Searching for the Next Big Thing

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.

2001 Renault Vel Satis (c) Haessliche Autos

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.

1998 Renault Vel Sat is Concept (c) carnewscafe

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.

2003 Opel Signum (c) carpixel.net

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.

2001 Opel Signum 2 Concept (c) supercars.net

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.

2005 Fiat Croma (c) italiancars.net

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.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

82 thoughts on “Searching for the Next Big Thing”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. It’s interesting you mentioned the Qashqai at the start of this piece. Looking back on these now, it strikes me that they are actually all very close to being large cross-overs. Tall bodies (at least in the Vel Satis’ and Croma’s cases) and an emphasis on the interior package over driving dynamics. All they need are some big wheels, a bit of ugly cladding, and interiors trimmed in some dark technical material hinting at wet suits or mountain climbing gear or other blessed thing, and they would be utterly contemporary. The rewards of prescience?

    1. Good morning Micheal, you’re right, the Vel Satis and Signum fall into the ‘close, but no cigar’ category as I see it. The Croma, however, I would categorise under ‘missed by a mile’!

  2. Oh, the bitter irony which is new to me, that the utterly worthless Croma outsold the delightful Vel Satis and innovative Signum. For me it is not hard to see why the proportions of the Vel Satis alienated people. With hindsight, perhaps it would have been a good idea to put that fabulous interior into a more plausible body. As anyone who has been in a VS will attest, the interior is a triumph. I like the exterior alot but I can see why it frightened people. The Signum is the biggest mystery. It is a completely understandable car – a great package with a superbly engineered and flexible interior. The question that will puzzle Opel´s R&D section is why the focus groups and market research got it so wrong – was the methodology wrong? Did someone ignore evidence on a hunch? Or did the participants (the user group) lie or fail to read their own feelings? In both cases there is the hypothesis that regardless of how close the proposal was to what the user-group notionally wanted, nothing would have sold well. That theory is perhaps the most likely and that both the Vel Satis and Signum would have sold well if sold by BMW, Audi and Mercedes. I would argue that the comparative sales success of the Croma was down to aggressive marketing and not an endorsement of its banal execution.

    1. Good morning Richard. The Signum, which I really like as a design, reminds me very much of another favourite of yours and mine, the 2002 Ford Fusion:


      The parallels between the two are considerable. They both share a similar, and very pleasing, rational ‘product design’ styling theme. Both were misunderstood by their prospective customers and both were hobbled by an in-house more conventional competitor, the Fiesta and Vectra.

    2. The signum isn’t really a mystery though, as the Vectra estate was a way better proposition for families, with more luggage space and seating for five.

      Had it actually looked good and felt premium, i’m sure it would have had its fans, but it really doesnt strike me as the kind of car you buy to be chauffeured around in.

    3. Mercedes had their Signum in form of the R class and it didn’t sell.

  3. Good morning Daniel. Interesting post about terribly boring cars! Here are my thoughts about the three cars mentioned:

    1. Vel Satis: What a shame, an interesting concept with well executed detailing (the interior in prticuler was quite elegant for its time) but terrible proportions. Oh, if only it had been sold as a large, luxury crossover SUV! But let’s not get distracted by 20/20 hindsight, the Vel Satis is a disappointment that scared Renault into regular, conservative large saloons (although I quite like the Talisman). Too bad.

    2. Opel Signum: Interesting idea – large luxury hatchback – but so similar to the Vectra I can’t understand why they bothered. In fact, to me the Signum looked blander than the Vectra without actually being that different. Quite an achievement!

    3. Fiat Croma: Leaving the saddest for last. They couldn’t have made a more featureless blob and I wonder if Giugiaro was going through some kind of depression at that time. Also, I wonder if Fiat was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the terrible reaction to its brilliant Multipla, the most unfairly treated design in modern car history, so they produced the complete opposite in terms of design. The Croma to me serves one big purpose, which is to remind us that styling and looks are absolutely the most important attributes in a car, if that ever needed reminding. The Peugeot 407 came out about a year before the Croma and it couldn’t have been a more different car, even if it theoretically was of similar size, class, and price to the Croma. The 407 was sleek, rakish, and handsome, but had woefully bad rear seat room and boot space, yet it sold much better than the Croma, in fact, it was a big sales success. Poor Croma was sensible and “right”, but extrovert, impractical 407 stole the show, the party, and its girlfriend.

