Oh, how we automotive enthusiasts unwisely yearn for big French cars. It's a strange fetish, because while many such machines over the years have been technically interesting (mostly the Citroens), few have ever been phenomenal sales successes... or, indeed, massively reliable. But come on, you've gotta love 'em, haven't you? Think of the Citroen XM. Think of the Peugeot 605; or, better still, the 505 GR. Think of the Renault 25 V6 with yellow fog lights and half a litre of water sloshing about in its headlights. Lovely!
Maybe such strange urges stem from a time when France truly made some of the best four-door luxury cars in the world, like the DS19 and the SM; whatever, we don't mind admitting that we can't stop ourselves lusting over these often-unloved cars. Seriously, who among us hasn't thought how brilliant it would be to own a Citroen C6, instead of a Mercedes-Benz E-Class? Or a Peugeot 508, above a Volkswagen Passat? And who hasn't then - with no small regret - gone on to ensure that head ultimately rules heart, by buying/picking-from-the-company-car-list a sensible BMW 518d instead? So here's another large Gallic barge to mentally drool over, the Renault Talisman. Shame it's never going to make it to Ireland...
In the metal
Laurens van den Acker, Renault's design chief, is currently working his vision for Le Diamond's corporate image onto all of the company's new cars. It started with the MkV Espace MPV (also not sold here) and is signified by C-shaped LED daytime running lights, really wide light clusters at the rear and some fairly zany surfacing lines sweeping up the sides and along the bonnet of the car in question. Soon after Espace, the Megane MkIV followed. Even the Clio MkIV got the twin-C-illuminated face in its recent midlife model update and you will see the same sort of treatment on the Koleos D-segment SUV when it launches some time in 2017.
The Talisman, though, released in the midst of this maelstrom of van den Acker's design mantra, wears the suit better than anything. It is a really fine-looking car and it doesn't dampen our ardour for flagship French motors one bit. It has a long body with a class-leading 2,808mm wheelbase and it's wide too, all to improve interior space, yet the roof is low and rakish. It looks superb from dead-on rear and suitably imposing at the front; no doubt about it, it's far more than merely a Megane with a boot sewn on the back and for that reason, we love it.
Same goes for the interior, with that promise of best-in-class rear knee room of 262mm looking entirely believable; thing is, the Koleos - sitting on the same CMF-C/D platform and almost 200mm shorter overall than the Talisman - has a corresponding figure of 289mm and for the Talisman to feel like a truly luxury machine, it could do with just a little more lounging space. Nevertheless, the new Renault interior design, built around that 8.7-inch portrait touchscreen and a seven-inch TFT dash, looks lovely and is largely well-finished. Certainly, compared to Renault interiors of just five years ago, this is a marked step up in quality.
As ever on these cars that are striving to be premium, though, it's lower down on the fascias and console where you can find some cheap-feeling plastics, with the worst offender being the side pieces that delineate between the front footwells and the transmission tunnel; they're extremely flimsy and scratchy. You wouldn't get that in a Passat, for instance...
Talking of the Volkswagen Passat, Renault seems to have positioned the Talisman in an aspirational no man's land between the sturdy and value D-segment vehicles - like the Ford Mondeo, Opel Insignia, Hyundai i40, Kia Optima et al - and that halcyon promised realm of the 'Premium Segment', inhabited by the big-hitters: BMW's 3 Series, Audi's A4, Jaguar's XE... you know the cars we mean. The Talisman has the look and feel of a luxury saloon, but its range of drivetrains is lifted almost entirely wholesale out of the Megane hatch from the class below.
Stripping out the truly bizarre running gear options for far-flung foreign climes (2.0-litre normally aspirated petrol with 140hp/193Nm and a continuously variably transmission, anyone? Anyone? No...?), you're looking at some familiar motors. There are three diesel options, the 1.5-litre 110hp/260Nm dCi, the 1.6-litre single-turbo 130hp dCi (as tested here) and a twin-turbo 1.6-litre motor with 160hp and 380Nm - you'll see this engine in a dCi GT warm version of the Megane next year.
