Taking the Scenic Route

Now that Renault’s Scenic has got a buff new body, will everybody want one?

Yep, it's the flippin' Scenic again. Image:ultimatecarblog
Yep, it’s the flippin’ Scenic again. Image: source

We auto-purists are a tough lot to please, applauding the likes of Renault for creating practical, sensible and versatile car designs which the market promptly shuns. Stung by the lack of acceptance, they attempt a redress and we throw fruit. Last week saw a debate take place here around the merits of the just-debuted Renault Scenic. Without being scientific about it, I’d call the consensus a broadly positive one, but with a mildly grudging undertone.

But let’s look for a moment at the wider picture. According to the ever-diligent left-lane.com, sales of compact MPVs’ rose 4% last year, but this rise was accounted for by new entrants to the market, masking an underlying fall across the sector. There’s little point bemoaning the fact that monospace sales have stagnated. Image sells and the image surrounding such vehicles has become one of surrender. Thanks to the wonders of marketing, crossovers avoid such stigma, so the idea of morphing the two is probably worth trying.

Along with VW’s recently launched Golf Sportsvan, the main growth in the sector came from Munich; BMW’s recent 2-Series Active Tourer achieving a 605% sales lift (from zero), placing them straight in at number four, behind the Golf, outgoing Scenic and Citroën C4 Picasso respectively. With France being the largest European market for monospace vehicles, the success of the new Scenic will matter, especially if its new positioning and more emotive styling chime with buyers – as it’s likely to.

The past is a foreign country all right. In a 1986 interview, BMW’s then engineering chief, Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, told journalist Jesse Crosse; “Clear statement, BMW will not use front-wheel drive in the future on any model.” Oh dear. By releasing the front-wheel drive Active Tourer, BMW have abandoned their heritage, a decision that must have been hotly debated within the company. But to do so with a car styled in such a half-hearted manner suggests either utter confidence, or a staggering disdain.

No fan of the Active Tourer’s styling am I then, but I’m not alone. Autocar damned it with faint praise when they drove one last year, saying; “The success of BMW’s styling effort can be debated. Our conclusion is that the overall result isn’t brilliant, but its very acceptable.” This begs the question whether the 85,760 customers who left their BMW dealer with one last year did so despite its appearance, or because it looked as they expected a BMW should?

BMW 2 series Active Tourer, Photo (c) AutoBild

Dropping straight into fourth place in the first year on sale over the hunched shoulders of Ford, Opel, and Mercedes-Benz is quite an achievement. But I do wonder how much better those figures would have been had BMW had imbued the Active Tourer with some visual flair? Because if you’re an embattled volume maker like Renault it behoves you to try harder, whereas for BMW is it enough to merely show up?

I’m confident Renault’s new Scenic will rapidly assume top-spot in the European (not so) compact monospace market, not only because of its racy appearance, but since it’s the new kid in town and the rival Citroën has been around for a year or two. But if the Renault’s lead proves to be sufficiently robust, it’s likely the next Active Tourer will be a more dynamic looking device. “Grafting a sporting identity on to a car like this is a fools errand,” said Autocar last year, but surely the crossover pandemic says otherwise?

I believe the opposite is true and that for the monospace to survive it must adapt. The new Scenic shows the path it will likely take, but what’s the betting BMW will take the spoils?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Taking the Scenic Route”

  1. You think the Active Tourer’s styling is half-hearted? I’d say it’s not too bad if a littler restrained, especially compared to its bigger sibling, the Gran Tourer – designed to take granny on tour (but of what?) presumably:

    1. One thing I’ll say about BMW. They’re quite fond of their Gran…

  2. I really begrudge BMW’s presence in this MPV market. It’s so off-brand it’s not true, it’s visual porridge and has nothing innovative to add. I hope the Scenic slaughters it.

    1. I hope so as well. However the BMW has design assets that beat them all: two kidneys and a blue-white propeller.

      And if they already produce 4WD diesel tractors, why shouldn’t they do MPVs as well?

  3. I too was very sorry to see BMW forfeit their engineering heritage but once they had decided to produce such a car surely the die was cast. Over 70% of their US customers and over 50% of Europeans didn’t know the cars were RWD so I suppose the target market for this car didn’t care where the power was sent. I suppose we will see more and more models with FWD and fewer and fewer straight sixes. Maybe there will come a time that charged 3 and four pots driving the front wheels will be the norm and only a few (sportier) series will have a straight 6 driving the rear wheels. Surely “The Ultimate Driving Machine” now contravenes the trades descriptions act?