    1. Cesar: We will have to agree to differ about the VS and Signum and should we meet, it will be a Nerf pistols at dawn scenario, I suspect. Or else a sticky bun fight. If the latter, I propose we use Savarins.
      The Signum was intended to do the same thing as some of BMW and Audi´s more niche variants: find a way to make someone pay more without requiring that they get a bigger car. Up until the 2000s, the largest cars were the same size as the largest anyone really wanted in Europe. From then the C-D class increased in size and entered the size range of the previous D-class. So, instead of offering a car nominally in the D class but corresponding to the old E, Opel gave customers the Signum which was plenty big but had the rear-leg room of the E-class. It ought to have worked if the badge wasn´t Opel. I am not one of the Opel-haters but they really do face a lot of headwind and that was what stopped the Signum selling so well. We have to disagree about the styling but I really like it. It´s consistent, distinctive and well executed.
      Which turns me to Ford´s overlooked meister-werk, the Fusion. You´ll excuse me but this I will re-state my admiration for the utter faultlessness and thorough execution of this. It looks like nothing else, it doesn´t look wierd. It is really subtle. Bravo to the stylists, clay modellers and design bosses who ensured this design got to production. I never tire of looking at them. A great design does not have to be a prestigious or exclusive design. The Fusion is a super example of democratic design and, especially, with coloured paints looks so jolly without being silly. I love it.

    2. Haha Richard, as much as a Nerf pistol duel at the break of dawn sounds appealing, if we meet I’d rather do it over a couple of pints! Provided we don’t end up throwing them at each other over disagreements on shut line positions or something like that, haha! I actually don’t dislike the Signum, finding it a nice, clean design, and I especially like its concept, that of a premium hatchback, i.e. paying more for features and comfort but not size. I actually love the idea of premium superminis, or premium trim, like Ford’s Vignale (I saw a Vignale Fiesta the other day and loved it) or Renault’s Initiale (mmmh, a Clio V Initiale…!), because as much as I like a BMW 3-series or MB C-Class, they are now huge and whatever comfort and pleasure I would derive from driving one of them would shatter the moment I have to wedge it into a tight parking garage. Going back to the Signum, what left me cold about it is that for all its cleverness, it didn’t look particularly special, in fact, to me every time I saw one, which was not often, I would think “slightly bigger Astra”.

      As for the Vel Satis, I’m a big Renault fan, but this one was a disappointment because its design doesn’t really lure me into driving it. It’s kind of a static design, I can’t quite put my finger on any fault, but it just kind of lacks tension or energy, or something like that. Too bad, because the detailing of the design, both inside and outside was really good (I think the interior is fantastic).

    3. Cesar: the idea of throwing pints of high quality beer around until I win this argument sounds messy. I really would prefer the Savarins. It would look quite funny.

      Yes, you are right about the Vel Satis, that is is a bit inert. I do like it still though I agree the package defeated all the other good work. Le Quement must have been livid. It would be improved merely by lowering it a shade. If the theme was draped over a Renault Safrane package it could have been good.

      About the Fiesta Vignale – Ford ought to be really proud of that one. As a marketing device, I think it´s good and it does provide real value in that if you do push the boat out you get a totally charming car for the money. One of things I like is the CMF on the inside (a hard task as you can´t just do a sketch) and the lovely job of the grille texture. I think there are about 15 different bits used to make the chrome waves. It´s just delightful.

    1. Good morning Cesar. Good point about Fiat suffering a crisis of confidence following the adverse reaction to the 1998 Multipla. It was facelifted in 2004, the year before the Croma was launched.

      I actually prefer the Signum to the contemporary Vectra (and the Fusion to the contemporary Fiesta) finding both more interesting and unusual designs, but that’s purely down to personal taste.

    2. It´s not easy to choose between the Vectra and the Signum in terms of design. Both answer the brief equally well.
      And the same goes for the Fiesta and Fusion. The other car from the period I enjoy gazing at is the Fiesta in either 3 or 5 door guise. I´ve written about it here if you want to hear a reasoned argument:

      A Fiesta For Sunday

  4. Many thanks for more interesting articles!
    I looked at all three of these as an interesting replacement for my B5 Passat Synchro TDI estate back in 2006, so here are my comments.
    First up the Vel Satis, in my eyes fantastic looking, practical, and spacious. Just the thing for transporting the family across continental Europe. The proportions were so good that you didn’t realise just how big it was until you got closer and the interior design was rather nice.

