They Never Learn

Automotive News reports that Renault are going to replace the Laguna and Latitude with a single model. Fine. But they said something we have heard so many times before.

2007 Renault Laguna: the problem is not the styling.
2007 Renault Laguna: the problem is not the styling.

“Renault says the Laguna/Latitude replacement will have a more emotional styling.” The bulk of AN’s report details the statistics of the C-D segment. In brief: fewer sold than ever, Renault selling fewer again, losses. What the article doesn’t address is that the last Laguna lost customers due to its reliability problems and the current car did not get those customers back because it simply wasn’t special enough. Special doesn’t mean emotional.

As I never tire of repeating, Patrick Pelota, then head of Renault marketing (I think) insisted the new Laguna was going to be a classy car. And the styling was supposed to more beautiful than the previous car. It wasn’t. It was, if anything, weirder. But neither of the last two Lagunas were rational bits of contemporary styling in the manner of the very successful Laguna 1. What I think Renault needs to do is find experts in bolts, fasteners, clips and adhesives.

And it also needs to find designers who can find ways to hammer home the impression of quality. They can guide the designers who are better at shapes and colours. The Passat and the Audi A4 who are tremendously successful offerings in this class (what people buy and what people want to buy respectively) are not emotional cars at all. They aren’t even that well made but look very well made. Renault has to talk the talk.

2015 Renault Safrane - a Mexico market special. Image: Renault Mexico.
2015 Renault Safrane – a Mexico market special. Image: Renault Mexico.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “They Never Learn”

  1. ‘Emotional’ is one of the most dubious words in the designer’s verbal toolkit. It is so presumptuous. My emotions aren’t yours. Even sidestepping the fact that strong emotions are inappropriate when applied to inanimate objects, I have a (relatively speaking) strong emotional reaction to a primrose yellow Citroen Dyane, because I had one in my youth. An orange Lamborghini Miura also raises my emotions because I craved one in my youth. A LaFerrari however, leaves me emotionless, though I appreciate this will not be the case with others. But one thing for sure, a Renault saloon might be made to look handsome, and one might even decide to acquire one for logical reasons, but it is never going to fire anyone’s emotions. For Renault to announce its intentions in such a crass way, is self-defeating.

    And before Laurent gets here, I’ll point out it’s ‘Patrick Pélata’ and he was Chief Operations Officer, though the fact that people can’t remember his job or spell his name is a suitable testimony to his time in the industry.

  2. Whoops. I am sure I have mis-spelled his name before. It seems I can´t learn either.
    I am reminded here of Cadillac´s marketing guy who said he will give up on explaining who is supposed to buy the car. You might also want to give up on explaining designs too much. For a start there is the risk the explanation is meaningless jargon. Second, you risk having to criticise the previous design. I dislike it when a perfectly good vehicle is showered with criticism solely in order to make the new car look good.
    1993 “The new Debonair is a stylish and sporty looking saloon with elements having a strong athletic character. It´s a car we think looks among the best in its class.” Sales: 970,000.
    1999: “We want the new car to look more sporty and stylish. The last car was too staid and conservative. We have made the new Debonair more athletic. The old one did not convey motion in the way the new one does. We think the new car is a much better design.” Sales: 675,451.
    2007: “With this version of the Debonair we have increased the sense of quality and added to the emotional appeal by making it more dynamic, classy and athletic. This is a much more appealing car than the last version.” Sales: 228,000.

    If you do this you hammer home the fact that everything you make has no enduring appeal. Perhaps they need to relativise the description by saying something like “This market now wants X so we have given them X” rather than try to present the car as a new, better answer to the same question as last time around.

  3. Hmm, I tend to disagree here.
    I guess we’ve discussed that matter on some PSA piece, but it holds fore Renault as well: Isn’t trying (too hard) to talk the talk of its German rivals part of the problem of the French motoring industry instead of the solution?
    The last Laguna, the current C4, C5, 508, the whole DS brand… all scream “German”, while everyone knows they’re still… surprise, surprise: French.

  4. I do sound inconsistent. What did I mean by talking the talk? I think I meant they should offer a clear and accurate statement and not the kind of empty marketing speak I am criticising here. Indeed, trying to present their cars as if they are German is daft. Oddly in their heyday, these makers never did that. They didn´t even bother talking about the car in the way they do now.

    New Realism.

    Sunbeam Marketing Chief Dennis Mewley presents the new Debonair:

    “The old car was on sale for 7 years. We had a good run with it most of the way. But there are new production methods and regulations in force; the presses have worn out and so we have done a new version of the Debonair. We hope customers like it as much as the old one. They seem to like the four door and estate versions more than the five door so have dropped the five door. However, as an experiment, we think…we think there might be demand for a three door hatch with a sports biased suspension so we took a punt on that. It´s also available in normal suspension too. We think some people who are shopping the Hillman Trio might instead by our 3 door instead. Who knows. We did out best and we think we made some improvements. The price is competitive and we have three shades of green available.”