And sure, 130hp and - more pertinently - 320Nm of torque should be more than enough for a saloon that weighs a surprisingly light 1.5 tonnes or thereabouts. But we can't help feeling Renault is underselling itself here. For instance, there's a 190hp turbocharged 1.6 lump with a seven-speed EDC gearbox; in essence, it's a detuned version of the engine that powers the Clio Renault Sport and the recently revealed Megane GT. But a 1.6? In an elegant French limo? Is that really enough?
Having driven the Talisman, we'd say not. It never felt quite muscular enough, even with all that low-down torque and a reasonably quick dual-clutch gearbox with which to access it, and it certainly didn't ever sound particularly interesting. True, the lack of an intoxicating engine note is a criticism you could level at any one of the Talisman's turbodiesel-equipped rivals, but when 150hp is now seen as standard fare for this size of car, then 130hp just doesn't cut it. We can only imagine what the 110hp Talisman would feel like. Even 4Control four-wheel steer can't liven up the largely inert chassis of the Renault, so Ford won't be losing any sleep over the emergence of a rival to its pin-sharp Mondeo.
Luckily, like so many cars these days, a dull drive when you're trying to go fast is offset with some proper luxury when you're just loafing around in the lower rev ranges of the engine - which is the way most people drive in normal, day-to-day running anyway. The Talisman has superb cabin isolation that keeps most of the external noise contributors just that, external, while the drivetrain is suitably fluid and smooth on part-throttle openings. The ride is the key area for scrutiny and on this score it's a high mark for the big Renault, if not quite ten-out-of-ten. The Talisman soaks up a lot of the worse surface imperfections and generally glides about the place in an unruffled manner, but it's not magic carpet ride supple, which is disconcerting given that long wheelbase. As it is, while the Talisman is never uncomfortable, we'd have to say you'd get a better ride from a Mondeo, Passat or even (gulp) the ageing, outgoing Opel Insignia.
The end feeling you come away with having driven the Talisman is that it's really, really nice... but it would be quantifiably improved if the French only lived up to their dated stereotype: namely, they should give us an insouciant shrug, mutter quietly about 'zis stupeed downsizing' and then slot a lazy three-and-a-half petrol V6 complete with a torque-converter automatic into the Talisman instead. Oh, and they could possibly slacken off the dampers a bit, while they're at it. Imagine that. Imagine the depreciation. Imagine owning one second-hand. You're making a low noise of appreciation, aren't you? Thought as much.
What you get for your money
The Talisman is not offered for sale here in Ireland and Renault says it won't be engineered for right-hand drive markets, ever, due to dwindling sales of traditional D-segment fodder worldwide. So, that puts paid to any idea of the Talisman making it to our shores, then.
It might seem odd of us to test drive a car that's permanently unavailable in Ireland, but the Renault Talisman has piqued our interest and as a market that absolutely loves a saloon, it's a shame the French company can't make the right-hand drive numbers add up to sell it here. It might not be the most invigorating thing to drive and it could really do with some punchier powerplants range-wide, but if the price was right, the Talisman would be a fine contender in an automotive segment that is shrinking...
Ah, there we are. There's the rub: think of many other car companies and plain old 'large family cars' are being usurped by crossovers, MPVs and SUVs. The Passat and Mondeo plug gamely on, but even the latter, once the most common form of everyday transport for all, is now typically outsold in most markets by the BMW 3 Series. Yes, the Koreans offer some well-warrantied, value-for-money options in this segment, but many other companies have stopped making their respective entrants - witness the absence of the Honda Accord, Nissan Primera, SEAT Toledo (or Exeo), the Citroens C5 and C6... we could go on.
Renault instead will prioritise the forthcoming Koleos SUV for global markets, because it knows that machine will fly out of showrooms without much need for associated advertising spend. The Talisman, though? Well, that's going to have to remain an unattainable product to us. And that only heightens our infatuation with these French saloons; it's another flawed but, strangely, deeply likeable car that we can inappropriately lust after. Stick it on the 'wanted, for no good reason' list with the Citroen CX Turbo 2 and Peugeot 504.