    A friend had one and was generally very happy, until things started to go wrong. Then we found out that Renault had built an expensive luxury car using the same cheap parts and connectors as in a Clio (or so it seemed). Given the massive increase in complexity of modern car electrics this was obviously a non-starter. Reliability must be absolute, gremlins will not be accepted (ergo no Peugeots, Jaguars, Range Rovers etc on my lists).

    The Signum came onto the radar as a spacious car for people with long legs and rather funky looking. Then I got inside and instantly hated the wall of plastic dashboard/ centre console that Opel were into at the time. Given that you see (and feel) the interior of a car more than anything else …no thank you, bye-bye Opel (the estate was also considered and rejected for the much the same reasons, plus at the time my maximum garage length was 4.85m which would have also precluded the estate).

    Onto the Croma: spacious, comfortable, big boot, neatly styled this was promising . Then I got in, which was easy due to the height of the seats, and started to inspect… Big infotainment systems weren’t around then, but where had Fiat hidden the cupholders? There was one recessed in the centre console, but after prodding various panels on the dashboard I couldn’t find anything. The salesmen confirmed that there weren’t any others! What were they thinking? I’m not an American that expects space for a Big Gulper in each corner but a family car with seating space for five and one cupholder… bye-bye Fiat.
    In all cases the size of the engines or the interesting/challenging styling were simply not issues, but merely practical issues such as space and reliability. Whether my particular requirements contributed to the overall failure of all three in the market place I can’t say but sometimes you’ve got to wonder if the people in charge actually sat or used the cars like a real punter.
    In the end I bought a 2nd series Lexus RX and kept it for nigh on 14 years of happy motoring.
    Keep up the good work !
    Andrew

    1. About Peugeot: more or less by coincidence, I have driven a lot of these. I´ve never had any problems with them. They´ve been incredibly reliable, in fact. I have a 20 year old 406 which runs uncomplainingly mile after mile. It will break one day but gives no sign at all of doing so. It serves up what I once expected of Mercedes, which is enduring reliability, good quality and comfort.
      The Renault: yes, that kind of thing is part of the 1934 Renault Charter (see Parazitas, 2013, for more on the origins of this important document) which stipulates no Renaults should last beyond 14 years. It´s amazing nobody twigs this as it ought kill residuals.

  5. These are three very DTW cars – oddball failures, at least two of them being tantalisingly close to nailing a new kind of brief.

    Personally, I think the Signum might have done better if it had just been positioned as a differently body optioned Vectra – a bit like the BMW GTs – and hence been given a price point much closer to its other Vectra brethren. The fact that the dashboard and most of the interior fittings were little elevated over the Vectra seals the deal. I also prefer its design to the other Vectras of that generation. I find it comparable to the Mk2 Superb which Daniel covered recently in its concept and execution – but the latter was given a much more upmarket interior than the lesser Octavia, as well as the added convenience of the extra rear space and boot versatility.

    The Vel Satis … well, I think by the time it was launched, the market just wasn’t interested in large, posh, French cars any more. The fact that it looked like something illicit that went on between an Espace and a Scenic added to the conservative buyer alienation factor, as did the indifferent chassis dynamics – in these ways it is not so different in concept and execution to the later DS5.

    The less said about the Croma the better – although I am quite mesmerised every time I see one, probably because I am still trying to make sense of it. Actually, now I think about it, the original ‘Type 4’ Croma reminds me of the Signum – i.e. it’s really a more spacious and versatile family hatch than an attempt at an ‘executive’ car.

    As I tried to say before, I strongly suspect, this doomed path beckons for the new C5 X, which immediately put me in mind of the Signum in particlar.

    1. Hi S.V. Good observations on all three cars. I wonder if the C5X will do better because it’s so bang on trend, unlike the trio above, which were all oddities when launched? As Michael pointed out above, the distance between success and failure can really be quite small.

      Strangely, it still seems impossible to find a photo of the C5X in a colour other than the metallic brown in which it was unveiled. That colour makes it difficult to interrogate the details of the design:

    2. The more I see the C5 X the less I like it. As Richard says, the front looks way too busy but also too heavy for the rest of the car. Also, if you look at the way that the light casts down the flanks of the car, there is a very odd dip in the shaded part along the top of the door panels just below the base of the DLO. It’s like the underlying structure supporting the outer fabric has collapsed and so the fabric has sagged. And then there are the over-sized wheel-arches and wheels themselves, the oddly curvatured brows in the panels surrounding those arches, the random panel indentation in the lower doors, etc. There’s just no harmony, no flow, just noise and disruption.

