Renault 1998-2009: A short history of missed opportunities

Créateur d’Automobiles: that’s how Renault styled themselves for a while. And indeed some of the concept cars have been very good. But, we can’t help noticing a gap between the promise and reality.

Vel Satis concept 1998

Just before the turn of the 21st century, Renault had successfully re-invented itself as a maker of one-box or ‘monospace’ cars of various sizes, from the Espace that started it all in 1984 to the Scenic of 1995, through Patrick Le Quement’s masterpiece: the Twingo Mark I of 1992.

Then in quick succession came three large concepts which promised a lot but, unsurprisingly, delivered very little and left Renault fans reeling and weeping at what might have been – another 3 to 4 cars to top the range and further redefine Renault’s unique place in an overcrowded market. First came the Vel Satis concept at the Paris motorshow of 1998. It meant to herald the dawn of a new era and outline Le Quement’s vision for a new Renault flagship, barely disguised as a coupé in this instance.

Vel Satis concept 1998

It also paid tribute to Renault’s glorious past as a luxury car maker between the wars, and the imposing 40CV in particular, with sharp straight lines and carefully chosen styling cues like the pointy front end and slits in lieu of grille.

1927 Renault 40 CV Tourer

While those details made it on the production model of 2002, the rest was a more pedestrian package which crucially failed to deliver on the promise of one-box in all sizes.

Vel Satis 2002–2009 (62,201 built)

By losing the soft transition between bonnet and windscreen angle, Renault ended up with a saloon which failed to translate the elegance of the concept while giving no clue as to the priority given to passenger space. That was missed opportunity #1.

Renault’s failure is all the more staggering that the two concepts that followed the Vel Satis showcar further demonstrated the coherence and the versatility of the approach. Even more surprising was that the concept that followed a year later – the Avantime of 1999 – was production-ready. Proof that Renault was capable of exploring unknown territories and take its totemic monospace where no other manufacturer had ventured before.

The lineage with the Vel Satis is obvious from the side and rear views, and spoilt only by a front end which is strangely reminiscent of a face-lifted R11, circa 1985. For the rest, the beauty of the Avantime is that the production model was hardly more subdued and in both cases the pictures speak for themselves:

Renault Avantime Ia
Avantime concept 1999

Missed opportunity #2: the Avantime was doomed even before it even hit the showrooms, because it was conceived as a standalone model where product planning should have dictated that it shared a platform with the Espace (current or future) as well as the Vel Satis. So unless sales figures greatly exceeded the board’s wildest expectations, it was unlikely to outlive its sagging doors and dodgy ignition coil.

Avantime 2001–2003 (8,557 units)

Last one in the series and most easily forgotten is the Koleos of 2000. Missed opportunity #3 not because of the ghastly production model that bore its name and nothing else, or because it could have been a forerunner of the SUV boom we are witnessing today. Mainly it showed once again how tidy the lines drawn by Le Quement are, and what the Vel Satis and an umpteenth generation Espace could have looked like.

Koleos concept 2000

So with a bit of imagination and production planning, by the late noughties Renault’s top-of-the-range line-up should have consisted of a 5-door saloon (Vel Satis), a 3-door coupé (Avantime), a MPV (Espace) and a SUV (Koleos) – all sharing the same platform, one-box architecture and fine styling. Instead the Avantime had already disappeared after only 2 years in production, the Vel Satis was all but dead, the Espace was experiencing the first hiatus of its illustrious career, and Renault dealers were left looking with envy while their Nissan counterparts’ SUV offering sold like hotcakes.

Meanwhile Ford is giving us a glimpse of what might have been had Renault had the courage of its convictions – albeit in a dour yet competent package.

2006 Ford S-Max
2006 Ford S-Max
2006 Ford Galaxy
2006 Ford Galaxy

Author: Laurent aka Sam the Eagle

French curmudgeon

16 thoughts on “Renault 1998-2009: A short history of missed opportunities”

  1. When I criticise Renault for their production interpretations of their showcars, I feel hypocritical. In some moments I set a high value on packaging and nod respectfully towards Skoda´s Superb and VW´s 1988 Passat (I forget exactly) with its body-colour badge. These were packaging cars which look and looked plain but honest. Renault took the trouble to package their stylish designs as the Vel Satis and Avantime but in so doing produced the cars only a person like me could like. How do I square this circle?

    1. I think it’s a question of expectation. Having seen what Renault is capable of doing previously and the feasibility of the proposals it’s hard not to feel hard done-by with a car like the Vel Satis, even if you can see some merit in it and can live with its quirky styling. With VW and Skoda it’s a more straightforward choice in my opinion.

