We recall three vehicles from different European manufacturers, each trying to offer a new twist on the large executive/family car formula, but all failing comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the status quo.
It is the Holy Grail for automakers: coming up with a design that defines a whole new automotive genre. You reap the rich rewards of first-mover advantage while your rivals struggle to catch up. Sticking your corporate head above the parapet of automotive convention is not without risks, however. For every Nissan Qashqai there is a Suzuki X90, selling in tiny numbers before being canned, then hanging around like a bad smell to remind the public how foolish you were.
To compound your embarrassment, it will also pop up regularly in those tedious ‘World’s Most Useless Automobiles’ lists so beloved of motoring websites as filler on slow news days.
The first of today’s subjects is the 2001 Renault Vel Satis. Unlike the aforementioned Suzuki X90, this was not at all a ridiculous idea. Renault had adopted the tagline ‘Créateur d’Automobiles’ in 2000 and behind that slogan was an ambition to redefine luxury motoring as more concerned with travel and less with driving, per se. In other words, Renault was trying to move away from what had become the European norm, as espoused most clearly by BMW. Hence, the passengers’ experience would now be regarded as an equal priority to that of the driver.
There had been a Vel Satis Concept, unveiled at the 1998 Paris Salon. This was a sleek and elegant two-door coupé(1) which raised hopes that the production model might be something rather special. Unfortunately, it was not to be: the production Vel Satis was a rather oddly proportioned five-door hatchback, with an unusually tall glasshouse and severely truncated tail. The rear windscreen was heavily curved and wrapped around into a reverse-rake C-pillar. The styling, overseen by Patrick Le Quément, actually previewed the Megane 2 hatchback, which would be launched a year later. At the front, the Vel Satis had unusual vertically stacked headlights and a split grille with a large Renault emblem sitting on a body-coloured panel in the centre.
The large and airy cabin did indeed provide a luxurious environment for driver and passengers, even if some of the interior finishes were a little short on quality. The Vel Satis was a highly competent motorway cruiser, with little intrusion from either engine or wind noise. Its soft suspension was oriented towards a really comfortable ride, but the car would become unsettled on poorly surfaced roads.
Unfortunately, the philosophy behind the Vel Satis overlooked the fact that it is largely the driver who chooses a new car and there simply were not enough non-conformists willing to forego traditional luxury saloons and instead spend £30k on a Vel Satis. Between 2001 and 2009, a total of just 58,629(2) were sold. When Renault returned to the executive car market in 2015(3) with the Talisman, it reverted to the wholly traditional formula of a four-door saloon and five-door estate pairing.
The 2003 Opel/Vauxhall Signum was another market failure. The concept seemed plausible enough: the Vectra C, launched in March 2002, was initially available in four-door notchback saloon and five-door liftback versions. A five-door estate was added to the range in October 2003. Unusually, the estate was built on an extended-wheelbase version of the GM Epsilon platform, 130 mm (5”) longer than that of the saloon and liftback. It was also a substantial 226 mm (9”) longer overall, at 4,822 mm (189¾”).
Somebody thought it worthwhile to combine the longer wheelbase of the yet to be launched estate with a truncated Manx tail and an upright tailgate. The new model carried the name Signum and was launched in February 2003, with Opel/Vauxhall describing it as an Executive Hatchback. There had been five-door cars in the executive class before, but these had a sloping tail and liftback, for example the Rover SD1 3500.
The Signum’s USP was that it provided limousine-like space and comfort for rear seat passengers within an overall length that was only 40 mm (1½”) longer than the Vectra saloon and liftback. The boot space clearly suffered when compared to the estate, but that was mitigated by the upright tailgate and versatility afforded by having split-folding rear seats.
Moreover, the two sliding individual rear seats had a fore/aft adjustability of 130 mm (5”) and the seat backs could be reclined by up to 28°. This gave a maximum boot capacity of 480 litres (17.0 cu.ft.) with the seats in their most forward and upright position, or 1,400 litres (49.5 cu.ft.) with the seats down. The comparable figures for the Vectra C liftback were 500 litres (17.7 cu.ft.) and 1,360 litres (48.0 cu.ft.). The Signum could still provide (occasional) capacity for a third rear seat passenger in the centre and was equipped with a seat belt for said passenger.
The new rear end styling was not unattractive and harmonised with the rest of the design. It had been previewed by the 2001 Opel Signum 2 Concept, a sleek pillarless five-door coupé with a glazed roof and an experimental direct-injection all-aluminium 4.3 litre V8 engine. The production Signum itself previewed the style of the 2004 Astra H hatchback.
The Signum seemed to have all the features and qualities to succeed, but buyers were hard to find. Over five years, just 97,895 were sold before the model was discontinued in July 2008. By comparison, 760,902 Vectra models were sold over the same period. A questionable facelift shared with the Vectra in September 2005 did nothing to help sales of the Signum and it would not be replaced.
Why did the Signum fail to sell? I suspect it was simply the innate conservatism of the typical Vectra buyer, both corporate and private, that stymied it. The five-door Vectra liftback, with its six-light DLO and sloping tail, was what buyers had come to expect and they saw no need to change. The list price of the Signum may have been higher than the Vectra, but I would imagine that a hefty discount would not have been difficult to negotiate with a dealer anxious to clear one from their forecourt. Would the Signum have sold as well as the Vectra C liftback if the latter had not existed? Possibly, but GM Europe would never have taken that gamble with such a critical model in its range.
By coincidence (or possibly not) another European manufacturer took a tilt at the large hatchback format in 2005 when Fiat launched the second generation Croma. Fiat had a technology and platform sharing agreement with GM Europe at the time and utilised the Vectra C’s GM Epsilon platform(4) to underpin its new model. The company had been absent from the large family car market since the demise of the original Croma in 1996. Recognising its lack of presence and image in this segment, Fiat opted for a practicality-first approach for the new Croma.
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign was commissioned to style the new car and the company came up with what at first glance looked like a scaled-up 2005 Grande Punto, enlarged proportionally in every direction. This made it unusually tall, at 1,600 mm (63”). Fiat described it as a Comfort Wagon and promoted it as combining the advantages of an MPV and traditional estate car in a single family-friendly package.
While it was undoubtedly capacious, versatile and competently styled, the Croma had not even an ounce of desirability and its weak sales reflected that chronic lack of emotional appeal. It did not even have the zany quirkiness of the 1998 Fiat Multipla(5) to commend it.
A major facelift in November 2007 brought the Croma’s front-end appearance into line with the recently launched Fiat Bravo. This caused a temporary uplift in sales, although the facelifted model was no longer exported to the UK and Ireland. Total sales between 2005 and 2010 inclusive were 132,973 units. The Croma was replaced by a badge-engineered version of the Dodge Journey crossover called the Fiat Freemont, which sold even more poorly.
Three attempts at reinventing the large executive/family car, all failing comprehensively to attract buyers in numbers sufficient to justify their development. Ironically, the one that sold best was also the one with least merit, as I see it. The Vel-Satis was driven by a different philosophy of motoring, the Signum could have been successful had it instead been marketed as the Vectra hatchback, but the Croma’s USP escapes me completely.
(1) The Vel Satis Concept would appear in production form, albeit considerably fattened up, as the Avantime.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(3) Between 2010 and 2015, Renault offered a badge-engineered version of the South Korean Renault Samsung SM5 called the Latitude in certain European markets.
(4) The standard wheelbase version from the Vectra C saloon and liftback, not the estate’s longer wheelbase version.
(5) Sadly, the Multipla had already been watered down by a 2004 facelift in a largely futile attempt to ‘normalise’ its appearance.