    3. When architecture when baroque they did double and triple corners. That means there would be a small indent put on the corner or perhaps even two of them, making for five points. The multiple grooove around the wheel arches are the equivalent and lots of people are doing them now. It reminds me also of the ludicrous five bladed shaving razors you could buy (and maybe still can).

  6. All these cars are very much offsprings of the ’90s automotive industry, which was almost as besotted with MPVs (and hence semi-monovolume bodies) as today’s industry is with SUVs. I’d argue that the Mercedes R-class and BMW GT models are also related to this Zeitgeist, albeit less closely so.

    The Vel Satis was the brainchild of Renault’s Rémy Deconink, a product planning engineer who had a penchant for space-efficient architectures (the Modus was another project he championed). The eventual production car’s design was chosen against the will of Patrick le Quément, who preferred an approach closely in keeping with the ’95 Initiale concept car. Both cars, as well as the Vel Satis concept car, happen to have been styled by the same man, Florian Thiércelin.

    I’ve driven two Signums as rental cars, back in the day, and found them very unimpressive, with the exception of the admittedly versatile rear accommodations. The V6 version was slow and unrefined for this type of engine, and both cars weren’t spirited drives in any way. The cabin had an air of austerity and crudeness to it that I found highly unappealing.

    My hunch regarding the Chroma is that it was based on some mid-’90s ItalDesign proposal Giugiaro had lying around on the shelf, until he managed to sell to Fiat alongside the Idea when management realised that they were considerably lacking in the MPV department. Or maybe it was a repurposed Maserati Buran? In any case, it was another example of GG’s interest in packaging getting the better of him.

    1. GG seemed also to forget how to style the package. The grille, for example, is an identity-free zone, akin to the kind of thing put on a car for an advert where they don´t want to use a real car.

    2. That’s the trouble about being an aesthete, Richard: form will (almost) always win out over function! Remember my dilemma in trying to buy a new kitchen kettle? Who cares how quickly or quietly it boils, or how cleanly it pours? It has to look beautiful! 😍

      (That said, we decided against a Ford Fusion in 2005 because of its hideous whiney CVT and bought a Mk1 Škoda Fabia instead, so I’m not entirely in hock to my aesthetism.)

    3. Readers won´t be surprised I had to buy another Braun electric kettle because the design was so appealing. Luckily the existing kettle (a blob from Philips) had expired. Braun have a coffee percolator I don´t need but which is exquisitely well-organised as an object. It´s heartening that in a world so short of mirth and so full of disappointments that design can provide small moments of transcendence. The Fiesta and Fusion also do that for me and I am transported into a state of imaginative looking (to use Scruton´s nice phrase).

    4. Yes, the Chroma’s design was most definitely phoned in, despite Moncalieri being very much in the vicinity of Mirafiori. Which is all the more surprising as GG managed to come up with a recognisable face for the Grande Punto at about the same time.

  7. Vel Satis needs assessing alongside Avantime.

    And Fiat didn’t care much about Croma, as it had a Eurobox, which when tarted up as a Lancia Phedra was quite attractive.

    1. Hi Vic, I had to Google ‘Lancia Phedra’ to remind myself as to what it was, an MPV built as a joint-venture and also sold as a Fiat, Peugeot and Citroën.

      In doing so, I stumbled upon this:

      That’s right, a Lancia Voyager, a.k.a. Chrysler Voyager. The rebranding of Chrylsers as Lancias was pretty egregious, but this really takes the biscuit! (Mmm…biscuits…yum! 😍)

    1. Biscuits! The world changed for the worse when McVitie changed from using beef fat to palm oil in their digestives. On the other side, my native country has had a resurgence in small-scale biscuit production and they are almost all made with butter. This compensates very much for the fact I am denied Mikado biscuits and Kimberley Creams due to the palm (it´s problem for orang utans). Look at this royal collection of biscuits from Hassetts which I can personally vouch for:
      https://www.ardkeen.com/shop/biscuits/made-in-ireland
      The jelly on the top of the chocolate biscuits is astonishingly good. Hooray for Irish biscuits!

    2. And we haven’t a single biscuit in the house as I’m not allowed them anymore…bugger! 😭

    3. As regular readers will no doubt be aware, these are my all-time favourite biscuits:

      DTW’s non-commercial status requires me to state that other (lesser!) biscuits are available.