  2. I can’t imagine Patrick Le Quement looking back upon his career at Renault without feeling frustration at the wasted effort and lost opportunities. Has any manufacturer of recent times produced such a body of concepts, only for them to be diluted and adulterated to shadows of their former selves?

    Laurent’s piece makes an interesting hypothesis, but in fact, the only French brand capable of pulling off such a model strategy would have been Citroen, but as we we’ll know, they have been managed by an even more blinkered and torpid bunch of pen-pushers since their 1976 capitulation. Renault had the design talent, but lacked the marketing strength to make the breakthrough.

    1. I knew someone was going to mention Citroën… To be fair though Renault themselves have a history of seeing through ‘bold’ design, although the impetus wasn’t technology driven as in the case of Citroën. I mentioned the Twingo/Scenic/Espace trio but could also have pointed out another precedent in the way they delivered hatchbacks in all sizes (R4/6/16 first followed by R5/14/20).

      Personally I blame Carlos Ghosn and Patrice Pelata – Satan’s personal accountant and book-keeper respectively.

    2. I agree with you Laurent on Goshn and Pelata. There were two main problems I thought. One was the lack of conviction to the new model structure as your article says, the other was the penny pinching in all of the wrong areas. This led to to the disastrous reliability of the Megane 2, after the 19 which although dull was at least reliable and even to an extent the first Laguna. They should have the kept the things that were right, right and brought on board this new design language. Instead they nearly started from scratch. They should have invested in two platforms, Small – Twingo, Clio, new 4/Fifty, Kangoo, Megane, and Large – Laguna, Vel Satis, big coupe, 4×4 and new Espace. Component and platform sharing would have saved development costs and hopefully allowed them to improve reliability – the main problem with the cars developed under the new design direction. Le Quement was a bright hope for car design in the 90s. His Twingo made me genuinely proud to be studying car design. Such a simple car, yet cherished by so many. They should have produced the Fifty too, in direct competition to VW’s Beetle (and late Fiat’s 500).

  3. Just before the Vel Satis’ launch, I remember reading Le Quement saying that the production of a new French grand saloon was one of the proud points of his career. It seems strange that such a competent designer had become so blind to the compromises (understatement) in going from concept to reality. Can you become so involved in a project that you still see your perfect concept in the end result, whereas all others see is the crude distortion?

    I still hold that Renault’s engineers let down these cars more that the stylists. Had the Vel Satis and, even more critically the Avantime, got a reputation for above average comfort combined with good roadability (I use that term because the concept of ‘handling’ has never sat well with the traditional virtues of French cars) it would surely have fared better. And many potential Avantime owners probably got no further than hauling open the heavy doors in the showroom.

    1. I don’t think there’s a contradiction in what Le Quement was saying then. Sure it’s unlikely the end result was what he would have done had a been given free rein, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was genuinely satisfied with some if not all aspects of the Vel Satis.

      As for whether engineers have to shoulder part of the blame, maybe so. The issue with the double-hinged doors are well known, others less so. For example the rear legroom in the Avantime was blighted by the absence of space for passengers’ feet under the front seats, which had integrated belts due to the pilarless design. But for the rest reviews from journos and owners were generally positive.

    2. But from memory, he seemed to be extraordinarily proud of the Vel Satis. I think Le Quement has good reason to be proud of his career, but I don’t find the Vel Satis a high point. And the existence of the concept/show car underlines my frustration with such things. They just rub salt into the fact that manufacturers promise so much, then deliver so little.

    3. Maybe in his mind the market wasn’t ready and the Vel Satis was always going to be closer to the traditional saloon shape, and his main focus was on replicating the road presence of the 1920’s beasts, with their long bonnets and very upright cabin. With that in mind he probably had reasons to be pleased with himself, but for the target audience the end result was neither here nor there. Meanwhile the Avantime makes a better case for a modern interpretation of past grandeur, despite being actually quite compact.

  4. Laurent, you may know more about this than I, so I would be interested to know if you have a view on the assertion that Renault’s 16 was in some significant respects ‘influenced’ by Citroën’s Project F – there certainly appears to be a similarity to both the R6 and 16. If indeed there is any truth in this, it does of course put a slightly different slant on Renault’s ‘bold’ design heritage.

    Here’s another question. Would the Avantime have been more successful as a four-door?

    One last thing – I touched upon the subject of the Avantime in a piece called ‘A Niche Too Far’. It’s one of the earlier articles on DTW. You might find it of interest…

    1. I’d seen those pictures before but didnt’t really think much of them, until now. The page from (highly biased) Citroënet makes reference to ‘the almost identically styled 16’ and ‘rumours of industrial espionage’, but if anything both cars look like an Ami6 ‘break’ to me so I don’t think it proves anything. Plus a quick look at chronologies is inconclusive as to which project actually predates the other. More important to me is that Renault did bring its hatchback into production and carried on from there.

