Sometimes it pays to be brave. Sometimes.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece was first published on 6 January 2014.
As the new Millennium approached, motor manufacturers, having established that engineering integrity would only take them so far in the quest for market leadership, would increasingly rely upon the spreadsheets and focus groups of their product planning departments. The key differentiator would henceforth be defined by one word: Segmentation. Departments sprang up in demographically significant hotspots such as Miami, London and Southern California, all tasked with seeking the elusive new market niche that enable them to steal a march on the opposition.
As world auto markets were becoming populated almost entirely by clones of one another, there was cause to suggest that genuine novelty had become the first significant casualty. Not that this prevented car manufacturers from making wild claims to have reinvented the wheel. By way of illustration we consider three distinct (and distinctive) explorations into product planning ‘white space’ and ask whether there really is such a thing as new.
Three coupés then, albeit wildly diverse derivations of the concept. All however share one characteristic: a quest for the new.
When Mercedes launched their W219 CLS in 2004, many smiled wryly at the Swabian behemoth’s claims of novelty. The CLS was part of Daimler’s expansionist cause which saw the world’s oldest car manufacturer’s ethos diverge from its engineering-led roots into the realm of ephemera. Styling would prove something of a Rubicon, signifying a move away from Mercedes’ characteristic formality of line to a more emotive language.
Its appeal lay primarily in its otherness. Lacking the studied rationality of its forebears, it appealed to buyers who might hitherto have eschewed the three pointed star. The CLS was to prove both significant and successful (with 170,000 built), something that couldn’t necessarily be said of other niche products the carmaker produced during this period.
But just as Mercedes-Benz were preparing the concept that prefigured the CLS in 2003, Renault was retreating from their own adventure into niche-exploration. By the mid-1990s, the French carmaker had become known for brilliantly inventive and well executed concept proposals from Patrick Le Quément’s advanced studios. These concepts would be rapturously received by showgoers and the more enlightened cohort of the auto press, but Renault management’s risk-aversion rarely saw this translated into production reality.
So when Renault previewed the Coupespace concept in 1996, few at the time believed Billancourt would have the nerve to produce it. But when it debuted in 2001, the Avantime rather thrillingly proved to be a virtual carbon copy of the concept. Under the ‘Createur d’Automobiles’ tagline, Renault management, having taken some bravery pills, planned a range of individualistic, distinctly French upmarket cars with an emphasis firmly on design innovation and a very Gallic notion of luxury. The Avantime therefore was intended as a keystone of Renault’s ambition to reposition itself within the European automotive firmament and provide a palpable point of difference to its rivals.
Conceived along similar lines to the successful Espace model, the Avantime was pitched as something genuinely new – a tall-bodied pillarless monospace coupé. Utilising a steel spaceframe clad in composite and aluminium panels, the Avantime was to be a somewhat selfish device, for despite its size, it was strictly a (generous) four seater.
Style was all, from those pillarless side windows, elaborately engineered door hinges, to its aluminium roof and highly stylised tail-light graphics, the Avantime channelled French couture design, in capitals. The motoring world was suitably impressed and the reception was broadly favourable. But as with many French delicacies, not all palates would prove receptive and from 2001 to its withdrawal only two years later, only 8,500 examples were produced.
But did Renault’s product planners get their calculations wrong? The Avantime was after all a design people reacted to. Most of these reactions were wildly positive, however, this keen regard was slow to translate into sales. But did Renault have the required image to sustain the pricing? Did Matra build them well enough? There were perhaps more questions than answers with the Avantime, leaving us with a compelling concept but perhaps in retrospect, the wrong one. Several years on of course, it is increasingly viewed as something of a lost masterpiece, but then nobody said life was fair.
This is certainly true of our final example. BMW’s enfant terrible Director of Design, Chris Bangle tasked a selected group of designers to come up with a game-changer – “a leap of faith”, as he termed it. This brief brought forth a number of advanced concepts, but one which saw the light of day was a car that, like the Avantime and Mercedes CLS, was to answer a question, hitherto unasked.
The X6, much like the Renault and Mercedes, set out to test the appetite of the market for novelty. It wasn’t an attractive shape, more akin to a creature in the process of metamorphosis – a caterpillar forever denied its butterfly, if you will. However, the car proved an instant hit with buyers and the X6 can lay claim to creating an entirely new, if not entirely welcome niche.
But to return to this question of novelty, were any of these concepts genuinely new? Certainly, the 4-door coupé concept can be said to date back to the late 1950’s; there having been several attempts to combine coupé styling and SUV go-anywhere capabilities. Indeed Porsche had been playing around with broadly similar ideas during the 1990s before they stole a march on everyone with 2001’s Cayenne.
Perhaps then it was Renault, despite the Avantime’s lack of commercial success, that can truly lay claim to genuine innovation. Hindsight is often very sturdy ground, but behind this irony lies a fundamental truth. Attempting something truly novel is fraught with pitfalls. There wasn’t a market for a monospace coupé, just as there wasn’t one for cars like the Mercedes R-Class or the BMW 5-Series GT – commercial failures all.
Of course failure is a relative term and Renault had prudently hedged its bets by collaborating with Matra over the car’s development and production. Losses such as they were would hardly have therefore been catastrophic (except perhaps for Matra themselves). But if failure is relative, so too is genuine bravery. Because surely, for any action to be considered thus, one must first have something to lose. In BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s case, their vast profits would provide a monetary buffer, allowing their supervisory boards sufficient wriggle room to take the financial hit, should the market disapprove.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW could therefore afford to experiment with segmentation and while matters are vastly different now to one these cars were born into, the fact remains that both X6 and CLS were to prove rewarding experiments for their creators. The key to both car’s successes however, had probably as much to do with the conservatism of the market as the fact that neither were particularly innovative. For true innovators, such as Renault/ Matra however, the real takeaway is this – fortune doesn’t always favour the brave.