Renault replaces French style with Euro-blandness, with wholly predictable results.
The 1965 Renault 16 was highly unusual for a large European car. Firstly, it was a hatchback when all of its contemporaries were three-box saloons. Secondly, it was front-wheel-drive when large saloons were mainly driven by their rear wheels. Thirdly, its styling was highly distinctive and didn’t observe any of the norms expected in such models. Ask me to describe the Renault 16 in four words, and I would say ‘Art Deco Electric Razor’, but perhaps that’s just the peculiar way in which my brain works.
In any event, for a great number of European drivers, its idiosyncratic looks were far outweighed by its sheer practicality and great comfort, so it went on to achieve sales of almost 1.85 million over fifteen years on the market. It was a tough act to follow, but Renault largely succeeded with the 20/30(1) model launched in 1975. This was a larger car than the 16, some 280mm (11”) longer, but retained the six-light bodystyle and hatchback layout. Total sales were around 767,000 over eight years.
The 20/30 was in turn succeeded by the 25 in 1983. This marked a change in style to a four-light DLO with broad C-pillars and the car’s most distinctive feature, a large and heavily curved rear window forming the major part of the tailgate. The 25 went on roughly to match the sales of its predecessor, with around 781,000 finding buyers over nine years.
The success of the 16 and models that followed it was, in large part, down to their uniqueness and strong French character. As large hatchbacks, they had little direct competition, apart from the 1976 Rover SD1 and 1977 C2-generation(2) Audi 100 Avant. Renault, however, seemed to have come around to the view that their cars were perhaps too French in character, and adopting a more Euro-generic style was the way to grow sales outside the company’s domestic market.
The result of this thinking was the 1992 Renault Safrane(3). In place of the 25’s chiselled edges, the Safrane had a curvaceous ‘organic’ style that was becoming highly popular in the early 1990s. It reverted to a six-light bodystyle and adopted a ‘bustle’ tail that seemed to be an attempt to downplay the fact that it was still a hatchback and give it a more conservative side profile.
It was a clean and, some might even say elegant looking car. Had it not carried the Renault diamond on its nose, however, it could easily have been from any number of European or even Japanese automakers. The smooth lower bodysides and, in particular, the rear wheel arch treatment, were reminiscent of the 1986 Opel Omega A. The faired-in front end with a shallow slot grille was wholly generic. The only even remotely distinctive element of the styling was the full-width red and smoked grey light bar across the tail. This was a car that seemed designed to obfuscate its origins, not to display them with any pride.
Although the design of the Safrane is often attributed to Patrick le Quément’s oversight, the styling was almost 95% complete when he joined the company in 1987, as he told Driven To Write recently: “The design had come from a talented designer named Joji Nagashima, who moved on to BMW. I attempted to fix the front and rear ends, but that was all I could evolve, as the original version was even more bland. That is something that happens when you change jobs; you inherit your predecessors’ design.”
The Safrane was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March 1992, where it was (or should have been) the most significant new car shown. Its understated looks notwithstanding, the Safrane was an all-new model. It ditched the 25’s longitudinal engine installation for a space-saving transverse layout and adopted a new multi-link rear suspension set-up. It was roughly 50mm (2”) longer than its predecessor in both wheelbase and overall length, which were 2,765mm (108¾”) and 4,768mm (187¾”) respectively.
The Safrane’s petrol engine range was largely carried over from the 25 and comprised a 1,995cc eight-valve four producing 105bhp (78kW), a 2,165cc twelve-valve four producing 135bhp (101kW) and a range-topping 2,963cc V6 producing 165bhp (123kW). Two diesel engines were also offered, both inline-four units, in 2,068cc 87bhp (65kW) and 2,499cc 111bhp (83kW) capacities and power outputs. The V6 petrol engine was offered with the option of Renault’s Quadra four-wheel-drive system.
Car Magazine first drove the Safrane in the spring of 1992 and reported its findings in the April issue of the magazine. Reviewer Paul Horrell described the styling as “rounded and neat but undistinguished.” Thanks to its transverse engine installation, it was “roomy in every dimension, with the exception of rear headroom.” The range-topping RXE model tested came “with every conceivable item of equipment except leather trim.” This was a mixed blessing as there were “so many buttons and switches it can all seem a bit bewildering.” For example, the electrically adjustable front seats each had a total of thirteen buttons to play with.
The V6 engine was “pleasantly refined” but the five-speed manual gearbox was “unsatisfactorily sticky and vague” and the car suffered from a “very jerky driveline as you come on and off the throttle” in traffic. The ride was “biased towards the soft” but seemed underdamped, tending to float on undulating road surfaces. The switchable two-stage dampers, when set to ‘firm’, caused the ride to be “unpleasantly ragged.” The speed-dependent power steering “weighs up nicely at motorway speed but could do with more feel of the road.” Overall, the Safrane was no match for the Peugeot 605, which was “far more fluent, thanks to better damping.”
Overall, the Safrane was rated as “pretty sound, but it doesn’t excel in any particular area.” It was a car that should “do well enough in its home market…but it leaves a damp initial impression, not distinctive enough to cross international boundaries, perhaps, and certainly not a clear class leader in the way the Clio is.”
And so it proved to be the case. The Safrane was reliable from the off and, thankfully, did not suffer from the 25’s early build quality issues. It also had much greater torsional stiffness than its predecessor, to the benefit of refinement and longevity. However, it was simply too lacking in identity or perceived prestige to seriously challenge the premium opposition.
A 1996 facelift to strengthen its image was of questionable value. A conventional but still nondescript looking grille was added at the front while, at the rear, the light bar, arguably the Safrane’s most distinctive styling feature, was replaced by slightly awkward looking hockey-stick shaped light units and the registration plate was displaced down into a recess in the bumper.