    1. They’ll end up like Ford in the 80s: FWD for smaller cars and RWD for bigger ones.
      There’s convergence here. The “mainstream” makers make better cars and the “prestige” makers make more ordinary ones. Too look at a 5 series you can’t see any visible point of difference in design quality or material quality. The new Mondeo and current 5-series are equally bloated. In contrast, I saw a 2008 Vectra today in a non-grey, non-monochrome colour and only a badge snob would deny it was a great looking car. In 1988 you could not confuse an Ascona or Sierra for a similar sized Benz or BMW. The quality difference could be seen from 20 metres.

    2. 30 years ago, BMW produced around 500,000 cars per annum; that’s about what Volvo and JLR manage now. Last year BMW produced 1,905,234 BMW-branded cars, 2,247,485 if you factor in MINI and Rolls Royce. I’d call a company running those kind of numbers a volume producer. Wouldn’t you?

  4. Eoin: yes, that’s why “prestige” is in quote marks. There’s a diagram to be done showing the overlap in prices of the manufacturers’ ranges. Ford’s price range is smaller than BMW’s now, I’d guess. Their model range might be too.

  5. If Mercedes is able to offer cars like the Vaneo (horrible) and the Citan (i am speechless) without risking their reputation as a premium brand, the danger of loosing prestige is not too great for BMW – even with FWD and 3 cylindres.
    It is frustrating that it will be sufficient for BMW not making too much wrong to have a successful car in this market segment. They don´t need to make a lot of things right because a potential BMW-buyer is not considering a Scenic or Picasso instead.

    I am sure, without knowing the truth, everybody would suggest the Citroen is the premium car in these group:

  6. The Bee-emm-vee-van versus the BMW brand template is a good example of a company becoming a victim of its own myth-making. BMW ought to have as broad a remit to build whatever it wants and still be ‘on-brand’ as Honda – the company might have a long line of rear-drive inline six sporting saloons and coupes but it also builds motorcycles, used to build aero engines, got its start on four-wheelers with a range of Austin 7 derived vehicles, came back postwar with an Italian bubblecar, made its compact sports saloon name with four-cylinder 2002s etc.

    They got fat on ‘ultimate driving machine = austere saloon in three sizes with straight six, rear-drive, dead just-off centre recirculating ball steering, semi-trailing arm rear suspension to make an oversteer-taming man out of you’ in the last 40yrs. Over time BMW fixed the technical flaws to get to a formula they sold to motoring writers, motoring mag readers and upwardly mobile aspirational lifestylers worldwide. The formula doesn’t work now that upwardly mobile aspirational lifestylers have bad backs after years of German sports saloon use, or wish to be seen to love the outdoors, or need to see over the proletariat in their normal cars, or just want the badge. So they changed the formula and lots of people like the badge and what it says about them and the dealer is nice and I got a good lease deal so the company still makes money. If you liked the old formula they still make those cars as well. Or you can buy an old one and put the savings on initial purchase price into maintaining & restoring it. Of course if you buy a 2002ti or an Isetta or a boxer-twin R90 to convert into a cafe racer you’re breaking the formula as much as the bee-emm-vee-van does. But don’t worry, it’s only that grumpy bloke in the corner with a faded BMW M anorak on who will care.

  7. BMW made a big deal about being the ultimate driving machine and insisted that their formula was the sine qua non. That was because they started from where they did and not somewhere else. Their fans sneered at MPVs, front drive and diesel. Now BMW does the whole shebang and what remains is a supposed difference in quality and perhaps a greater range of performance options. The mainstream makers always made a wide variety of cars and focused less on high performance. These days the overlap is considerable. I see both views: realistic and also understand why the diminishing focus of BMW is a bit disappointing. I really liked the hard-as-nails sport saloons (in theory) and they did them well. I suppose these days a tough little sport saloon like a 320i (as it was in 1990) is just not relevant or what most people want.

    1. “I suppose these days a tough little sport saloon like a 320i (as it was in 1990) is just not relevant or what most people want.”

