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.