The Safrane remained on sale for eight years and achieved sales of just around 300,000 units. It was replaced by the Vel Satis, but that’s another painful episode for another day.
(1) Essentially the same car, but the 30 was fitted with the 2.7-litre PRV V6 engine and a higher specification of standard equipment. The 30 was distinguished externally by twin circular headlamps, whereas the 20 had single rectangular units. Production of the 16 continued for five years after the 20/30 was launched.
(2) Subsequent Audi Avant models would be estate cars rather than fastbacks.
(3) Having got itself into something of a numerical muddle, Renault decided to give names rather than numbers to new models, starting with the 1990 Clio, its replacement for the Renault 5.
82 thoughts on “Missing the Marque: Renault Safrane”
Another great article Daniel, thank you. We looked at a Safrane to replace my mother’s much loved 25V6, but we decided on a Honda Accord, better an actual Japanese car, than a French car masquerading as one. The Safrane, at the time, reminded me of a slightly larger Mazda 626.
But I did end up owning a Safrane, a 1:18 scale Solido Safrane Biturbo purchased along with a 1:18 Peugeot 605 at a very large discount, from a local toy retailer who was surprised that someone knew what they were.
The real Biturbo is a rare beast, though for BMW E36/E39 M5 money when new combined with ‘Renault’s best build quality’, it’s hardly surprising, despite the Hartge and Irmscher fettling. As a completely unexpected ‘Q’ car I do admit to liking it’s anonimity. For that much performance, it has the plainest of wrappers.
Aha! Just days after I express my proclivities toward the Safrane in ‘Grand Horizons’ this biopic comes crawling out of the DTW woodwork! I must say, as an American the Safrane’s ‘euro-genericism’ has always come across as sophisticate and restrained, though I do have a soft spot for Opels of the era from which this Safrane no doubt draws influence. The Nagashima provenance also makes a great deal of sense now learning about it as I was trying to figure out the Le Quement connection a few months ago and there isn’t much to make with this design. Considering Nagashima would later be credited with the E39, a similarly Euro-sleek and well-proportioned thing, the origins of the Safrane are much clearer to me now.
I can agree that it certainly isn’t very Renault as a design, with only the headlights’ triangular inboard corners (pointed out by Mr. Herriott) and the hood’s leading edge referencing the 25 while the rest could practically be an Omega. Still, I think the subtle upward sweep of the DLO works much better than on the incongruous Mk1 C5, and the full-heckblende rear is distinctive and works well. The facelift car just doubles down on the genericism and just doesn’t work at all stylistically for me. I do like the name ‘Safrane’, though. It somehow feels very French (perhaps because of the French aero manufacturer ‘Safran’) and makes much more sense than the absolute nightmare of numbers they used prior.
I imagine there won’t be a part two to this, in which case it seems remiss not to mention that the facelifted car, in perhaps its only saving grace, would receive Volvo Modular 5 cylinder powerplants as base engines sitting below the ES V6 in the range, a fact I find fascinating as that’s one of my favorite engine families. I don’t think I’d like to own one myself as they were slightly modified by Renault and so parts are probably impossible to find, but it is interesting to realize that after years of Renault-powered 400-series Volvos, there ended up being a Volvo-powered Renault after all! (and no, I’m not counting the Renault Magnum and Premium)
A little uncanny seeing the corporate ‘Renault’ engine cover with the unmistakable Volvo 5-cylinder intake manifold peeking out from underneath…
“In place of the 25’s chiselled edges, the Safrane had a curvaceous ‘organic’ style that was becoming highly popular in the early 1990s.” The style´s prevalence is not necesssarily indicative of its popularity. I can´t think of many instances of a very organic car being liked for this reason. Part of me wants to like the Safrane more than I actually do. But the amount I like the Safrane is still considerable, despite the unappealing front end. I´d be inclined to want a version with the revised grille but I don´t much like the rear re-working. Maybe one can make a Frankenstein´s monster using a later car fitted with a series 1 bumper. While one is in this territory one has to consider the Lancia Thema, the XM and the Omega and also the Alfa Romeo 164. The 605 is another. In isolation the Safrane is more than acceptable but would one really choose on (over any of the others, each of which has a USP that the Safrane lacks). I would not be surprised if a long-term test of the Safrane led to the conclusion that it´s a compromise car (in the good sense) while many of the others have a particular super power. The Omega and 605 are probably the cars it is fairest to cross-compare as they are also about balance and not “character” (XM, Thema, 164).
Yes, for me the Safrane makes the most sense as a domestic ‘appliance’ car, the likes of which are probably best characterized by the executive Fords and Opels in the European idiom. Against more characterful rivals the Safrane hasn’t got a chance, but in my mind’s eye it fulfills the brief of ‘comfort barge’ quite sufficiently akin to a Chrysler Concorde or Toyota Avalon on this side of the pond.
I reiterate myself, but I do enjoy the almost hyper-generic style of the car as it feels like a characterization of the pan-European styling trends of its time as interpreted through a Renault lens (soft shapes, unpainted trim, heckblende rear, satisfying-if-unexciting proportions). Ironically the front you dislike is one of my favorite features, the slim grille does well to emphasize width whereas the facelift just looks way too generic and Japanese for my liking.
” in perhaps its only saving grace, would receive Volvo Modular 5 cylinder powerplants as base engines”
I did not know that.
I own (I keep it in a garage, as a relic) the 1985 Renault 25 GTS my dad bought new and also a 5 cylinder 2001 Volvo S60 2.4 idem (my daily driver), his last car. I inherited both.
I did not know that Renault also used the superb Volvo 5 Cylinders engine.
The R-25 engine bay is the polar opposite of modern cars cramped engine-bays: It is half empty, specially in my 4 cylinders 1995cc base model.