    4. I won´t ever forget that advert. Those slogans are tattooed on my mind. I really miss Mikados. The one good thing about trying to avoid palm oil is that 90% of bad food is off limits ethically, which is an easier thing to stick with than health reasons. When I am in Dublin I have a real battle with the biscuits, Alpen, black pudding and breakfast sausages. And yoghurts…. the Danish ones are all created for dieting. Irish ones are full of full-fat goodness.

    5. Which were the ginger-y ones, Richard? They were my favourite!

    6. Mikado are the ones with the twin row of mallow with a jam filling in the furrow. Kimberly are the ones with the ginger base and lid. They are eaten by rotating the top part so it separates from the mallow filling; then one eats the lower part. Any other method is, in my view, wrong. Alas, all full of bloody palm oil now.

  8. The Vel Satis is a weird car, in the sense that is designed more fore passengers as it is for the driver. Not sure if that is a good strategy if you keep in mind that a car is only occupied by 1.3 persons on average, at least that’s what the Central Bureau of Statistics in my country is telling me. Pretty spot on, judging by my own biased observation.

    I was a passenger in a Vel Satis once, roughly 15 years ago. The top of the line model with the 3.5 V6. What a disappointment. It must have had the worst ride of a any car I’ve ever been in: bouncy on smooth surfaces and it felt unnecessarily hard on speed bumps. It’s not a performance car, but it felt really slow as well, too slow for a 3.5. Maybe that’s down to the gear ratios of the slush box? I’m not sure how old that particular car was and how many miles it had, but the interior felt as if it’s sell by date wasn’t far off. I’m quite fond of the coupe concept, though.

    It’s not my sort of car, but I quite like the Signum. A rational well executed design.

    Finally, the Fiat. I had forgotten it existed. Can’t recall when I last saw one. It leaves me cold.

    1. Hi Freerk, you’re articulating what seems to be the majority view, although the poor ride you experienced in the Vel Satis is a surprise. The Signum seems to be floating to the top of this particular pile of automotive also-rans, not that that’s a great achievement. (Although Richard might beg to differ.) At least there’s no doubt as to which is adjudged the most pointless, hopeless and ill-conceived…unless anyone would like to make a case in defence of the Croma?

    2. In defence of the Croma? It had seats you could sit on a wet day to take shelter. The windows were fully transparent. The boot could hold a lot of stuff if your house or apartment was short of space. I believe the Croma will be remembered as it was so very, very mediocre. The Vel Satis and Signum just aren´t bad enough to cling on in the way real mediocrities do. The Croma is a Tagora kind of car (but not as good).
      I had a look at mobile.de. There are 18 gen 2 Cromas for sale and prices are surprisingly firm for such a feeble effort, 2000 e and upwards to the dizzying height of 6000 e. There are 386 Signa on sale at the moment and prices for that car are a bit higher to start with. There are 33 Vel Satises on sale and again, with one exception, prices are firm to meaty. The one car at around 1000 e is not a high miler or a wierd colour – more like an error on the sellers part. Typically a good Vel Satis is on high end of 2K and rising. I think all three of these cars will have a long and rather valuable after life as there is a committed audience for them and it is bigger than the number of cars out there.

  9. I wish I’d known about biscuit day earlier – there’s not one in the house. I’ll just have to console myself with a home made scone, some clotted cream and home made blackberry jam….. If anyone fancies a Vel Satis (or even an Avantime) there’s several for sale at the moment on a certain well-known web site. Then again, perhaps biscuits would be safer.

    1. Hi John. Home-made scones, clotted cream and home-made blackberry jam sounds like a very acceptable substitute!

  10. https://www.autotrader.co.uk/car-details/202007151247876

    https://www.autotrader.co.uk/car-details/202105202863729

    And should they not be enough, there’s half a dozen Signum’s on offer from around £850.

    And what’s all this with biscuits? It’s Friday evening, which is not a biscuit time but more one for imbibing something. Something to perhaps divert ones attention from buying anyone of the three cars mentioned today? Fantastic advert though!

    1. Andrew: this evening I´ve swapped Walcher vermouth for the usual Dubonnet. It´s good to switch them from time to time and revisit the flavour. I must say Dubonnet is hard to beat.

    2. Fair point, Richard, but would they look much better in a brown or beige interior? I suspect so. This looks very nice:

    3. All the warm-toned coverings looked good, in my view. Even the black and grey ones stood out for their non-flashy opulence. I am pretty sure that UK journalists will always reach for the Ferrero Rocher clichée though. It´s not funny and hasn´t been for a good twenty years. I´d dock pay from any writer who tried to slip a hackneyed phrase like that into an article. I test drove a Vel Satis at one point. I remember nothing about it other than the desperation of the saleswoman who believed I, at 29, was a credible customer.

