4/1/2002 | 5 MINUTE READ

Renault's Up-Scale Gamble

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First shown as a concept in September 1998 at the Paris Show to celebrate Renault's centenary, the Vel Satis has now made it into series production—more or less intact.


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First shown as a concept in September 1998 at the Paris Show to celebrate Renault's centenary, the Vel Satis has now made it into series production—more or less intact. Its mission is to win sales for the French automaker in the executive sedan sector, where annual European sales hover around 1.9 million units, some 12-13% of the market. It is one dominated by sedans that take just under 50%, with station wagons, people carriers, cabriolets, and coupes accounting for the rest. One of the peculiarities of the market for top-of-the-range vehicles is its geographical concentration around four countries—Germany, the UK, Italy and France— which account for 80% of all sales. Germany alone represents 48%, which helps explain the dominance of German manufacturers in this segment.

It will be no easy task for the Vel Satis to break into this sector, especially as Renault has failed to establish any sort of presence in the executive car class outside of France. This is partly due to its failure to maintain the quality levels demanded by customers in this sector, while at the same time its offerings have been rather dull. The Safrane, for example, its current offering, is a worthy model but lacks any sort of image. In fact, ask most Europeans what they first think of when they think "Renault," and it is small and medium-sized cars that are generally reliable. While one option could have been simply to vacate the sector, much in the way that Ford withdrew a few years ago following its experience with the disastrous Scorpio, Renault has more lofty ambitions. It has taken the view, much as Peugeot did a couple of years ago, that it is no good taking on the German brands head on—that is a tried and failed policy—if it wants to compete in the executive car sector. Rather, it has to make an alternative offering. This is a risky strategy, but one thing in its favor making it a viable proposition is that over the last few years Renault has successfully built up an image of innovation and leading-edge design—and this is the cue for the Vel Satis.

When thinking of an executive car, the three-box shape almost automatically leaps to mind. "But why?" asks Renault. It is convinced that there are customers in the marketplace who have tired of the shape and want something different. Quite what these "selective moderns", as Renault defines them, think of the new model is too early to say, but whatever it is, the Vel Satis is distinctive. From its front grille, with the strongly dimensioned Renault logo, to the compact back end, with its huge panoramic window, its layout is highly structured.

Chief among the design features is the size of the cabin. By adding more height—13 cm compared to the Safrane—and adopting a long wheelbase—284 cm—the Vel Satis offers interior space unequalled in this segment. Its doors are designed to allow entry and exit without bending, and ease of access is improved by the higher than normal seats. As on Laguna II, the traditional key is replaced by a card that is inserted into the reader by the driver, who then presses the start/stop button and sets off straightaway without giving a second thought to the handbrake. This is because the traditional handbrake is replaced by a new automatic parking brake that is unlocked when the engine is switched on and locks again when it is next switched off. Other features resulting from extensive multiplexing include adaptive cruise control, automatic headlamp illumination, rain sensors, parking proximity sensors, a fuel flap with integrated opening (eliminating the cap), ESP, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Safety features include emergency braking assistance, a programmed restraint system, two adaptive front airbags, four side airbags and two curtain airbags.

There are four engine variants in the range, two gasoline and two diesel. Most powerful of all is the 3.5-liter 24-valve V6 gasoline engine that produces 245 bhp and a maximum torque of 330 Nm. The 2.0-liter 4-cylinder 16-valve turbo engine produces 166 bhp at 5,000 rpm and has a constant torque output of 250 Nm from 2,000 to 4,250 rpm. The more powerful of the diesel engines is the 3.0-liter common-rail turbodiesel V6 that delivers 180 bhp at 4,400 rpm and a torque output of 350 Nm from 1,800 rpm while the 4-cylinder, 16-valve 2.2 dCi turbodiesel engine produces 150 bhp at 4,000 rpm. Maximum torque is 320 Nm at 1,750 rpm. These engines are mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the new model (after its shape) is the new trigon-type linkage patented by Renault that it says guarantees precise behavior despite a center of gravity that is higher than in most sedans. It provides excellent noise insulation due to its mounting on a filtered subframe that is isolated from the body. Its high transverse stiffness allows lateral forces to be transformed into small self-steering movements of the wheels. The car therefore takes curves more easily and naturally. Particularly compact, this new rear suspension linkage is fitted around the fuel tank, the exhaust, the floor, the sill panels and the rear overhang, while retaining long wheel travel (230 mm). This contributes to comfort and makes for easier control of variation in spring rate close to the bump stops. This layout results in a considerable saving of space in the cabin to the benefit of the luggage compartment.

The Vel Satis is being produced at Renault's Sandouville plant in Normandy, where the Laguna II mid-range sedan is also produced. To date, the French automaker has invested approximately $600-million in renovating production systems. This includes $250-million for stamping, $190-million for body assembly (it is 95% automated with 400 robots), $75-million for painting, and around $70-million for final assembly. The production target time is 15 hours per vehicle. Renault has also installed an industrial supplier park on the site at Sandouville that brings together six of the major suppliers–Antolin, Faurecia, Inoplast, Lear, Solvay, and Sommer Allibert. Construction of the supplier park cost around $11-million, with investment in the buildings financed by Renault with funding from local, regional and national authorities to the tune of 20%.

Renault anticipates that its new model will take around 3% of the executive segment in Europe, with a modest sales target of 300,000 units between 2002-2008. It also estimates that Germany, France and the UK will account for around 70% of this total. This in itself should be an achievable figure, but a great deal depends on whether the French automaker has really assessed its potential customers correctly. A great deal is therefore riding on the "selective moderns," whether they know it or not.