I hope the Renault 25 can be allowed to roam the roads sometimes. Lovely cars. And yes, the engine bay is like a half empty aircraft hangar.
Citroen DS – 1.35 million made
Citroen CX – 0.9 million made
Citroen XM – 0.3 million made
R16 – 1.85 million made
R20 – 0.8 million made
R25 – 0.7 million made
Safrane – 0.3 million made
Seemingly making your cars less French does not necessarily help sales success.
Maybe bodysides resembling an Omega A weren’t such a good idea and the full width rear lights were kitsch that even Audi had learned to abandon.
And yet again the French missed the boat in terms of available engines.
Asthmatic fours with 105 or 130 PS and a range topper with all of 165 skimmed milk cows.
Hardly competitive against a BMW 5er which started with 122 PS (early 12V 520) that soon became 150 and had attractive engines in the 160 to 200 PS range.
Ah, the Safrane… The pre-facelift version had gorgeous styling, as did the first iteration of the Laguna. These two Renaults, along with the XM, were among the big family cars I adored back then, and would still love to own and run today. Where it all fell apart was in the engine department, sadly. The base engines were out of the question even for cars one segment down, and the rest were still nothing to get excited about. Perhaps that was not the point, at least in the minds of Renault’s top brass. Perhaps they thought a relaxed drive was what the managerial class wanted.
Problem is, this was the polar opposite of what the new – and utterly insufferable – upper managerial and investor class known as yuppies wanted. The yuppies wanted everything and they wanted it yesterday; in fact, they still do. Raised on a diet of Chicago School financial Lysenkoism and Ayn Rand’s idolization of F60.2, F60.4, and F60.81 (per ICD-1o), they wanted their luxobarges to go and drive like the VW Golf GTIs and Ford Escort XR3s they drove when they were still junior managers.
Citroën, Lancia, and Renault were not capable, perhaps not even willing, of offering something like that. Citroën and Renault were all about comfort, and the Fiat Group still hadn’t figured out what Lancia was all about (and perhaps never cared enough to do so). So, the XM and the Safrane got saddled with mediocre engines, while the Thema, which was launched some years prior, never had a sensible development roadmap.
You say they thought a relaxed drive was what the managerial class wanted.
Maybe there are differences in conception of what makes a relaxed drive.
A barge like the Safrane with an asthmatic engine barely sufficient for a car from a class below might be everything, relaxing to drive it is not. As a contrast a contemporary E39 BMW 530d is extremely relaxing without being remotely Golf GTI-like.
The trend to powerfully relaxed engines, largely driven by advances in common rail diesels, is something the French completely missed, at least initially. It took PSA ages to present their V6 HDI diesels at a time when non-diesel powered BMWs were available only at special request in France.
In the Seventies big Peugeots were often called French Mercedes. Their problem was that in the Eighties and Nineties Mercedes had become the French Mercedes and for this there was nobody to blame but the French manufacturers.
I’m talking mostly about the kind of engine people tend to associate with sportiness: petrol. When a company equips such a big car with such a weak engine as its basic configuration, the message is clear: they think the bulk of the car’s sales should consist of slow versions. I’m glad you pointed out that an asthmatic engine doesn’t give a relaxing drive; it can be quite stressful, actually. But that’s what they thought. Oh, and lest I forget: they also had the tax and insurance costs to consider, although I believe this consideration was and is misguided in cars of this class.
From the mid-Nineties even French customers were willing to pay more (leasing?) money for larger cars with bigger engines. They increasingly bought German cars and the whole market moved towards diesel engines from the moment common rail systems were introduced – there was no petrol engined E38 in the official French price list, it was available as a special order item only. That was a trend even diesel pioneer Peugeot didn’t see coming.
By the way, one of the most relaxing drives I remember was in a friend’s E39 manual shift 530d (with double glazing and noise suppressing windscreen) with steam roller torque and rev levels rarely exceeding 3,000 rpm and correspondingly low noise despite going along at considerable speed with a possible range of 1,000 kms on one tank of diesel.
I too, am a huge fan of the Safrane and first generation Laguna. Specifically pre-facelift, with regard to the Safrane.
The passing of time makes you reflect very differently on cars that would never have been near the top of a top five list in period.
I concur with the comment Daniel makes regarding Euro-blandness but in a 2022 car design vacuum, I find the understatement and simplicity of line used in the design of the Safrane, to be borderline exotic.
As one who always likes to be left field when it comes to car choice, for the family of a self confessed car nerd, a Safrane Biturbo is a top trump. I saw a perfect example a couple of years ago, in black, as in the images above and that sight remains imprinted on my mind. I don’t want to spoil it by checking out prices for the few that must be left.
Hello Justin and welcome to DTW’s commentariat! I imagine that price will be far less of an issue than managing to find one worth saving, especially if you want a purer pre-facelift example. I found precisely two for sale in the UK, one at £600, the other for £250. The seller of the former couldn’t be bothered to post any photos, while he latter has four flat tyres and a bonnet suffering from epic lacquer peel.
“The passing of time makes you reflect very differently on cars that would never have been near the top of a top five list in period, ” wrote Justin (hello). Indeed and I often accuse myself of making a bigger deal out of cars than they deserve based on their initial showing. Is it because I realise they are better than they seemed or because when I see an ancient survivor I compare it to the newer and less-interesting seeming cars around it? By rights there ought to be a five-yearly review of cars to see how they do over time. What we get is a splurge of quite biased reporting at launch (“It´s brilliant” or “It´s a turkey”) followed by a little cross-comparison for three to five years and then tha´t it for a model until it´s venerably old and people like me and blokes at Classic & Rustrap declare it a forgotten masterpiece.
