► Editor Phil McNamara welcomes you to the December issue
► He recites Renault's history and questions Germanic design move
► Renault is set to be Euope's fastest growing car maker
Remember Renault? This is a brand that lost the plot so spectacularly its product chiefs descended into civil war, and its once bold cars dissolved into blandness. It culminated in Renault UK ditching one-third of its range, including the Espace and Laguna. The malaise ultimately affected the Clio RS too, which went softer, turbocharged and dual-clutch, diluting the Renaultsport magic.
One consequence of this carnage was Laurens van den Acker becoming Renault’s design director. Five years on, it was revealing to speak to the disarmingly honest Dutchman at the Megane’s premiere. ‘It’s nice to be able to come out with so many cars,’ he says. ‘It takes forever to change a brand’s image and you need new product to do it. In England we face a huge challenge.’
A decade or so ago, Renault was a fixture in the UK’s top five car makers, but the rise of the German premium brands, allied with Renault’s travails, means it’s now languishing in 14th place. Van den Acker has a clear strategy for reinvigorating Renault: make it a human-centric brand that promotes its owners’ well-being, give the cars a strong family face that gets noticed, and boost the perception of Renault quality through design.
‘We needed to reinvent Renault, find its soul,’ the designer says. ‘I think we’ve found a great face, a more sensual design. The cars aren’t perfect but they’re liked and sales are up.’
My issue with the new Megane and the Laguna-replacing Talisman – as well as Peugeot’s latest 308 – is that the French are so desperate to convey their Germanic quality their designs are becoming indistinguishable from VW Group’s. Van den Acker’s reply picks up on the quality aspect: ‘I hope you’re right because although it’s great to love French design, if it falls apart that’s no good. It’s amazing how much the [quality] level has gone up in car design.’ But he concedes: ‘I think it’s fair to say Talisman and Megane have become more Germanic, but it’s not like we’re applying the same rules to everything.’
While French flair is alive and kicking in cars like the Twingo, Captur and my favourite Renault, the slammed, imposing new Espace, van den Acker admits it’s being consciously dialled back as the company regroups. But Renault is delivering on its human-centric pledge. On holiday, our Clio rental car was so welcoming with its vast, family-friendly space and high quality rear camera, and the new Kadjar – though demonstrably less innovative than the original Scenic – scores with its refined, free-revving diesel and splendid comfort and refinement.
The market is responding: Renault is set to be Europe’s fastest growing car maker this year. Automotive revenues grew 10% over the last three months, with the Kadjar, Espace and Clio selling at higher prices. And in 2016, the volume-driving Megane and Scenic will be replaced, along with the rebirth of Alpine to quicken the enthusiast’s pulse.
Then what for van den Acker? ‘My job will be done after two good generations. The big challenge is going to be that difficult second generation. So far, so good, we’ve come a long way. With the second wave, are we going to be French or not? That’s the big question…’
Like Renault, Ford has fought back from adversity, with globalisation getting its volume range into shape. Now they’re turning their attention to serious performance, with the Focus RS and new GT. They’re the stars of this issue – I hope you enjoy it.