By Andy Bannister
If ever there was an award for a manufacturer’s persistence in the face of adversity, a strong contender for a lifetime achievement award would be Renault with its repeated attempts to enter the executive car market. Time and time again the French giant’s ambitions have spectacularly backfired.
Never one to give up in the face of buyer apathy, however, its latest toe in this often stormy body of water shows a decidedly new direction – with a lot of help from Korea.
The company has dusted off its Safrane nameplate and will attach it to a rebadged Samsung SM5 for an assault on a slightly unusual market for the French company – the Gulf States of the Middle East. The car, in V6 automatic form, goes on sale in October,
It won’t even be considered for sale in Renault’s European heartland, where the firm is still struggling to shift its current executive model, the peculiarly proportioned Vel Satis. This tall hatchback is touted as a BMW competitor but has been almost universally ignored by buyers (though not quite as much as its ill-fated sister model, the spectacularly unsuccessful Avantime).
Samsung Motors is Renault’s Korean partner and part of the global alliance with Nissan. It sells a few cars under its own nameplate, and has recently stepped up exports of models with both the Nissan and Renault badges.
The Renault-Samsung SM5 is a very conventional large saloon fitted with a 2.3-litre V6 and a 2.0-litre four cylinder, which sells well enough in Korea. The design is derived from Nissan’s Japanese-market Teana, which shares the Maxima platform.
Reviving the Safrane name is something of a surprise. It adorned a large and (predictably) unsuccessful hatchback built from 1992 to 2000, which is hardly fondly remembered, even in France itself.
Ever since 1975, when Renault returned to the European executive car market after a long absence with the V6-engined 30 hatchback, the company has been trying to makes a sales breakthrough.
At the end of the 1980s another attempt even tried to crack North America with a version of the first Safrane’s predecessor, the 25. Developed during the dying days of AMC, a much-modified 25 went into production in Canada as the Eagle Premier and (even more briefly) Dodge Monaco. True to form, neither car was a great success.
Once an intensely chauvinistic outfit, Renault’s links with Nissan seem to have transformed its outlook, and indicate more of the company’s line-up in the future may be designed and built overseas.
Renault already sells a utility truck, the Maxity, which is a clone of the Nissan Cabstar, and has just introduced in Europe its first ever SUV, the Koleos – built in Samsung’s Busan factory. Like Dacia in Romania, Samsung is a good place to build cars at relatively low cost.
Renault is also pushing hard for success in markets like Russia, which currently seem to be immune from the sales downturn. At this week’s Moscow Motor Show it launched a new version of its Symbol, a tail-heavy notchback, rather smaller than the Safrane but with the same philosophy of a lot of car for the money. This model is derived from the Clio and built in Turkey.
Adding the new Safrane to its portfolio in a potentially lucrative regional market is clearly a low-risk strategy for Renault, which needs in any case to broaden its appeal and presence if it is to compete as a global brand. If the new model flops then it won’t be nearly as embarrassing or costly as previous attempts proved.
In the longer term, the success or otherwise of the project may also help the company decide how to replace the current Vel Satis flagship. Its European successor has reportedly been put on hold in the wake of the current economic downturn.
It’s still hard to imagine a future President of the Republic sweeping up the Champs-Elysées in a Korean car sporting the Renault logo, but time will tell.
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