It’s been a strange old week, plagued by issues (none serious but all exceedingly irritating) which have prevented me from enjoying my favourite site. Now playing catch-up and having got as far as here I find ‘Art Deco Electric Razor’- Daniel, that’s brilliant!
And Sketches of Andalucia reminded me of my first visit to Ireland and being astonished by all the ex-public services Renault 4 vans still around….
When was that visit to Ireland? I find it hard to think that you a single Renault 4 van after 1992.
…..Richard, it was in fact 1993 and we came across the first green one (ex-Post) at a road junction near Tullamore. After that they seemed to be all over the place and somewhere near Avoca we saw a pair still with the electricity supplier (can’t remember the proper name – mainly white with blue & yellow signage/logos, I think). The last one I saw was in an extremely battered state but obviously still in use, on the Hook peninsula in 2002.
That is quite a long time ago now, approximately three fifths of my time on earth so far. In 1992 Ireland still looked a lot like it did in 1982 and 1972. There were still public telephone boxes and all small towns had PostOffice. Our motorway network consisted of the Belfast/Dublin/Cork line and maybe a westward branch to Galway. The internet hadn´t been invented. I had just left university. Tunnock´s Teacakes were made without palm oil and Rowntree´s Fruit Gums were still thin and quite hard (compared to today´s soft rubbery things). Other times, other values.
Richard – since you mentioned Tunnocks Teacakes, here’s a sorry tale:
I’m told by a friend in the trade that £105K would be a poor return for a finance repossession with a dubious history.
My only experience with a Safrane was the rented one our local Volvo dealer lent my father while his 940 was been serviced for the first time, early 1996. And it was that asthmatic 2.0 version (although I think it had 115 bhp, like the Laguna).
I remember it was very slow, a lot slower than our 2.3 LPT Volvo, but it was very quiet and comfortable. The interior was nice and the dashboard handsomely sculpted. Ultimately I thought it was a better car than the 940 despite the acute lack of performance.
940s aren´t that much fun, are they? I know Volvo reworked the 100 series into the 200 but the 700 to 900 transition didn´t come off as well. It resembled far more the kind of slightly desperate recooking that Chrysler used to do. It´s the saloon I have in mind rather than the estate.
Hi Richard. We’ll again have to agree to differ. I thought the reworking of the 700’s awkward rear aspect, with its 1980’s American ‘formal’ upright rear screen and nasty diagonal seam capping at the base of the D-pillar, was masterful:
Notice how much smoother and less angular the 900 looks, thanks to the new rear end and a smoother, shallower nose.
The rework gave the car another eight years of life and 668k sales, so it paid for itself handsomely.
What was under the 700’s skin:
The angle of the rear window on the 900 can´t be much different than the 700. The 700s impression of verticality seems to be driven by factors like the flat surfaces and radiusing. On the 900 they seem to have angled the c-pillar inwards, transversely. It´s a clever way to make little real difference but a lot of difference to the impression.
The photos do the 700 a disservice. In real life the 700 looks more substantial than the 900 which struck me as looking de-contented. Impression, perhaps. I don´t hate the 900 but prefer the 700. Again, to be resolved with a food fight. Vol-au-vents this time.
No, 940s weren´t a lot of fun, but I suppose their drivers weren´t expecting that. Except one of those who, at 20, thought his father´s new RWD Volvo was going to be “like a BMW, but with a turbo engine”. Well, I was young…
I slightly prefer the 740/760. With a minimum of ornaments and some big(gish) alloys, it starts to looks quite decent.
This is a rare and rather cool 740 2.0 Turbo 16 valve, owned by a friend of mine.
By the way, if somebody is interested in buying a RWD Volvo Turbo, hurry up as they have become the darling of drifting enthusiasts, now BMW E34s and E36s are expensive.
Apart from engines, was there any addition carryover between the Safrane and 25 (if not 21 to a lesser extent)? Also would earlier involvement of Patrick le Quément have helped improved the Safrane at least in styling terms?
Know that there was the interesting Safrane Biturbo model. At the same time was not aware that Renault before deciding to adopt the Volvo Modular engine in 1990, had greater plans for the G-Type engine that was conceived as a Douvrin replacing 4/5-cylinder diesel and petrol engine design instead of simply a 2.2-2.5 4-cylinder diesel.
Undoubtedly, involving PlQ earlier might have helped. It´s clear PlQ has high regard for the chap who penned the proposal. It would seem to me to be a matter of management sending out the wrong orders initially. When PlQ took over he must have made a good impression in arguing for another design approach. The Safrane is a transitional car, formed not only by design but by management´s demands.
I allways looked at the Renault safrane as I always looked at the 19: they were a much needed steer from the poor image Renault forged themselves during the eighties – Renault ‘crise industrielle’, as some french called that period.
The 9 and 11 in particular, and to a lesser extent the new 5 and 21 were I guess fundamentally reliable cars, but neither as solid-feeling as most nor even as their predecessors (12…)
And let’s not talk about perceived interior quality (‘plastoc’, as they say).
So, Renault ‘s strategy was (it seems) as follows:
1-we will build serious built cars (the 19 was voted at one point best imported car in Germany)
2-we will make them ‘look serious’ (germanic? Japanese?), deliberately bland-looking…
3-…then we will add some elegance (Laguna)…
4-…some fizz (Megane 1)…
5-… and finally, once the storm has passed by, we will atack with a good theme (passive safety) wrapped in distinctive, not bland, confident designs (PlQ).
Is this a viable interpretation?
I think it’s clear that the late number cars were of the old school of thought where generally Renault’s MO was to make things as ‘good’ as possible (i.e. Golf-competing, if not Golf quality), and this carried over into the early named cars like Safrane but with more of the ’90s futurism and Euro-genericism to capture a broader spectrum.
