A chic city car concept from Renault: Denied again.
For mainstream European carmakers, despite the diminutive profit margins they typically engender, small cars have always been big business. But finding a recipe that is equally acceptable to pan-European palates is no minor matter. The ongoing mission to come up with the required blend of practicality, utility, style and indulgence at a price that would attract the urbanite and rural dweller alike might just be the toughest gig in car design.
Renault landed upon such a recipe with the 1992 Twingo, a charming and strikingly designed compact monospace whose distinctive style, courtesy of director of design, Patrick le Quément’s dogged determination to hold true to his vision of ‘instinctive design‘, proved the key to its success. However this model had been to a considerable extent, built down to a price, and by the middle of the previous decade was decreed to be ripe for reinvention.
At the 2005 Geneva motor show, le Quement’s studio displayed the Zoé concept, a smart looking, upmarket compact (3.45m) three-seat hatchback. Certainly, there was no shortage of expensive features within the Zoé’s cabin, from a system which was said to automatically adjust the music, settings and ambience of the cabin to the driver’s tastes, to an electrically powered, sliding passenger door – a proposed solution to the issues of parking in crowded European cities – not to mention a more elegant solution to that chosen by their PSA rivals.
And while in retrospect, one can discern faint reflections of the Zoé’s exterior design in the second generation Twingo which arrived two years later, it was considerably watered down in appearance from the rather better executed concept we see here.
A delightfully neat, well ordered design, the Zoé concept’s styling theme is far more richly expressed – from the clean, confident frontal aspect, the expressive headlamp treatment, with its ‘eyeshadow’ motif, defined, largely unadorned flanks, panoramic windscreen and canopy, to the distinctive C-pillar and rear screen-cum-hatch arrangement.
In many respects, it suggests much of what was laudatory about MINI’s acclaimed Rocketman concept, but a good six years earlier. Yet despite the usual showcar flourishes, and with all the usual provisos applying, it appears broadly production-feasible, (expensive door mechanisms notwithstanding) had the management will been there.
Unfortunately, it is likely that by then, le Quément’s influence at Billancout was waning – certainly the production Renault designs from mid-decade onwards were of a considerably more normative stripe to that of their predecessors, a matter which is unlikely to have been Renault’s esteemed design director’s preference or intent.
Looking at Zoé now, one cannot help being struck rather forcibly by the shift in aesthetics over the intervening decade and a half. It’s impossible to imagine anything this calm and visually correct getting past even the render stage now. Not assertive enough. Even the eventual production ZOE EV, a design le Quément is believed to have overseen prior to his retirement in 2009, is a vastly different visual proposition – if an undoubtedly attractive design in its own right.
So as the platonic ideal of the small, intelligent car recedes, we cast a rueful eye back. It’s bad manners to shout.