Market Conditions Threaten to Stall Renault’s Latest Coupé Push
By Andy Bannister
The sports coupé is arguably the ultimate embodiment of the style and sophistication which the auto industry likes to convey. For some makers, at least in good times, a coupé adds glamour and credibility in the showroom and profits for the shareholders.
For owners, such coupés are often irrational, heart-ruling-the-head choices, and the timing of a particular model is crucial to its success of failure. The omens therefore don’t look good for the latest instalment of Renault’s attempt to make the grade as a coupé company in Europe.
Despite occasional previous efforts, the French marque doesn’t have much of a reputation for grand tourers, so the onset of a major recession hardly bodes well for its most ambitious GT for decades, the new Laguna coupé.
The Laguna nameplate is to Renault what Passat is to VW, and the current Laguna is in its third generation. Up until now the cars have all been pretty dull fare. The most recent version of the mainstream Laguna saloon and estate are competent and well-made but have been roundly criticised for their curiously bland styling, and sales have been nowhere near Renault’s predictions, even before the vicious slowdown started.
Ironically, then, for a company whose styling efforts have often missed the mark, the new Laguna coupé looks spot-on, with real road presence and elegant lines, plus a high quality interior offering sumptuous comfort for four. It has the aura of a premium product, and car-spotters will struggle to recognise it as a humble Renault.
That is if they ever get to see one. Big coupés are hardly the most rational choice at the best of times, especially in Europe, and the Laguna’s timing could hardly be worse. Renault’s big car woes are such that talk is already turning to the company abandoning its very presence in the upper part of the market.
The mainstream Laguna bodystyles only managed to sell around a third of the Passat’s European volume in 2008. Rumours are already rife that the Laguna and its upscale stablemates, the Espace MPV and the disastrous Vel Satis executive car, are all living on borrowed time.
It’s hard to fathom why Renault ever thought a Laguna coupé would be a good idea, even in the boom era when the car was conceived. French rival Peugeot is one of the few mass makers present in this sector of the European coupé market, but its experience with its 407 coupé – which has seen sales drop steadily from a not-very-impressive start – can hardly have been much encouragement.
In different times, and with most assuredly a different badge disguising its national origins, its hard not to conclude the Laguna coupés most obvious chance of success would have been in the USA.
The prospects are hopefully a little rosier for Renault’s other new coupé offering, the rather impressive-looking new Megane, which is a stylish and interesting rival to the new VW Scirocco, and makes other coupé-style offering from Citroën (the C4) and Vauxhall/Opel (the Astra) look a little old hat.
The Megane range is Renault’s equivalent of the VW Golf/Rabbit and Ford Focus. The last model to carry the Megane badge had somewhat controversial looks with a pronounced rear “rump”, but the five-door and three-door had the same basic profile and proved a little too radical for many customers.
While the new Megane hatchback is therefore quite conservative – drab, even – its coupé version (with early versions all painted a striking bronze-orange shade) is a definite head-turner. The style is full of impressive little details (such as the bespoke, show car-like rear lights) which make it look much more special in the flesh than in pictures. It also manages to avoid sacrificing practicality, offering a bigger luggage compartment than its predecessor.
Both versions of the new Megane have a much classier interior than buyers normally expect in a Renault, and the standard coupé will soon be joined by a seriously hot Renaultsport version breathed on by the company’s racing division.
With a competitive price tag and those up-to the-minute looks, the Megane coupé should be storming out of showrooms if this was a normal year. As it stands at the moment, sales in 2009 will be lucky to match the level of its fading predecessor, which means Renault runs the risk of the new car’s striking styling dating before market conditions improve.
Whilst hot hatchbacks have been a huge success for Renault in recent years, its track record with coupés doesn’t bode that well for the prospects of what look like an impressive twosome on paper.
Back in the 1990s the first-ever generation of Megane was offered as a rather half-hearted two-door coupé with looks which didn’t quite work. For some reason most seemed to be painted yellow, a colour which accentuated the shortcomings in its clumsy styling.
Renault’s dismal history in this field dates back a lot further, though. In the 1950s the company came up with a rather pretty little coupé called the Floride, derived from the controversial rear-engined Dauphine. It had looks to match the Italians but was expensive and somehow never lived up to expectations.
Fast forward to the 1970s, and Renault tried again. The French maker’s line-up was expanding in all directions, and company managers observed the success of sporty coupés such as the Ford Capri and Opel Manta. Both these products offered distinctly transatlantic-inspired “aspirational” styling for a new generation of younger customers with money to spend.
Renault’s riposte was the very French-looking 17 coupé (and a smaller-engined twin, the 15, which inexplicably had a completely different treatment of the rear window and pillars). The car lasted eight years but was never a big seller.
Despite this, a successor was planned, the Renault Fuego, which had archetypal early 1980s styling. It was a storming hit for a year or so in Europe, but the styling dated incredibly quickly, and build quality was far from what it should have been. Later models ended up gathering dust in the company’s showrooms, ignored by buyers.
These were quintessentially French products sold with varying degrees of success across Europe, although a few 17s and rather more Fuegos even made it over to America, sold latterly through AMC dealers. Even the most ardent Francophiles would concede these efforts were hardly the Renault’s finest hour.
If the company’s coupé jinx does strike again, this time at least it won’t be the fault of the products.
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