PlQ’s arrival in the ’90s was the turning point, and I think even with Megane I and Laguna I he was subconsciously preparing the public for his new millennium designs as those cars seem a great deal richer and more ‘Renault-design’ oriented than this rather Opel-esque design. It is an interesting question to ask of what a Nagashima-led Renault would have looked like into the new millennium since his BMW designs of that period are regarded so highly by their enthusiasts.
I see more Opel-influence coming from the Vectra than from the Omega.
For me the Safrane was always more an evolution of the Renault 21 and not the successor of the Renault 25. Just a little bit bigger than a Renault 21 but never the flagship of the brand.
Citroen is doing the same thing with the C4 and the C5X. A sure flop.
I´ve seen just one C4 since it was launched. That includes time in Germany and Ireland over the last few months. On the other hand I see lots and lots of Hyundais and Kias. I see lots of Mazda 3s and a goodly number of Ford Foci. It´s not as if people don´t buy a car in this price range. What they seem not to do is buy Citroens.
During my recent time in Southern Spain, new C4s were a fairly common sight, as were C3s and lots and lots of Cacti. They seem to like the double chevron down Andalucía way.
Would it be the case that the cars are just plain cheap? And Kia & Hyundai have not got so much market presence there.
Richard: In the case of the Cactus, I imagine people simply liked the way they looked – pre-facelift models by far outweighed the later ones btw. As to the cost factor, I’d expect that to be a significant factor, yes.
Hyundai are making inroads. Resistance is futile.
Richard: I had this discussion with Gustavo on ‘Unforgotten: the Renault Megane II’ where I asked why it seemed like European ‘Romance’ markets seemed to prefer French and Italian cars to the Brit’s preference of Fords and Volvos. I think that besides price, prominent dealer networks are probably the biggest reason for the continued success of French brands, though obviously I haven’t much insight into the actual purchasing psychology as it were.
Hi Eoin, I believe in Spain there are so mamy citroen because they are produced there.
In Spain Renault and Citroen always enjoyed big sales success. They started to build cars here in the mid fifties, so in a way they are considered almost “Spanish”.
For a long time in the ´80s and ´90s Citroen had a very agressive marketing, with low prices and endless special editions, that cheapened the brand. But it helped to sell a lot of BX, ZX, Xantias and Saxos.
Kia and Hyundai also sell a lot of cars. Right now the best selling car is the Tucson.
I think this may be the original Joji Nagashima proposal. It’s pretty anonymous. Nevertheless, as others have said, in light of what has come since, some past designs are beginning to look like masterpieces.
Just one thing on that model attracts my little spying eye: the outboard, upper corners of the lamps. They need bigger radii. Otherwise that´s a nice near front end and the whole car hangs together. Thanks for finding that.
Textbook Show Car Charter, apart from the absence of enormous wheels. Flush everything, because it makes life so much easier for modelmakers and sculptors. Not so easy when the surfaces have to open, slide or keep out the elements.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed recently that the Vogueish open-on-remote-demand flush doorhandles of certain products of a British premium carmaker are often permanently open. Cold climate?
Another example of the curse of needless sophistication. Bring back the Marinaflaps.
“Marinaflaps” – what a brilliant descriptor!
In case anyone is wondering what Robertas is talking about, here’s a photo:
Originally fitted to the Morris Marina, those door handles took on a life if their own and appeared on everything from the original five-door Range Rover to the Lotus Esprit. They shall forever more be known as Marinaflaps on DTW!
Wow, it’s handsome but oh-so-Scorpio-like.
or did I meant to say ‘Omega A’?
Still, it’s obvious Renault were aiming for the corporate sector with this type of aggressively non-offensive design.
Yes – quite GM-like; Joji Nagashima was ex-GM, though. The way the belt line completely ‘cuts off’ the bottom section of the vehicle and the plain wheel arches are things I associate with Opel / Vauxhall. Here’s a proposal for the Senator from around the same time, for comparison.
Though the Safrane can be seen to have continued the 25 Mk2’s grille in an unusual for Renault example of design continuity, that ‘grille-less’ design works better. It references nicely the 1st 25 and the other early ‘ grille-less’ Renaults. The success of the 1st Clio proved the grille-less bull-nose stylistically successful. At a time when everyone from Alfa to Rover was ‘rediscovering their heritage’ by use of a chrome grille, it was a good time to remind people that Renault’s heritage included a ‘no-grille’ look.
It´s more Omega than Granada. The front wing is lower than the Granada´s. You might also want to think about the way the 1989 XM had a black bumper band running around the car – the Safrane concept has that too.
Robertas: the flushness is a matter of convenience rather than something to take seriously. I think the purpose of the car shown is to assess graphics and proportions before going on to the last 5mm-10mm of relief.
Somewhere I read that the ridge in the centre of older Renaults’ bonnet and sometimes roof and the form of the chrome trim in the grille was meant to reference the bonnet of the NN. Think R4, R16, R12 until Mégane Mk1 which even with its inspector clouseau mustache-like grille kept the strip of painted metal in the centre with the logo.
Richard: For me the Scorpio/Granada influence comes in from the squared off headlights, single slot central grille, plastic triangle filler at the ends of the rear door DLO, the slight upward trapezoidal ‘joggle’ along the side sills below the doors, and the squared side profile of the taillights. The overall greenhouse is more Omega as is the ‘bathtub ring’ of plastic trim and flattened rear arch. Of course the overall effect is rather vague and brand-agnostic, though I find it funny that reverse-image searching the prototype photo results in this suggestion from Google:
Good morning. Ah, the Safrane. A car I never cared about and not much has changed. Its only redeeming feature I think is the name refers to saffron. I can’t think of any other car now with a culinary name, apart from the salt, pepper and jalapeño packages on the Mini. I’m thinking of Honda Sushi now, or a Nissan Okonomiyaki.