      Indeed, yet it’s still there for the few who want it. Just it’s now called 220i (or more likely, 220d).

    2. I notice that the 2-series is still RWD. Wikipedia ominously suggest a FWD version is next. That so few people want this car is clear here in Denmark. I think I might only have seen a couple in the last few years. This is where we are, isn´t it? The cars that cemented the image of BMW are not what people want. What is odds is that the so-called mainstream makers laid the ground for FWD, hatchbacks, monospaces and all-wheel drive and then BMW comes into town late and just puts their badge on someone else´s ideas.

    3. BMW, Merc-Benz or Audi. I seem to remember reading an article a while back explaining why it was suicidal for businesses in consumer markets to believe they can survive by just occuprying the top end of their market. I think Microsoft was the example used in that article. It basically said that sooner or later you get caught up by cheaper, more innovative upstarts that do the things you do (and then some) just as well, and cheaper. So for the sake of survival you have to leverage your credentials in the lower reaches, or risk being sucked in the vacuum you’ve allowed to develop below. Or something along those lines.

  8. The lack of consumer awareness surrounding the front or rear wheel drive nature of BMW vehicles is in part a matter of messaging, which we touched on with Ford. BMW spent a long time diligently ploughing their Ultimate Driving Machine marketing furrow, sewing the seed in the mind of the consumer that the words “rear wheel drive” are synonymous with “sporty”. Every print and TV advertisement hammered home that line. Yet as time has progressed, this staunchly defended marketing line has been allowed to drift. BMW are now counting the cost, in terms of awareness, if not in cost.

    The lack of consumer awareness between FWD and RWD also reflects the progression of car technology and engineering towards a single point. Back in the day, the mechanical specification of a vehicle directly affected the way it drove. The location of the driven wheels had a direct bearing on the sportiness of the vehicle, as did the gearing of the steering, the character of the engine and the type and tune of the suspension. Nowadays thanks to the harsh economics of a risk adverse industry, cars are all relatively similar under the skin. Not only that, any and all of these systems are filtered and monitored by electronics, which serve to both iron out undesirable facets (NVH, odd quirks in the driving experience), and imbue any particular characteristics the manufacturer desires.

    Whether a car is FWD or RWD means little to the consumer, because the driving experience is largely the same either way. All manufacturers are playing a zero sum game, chasing the same set of relatively benign characteristics with increasingly similar technical specifications. This is the same set of circumstances playing out in the CUV arena, whereby FWD cars are sold with faux-by-four looks at a price premium, with no-one knowing the difference, or caring. And if that is the case, why bother offering 4WD or RWD at all?

    And so we come back to BMW, caught in the teeth of an identity crisis of its own creation. Hand-wringing over the 1 Series’ platform is symptomatic of the crisis raging between BMW’s head and its heart. The head wants the 1 Series to be paired with the FWD Mini to reap the economies of scale desired for both. The heart wants the 1 Series to be a “true sporty BMW” on a RWD platform. Clearly the head has won the argument.

    One wonders whether BMW has already decided that such concerns will be rendered moot against the larger context of where the car industry is headed. After all, antonymous cars driven by computers will knock our current notions of “driving” into a cocked hat. But we are not there yet. In the meantime BMW needs to decide whether the unique set of characteristics that brought the company to this point are worth fighting over, or whether it wants to become the new GM, with everything that entails.

    1. Possibly, but don’t encourage them. I don’t think anyone wants to read anymore about the German ‘Premium Three’…

    2. Thanks. I did think about spinning out an article, but it was really a response in addition to other commenters. Also, I’m supposed to be doing work.

  9. When I talk to clients about potential design projects, I often have to counter the misapprehension that the words “brand” and “logo” are synonymous. Often people have the idea that adopting a different graphical doodad and a new set of typefaces will somehow change perceptions of their company. It won’t.

    In actuality a “brand” is a complex proposition. A successful brand exercise codifies the values of that company in a way that allows them to be easily communicated. This communication is both external and internal, cutting both ways: outwards to existing and potential customers; inwards to those responsible for developing the products they sell. In that regard, a branding exercise is less a logo than a whole of company reinvigoration, giving it both guidance and purpose.