  5. “Look, some bits of trim will fall off. But reduced to the bare minimum of a diesel engine, some wheels and a seat, the car will basically run forever” – Peugeot

  6. By chance, I have just opened the current issue of Business Car in which Tim Tozer of Vauxhall says “The current Astra is still a great car but this one will be more desirable and aspirational”. “Aspirational” is now a sound, not a word. It just means …. nothing. No-one ever really ‘aspired’ to a Vauxhall, unless it was a 1926 30-98. That is the good thing about Vauxhalls. They are attainable, not aspirational. You don’t have to waste your time dreaming about them – you get them. I am so bored with all this old bullshit. I want some more aspirational and emotional bullshit.

    1. Absolutely. I´d love to know what they mean by this. They mean a car people aspire to owning. I think by definition, this means expensive and exclusive. That is not the Astra’s territory. They need to make a car people love to own. Give the car attributes that mean owners get to really bond with the machine. That does not mean it has to look like an F40 or Silver Ghost. It means ensure it causes no pain, has super useful features and above all make it a pleasure to drive on some level. Polish the controls and make it steer nicely. Maybe add some personalisation. What they don´t need to do is try to make it look like it costs the same as 320 when it isn´t that. Do people aspire to Golfs? No, they actually expect to be able to own one, mostly.

      Renault did that aspirational lark with the Laguna: a car to be seen at fancy Concours events, for sod´s sake. I am dreading the next Astra now.

  7. There is no easy solution for the French disease.
    The times are different than in the 20th century. Being “modern” isn’t a value in itself anymore. What worked well for some of the greatest of French cars (DS, CX, R5, even 205 and 1st gen Twingo) is impossible nowadays.
    There are several reasons for this: An inherent conservatism and backward-orientation in culture (see pop music for example), the diminishing overall importance of the cultural symbol “car”. This, in turn, leads to a market that tends to opt for the “safe” bet and well-established values.
    So, what to do for the French?
    The sensible/conservative/rational card is being played in perfection by VW, roomy/value for money by its daughter Skoda, reliability is Toyota (and the other Japanese). The Koreans sneaked in as the “safe” choice (warranty!), but all the Asian makes join the French in struggling to sell something bigger than, say, a Qashqai.
    And then there is the “premium” bunch (Audi, BMW, Mercedes), which seems to sell on being “sporty” and, what is even more important, on the only way “status” still works in cars: thoroughly conservative, handed down “image”.
    So, what to do for the French?
    Since they recognized (the hard way) that the modernist approach doesn’t work anymore (Avantime, C6, to some degree Vel Satis and Megane II) they appear to be more and more disoriented.
    The only thing that really worked since the turn of the century was the creation of Dacia, selling on being “cheap”, that is.
    Symptomatic, isn’t it?

    1. Good points. The central mystery is the quality problem. There seems to be no buy-in from the production line people to assemble the cars well enough (though I think they are far from bad); the production design people seem to love to give the cars dumb flaws like wiring looms that cost €300 to replace or to under-develop the cars; management hire confused designers. And management can´t see any of this. In the end I don´t blame French culture – that´s lazy Clarksonism and France is all obvious ways a fine place. I don´t blame the line workers per se. In the end the management are the main ones responsible. The Enarque system may be dying out but I think some of the faulty thinking comes from graduates of this system.

    2. The Énarque system is a good case in point, though I think that they seem to have learned the quality lesson (that one, at least). In the latest iterations the quality is on par with the rivals. That might be too late, though, since the perceived (handed down) quality and reputation are so much more important than they used to be some decades ago. I see no clear solution to this. And I’m a bit skeptical towards the outlook of the strategy to just imitate what works for the others.
      Even if they manage to beat the Germans and Asians on their own fields (and they don’t just have to be on par to achieve this), there still is the problem of perceptions, images, mental frames and pictures. How to work around that in those fluid and dynamic times, where – like it or not – the only things certain for most are their preconceptions? In an age of uncertainty for vast strata the only things to hold onto are those they already know.

      The French need to take serious their own history without being retro (@Laurent). I honestly don’t know what that means anyway…

    3. PSA and Renault has to leave the german way – no one wants a bad copy of a german car that indicates your neighbour you don´t have the money for a real german car from VW, or even a premium-brand.
      But there is hope. The french way works – Peugeot 2008, Citroen C4 Cactus and Renault Captur are really nice cars. Practical, good looking, a little bit quirky, fuel saving and affordable (but not cheap). Such symphathetic cars are even an option for a rich old men wanting to please their young darlings with a nice car.

  8. The problem of this class – and the upper middle-class even much more – is the loss of their customers.
    Older people having enough money to pay such a car from their savings are now buying a SUV or a nice and not cheap small familly car.
    These cars are more practical and are offering enough room, a nice interior and powerful engines too. So why not leave the old middle-class-car sector?
    The Passats, A4 or C-Class are popular as business cars – a way to emphasize the standing of an employee. Private owners are rare too.

