IT IS perhaps unfortunate that Jebsen motor group chose late 1994 to launch the new range of Renaults. At an impressive show, with four times world motor racing champion Alain Prost in attendance, Jebsen introduced the three models which Renault hoped would be the mainstay of their Far East business as well, of course, as spearheading its push into China. How could the dealer have known that car sales, particularly in Renault's chosen popular mid-range market, would hit an all-time low, prompting many dealers and distributors to re-appraise their entire business? The three models - the Safrane, Laguna and Espace - have captured only a tiny percentage of an already diminishing market, which is a shame, since the cars definitely deserve better. The Safrane is a decent-sized luxury saloon with V6 power mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It is very much a European car, in that it is not ostentatious, but performs well in most departments. And it comes fully equipped with a sumptuous leather interior, electrically operated seats, and a slide and tilt sunroof. The Espace, on the other hand, is a versatile people carrier with up to seven seats and, again, a three-litre V6 engine. It is a surprisingly brisk performer considering its size, racing from rest to 100 km/h in just 10.3 seconds, with a top speed of more than 190 km/h. These highly respectable figures are possible thanks to the low drag coefficient of the Espace at 0.32. Compare this with the Cd figure of 0.30 for the Laguna, which, on the face of it, has a much more slippery profile and you begin to appreciate what the aerodynamicists and designers have achieved with the larger vehicle. Meanwhile, the Laguna, in its two-litre form, is challenging for the British touring car championship under the banner of Frank Williams' outfit, the team which took Damon Hill to runner-up in last year's Formula One championship. Two versions of the road-going Laguna are available in Hong Kong: a two-litre, similar to the British racing saloon, and a three-litre V6, which is available with four-speed automatic transmission. The smaller car has an optional five-speed manual gearbox. Both cars are equipped with power steering but the V6 also has variable assistance. Anti-lock braking is standard equipment and, according to Jebsen, both cars have a top speed of 195 km/h although the three-litre model - as you may expect - is quicker to 100 km/h, taking just 9.2 seconds. Most manufacturers have begun to address the passive safety aspects of their cars and Renault has followed this laudable trend in the Laguna, giving it side impact bars on the doors, seat-belt pre-tensioners, and a driver's side air bag. The interior is almost as luxurious as that of its big sister, the Safrane, with leather upholstery and electric front seats, while the steering column is telescopically adjustable. The Laguna is relatively small for a luxury car but it compares well with, say, the BMW 3-series or Rover 623. And then there's the glamour of driving a 'racing' car. Wonder if the Williams team can do the double this year, winning the British touring car series and giving Hill the Formula One title. It looks possible, so far.