      As for the Avantime, I think the question is actually: would the Vel Satis have been more succesful as a four-door Avantime? I think the answer is yes. Or to put it differently they would both have been more succesful as part of a three model strategy (together with the Espace), if only because the Avantime was always going to struggle to justify its existence on a dedicated platform on the basis of sales figures alone, so in that sense it was doomed from day 1.

      And finally I do indeed remember your article. It’s one of the first I read on this site and it partly inpsired this piece, though I don’t quite remember how because I refrained from reading it again since but I shall go revisit it shortly.

  5. Previously, I have wondered about how reliable focus groups are. Although PLQ has been critical of focus groups and is evidently aware of their short comings, I don´t believe these cars were not “clinicked” at some point. Like the Opel Signum, I guess these cars’ clinics provided confusing or misleading data. Among the misleading data is the response “I love it, I would buy one”. The person is saying they like the idea in principle but in normal conditions one is not asked to consider one thing on its own but one considers several things at the one time and they may not even by commensurate. Do they know this in the customer survey sections at the car firms? Of course, but do they know how to work around it. For the record, I like the Vel Satis a great deal and I ought not to like the Peugeot 607 a great deal too. The two cars are fighting for my attention but ought not to do so. I can´t be the only person with such incompatible views being held at the one time. Theory might say the Peugeot is for people attracted to sober, Germanic cars and the Renault was for those who wanted something markedly different.
    I agree with Sean: the ride may have let the VelSatis down. That´s the received wisdom. I ought to be able to tell you if the ride was that problematic as I test drove a Velsatis but I can´t remember much about it. It was a long time ago. This one merits a second look as I suspect its ride was quite alright. Certainly not a deal breaker.

  6. Despite Le Quément’s reputation, I find his career rather patchy. For every Twingo – the credit for which seems to have spurred an ongoing feud between Le Quément and Jean-Pierre Ploué – there’s a sloppy Laguna or Mégane.

    Yet despite my criticism, there’s one car I keep looking at with fondness: the Espace IV. Where the VelSatis, but also the Avantime (a car I find hugely overrated in our learned circles – boo! Hiss!) failed to live up to their respective promises, the Espace IV delivered. It clearly adopted the form language of those great Renault concept without being as alienating to the majority of prospective buyers as a Mégane II. It also had a very tidy, if not exactly groundbreakingly practical interior that conveyed a similarly confident impression as the exterior. And it has aged well in a way few cars have, with perhaps the Rolls-Royce Phantom (itself now in its 11th year) coming to mind as an equally timeless piece of design.

    1. The Espace IV is about evolution, not revolution. Basically milking the same 20-year old recipe for all its worth. Quite commendable in itself, yet it didn’t save it from getting the chop in the end. But you’re right though – it just shows that Renault was capable of bringing those concepts to life, with either new or existing models.

      As for the Avantime, it’s overrated by a tiny minority of us, so it’s still vastly underrated – so there.

  7. Reply to Martin: Welcome to DTW. Thanks for stopping by. I could perhaps say a third platform might be needed in addition to the two you suggest. It seems a bit of a jump to expect a platform to get from Twingo to Megane MPV. About the reliability and the Megane 2: yes, these cars did not hold up well. I had a one year old rental to drive and it felt baggy and the plastic coatings were peeling off on things like the handbrake (I recall correctly) and the handbrake handle was not properly designed or engineered so it felt like it was going to disassemble itself. It was a shame as the appearance of the car looked right (I prefer the previous one though). A friend had a Megane 1 saloon and that felt much more tightly screwed together.
    I think that Le Quement had some hits and misses but the quality problems dragged down the brand enormously.
    Le Quement hated retro and that´s one reason the Fiftie never went into production. Yes, it´s great to have high principles but one retro car was not going to turn the clock back to 1965, was it? And quite obviously there was a market for small, cute cars now owned by the Mini and 500. The Beatle has not really done well out of that, despite the iconic status of the original. Le Quement should have held his nose and asked his designers to do the best possible retro car. Design is design and I accept a large degree of expediency so long as the aim of the product is clear and it meets the expectations of the target users. Sometimes the users disappoint. We have talked about that here before. Le Quement perhaps over-estimated the public. In many cases I am glad he did otherwise we would not have had the Vel Satis or Avantime. Pelata went the other way, though and too far. Under his reign the design aspect went into sharp reverse.

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