  11. Big hatchbacks from the 2000s is a theme I have always wanted to be featured on DTW, and what a nice surprise to see an article about them. I was even ready to mention the C5X in the comments but fellow readers beat me to it! Thanks everyone!

    My $0.02:
    – Were the Vel Satis any reliable (which doesn’t seem to be the case), I’d be in the market for one – although Freerk’s report about the ride quality got me scared.
    – The Signum had an American cousin, the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, whose exterior I like best – especially the model years with the plain black front grille. Interiors, on the other hand, are as grey as it gets. As for the SS version and its 3.9-litre V6 engine, I bet the chassis is too underdeveloped for it.

    https://www.automobilemag.com/news/chevrolet-malibu-maxx-ss-german-four-door-coupe/

    1. Eduardo: alas the Motortrend site is closed to most of us in EU. Apparently unlike 100% of all the other US sites this one hasn´t got around to adding a box asking me to agree to everything they want such as my biometrics, CV, bank details and the names and addresses of everyone in my work and personal email account.

    2. It falls to me to warn sensitive readers about looking at the facelifted Chevrolet Malibu Maxx. Some very dispirited designers and clay modellers went home each evening as that was developed. The Malibu Maxx is a very sobering example of front and back ends not being consistent with the middle. Terrible doesn´t begin to describe it; it´s very nearly as bad as an Aztek. The 2002 model is better at the front but still pretty bad at the back. This was one of Bob Lutz´s cars. It must be because they hurry things that GM USA puts out so many turkeys.

      You can read a review here (link below) that somehow manages not to mention the appalling styling but does remind us how incredibly useful the load bay was. Like my 1989 Citroen XM it can carry a whole bicycle, without removing the wheels.
      https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15132722/chevrolet-malibu-maxx-lt-road-test/

    3. Eduardo, in all fairness I’ve only been a passenger in a Vel Satis once. This particular car could have had worn shocks. In case I had been in multiple Vel Satises (wondering what the correct plural is here) or a brand new one my comment would have more weight to it than it does now.

    1. Sorry Eduardo, I missed your post. I think it would have made more sense as a Saab.

  12. Is the problem with the Renault the marriage of an mpv glasshouse with a sedan hood? In other words, would it have been more palatable as a monospace, sort of a conventionally doored, five door Avantime?

    The pic of the Signum concept reminds me abou5 the short lived panoramic roof option on the contemporary Astra. That was a neat and unique feature. I wonder why it didn’t take off.

    The Fiat strikes me as the sort of car a company would make to fulfill a supply contract, like they had to make a certain number of Epsilon based vehicles or else pay GM.

  13. Truly remarkable cars, and thanks for reminding. I was passenger to a Vel Satis 3.5 V6 once (in its natural habitat, being the South East of France) and much to my regret it felt like a letdown in almost every aspect (apart from the ash trays, but i had stopped smoking by then…).
    On the other hand this great article reminds me of the 2nd Lancia Delta, which seems to have had a very similar design brief and has an enduring allure, certainly compared to the mentioned trio. One wonders how that car can be related to Chroma?

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Joost, and glad you enjoyed the piece.

    2. …obviously tried to hint at 3rd gen. Delta here, not 2nd… Sorry…

  14. Opel came with the Signum when the top Omega were off. Opel needed something higher. I dont thing that Signum could have been successful had it instead been marketed as the Vectra hatchback. This hatchback would hade to be expensive. Would was it worth it? Even the original Vectra was upsized former.

    1. Hi Martin. Would the Signum, if it had been marketed as the Vectra hatchback, have been more expensive than the production car? It had a longer wheelbase but was virtually the same size overall and the ‘four-light’ DLO would have been cheaper to manufacture than the Vectra’s six-light arrangement.

    2. The Signum was in Europe sold as ‘four-light’ too. Opels has always been bought to offer space at a good price. There was the Vectra estate. I dont thing that sales of the unusual Vectra hatchback could have been more successful than Signum. The extra cost of its development would had to increase the selling price.

    3. Not the cost of development but the extra cost of machinery technology for the production of the greatly new unusual Vectra hatchback would had to increase its selling price if it would be profitable.

    4. I think we might be talking at cross-purposes, Martin. My suggestion was that the Signum would have been offered as the Vectra hatchback instead of, rather than in addition to, the actual production car. There would still have been a three-car Vectra range, the saloon on the short wheelbase and the hatchback and estate on the long wheelbase (and no Signum model).

