it has had a very real, positive impact on customer perceptions.
They followed that up with the Satisfied or Reimbursed campaign, which they claim is the first of its kind in the local market. The premise is unambiguous: if, for whatever reason, a customer is not satisfied after purchasing a new Renault, they can return it within 30 days and Renault will reimburse the purchase price. Terms and conditions apply, but there are no hidden clauses, and the offer is discussed in detail with prospective buyers to ensure complete transparency.
Simultaneously, they've launched a product offensive which is impressive by any standards, and a couple of the latest Renaults have passed through my hands recently.
Starting with the smaller of the two, I spent some time with the Megane Coupe 1.4 TCe. Not only is it powered by an eager little turbocharged engine, but it is visually a seriously daring design.
Problem is, at the wheel it feels like my mother-in-law's Megane hatchback - in other words, not particularly exciting despite the promise of the sheet metal. As far as overtaking presence goes it is adept at clearing the fast lane, what with those angry headlights and the strongly defined metal-look 'shoulders' adding some menace.
But you won't necessarily get to do a lot of overtaking, as it only has 90 kW and 190 Nm, so performance isn't truly serious even if it feels brisk around town. For R250 000-odd you can get a lot more punch and arguably as much street-cred - along with more practicality - from the likes of a Citroen DS3.
The same issues face the Laguna coupe. For a car with styling which has been compared to the likes of the Aston Martin Vantage, its sporting ability doesn't really go beyond the looks. You get 177 kW and 330 Nm (which isn't a lot for a 3,5-litre V6), deployed in a manner which can best be described as subtle.
Modest tyre and brake dimensions confirm its status as a car which is more about the show than the go, and I can't help but feel that it is aimed at Sandton mummies who no longer want the SUV (probably a Discovery), or well-to-do hairdressers. Despite its generous wheelbase the cabin is surprisingly tight - most of the car is dedicated to the engine compartment, it seems. And those poorly positioned inner grab handles? Man, those doors are soon going to look distinctly ratty around the trailing edges... as will the flanks of cars you park alongside. It's a problem common to the Megane too and while long doors are a function of a coupe, you need to be able to open them in a controlled manner!
Or have I missed the point with both cars? Maybe buyers don't want rip-snorters. So many modern cars are about looking the part, and if they meet that objective then that's enough. And both these Renault's are hard to fault when it comes to avante-garde styling and the ability to make heads turn. As well as clearing the fast-lane of dawdlers when called upon to do so.