When the Safranes were new a couple who lived a few houses down the road from me had a white one with the 5 cylinder. I remember that car vividly because there was always a piece of rubber dangling from the right rear light.It would drive me mad and I would immediately fix it. It’s not something I associate with good build quality, either. The only older Renaults I see around are first gen Twingos.
Hi Freerk. I know exactly what you mean. When I see a car with something like that, I wonder if the owner is incapable of making a simple fix, lazy or simply indifferent to their car.
The red Safrane in the picture further up in this thread has lots of details undermining any impression of quality.
It does have plastic planks where metal should be at the sills, it has the cheapest possible outer door handles and as if that wasn’t enough all that cheap plastic has aged badly and turned pale grey.
For my eyes, there’s not much that undermines the impression of quality more than bleached out grey plastic and the Safrane Mk1 has acres of the stuff.
Because manufacturers still haven’t found a way to prevent plastic from bleaching they paint it and so did Renault with the Safrane Mk2 which looks much tidier.
Which brings me to the conclusion that for a French car the Safrane wasn’t French enough, for a quality executive express it was too cheaply made, for a crap car it was too expensive and in all cases it lacked proper engines until the reverse-DAF adoption of Volvo engines.
The silver styling buck looks like an enlarged Xantia, which is not a compliment.
On the subject of plastics. I always found the Safrane’s door cards cheap looking. Just a large plastic surface. It’s strange but on something like a Crown Vic this doesn’t bother me at all.
Compare a Safrane II’s door card
to an Audi 100 C4 item
The Renault provides nothing in terms of visual or tactile delights like the Audi’s chromed inner door opener which is much more pleasant to use than a cheap plastic item.
Audi used their interiors to show the world they could build them to a standard second to none and Renault hoped nobody would recognise they couldn’t.
Dave: I have to confess, the unpainted plastic trim is, peculiarly, one of the things that draws me toward the Safrane Mk1 and many similar ’90s to early ’00s designs. To me they conjure up such a period, turn-of-the-millennium feel and offer a satisfying amount of visual contrast on a vehicle’s bodysides:
As a resident of the Southwest I should hate it since it’s so prone to fading as you rightly point out, but on the flipside just a few applications of plastic garnish makes the car feel new again!
I also prefer early Alfa 156s with their black door mirrors and black stripes in the bumpers over the later versions where everything is body coloured.
But if you use bare plastic you should know where to use it – the Safrane S1’s roof beam-type plastic sills just look cheap and its door handles are simply awful.
And you have to make sure your plastic stays black. I’ve yet to see an Audi 100 C4 with bumper inserts other than black but they made everything body coloured when it transmogrified into the A6 C4.
If anyone cares, here’s an eight-year-old reviewer’s take on the Safrane.
Back in the early ’90s, a schoolmate’s/neighbour’s parents were really into Renaults; at some point, their fleet consisted of two Clios (one of them either a Baccara or Initiale Paris – it definitely came with leather seats and all the trimmings) and two R25s (again: one of them in top-spec) – for a family of two adults, two children and, at that point, two Bernese mountain dogs. At some point, the older R25 was replaced with a Safrane.
Being utterly accustomed to (the rear quarters of) BMWs, I found the Safrane quite baffling: the rear cabin felt like a ballroom, even compared to my father’s SWB E32. Everything about the Renault felt soft – the seats to an extent I found almost disconcerting, as though I might get drowned amid the cushioning. I was very much reminded of American mattresses.
I was irritated, but also impressed. As a strict non-driver, the Safrane was rather more in keeping with my definition of ‘luxury’ than the 7 series, despite being aware of the latter’s far higher price tag.
I do wonder how I’d perceive the car today.
Our neighbours eventually replaced the Safrane with… a Chevrolet Blazer.
They abandoned marque. I would not read too much into one instance though. Some choices in life are quite arbitrary or contingent.
Is this more attention the Safrane has got since 1993?
Wasn’t the record holder in terms of thread entries the C5?
How comes bland French cars attract so much attention?
You are correct, Dave. The piece on the original C5 attracted a record number of 144 below-the-line comments. Here it is:
And no, I haven’t a clue why apparently humdrum cars seem to attract such interest. Perhaps it’s because we can relate to them better than we can to something exotic and beyond our reach?
Daniel, perhaps the preoccupation with these everyday cars is also a preoccupation with something that we ourselves have experienced, but which no longer exists (in our perception).
A certain attitude to life.
An attitude to life that is no longer possible – or attainable – with today’s products.
I don’t know, I can only guess.
(Besides, history or memory, one’s own or that of others, is always an interesting occupation).
I think bland French cars are also fascinating because of how they ‘could have been’ interesting or great, but ended up simply being the Gallic equivalent of a ’90s FWD Chevrolet or Chrysler despite their technological lead in the field of FWD and ride comfort.
Hah! Very probably, Richard. I think this is a shame, as I quite like the Safrane. I find it elegant and subdued, both inside and out. I could actually very well imagine dailying one, as my 406 coupe seems to prepare itself to leave this planet for good. Problem is there are no Safranes still around.
What I don’t get is the headline of the piece: why and where was the Safrane missing the marque? It was no strong character like the wonderful R16, sure. But then, which car would achieve that? OTOH, the Safrane also surely did not reach the almost interstellar level of bland and boring the R20/30 achieved (a car I fail to find even a single redeeming feature in, even though I am decidedly francophile in cars). The Safrane was, overall, a typical Renault, inasmuch it voluntarily did not cross the border to posh elitism, but kept being a valid, socially inconspicuous choice for all frenchmen and -women alike. This car would get you places in comfort and style, while – even in „Baccara“ form – not stirring CGT members‘ desire to set it aflame. Very Renault, I think?
