Metropolitian Glide

A chic urban concept from Renault: Denied again.

Image: myrenaultzoe

Despite the diminutive profit margins they typically engender, small cars have always been big business for mainstream European carmakers. But finding a recipe that is equally acceptable across pan-European palates is no minor matter. The ongoing mission to craft the required blend of practicality, utility, style and indulgence at a price that will attract the urbanite and rural dweller alike might well be the toughest gig in car design.

Renault landed upon just such a recipe with the original 1992 Twingo, a charming and strikingly designed compact monospace whose distinctive style, the result of Patrick le Quément’s dogged determination to hold true to his vision of ‘instinctive design‘, proved the key to its critical and commercial success. However, despite the Twingo’s acclaimed design and strong sales, by the immediate post-Millennial period, and after a decade on the market, a reinvention was being considered – at least within le Quément’s studio environs.

Image: noticias.coches

At the 2005 Geneva motor show, Renault’s advanced design studio displayed the Zoé concept, a smart looking, upmarket compact (3.45m) three-seat hatchback. There were 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 one to that chosen by their PSA rivals.

A delightfully neat, well ordered design, concept Zoé’s styling theme is 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 prefigured much of what was laudatory about MINI’s acclaimed Rocketman concept, despite being shown a good six years earlier.

Now it goes without saying that it would have been near-impossible to establish a sound business case for Renault to develop an upmarket urban runabout such as this, given the wafer-thin margins such diminutive cars enjoyed. Nevertheless, there was at least a sound basis for a new-generation Twingo in concept Zoé had the board-level will been there.

Unfortunately, with CEO, Louis Schweitzer departing that year, it is likely that le Quément’s influence at Renault was beginning to wane. And while in retrospect, one can discern faint reflections of the Zoé’s exterior design in that of the second generation Twingo which arrived in 2007, there can be little coincidence that the neat, if slightly anodyne Twingo 2 was considerably watered down in appearance from the considerably nicer concept we see here, to say nothing of its production predecessor.

What is unavoidable however is that from mid-decade onwards, production Renault designs were of a considerably more normative stripe to that of their predecessors, a matter which is highly unlikely to have been Renault’s esteemed design chief’s preference or intent.

Disappointed. Image: weilinet

Looking at concept 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 one in its own right.


So as the platonic ideal of the small, intelligent car now recedes from sight, we cast a regretful eye backwards. It’s bad manners to shout.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Metropolitian Glide”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. That’s a really nice concept that had escaped my attention until today. The smooth treatment of the flanks puts me in mind of the 2002 Megane Mk2, a highly distinctive design that relied on its unusual form rather than applied detailing for its appeal:

    I think it still looks good today, a calm riposte to the business of many current designs.

    While I don’t dislike Renault’s current style, it is certainly more mainstream and less distinctive than those designs from its “Créatur d’Automobiles” era.

  2. An attractive concept, even though I don’t like the rearview mirror, the side indicator treatment, the center part of the roof and the sliding door. Not sure if there is a need of that rear hatch treatment, similar to what you get on BMW tourings, either.

    Renaults have experienced a lot of stylistic change over the modelranges, ranging from dull to different. Current new Clio is evolutionary for a change. Can’t really say I appreciate their recent efforts, with the horrific front bumper, headlights and grille treatment.

  3. Is there any truth to claims the original Twingo carried over more than the C-Type engines from the Renault 5? Also did the later K-Type engine have the same issues which prevented the E-Type engine from going under the bonnet of the original Twingo and thus necessitating the development of the even smaller D-Type engine (where a 1.2 dCi type D9F diesel variant was studied prior to the project being abandoned in favor of a low power version of the 1.5 dCi K9K)?

    Also seem to recall a Twingo replacement completely different from the Zoé concept allegedly was due for the early-2000s prior to being canned by Renault in place of what eventually became the mid-2000s Twingo II,

    1. Did not see any specific images or sketches (though vaguely recognize that sketch) nor know of all the details. Only that non-English speaking forums made mention such a Twingo replacement was planned for the early-2000s, which was said to have arguably featured better styling and was more compact, less bulky / overweight compared to the Twingo II that did ultimately enter production.

    2. Hi bob,

      I remember at the time there was this picture doing the rounds but it seems to be the actual Twingo 2 that came out but with a different front-end, with headlights resembling those of the still unborn Modus and a grille treatment seen on some of their concept cars of the time which consisted of holes in the metal rather than the usual plastic arrangement.