    My opinion – Renault, PSA, Ford or GM has to create unique characters in this class. An air suspension with a high entry level perhaps, or an interior with warm nice materials, or an extremely great boot or 2 sunroofs or more chances for personalizing your car. Or an extra-solid looking Cross-Version.
    Good design can help selling a car – no doubt. Creating a nice, elegant and solid dress in this class should not be the most difficult task for a designer.

  9. Markus: they are in a tough spot with the C-D class. I don´t envy anyone trying to serve this sector. If the designers go with nice and elegangt they get hammered for being conservative; and if they push sporty they destroy the point of a saloon car. Even if Europe is more suburban than ever, customers seem to flee the suburban associations of the saloon. I don´t see those associations personally – I go further back and prefer to think of gracious long distance touring or practical comfort (like a good suit). Ford agree with you about personalisation which is why the Vignale line of Mondeos is being introduced. I agree too that something along the lines of more personalisation might be in order. If they can make Minis in millions of trim combos, why not offer Mondeos and Insignias the same way. The problem may also lie beyond the product. What is it in the customer relationship that is wrong. Can Ford et al offer mass production *and* more humane dealer environments? And then while the accountants don´t like it, insisting on front drive when the class champions are rear drive is a costly mistake. They will spend a lot of redevelop RWD but that will be less money than in losing this sector. Ford´s accountants can do a calculation to show how many cars they didn´t sell as a result of not having a Scorpio. The answer is not “none”.
    On a broader front, the middle class customer is being squeezed economically.The heyday of the mass market saloon was the heyday of the post-war Social Democratic model: lots of well-paying jobs for working class and lower middle class people. Those people are now insecure and the upper middle class are choosing “premium” brands.

    1. Spot on with the Social democrativ model and the middle class squeezing. Serves my argument well.

  10. One problem, that Renault have in spades, is a lack of tenacity. The Avantime concept should have worked and could have spawned a series of vehicles. What isn’t there to like about a roomy, tallish, comfortable, airy vehicle with distinctive looks, good performance and roadholding?

    Nothing, unless it’s built on a mediocre base, has poor reliability and doors that you have to get the salesman to help you haul open in the showroom. The trouble is that M.Pélata and his chums didn’t think that, if they addressed these faults and persisted with revised models, they could build a new niche and market. The just said ‘crap idea – dump it, let’s try something else’.

    Renault now offers nothing that I can’t get better somewhere else. Nevertheless, Renault is now going to re-imagine the 4 door saloon. Can’t wait.My emotions are running over in their aspirations.

  11. Markus makes very good points – there have been some recent successes for the French marques to cheer. The Captur seems to be everywhere, even in the UK, the 2008 a minor hit and I saw 3 Cactus on the M1 on the journey to work this morning. Our new “friend” the Kadjar has the looks and specification to gain sales in that class. The issue, as Richard says, is the C-D class saloon, albeit that seems to be a segment of the market that is on the wane.

    The main characteristics of successful saloon seem to be perceived quality (usually underlined by a very conservative design), quality per se (i.e. certain Japanese and Korean makes), and attractive design. The C5, Laguna, and 508 all fall down in one way or another. I think the temptation has been to go for more conservative designs without making sure the quality/ perceived quality elements have been properly addressed.

    I’d say that a similar issue exists in the “Golf” class: the C4 is really unexciting and yet does not feel like a quality item, the Megane … well, we’ve done that before, and the new 308 … well, I quite like the looks of the new 308, in a neat and tidy with a dash of nice detailing kind of way. The GT is something I quite fancy, although it’s silly money. So, how many sales do you think they are losing to that off-beat dash/ steering wheel design and juxtaposition? I have grown to quite admiring it, but then I’ve never had to live with it, and can imagine it’s very marmite.

    Perhaps the learning is, as Markus suggests, in the successes that they are having in the marginal sectors of the market. Whatever, it’s fascinating to watch it all unfold.

  12. Yes, although I personally find nothing that interests me in Renault’s range, since my fickle Twingo interest seems to have abated, the Captur is doing very well, as SV points out. Why is this? I suppose rather like the DS3, it’s offering an acceptable alternative in a market that has great demand. The DS3 appeals to MINI people who want it cheaper or just want something that doesn’t have a MINI badge. Likewise the Captur taps a bouyant market that Renault’s partner Nissan has helped create with the Juke and Qashqai, so Renault have more right than most to profit from it – but their offering just seems so unremarkable. Maybe I haven’t looked at it closely enough – possibly my petulant antipathy to Laurens van den Acker colours my opinion unfairly. I see that you can get seats with removable, zippered covers, which seems a good idea.

    1. I’ll second that. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the content of this thread and will try to add to it at the weekend. Meanwhile I was out and about tonight and saw not one, not two, but THREE last gen Lagunas (one saloon, two estates). Incredible.

  13. Here the first version and second version are not unusual but the current one is not often observed. I nearly never see the five door hatch even though it looks better than the nearly-estate.

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