That is a question to take up with the author. The Safrane missed the marque in much the same way other pretty decent large, non-prestige cars did after 1989. Honest John thinks the Safrane is okay, if that´s worth anything. I don´t much care for the grille but the rest of it is pleasant. What it is not is as pleasant as the R25 or the Vel Satis.
My theory is that the Safrane wasn’t individual enough to sell on being French, it wasn’t good enough to compete as an executive express, it was too expensive for a crap car.
There was no reason to buy it instead of a Camry and there definitely was no reason to take it instead of a 5er, A6 or W124 – even French customers increasingly bought the German alternatives instead of the home grown stuff.
Hi onemoretime. My primary criterion for the Missing the Marque series is whether or not the car in question embodied the marque’s traditional identity and characteristics to the extent that aficionados of the marque (and new fans) were happy to buy it. The merits or otherwise of the 20/30 is a moot point, but it did sell strongly, as did its successor, the 25.
Granted, the reason for the Safrane’s commercial failure is another moot point: maybe it was because it was perceived as being insuffiently ‘Renault-like’ in character, or maybe the market had simply moved away from what Renault was offering?
I remember a German market research from the mid-Eighties showing that the CX had seven times as many friends and wannabe customers than actual sales.
What potential customers would have expected to make them buy the car would have been better reliability, above all better electrics, and better rust protection. And lower running/maintenance costs.
Both could have been achieved easily. Modern sealed connectors, modern instead of bullet type fuse systems and weatherproof relay boxes and central systems. Some ventilatoin holes in box sextions and proper wax sealing (Golf Mk2 style, perhaps).
Instead of this customers got a Peugeot in drag that was not better than a CX and then they ask why it didn’t sell.
What you’re all forgetting in this soup is the canned merger between Volvo and Renault in 1993 that was axed in a coup d’etat by a group of Volvo shareholders against the wishes of the management, leading to the latters resignation and a completely new leadership.
The Safrane must be seen as a stop gap solution in waiting for the then future merger and the thought of sharing platforms with Volvo. Renault wanted desperately to build bigger cars, Volvo wanted desperately to build smaller cars, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven.
Good Morning Ingvar
That is interesting!
Why were those Volvo shareholders so opposed to the merger with Renault? How did they get enough support for their cause to scuttle the merger?
Good morning JT. That is a really good question, one worthy of an article in itself. I don’t think much have been written on that debacle? I’ll try to tell it in short.
The Renault merger was very much the baby of PG Gyllenhammar, CEO of Volvo from 1971, anf later Chairman of the entire board. He very much ruled Volvo as his own kingdom. He instigated the PRV joint venture with Peugeot and Renault, further cemented in the early 80’s with Renault delivering engines for Volvos Netherland production. Volvo became the importer of Renault cars in Sweden, while Volvos were sold through Renault dealer networks in France. I wouldn’t be surprised if the talks of a merger had been in the talks for several years before this. He also diversified the company into different fields in the belief they would be stronger in an economic downturn, not having all eggs in the same basket.
What lead to his downfall was not securing the Renault deal enough amongst the shareholders, a case of hubris. The new CEO Sören Gyll also wanted to concentrate the company efforts in core fields of interest, believing the scope of the company was too vast and disparate.
Also perhaps there was some sense of national pride, not wanting to sell off Swedens most prized asset to a foreign country. Perhaps there was also some backstabbing shenanigans going on amongst the junior management, feeling the time had come and gone for the king and it was time for them to take over the firm.
The point is, Gyllenhammar was totally unprepared for this coup and left the company the same day.
Hartge and Irmscher made a decent car out of the Safrane. A big source of Renault’s big car trouble was their engines lacking sufficient torque to deliver the performance sought by purchasers. Just as the best French cuisine is not bland, the best French cars ought not to be bland. Unfortunately they were. Luckily Hartge and Irmscher knew what to do, but notice they were German firms. Ask this, what became of French tuners and were there none capable of taking on the task…
Hartge appears to have developed quite an interest in turbo-charging. They were developing a tuning kit for the original BMW 850 coupe V-12 which featured four turbochargers with good manifolding and generous intercooling. This was around the time when BMW cancelled its M8 project and Wolfgang Reitzle was likewise cancelled. For a brief moment it appeared that Hartge would launch a substitute for M8. They had a prototype running around already and it was spectacularly quick (for the time). Suddenly that project was cancelled and no more of it was spoken. I chased Hartge on several occasions to gain an update on when the 850 could be modified. The car was available right away for them to do the work. First there was disingenuousness, then dissembling, followed by avoidance, followed by denials that a program to turbocharge the BMW 850 ever existed (yet it was already well reported in the specialist press and there had been promotional brochures, marketing collateral and even tentative pricing published), followed by a firm demand not to bring the subject up again. I’ve often wondered what caused such a sudden and firm change of direction. A colleague suggested it was a directive to Hartge from BMW themselves. The answers were not forthcoming. In the end Dinan stepped up to the plate and did the job (but with only two turbochargers!).
Returning to the Safrane. It needed effortless performance, some sparkle (even in the lesser models), right from inception and as standard specification straight from the production line. The bi-turbo, as good as it was, built only on a limited basis by outside contractors necessarily resulted in a car which was very expensive- too expensive. That killed it and doomed the range to mediocrity.
One of the problems of the Safrane Biturbo was the cooperation with Irmscher.
In his home country Irmscher was known for ‘tuning’ efforts on all kinds of Opels, including their particuarly ugly body kits and loud colourful stickers. Just like ‘fast’ Opels in general Irmscher was firmly planted in the yobbo corner of the market spectrum.
Hearing Irmscher and making the connection to Opel is a subconscious reflex and exactly the kind of relationship you don’t need for an executive express.