      Whether the market would have liked the Signum style as a Vectra hatchback is a moot point, of course.

    5. You are right. The Signum offered as a Vectra hatchback would be better even for marketing cost reduction.

    6. I was still thinking the Vectra hatchback might best be offered as the Vectra Signum (like Daimler Benz now sells the Maybach as the Mercedes Maybach). But who knew at the time.

  15. This was an excellent idea for an article, beautifully executed Daniel (of course) and the discussion generated was a particular pleasure.

    For whatever it’s worth my five cents would be that the Vel Satis is the only one here for which I could countenance an ownership.

    The Signum’s interior is an absolute no for me, too much shared with the Vectra – sorry Richard, but functional yes, aspirational not even close.

    For consolation scant as it may be the Croma is worse. I drove one for a day (extorted from a sales manger while our Ulyssse underwent some warranty work). This is the car the the phrase phoned it in was invented for. The only compensation for the time spent in this utter dullfest joysucker of a car is that when my brother mentioned the amazing deals he was being offered on the same I was able to tell him exactly why the deals were so superficially attractive and so awful in truth.

    The Vel Satis does seem to offer something that is more than a hopeful punt upmarket for existing moribundity, shame it did not do better.

    1. Hi Rick. Many thanks for your kind words and glad you enjoyed both the piece and the discussion it stimulated. Whatever the merits of the Vel Satis or Signum, there seems to be a consensus that the Croma had absolutely no redeeming virtues.

      My ‘alternative universe’ choice would be the Signum, but with the delightful interior of the Vel Satis in warm tones of brown and beige. Now that might have been a car worth having.

  16. nice write-up! I conclude:

    – the VS was a great missed opportunity from a company that found (after having mated with Nissan) enough stuff in their parts bin to realize „we can do this big car thing, really“ … but then got somehow confused in translation. Still, it’s the only one of these three cars with any redeeming values and enough of french „quirkiness“ to be remembered. I love it, of course. To my mind, the forward slanted wrap-around rear-window (along with the too-upright rear door window closure) is what makes the car visually problematic – can anyone with better photoshop skills than me please have a go at trying to rectify this?

    – the Signum with its wheelbase taken from the station wagon was a „Prestige“ without … well … prestige. No wonder it flopped (for ungainly window design situation at the back, see VS above.)

    – and then, there was the Fiat Coma.

    1. Good morning CX.GTi. Glad you enjoyed the piece. No need to resort to Photoshop to see how the Vel Satis should have looked. Renault had already done it properly, IMHO:

  17. What about this? (from the pen of the Vel Satis concept’s designer)

    Perhaps not enough headroom for a saloon body?

    These are statements of intent. Neither looks like an adolescent version of Megane II, which nobody asked for.

    1. That Renault concept looked oddly familiar with its arched DLO and unusual surfacing of the flanks. Finally, its come to me:

      Spooky, eh?

  18. Wow! What did they title that concept? what a magnificent statement of intent that is, and what a wonderful C6/607 competitor that would have been!

  19. Apologies if my previous comment appears twice, WordPress is absolutely having it with me this evening.

    Allow me to be the first (albeit trepidatious) defendant of the Croma; the shape is imminently the most practical of the three for families, and if anything its oddball heritage makes it perhaps the most interesting car to ever sit on the Epsilon platform (even though my personal pick would be the 9-3!) The Signum I would classify as less ‘interesting’ despite being on the same platform, though certainly more competent as a distinctive design than the ‘sack of potatoes’ Croma.

    Ah, the Vel Satis! What a missed opportunity and simultaneously appropriate swan song. Renault has always had such a troubled relationship with the type of full-size executive that Citroen built its brand on and Peugeot would later come to dominate (through mediocrity). The excellent DTW article on Projet H is a clear first example of this difficulty in bringing a proper E-segmenter to the table—while Peugeot would go on and create the 604 from the ashes of that project as a proper executive saloon, Renault would dally along with its silly little 20/30 line which despite its segment, for all intents and purposes, resembled any old shabby 16 hatchback.

    The notchback of the 25 helped resolve this lack of individuality, but still could look like a lesser 21 from afar (not to mention it was eventually rebadged into the American equivalent of the Talbot Tagora—the Eagle Premier/Dodge Monaco twins.) Meanwhile even the delicious CX and regal 604 were losing prestige fast to the German competion, so Renault’s chances at ever being seen as upscale were pretty much dead at that point.