    3. NRJ

      The blue prototype is one of the images that comes to mind, if it is indeed an early Twingo 2 then it is very surprising for Renault to basically wait 5+ years to launch a restyled version of the same car (the early blue prototype looks are an improvement IMO).

      Another question that come to mind regarding the original Twingo would be while it was originally planned to feature the E-Type / Energy engine (until its hemispherical cylinder head and front exhaust made it too large to accommodate in the Twingo) until it reverted to the C-Type before being replaced by the D-Type engine, could the K-Type (a development of the E-Type / Energy unit) have feasibly been slotted into the original Twingo and could the E-Type engine have avoided the issues during development that prevented it from slotting into the original Twingo?

  4. Ah, yes, the concept cars that could have changed the world. Given that we know the market can accept good stylistic difference, it´s a curiosity that companies act is they don´t and never do. Much of today´s Zoe concept was acceptable in 2005 – and yet the put into production something altogether more banal. Their out-takes are alt-rock and the releases are easy listening.

  5. In that era, Renault had some distinctive cars which looked very French and yet with a look which suggested (at least) quality. I still find the Mégane II a truly stand-out design and miss PlQ’s touch. The current Clio and Mégane look good, but a more mainstream, and could be SEATs or FIATs to my mind.

    1. The (still) current Clio was 80% finished by the time PlQ retired – that detail apart, I second your view. There’s very little French flair apparent in the current range. The extremely evolutionary approach of the most recent models even outgermans the Germans, so to speak – the upcoming Clio and Captur both look very much like modest facelifts.

      Coming back to the Zoé concept, I’d like to add that Antony Villain (today’s Alpine chief designer) was credited with the exterior, while the interior design was Stéphane Janin’s (he’d be put in charge of Renault concept cars for the better part of the last decade, before joining Infiniti very recently).

    2. It seems I am in the minority here. Renault´s design theme is consistent across the range and I think it is distinctive. They also execute it well. There don´t appear to be any flubs or mistakes that I can spot and if I imagine how they will look in 15 years, I think they will be very “now” as in very 2019 and I mean that in a good way. What, if not French, are Renaults today? Similarly, even if I don´t love it, Peugeot are doing some interesting things. The 508 is the least satisfactory of them – it´s far too Honda Civic and not classic enough. The 406 got that right – it still looks neat and tidy today. The 508 will age poorly.

    3. Richard,

      I agree that the ship of Renault design is steered more assuredly than a great many others, but I fail to see any of the French spirit that had been such a significant element of the brand’s products certainly during the ’90s and early 2000s. At the same time, some of the concept cars exuded that ‘vive la difference’ flair. Please do enlighten me where you see that Frenchness in the production cars, apart from Renault’s (relative) persistence with the MPV concept.

      We’ll absolutely have to agree to disagree on the 508 though. It’s no 406 and some of its details I most definitely could do without, but on the whole, it represents far more than the sum of its parts.

    4. Hi Richard, I certainly agree that Renault’s current design language is attractive, consistent and well executed*. My only reservation is that there are distinct similarities with other manufactures’ current and recent models, notably Mazda’s CX crossovers. That said, those more distinctive earlier models, which could only have been Renaults, were somewhat polarizing and, Megane apart, not wholly successful either in design and/or sales terms, so the business decision to adopt a more mainstream style is wholly understandable.

      * I still can’t reconcile myself to the superfluous strip of brightwork from the headlamp to the equally pointless fake vent in the front door on the Koleos:

      This just adds unnecessary visual noise to no good effect. The strip doesn’t have the merit of concealing the clamshell bonnet shut line. It is a rigidly straight line imposed on a sinuously curved design, and it jars every time I see it.

    5. Christopher:
      I think the designs are quite expressive rather than being more engineering-led (as per the 19, for example). They aren´t wilfully gawky but that is not a necessary hall-mark of Frenchness (e.g. Ami, 1007). Like them or loathe them, the DS cars do not shy away from decorative elements; Peugeots are doing interesting things with surface and colours. They seem a more varied and heterogenous collection of cars. The Cactus – could that be Italian or German? I don´t think so. They are also more individual than the otherwise nice cars from Ford and Opel. How Opel will go as a Franco-German brand will be interesting.

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