Hartge is a highly acknowledged provider of BMWs to customers considering an Alpina too vulgar.
They are not about out and out performance but more about doing technological tricks for automotive gourmets like fitting V8 engines to 3ers and – their masterpiece- building a V12 engined 5er including adapting the complex electronic infrastructure of this engine to the new environment.
Hardly something you’d want to be associated with Irmscher or Renault.
That is interesting. A coup and immediate execution. Ouch! All the same that may have doomed the company in the medium and long run. Ford picked it up and now Geely has. So the crown jewels belong to China! I wonder how long Geely capitalises a manufacturing operation in Europe. It surely won’t be an indefinite time frame.
Was it Pehr Gyllenhammar who stated that if governments had fully understood the freedom the private car would deliver to ordinary citizens they’d have banned them right from inception or very soon thereafter? I recall it was a high-up at Volvo who said this in a retirement speech.
I don’t remember that quote. But I’m sure Gyllenhammar cried all the way to the bank. He was released with the largest Golden parachute paid to a single executive in Sweden up to that day, just about a hundred million kronor or about ten million euro in todays money. Perhaps not that scandalous today, but thirty years ago those figures were outrageous.
Sorry, a hundred million kronor then is of course about 15 million euro in todays money, counted for inflation.
Yes, I remember the V-12 into 5-series they did. It went OK but for some reason it wasn’t that smooth or refined. It was a surprise that the V-12 in that body felt a little rough- almost like an engine mount was awry. Perhaps it was, in that particular car. In the end a product from an outfit in the village of Huttesheim (not far from Ulm) got the nod. They bored and stroked the BMW sohc V-12, then stuffed them into shiny 3-series coupes. The company was Hamann Motorsports and the car is fabulous. Really spectacular. They only did a few though. The car is super good and there ought to have been more examples made (Q-car, happily no silly bling). Years later I came across another 3-series with a good sohc V-12 conversion. This one was accomplished by some outfit in New Zealand (of all places). It’s much more hard core. More of a track car than the Hamann. Everything is adjustable. Could have saved a ton had I known about that one in time. There’s even a supercharger option. Imagine that.
BMW’s sohc V-12 has plenty of potential and it is nice and light. I really like some of the cars with them in tuned form (Hamann 3-series and Dinan 8-series are favourites). Nevertheless, most recently I’ve been working on Jaguar V-12s for build projects since the cores are cheap and they can be enlarged by rather a lot. Also I’m not going to start fooling with the work of the master BMW tuners. Those cars are best left to enjoy pretty much as they are (maybe a rebuild in a few years to freshen them up if necessary), especially now since they are entering classic status.
I do wish Hartge had produced their four turbo 8-series and not chickened out. Whatever became of the demonstrator? Wouldn’t that be cool to find?
Re the Safrane. I wonder how many are still around in UK. Also how many Hartge bi-turbos still exist. That PRV V-6 is such a strong engine. John Lane in Seattle turbocharged them to extra-ordinarily high outputs. He was into rallies and built his completely unsuited Volvo into a reasonably quick, hugely powerful two-wheel drive rally car with a turboed PRV engine. He couldn’t resist trying it at the drags and found it could break traction for the entirety of the 1/4. Shades of the ’60s! He got banned. Lately he’s gone silent. Real pity.
Irmscher I don’t know so much about. Never went there. Apart from the body kits, what did they do for engines and suspensions? Did they go well or was it all-bark no-bite stuff?
Irmscher is a long established tuning specialist for Opels (nowadays they mainly do Peugeots and Kias…) – people like Steinmetz, Hetzer & Gräf and Mantzel being others.
They were into serious stuff with racing and rallying and a certain Walter Röhrl (co driver Jochen Berger) at the beginning of his career drove an Irmscher Commodore Coupé (he complained about the lack of brakes oi this one and that he had to ‘lean’ it against snow walls to lose speed) and they surely were the ones with the closest connections to the factory.
With Opel’s decline came theirs, the more Opel became a joke in itself the more dubious were Irmscher’s body kits. Promiment late products were the C40E, a Senator with a four valve engine enlarged to 4.0 litres or the Lotus Omega 500 tuned to the number of PS in its name.
At the time of the Safrane Irmscher was a synonym for storage rack spoilers, silly side skirts and loud stickers on flip flop paint.
Give it to me and I’ll give half it back and you’ll be 50-mill better off!
I hadn’t realized that Renault still make large saloons, albeit under the newly-launched, subscription-only Mobilize brand. I only became aware of it through the latest Euro NCAP tests. They have had quite a few makes and models which I haven’t heard of, recently.
I followed an SUV on the drive home tonight (completely dark) and think it might have been a Toyota bZ4X from its rear light signature. It’s still an odd experience for a car enthusiast not to know what he’s looking at.
I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the global industry and one glance at that new Mobilize offering instantly said ‘Chinese’. Good on Renault for leveraging their global resources, I suppose, but it is disappointing that they have nothing of their own to offer through what is meant to be a new flagship ‘French’ mobility brand.
I am a bit surprised they don’t find reason to make a new D-segment sedan for themselves to sell throughout the Middle East and South Korea where the Camry and Grandeur are still prominent sellers, though perhaps lack of brand loyalty would lead to meager sales for such a product. Still, they could undertake a deep facelift like all the remaining American D-segmenters are trying (NMS Passat, 11th gen Accord).
Yes, I know what you mean about its looks – it’s a bit ‘pointy’, which seems to be a Chinese style theme. Interesting that the saloon isn’t dead yet, though. I suspect that we’ll see more of them, in future.
I hadn’t realised that Renault had discontinued the Talisman, but they did so back in February. Here it is, for anyone like me who had bever seen one in the metal:
I think Samsung might still be building their version in South Korea.