    Finally the Safrane—the most wonderful bland car ever created. From the outset hopes were high with that wonderful Heuliez Long Cours concept wagon and of course the high-octane, ultra raw Biturbo Baccara (yes, I know it came in RXE, but ‘Biturbo Baccara’ has such a ring to it!) Clearly they threw the towel into the corporate pan, so to speak with the ’96 refresh, turning to Volvo to supply stout Modular fives as the ultimate about-face from the Franco-Germanic mash-up that the Biturbo was. So, the Vel Satis appeared right as the Safrane was everywhere on rental lots, usually diesel-powered but otherwise equipped with beating Swedish hearts.

    Starting with the VQ was always going to be an interesting one—a powerplant more commonly associated with RWD ‘sporty’ applications, it nonetheless has lived out many a life mounted the other way in more proletarian chariots like the Quest, Altima, and Murano (often with a CVT!). So it should have been well suited here, then, yet what is a relatively stout Japanese motor has gained a horrid reputation for reliability in the Vel Satis, no doubt hampered by the French electronics.

    Onto the styling, then. The original concept is utterly incredible, simultaneously resembling the Avantime and yet being completely individual. It is certainly a ‘statement of intent’ for Renault, and a strong one at that. The production car is therefore always going to be overshadowed by its namesake, but remove it and what do we have? Many have said that the car has a very upright design, almost like it is standing still, and I tend to agree with that; however, I feel that could even be turned into a positive here—from some angles, (especially in gold-beige) I almost get a sense of the Louvre, what with the vertical chrome grill slats and high, expansive glass greenhouse. (How does one upload photos? I have one in mind to illustrate this.) Stephen Bayley said the Vel Satis was “not ugly enough”, and maybe this is what he means—that Renault should have owned up to the car’s height and been less dismissive, as instead they created an incredibly tubby shape that is neither here nor there and seemingly embarrassed about its height. More glass, more grille, I say!

    Enough about the Vel Satis’s failures. The interiors were genuinely attractive (as seen from my side of the pond!), and all that height meant that even nowadays the French government keeps one in stock for when HM The Queen visits wearing a tall hat! And now, having trudged through all of Renault’s E-executives to that point, we see that the Vel Satis is a chaotic expression of all of them combined, with the hatchback/hunchback of the 20/30-25, the somewhat uninspired engine choices no doubt chosen for efficiency (i.e. Safrane), and ultimately the elegance and long-lost class of that never-produced Projet H car. A shame, then, that the Talisman ultimately reverted to being a very pretty VW Passat copy with a sedan, an estate, and an utterly forgettable interior. It, too, fails to live up to its namesake concept, though that ought to surprise nobody in the room.

    There are a few oddball wagon-MPVs that I suppose fall too far on the MPV side of the equation to be mentioned here. One is the Seat Altea, (and even closer to E-segment, the XL variant) from when Seat decided to be VAG’s MPV brand before disappearing into badge engineering once again. Another one, this time hailing from the East, is Toyota’s Mark X ZiO which I find rather elegant (for a Toyota) and wish they had imported instead of creating the dreadfully dreary first-generation Venza. The ZiO had the egg-shaped goodness of a wagon-cum-MPV with all the delightful marketing fluff that accompanied the first Espace.

    If you have made it to the end of this extremely long late-night ramble, my TL;DR is that this bodystyle was a fun experiment that we can now recognize as a relic of the mid 2000s, and that each of these cars represent a relative zenith in their category (respectively, most interesting Epsilon car, perfectly adequate Opel, and final ‘premium’ Renault). Of course the Vel Satis will go down best in history, but let us not forget the Rekords and Argentas of this world.

    1. “Sack of potatoes Croma” I wish I’d thought of that entirely apt description!

    2. Interesting comment about the height of the Vel Satis, amoore100. I’d always thought it odd that the front aspect was resolutely vertical whereas the rear was all about the horizontal. Either way, give me the R25 C6 Baccara above any time.

    3. Exactly! The front is so pillar-like (especially when trimmed with the chrome grille slats), yet the rear looks like a muffin—talk about the ultimate dichotomy, styling-wise.

    4. Awesome, thanks! I’ve been lurking for a while now—so much so that reading this site is what inspired me to buy a cheap e-ink tablet so that I can read from my bed in the dark! What a wonderfully esoteric environment y’all here have created, and I very much look forward to troving through it!

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