In the latest Real World Review, Oliver Hammond gives a rather brilliant account of his Renault Vel Satis, a car he’s owned for three years. A true ‘Marmite’ car, I have to say that I fall into the ‘love’ category for simple fact that Renault dared to be different.
Along with the Avantime, the Vel Satis represents a radical and bold statement and I for one applaud them for it. Just a shame that the rest of the public weren’t so welcoming. Whenever I see one on the road, I’m amazed at how large these things are. The photos give no clue to the huge proportions of the Vel Satis. I saw one recently on the A303 alongside Stonehenge and I could have sworn it cast a shadow over the stones!
I grew up totally obsessed with cars and the battle for floor space in my bedroom was most definitely fought between myself and my huge collection of car brochures! Despite my love of cars, I didn’t actually own my first car until five years after passing my driving test, which I took in my dear old grandad’s Ford Escort Ghia, nicknamed by the family as ‘Smokey’.
The next four or five years were spent travelling around on trains on a daily basis, but I still kept avidly abreast of the latest motoring news and every time I saw a lovely car parked up or on the move, it still sent me weak at the knees and I just knew I’d get my first car soon enough.
I’d always had a particular attraction to luxury saloon cars so, some might say inevitably, my weak spot had always been for the usual German suspects – the BMW 5 and 7 series, the Audi A6 ad A8 and the Mercedes E-Class. I’d also developed a strong liking for Lexus.
But life being the way it often is, financial carefulness became a necessity at exactly the time when I just couldn’t survive any longer without a car to be proud of – typical! So after having gone to see a Volvo S60 that stank of cigs, a high mileage GS300 and an over-my-budget X-Type estate, I began to feel like my life of car ownership might well have to be postponed.
Being a bit of a car know-all, I had always been aware of and admired the Renault Vel Satis, the rather odd-looking luxury saloon that nobody in the UK really bought. It wasn’t top of the list in my mind, but not being able to resist the urge for luxury car ownership a moment longer, I asked my wife to drive me up to North Yorkshire to see an interesting-looking 3 litre diesel Vel Satis in top-spec form, being sold for under four grand.
As soon as I saw him (I named him ‘Hubert’ fairly soon after taking him home) and then sat in the hugely comfortable leather captain’s chair (more commonly called the driver’s seat!) and admired the array of electronic displays embedded in the leather-swathed cockpit, I was hooked – and that was without having driven him! So drive him, I did – and loved it. I’d always wanted a large, wafty automatic, and this fitted the bill perfectly!
Being a bit wet behind the ears back then, what with it being my first car, I didn’t bother negotiating as the price seemed great to me anyway. Shame the wife didn’t let on that the tyre treads were very low until after I’d shaken hands, but did I mind in the end? No, not really.
I absolutely love the controversial and quirky looks, and the 180bhp, 3.0litre V6 Isuzu-sourced diesel engine pulls this heavy, tall car quite zestfully if desired. But when I’d just rather pootle along gently (most of the time, to be honest!), the Toyota-sourced five-speed automatic gearbox (with a manual option) proves to be pretty smooth, aside from an occasional lurch when setting off. This used to worry me, but I’ve found out over the years that a lot of Vel Satis do this and don’t seem to suffer any ill-effects.
My Vel Satis in 3.0-litre V6 diesel automatic guise can be driven quite fast whilst retaining a feeling of safety (it got a five-star NCAP rating) and solidity, the car being especially suited to motorway driving. Alas, B-roads are quite a different story, as the car’s firm suspension results in a rather wallowy cornering experience and the car crashes over potholes and speed bumps. Some of my friends think I’m mad, but the Vel Satis’ suspension doesn’t inspire me with confidence and I cringe at the thought of the potentially large repair bills that may ensue if I encountered a nasty pothole or speedbump – so I always go the long way to get to any destination, so as to avoid them! But I guess that’s true of some other motorists who cherish their cars that much.
Despite the Vel Satis being my very first car, I’ve quickly got used to the electrically-adjustable, heated seats, the very good Carminat sat nav system with its colour display, the voice synthesiser which tells you if something’s wrong, the 6-speed CD changer, cruise control, the huge boot and all the other features which come with the Initiale trim level.
After nearly three years of ownership, the whole Vel Satis experience can so far be described as one that leaves me feeling rather proud, spoiled only by occasional flashes of pain and trauma, usually around MoT and servicing time! Yes it was quite painful when I chose to shod its wheels with the most highly recommended Michelin tyres at £200 a corner and yes its first MoT nearly bankrupted me at over £1,500, but since then things have levelled off for quite a while.
Sure, the air con has played up, the sat nav aerial needed to be replaced by the excellent mobile Renault mechanic who used to operate in my area and one or two other niggles have reared their annoying heads from time to time, but these have been relatively minor to sort out. And yes, typically for a Renault, the electronics are indeed rather complicated and temperamental, and even something as simple as fitting a headlight bulb turns into a dealer job for a DIY-no-hoper like me. But owning such a rare car, you’d rather someone with hands instead of hams on the end of their arms did such jobs, so as not to cause any unfortunate damage unnecessarily.
Economy-wise, I drive it like an old codger and hence easily achieve over 35mpg at speeds of 40mph or less, and on a decent motorway run I’ve honestly seen great mpg figures in the high 40s and even low 50s! The road tax isn’t so cuddly though, costing me about £250+ a year as the 3 litre diesel Vel Satis isn’t exactly one of the greenest cars on the block!
The amazing sense of camaraderie owning a Vel Satis gives you is one you want to maintain no matter what the cost. Countless numbers of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes and the like pass each other each day without so much as a second look. But how many Vel Satis do you see? They’re very rare indeed, rather like their sibling, the Avantime.
I love the fact that my Vel Satis is a true talking point for mutual car lovers. As soon as they find out I own a Vel Satis they always say “Reeeeally?”, in a surprised, positive kind of way – which I hope it a good thing! People who know little or nothing about cars have never even heard of a Vel Satis, though!
Sadly, Renault garages don’t seem that bothered and although they provide a reasonable service, they often don’t seem to have much knowledge of the Vel Satis or seem that interested in them to the point where you’re determined to use that garage again next time. Parts sometimes have to be ordered specially from France, like my steering rack in 2009 which took a few weeks, and many general high-street or independent small-town garages are scared to even touch a Vel Satis! So ownership can feel a bit lonely at times, which is one of the primary reasons I set up www.vel-satis.org, to become a focal place dedicated to the Vel Satis, giving us owners a sense of togetherness.
So despite the moments of exasperation and shear dread, owning a Vel Satis is something I’m very pleased with and I’m looking forward to many more years of motoring with Hubert who is only just approaching his 60,000 miles birthday!