Street-Spotted: Renault Laguna

For a company that was present in the U.S. in the 1980s, Renaults are not easy to find today. If you’re lucky, once every 10 years you’ll see a U.S.-market model made in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that included the Alliance, Encore and GTA. There is usually a handful of them for sale on Craigslist out of Wisconsin at any given time, which is where a fair number of them seemingly ended up — in the garages of former AMC employees. Anything else like a Medallion or a Fuego will be a slightly taller order, despite the fact that the former was still sold as a Eagle into the early 1990s.

The Renault we’ll be talking about is not one of those. Rather, it’s an foreign-market model we spotted in our nation’s capital. And it could have been the only example of that model in the States.

The Laguna debuted for the 1994 model year as a replacement for the midsize Renault 21, which the U.S. briefly received in a slightly altered form as a Renault Medallion before the switch to Eagle badges under Chrysler. The Laguna traded the Medallion’s boxy shape for something far sleeker, featuring an aerodynamic (if somewhat anonymous nose), a spacious cabin and a short, high-set trunk. The swoopy greenhouse of the Laguna hatchback sedan when viewed in profile might remind some of the Eagle Vision/Dodge Intrepid of the time, though shrunk a bit, but it still features that recognizable cab-forward look. While front fascia design was not particularly memorable, the real party was out back with a curved, unified set of taillights joined by a black-framed license plate niche, and a single wiper for the rear glass. The Laguna sedan is a hatchback, of course, so that whole trunk lid and rear glass is one piece.

Since this is a car from the 1990s there is plenty of black plastic on the exterior, including the plastic oval lift-up door handles and door molding strips that might remind some of those on the Dodge Neon and its siblings.

The Laguna was not that large, being about four-inches longer than a ’90s VW Jetta, and was aimed at about the same general segment. Except it was French.

Among other things this meant that the base engines were very thrifty, starting with a 1.6-liter inline-four among the gasoline units, but stretched up to a 3.0-liter V6 at the top of the range, good for 187 hp. Among diesels, a 1.9-liter inline-four was the base oil flavored unit with 97 hp to play with, and a 2.2-liter turbodiesel being the beefier option with 111 hp on tap.

The whole first-generation Laguna “range” consisted of just the sedan and the wagon, and if the hatchback sedan strikes you as a little boring the wagon was definitely not, featuring Volvo-like vertical taillights and large glass side windows. In terms of presence the two are quite different, and the wagon clearly has the advantage.

This Laguna masquerades in Washington D.C. traffic pretty well, having a generous supply of oval shapes and black plastic moldings, hiding far better than some small French MPV from about a decade later — we’ve certainly seen those too. So the Laguna might seem like something cheap and Japanese, perhaps some kind of Mazda of the time, to those who aren’t paying attention and aren’t obsessively keeping an eye out for foreign-market cars in the U.S. To non-car people it has to be pretty close to invisible, especially in a muted color. We have to wonder if a whole month has to go by for someone to realize that it’s… not actually a car that was offered here, and is likely the sole example in the U.S.

Since many diplomats’ tours of duty can be quite short, one to three years, many choose to bring their own cars to the U.S., and their countries usually provide this service for free or at some discount. The downside, of course, can be that there isn’t a single mechanic in the U.S. who’s seen a Laguna before, much less worked on one. So depending on the car the maintenance experience can be quite an eye-opener and a wallet-opener for diplomatic personnel.

Interested in a Laguna for yourself? The earliest examples from the 1994 and 1995 model years are currently importable thanks to the 25-year rule, but it will be a while till the second-gen Laguna floats into the the importation window. The second-gen model arrived in 2001 and it kept the five-door hatchback bodystyle for the sedan, but it was not the most visually exciting car on the road.

Have you seen any of the Kenosha-made Renaults on the road in the past few years? Let us know in the comments below.

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