    Looking at BMW, perceptions of their brand have been built over 100 years, particularly the last 50 years of diligently refining their sports saloon formula. A BMW car came to encapsulate a recognisable set of values: conservative, yes, but of a finely detailed quality, with an emphasis on engineering led solutions and a focus on the driver. The tag line “Ultimate Driving Machine” came late in the day but was a perfect summation of a range developed with these characteristics in mind.

    So does the 2-Series Active Tourer fit with the BMW brand? Not well, I would say. Certainly BMW have not done well in communicating the change in their brand values that would allow the Active Tourer to easily fit. Disregarding the FWD/RWD argument for a moment, it would help if the Active Tourer better reflected the brand’s history in terms of quality and styling. (After all, nobody ever complained that the original X5, itself a controversial product, did not look or feel like a BMW. In fact it may have been the last model that DID look like a BMW.)

    But no, the Active Tourer is a bland niche plugger. It is arguably the product of an organisation that has lost internal sight of its brand values and is simply chasing volume. That the Active Tourer was approved as it stands suggests that the top level of the organisation no longer understands or cares what the BMW brand actually stands for. Without a single clear direction, the inevitable result will be over-expansion in all directions. The next 50 years will be interesting to watch.

  10. I think BMW’s overriding brand value is to sell cars at profitable prices to people who want to buy them, and on that front they make a better effort in my part of the world than Renault do. I can buy a BMVan in New Zealand, but I can’t buy a Scenic, C-Max, Zafira, or Golf SV. I can cross-shop with a Mercedes B-class, Kia Carens and Citroen C4 Picasso if I felt so inclined. Although I’d be more likely to buy a CX-5 or Forester.

    BMW has 9 dealers in NZ and offers the BMVan as either a 218i (NZ$51900 starting price) or 218d ($62900 starting price.) They offer 1,2,3,4,5,6,7-series, X1-6, M2-6, X5-6M, i3 and i8. Maybe not as many models within each series as you may get in Europe but the entire BMW range.

    Renault has 5 dealers in NZ and doesn’t offer the current Scenic, or have an indication of offering the new one. They sell Clio, Captur, Megane (the previous one), Koleos (did we get ones they couldn’t sell in the UK?) Kangoo, Trafic and Master vans. The Kangoo ZE and Zoe EVs are coming… Soon. By way of comparison, Nissan has 37 dealers nationwide.

    Pretty much every Renault product (all of them if you consider the Ford ST hatches better than the Renaultsports) has a more easily-obtained local equivalent from a Japanese or Korean mass-market brand, Ford or GM. I’d need to really like French cars to buy a Renault here. We’re a minor market with a large chunk of annual car sales going to near-new grey imports but at least BMW bothers to offer a full range. That’s a brand value I can support.

  11. Back on topic: the reference to VW’s Golf SV is a bit out of place in this piece. The Touran remains their main mid-size MPV offering.

  12. The market for these mini minivans is essentially nil in North America. So it’s interesting to look at a few on offer in Europe. Mazda5 and Mercedes B200 are all that are on offer here. It’s CUVs or nothing. That Gran Tourer BMW is dire to behold. Of course BMW sell a restyled version of the SAV here as the X1 by adding a couple of inches ground clearance. All the same UKL platform underneath, just wheelbase differences between the various models, and of course it’s MINI as well.

    The new X1 has been getting poor reviews for a bad ride quality and 2.0t engine that’s a lot coarser than the one that comes in a VW GTI. Also the asking price is ridiculously high for a badge -engineered not overly premium feeling platorm. No diesels here, thank goodness. Apparently you can opt for a normal suspension on your new X1, but all the early models imported here came with all the doodads and sport suspension is one they ladled on. Not a good move.

    The masterly expositions by Mark Hamilton above explain the BMW brand loss of direction more clearly than I’ve read elsewhere. Spot on.

    1. The minivan is associated with domestic life, I suppose. The CUV does the same things but wearing Timberland boots (the choice of mall citizens). While I don´t care for the BMW Gran Tourer it has great paint. It looks lusher than other vehicles in the same class. Never underestimate the power of paint. Has BMW lost direction? They have expanded their range, more like. What is missing is the evident quantum difference in real quality. Something ineffable has been lost in the sheet metal and the way they fit to together. I could gaze at a 1988 5-series for a long time, lapping up the details. The current car is as interesting from that perspective as a Bic biro.

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