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Best of 2022

Top Gear’s guilty pleasures: Renault Vel Satis

Sometimes you just want a soft, daft French executive more than just about anything else

Published: 27 Dec 2022

About a year after I joined Top Gear I found myself running a Radical SR3 SL as my daily driver. It was a silly idea and remains, by some measure, the least practical, most uncomfortable and sketchiest road car I have ever run. During those vanishingly remote fractions of a second where it wasn’t trying to spit me into the central reservation (which it successfully did, eventually) and my eyeballs weren’t vibrating in their sockets like ping pong balls in a kettle, I would find myself thinking about the comfiest, most relaxing car I could imagine.

And on one such occasion I was following a Renault Vel Satis. It caught me at a weak moment, but right then – and occasionally afterwards – I’ve found myself wanting a soft, daft French executive more than just about anything else. It’s all about insouciance, about a rationale that defies logical explanation. French exec saloons depreciate like depth charges – but that’s kind of the point. I was attracted to a Vel Satis not as a £35,000 new car, but one three years old that had shed 90 per cent of that value.

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Because that’s what I did. Got to work that day and once my fingers had stopped trembling, had a poke about on Auto Trader. Bargains ahoy-hoy. I had driven the Vel Satis before of course, knew what it was about, quite liked that Renault had decided to replace the Safrane with something so wilfully different.

It arrived in 2001, pretty much in tandem with the wacky Renault everyone remembers, the two-door Avantime. That was cool and interesting, quirky in the right way. The Vel Satis was just gawky. It had presence, it had curiosity value, it had awful proportions. In maroon it’s a carbuncle. Careful with cabin trim too – light grey the same shade as used dishwater was a particular low point, but the pale wood was a nice touch.

And of course there was space inside. Based on the same platform as the Espace, the Vel Satis most distinguished by being a saloon as tall as a crossover years before they became fashionable. 130mm taller than the car it replaced in fact. Made sense, it was easier to get in and out of, therefore more dignified.

There was a choice of five engines – including a pair of 3.0-litre six cylinders, a petrol and a diesel. The aim was clearly to tackle the German E-Class and 5 Series hegemony head-on. Neither engine was the last word in power outputs, but both were deceptively smooth and quiet. Same went for the way it tackled a road. It wasn’t remotely interested in ‘feedback’ or ‘handling’, all it wanted to do was be soft, accommodating and refined. To drive like it had the French President on board. Which Vel Satis’ did, many times. It was the default state car of choice.

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And being cosseted and cradled like a French President was what I wanted more than anything as I piloted that gnashing, whirling, fizzing, hissing devil up the M4 that morning. To keep the Renault fond in the memory I think it’s probably important I never drive one again. I suspect the reality would be somewhat different – I’d be driving something with a baggy cabin and baggier road manners, where the adaptive cruise control (it was one of the very first to have that feature) has long since ceased to function, and its position as only the second car ever to win a five star EuroNCAP rating has likely been tested once too often. I also have a nagging concern that it didn’t actually ride that well.

Why the Vel Satis then? There are other French execs more highly regarded. Citroen has a proud history of them, from the DS, SM and CX through to the C6 that was a direct contemporary of the Vel Satis. But that car, although styled with the right amount of retro nods, tried too hard to copy the Germans. The hydractive suspension wasn’t given true freedom to absorb and cushion. The Vel Satis was technically nothing like as interesting, but, hey, it was in the right place at the right time, and if you’re talking guilty pleasures, you might as well double down.

The other reason is that I was once chauffeured around Paris in a Vel Satis. I have never felt more French. It’s that memory, not one of actually driving it, that I think of, sat deep in the back seat of this tall car, looking out at landmarks and being whisked around by a fellow who managed to make the Vel Satis slip eel-like round the Arc de Triomphe, and flit elegantly around Place de la Concorde. In his hands the Vel Satis rose far above ze ‘urly-burly.

I wanted one as a foil to the Radical and when that car left (in bits, on a flatbed), so too did my desire for a Vel Satis. It goes down in Renault’s history as one of their biggest errors of judgement. Just 64,000 were sold between 2001 to 2009 – when it was facelifted in 2005 the Brits decided not to bother importing it at all (seeing as the intention to sell 3500 had butted up against the reality of somewhere less than 1000). Overall it’s reckoned Renault lost over €18,000 on every single car. Ouch.

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