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First drive: 2015 Renault Talisman

Forget all pre-conceived notions about Renault, the 2015 Talisman is a world-class sedan

Nicer and more tech-focused than any Renault before it, the Talisman easily lives up to the Herculean task of replacing two models at once.

The name Renault is a distant memory in the United States, a bad hangover from the era when the AMC plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was churning out haphazardly-assembled econoboxes. Although its bold foray into the American market ultimately failed, the Paris-based car maker continues to thrive in Europe, where millions of motorists drive a car with a lozenge emblem on the hood every day.

They can’t all be wrong, can they? To find out, I headed to central France and slipped behind the wheel of the Renault Talisman, a flagship model that also stands out as the newest addition to the company’s lineup.

Offered as a sedan and as a station wagon, the Talisman replaces both the Laguna and the Latitude. It stretches 109 inches long, 73.6 inches wide, and 57.4 inches tall, meaning it’s about the same size as a Volkswagen Passat, its arch rival on the European market.

The Talisman is instantly recognizable as a Renault. It perfectly embodies the design language pioneered by head designer Laurens van den Acker with styling cues such as a wide grille, an oversized Renault emblem, and sharp headlights accented by boomerang-shaped LED daytime running lights. The lights are positioned as far apart as possible to emphasize the sedan’s generous width. The smaller, Golf-fighting Megane hatchback that was introduced alongside the Talisman at the Frankfurt Motor Show wears a similar look.

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Leveraging the benefits of economies of scale, the Talisman rides on the same modular CMF platform as the Nissan Rogue and a host of other Renault models including the Kadjar crossover and the fifth-generation of the Espace people-mover. Similarly, all of its engines come straight from the Renault-Nissan parts bin.

The Inside Story

Once the door closes with a loud “thump!” that’s usually only found in cars a segment up, you immediately notice the build quality is at least on par with what’s rolling off the assembly lines in Wolfsburg, Germany. Most of the materials used are top notch, at least considering the segment that the Talisman competes in, and every part of the cabin feels like it’s well assembled. Nothing is loose, nothing creaks, and nothing rattles. Soft-touch materials emphasize the upscale ambience, though the trim around the shift lever is inexplicably made out of the kind of hard plastic I’m used to seeing in an economy car.

The version tested here is the range-topping Initiale Paris model. Center console trim aside, it turns the premium dial up to 11 with features such as Nappa full-grain leather upholstery, business-class inspired headrests, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and laminated side windows that help make the cabin whisper quiet.

Renault’s excellent four-wheel steering system gives the Talisman almost the same turning radius as the smaller Clio hatchback.

Upscale trim levels are equipped with a segment-exclusive 8.7-inch touch screen that runs Renault’s R-Link 2 infotainment system. It’s an intuitive, straight-forward software that responds to input immediately, and I like that the large screen makes it possible to display two functions (e.g. navigation directions and the driving aids menu) at the same time. Renault began investing in in-car tech long before many of its competitors – notably cross-town rival Peugeot – and its efforts have clearly paid off.

Tech junkies will appreciate the digital instrument cluster. It’s not as advanced as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit because it can’t be configured to display, say, a full map but the driver can select from several gauge styles and background colors. Additionally, it shows information such as navigation directions, as well as how much horsepower and torque the engine produces in real time. I concede that the average motorist cares precious little how much grunt the engine is generating, but the power gauges quickly become a source of fascination for gearheads like me.

Behind the wheel

The Talisman is offered with three turbodiesel four-cylinder engines: a 1.5-liter dCi rated at 110 horsepower, and a 1.6-liter dCi available with either 130 or 160 hp. Tested here, the top-spec engine is easy to live with around town but it lacks stamina when the pace picks up. Acceleration is linear but leisurely at best, though the trade-off is that the oil-burner returns over 50 mpg in mixed driving if you have a light right foot – not bad for a sedan that tips the scale at nearly 3,350 pounds. When quizzed about the matter, Renault execs admitted a more powerful diesel engine will be added to the lineup sooner rather than later.

2015 Renault Talisman
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

I also spent time with the 200-hp 1.6-liter four and found that it turns the Talisman into a completely different sedan that’s peppy, responsive, and engaging to drive. That said, buyers who routinely drive long distances might be put off by its fuel economy, which checks in at just over 40 mpg in a mixed European cycle – keep in mind that gasoline is exceptionally expensive in Europe. It runs quieter than the diesel engine, as you’d expect, but all versions regardless of trim level and what’s under the hood are jaw-droppingly silent.

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The 160-hp diesel (and, surprisingly, both of the gasoline engines) ship exclusively with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission called EDC. It’s a marvel of a unit that shifts quietly, smoothly, and instantly, the gears aren’t accompanied by a bang even with the pedal fully pushed to the floor. The transmission can be shifted manually using the shift lever, but Renault engineers told me shift paddles aren’t available due to a general lack of demand. I don’t know where the car maker got that idea; the Talisman is the only sedan in its segment not offered with paddles.

Renault began investing in in-car tech before many rivals, and its efforts have paid off.

Loaded to the gills, my tester came with Renault’s 4Control four-wheel steering system. It turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction as the front wheels at low speeds to improve maneuverability, and it turns them in the same direction at higher speeds to improve handling. As a result, the Talisman boasts almost the same turning radius as the much smaller Clio, a hatchback that squares off against the Ford Fiesta, and it feels much more svelte than it really is on twisty roads.

The driver can choose from five driving modes called Normal, Sport, Eco, Comfort, and Individual, respectively. The effect that each mode has on parameters like the throttle response, the weight of the steering, and the stiffness of the suspension is extremely – and surprisingly – noticeable, to the point where you can tell what mode you’re in without looking at the dashboard. I stuck with normal mode during most of our time behind the wheel. It strikes an ideal middle ground between comfort (which is far too soft), sport, and economy that suits all driving conditions.

Conclusion

The Talisman is Renault’s answer to the Peugeot 508 and the Volkswagen Passat – the upscale Euro-spec model that rides on the MQB platform, not the Chattanooga-built model designed specifically for the United States market. The 508 isn’t a bad car by any means, but the fact that it was designed when PSA Peugeot-Citroën’s coffers were alarmingly low is glaringly evident behind the wheel.

The Passat is more delicate to judge. It’s sportier than the Talisman, there are no two ways around it, and its 240-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter TDI is the best engine in its segment. Or at least it was up until the Dieselgate fiasco. I consequently can’t conclude “the Passat is a better choice than the Talisman for buyers who prioritize driving dynamics,” though it’ll be interesting to revisit the rivalry when the defeat device issue is fixed once and for all.

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What’s certain is that the Talisman is more comfortable than the Passat. Its suspension is much softer (even with Comfort mode turned on in both cars), its seats are plusher, and the driving experience it delivers is generally more laid-back. It’s also more affordable than the Passat, which makes it a better value for the money.

If comfort is your thing, the Talisman hits the bull’s eye. If performance is what you’re after, cross your fingers and wait until Volkswagen makes things right or look at the Mazda6.

Highs

  • Striking design
  • Intuitive infotainment system
  • Seamless dual-clutch gearbox
  • Spacious, comfort-focused interior

Lows

  • The diesel engine lacks punch
  • Hard plastic around the center console