Renault believes its new daring new Megane II will confound critics who say modern cars are so alike these days they are almost commodities. The question is – has Renault made its Megane II so distinctive, it will actually turn off buyers? Neil Winton reports.

The Megane II, on sale this month across Europe, has taken on styling cues from its bigger relatives the Avantime and Vel Satis. The hesitant public reception for these two upmarket cars doesn’t bode well for the mainstream Megane.

The Megane front end is relatively uncontroversial, with a family face inherited from the Renault Clio and Laguna. But the side and the rear end, which develop Avantime and Vel Satis cues, are definitely not modest and understated.  “In your face” springs to mind. Some critics say features like the cut back rear window and protruding boot wastes useable space in the name of style over utility.

Renault calls this a dynamic and stylish silhouette, standing out as a distinctive product in a segment of mainly look-alike cars. The company almost acknowledges that there is going to be a problem with public acceptance of the new design, describing it as a “brave new shape”.

The new car is certainly crucial for Renault’s future, representing about 35 percent of the company’s sales and a relatively higher percentage of profit. Renault reckons to sell 5.5 million Meganes and various derivatives over the car’s life-cycle – 10 per cent more than the previous model. But the car’s controversial styling could jeopardise all that.

No qualms from Le Quement

Not surprisingly, Patrick le Quement, senior vice president of Renault Corporate Design, has no qualms. “The understated dimensions of the boot, the subtle yet clearly affirmed shoulders, the rounded, flush-fitting wheel arches, all these come together to form a compact whole that smacks of agility and control,” says le Quement. Presumably, that’s designer-speak for “I think I did a great job.”
And Renault must hope that he is right because the company has big ambitions for the Megane II.

Renault says it aims to raise its market share in the all-important small family car, or C segment, to 14 per cent from 11.5 per cent in 2001. The C segment, led by the Peugeot 307, VW Golf and Ford Focus, accounted for almost 5 million sales in 2001, or 32.9 per cent of the total European market. The 307 recently took over leadership of the segment from the ageing Golf. VW’s rivals are keen to take advantage of the sales possibilities before the Golf replacement hits showrooms about a year from now.

Platform for Nissan too

Renault plans to produce 780,000 Meganes a year, up from about 710,000 of the previous model. Renault spent €2.1 billion developing Megane II, and the various manifestations will account for around 30 per cent of production. The Megane Scenic, the compact minivan version with 5 or 7 seats, goes on sale in March 2003. Renault’s alliance partner Nissan will also use the Megane platform to build Almeras, Tinos, Sunnys, Sentras and Bluebirds. This platform will account for 25 per cent of all alliance production, or 1.8 million vehicles a year, by 2006.

Apart from the 3 and 5 door Megane hatchbacks and Scenic derivatives, there will also be a coupe convertible with a folding steel roof like the Peugeot 206 cc, a saloon version, and an estate car.

Renault has pulled out all the high-technology safety stops with the new Megane II, which will include understeer control, adaptive headlight beam height control, automatic headlights, tyre pressure monitoring, and the latest safety and passenger restraint systems with anti-submarining airbags. The door locks and ignition are activated by a remote “credit card” device. The engine is fired into life with a push-button starter.

High profile safety

Renault hopes to impress prospective buyers with a 5 star performance in the Euro-NCAP safety crash tests.  “In addition to ABS (brakes), Emergency Brake Assist and the tyre pressure monitoring system, Megane II is the first model to use the new-generation electronic stability programme (ESP) incorporating under-steer control (CSV). In addition xenon headlamp units feature an all-new adaptive beam height control,” according to Renault.

There will be three petrol  – 1.4 litre 16v 98 bhp, 1.6 litre 16v 115 bhp, and 2.0 litre 136 bhp – and two diesel engines – 1.5 litre 80 bhp, and 1.9 120 bhp – at launch. The first two new Meganes now on the market will be the Sport Hatch and Hatch – 3 and 5 door models.

The Megane II has new front and rear suspension, a “panoramic” sunroof and double floor.

Designed in record time

Renault said the Megane II was designed in record time – just 29 months, shaving 17 months off the average. The worry is that even though the new car might be more than a match for the competition in terms of quality, practicality and safety, the controversial body shape will make it harder to sell, at least in those markets outside France where consumers might be less likely to embrace new Gallic ideas.

Investment bankers are divided

Investment bankers are divided on the Megane’s prospects. Describing the styling as “daring” and “risky”, Berenberg Bank of Hamburg was not convinced. “In view of the polarising design of the vehicle, which is closely following the Vel Satis and Avantime styling with its unusual curves in the rear part of the car, we have doubts about whether the vehicle will meet the acceptance hoped for, for instance, in Germany. Although the so-called “perceived quality” in the interior of the car has improved in comparison with the Megane I, Renault is still appreciably behind the perceived quality of a VW Golf,” the bank said in a report.

The bank follows up with a section headed – “Createur d’Automobiles on dangerous ground with regard to design”, and adds that Renault is running a risk with an important model which needs big sales volumes.

Deutsche Bank is more confident that the public will react positively to the daring new design. “The design takes up elements from the Vel Satis and the Avantime, but remains much more acceptable for a broad audience. In that sense we feel that Renault has struck the right balance between differentiating the design in order to attract customers, but is still consensual enough to generate volumes,” Deutsche Bank said in a report. Journalists and analysts are not so sure.

OK when you get used to it

On Renault’s media launch, with drives of some petrol and diesel powered Meganes through the Ardennnes in Belgium, immediate negative reactions to the styling were mitigated by thoughts that, “….well, it’s certainly visually challenged, but it’s not so bad when you get used to it.” Hardly a ringing endorsement likely to presage a rush of excited consumers.

The ride and handling were top class. The cars seemed tough and generally well put together. The 1.9 litre diesel felt more responsive than the 2.0 litre petrol powered cars. Renault is proud to point to six-speed gearboxes in these models, but what they might add in economy they probably lose in added complication. The 1.6 litre cars with 5 speed boxes were just fine. Interior quality was acceptable standard, with occasional lapses with headliner trim.

Some analysts were less inhibited. “Some of the interior trim looked cheap, and there’s really not much room in the back. It gave me the impression of being all style and very little function. The Peugeot 307 seems to be the reverse; more function than style and it isn’t any the worse for that. Yes, there’s lots of package space and good design ideas; (the Megane has a neat little trap-door-like areas under the driver and passengers feet; the glove-box is truly massive) Renault has pushed the style button too hard on the Megane at the expense of practicalities,” said one industry analyst who declined to be named.

The styling didn’t work on this analyst either. “It’s controversial for the sake of being controversial and doesn’t really achieve much. It leaves me wondering what the Renault brand stands for and doesn’t move them on in the brand struggle. The Scenic though (5 or 7 seat compact PV) is really worth waiting for,” he said.