The French Government has always played a major role in promoting engineering innovation and design for the proletariat, and the innovative design work practiced by Gustave Eiffel, André Citroën and Michelin, Andrée Putmann, Jean Paul Gaultier, Philippe Starck, et al., commonly encapsulates what Starck calls “the democratisation of design”. 

Nowhere is democratic design more evident than 
at Renault, a pioneering automobile company once owned by the state, and all about bringing sporty, thrifty, design-forward transport to the people using its ‘des voitures à vivre’ (cars for living) philosophy.

In 1956, the Renault 4, designed by Pierre Dreyfus as 
a ‘blue jeans’ car, was the French answer to Germany’s Beetle and Italy’s Fiat 500. Now the world’s fifth largest car producer, thanks to its alliance with Japanese Nissan Group, Renault’s future rests on its ability to innovate while mining its rich design heritage, all without appearing Francocentric.

Dutch auto designer Laurens van den Acker has been tasked with retaining the French character of Renault while making its cars globally relevant. In 2013, a ‘blue jeans’ car needs to be safe, and cheap to buy and 
to run, and the shared platforms and technologies delivered by the Renault Nissan Alliance have equipped van den Acker with the tools to produce inexpensive cars quickly. The financial and social dictate of 
Renault/Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is clear: Renault is 
in the business of “making hamburgers and not sushi”.

And the future for hamburger cars, particularly in the fast-growing South American and Chinese markets with their heavily populated cities, means super-low emissions. Around the world, car makers are trying to appease frugal consumers and emissions-conscious governments with hybrid motors and electric drive trains that drastically reduce urban pollution, but the track record of electric and hybrid vehicles is blotted with failed promise.

The global take-up of alternative-fuel passenger cars has been far slower than anticipated, and the rollout of alternative fuels infrastructure, including charging and battery swap stations, is similarly sluggish.

Renault CEO, French–Lebanese–Brazilian impresario Carlos Ghosn, is a legendary ‘Mr Fixit’ in the auto industry. Ghosn famously quipped that “a hybrid (car) is like a mermaid: if you want a fish you get a woman; if you want a woman you get a fish”.

With every car company sending out a hybrid version, often more expensive than its petrol-fuelled derivative, Toyota expanding its well-known hybrid Prius family to include a hatch and a people mover, and all-electric vehicles like Tesla’s Model S exploiting a high end, performance 
market, Renault has embarked upon what van den Acker terms a “courageous” electric vehicle strategy.

Titled ZE, for zero emissions, it intends to embrace 
all-electric drive trains in a comprehensive, affordable 
range of passenger cars that do not alienate the conservative car buyer.

Van den Acker is known for his work at Mazda, where he oversaw a new, organic design language for the 
company based on the concept of ‘nagare’ or ‘flow’. In the four-vehicle ZE family, the most successful performers combine flowing lines with a quirky, slightly pugilistic character. The ZE suite sandwiches two familiar looking vehicles – a hatch and a sedan – between an open-sided, pillion-passenger quadricycle and a small van.

The two smallest vehicles, open-sided Twizy and the perky Zoe hatch, cheekily charge through the badge on their snouts.

The Renault team designed Zoe as a “reassuring” smart hatch, and the Twizy as “a conversation starter (that) makes you smile”. The Fluence sedan is badged and formed more conservatively, for as van den Acker points out, “the more mature the car, the more serious the face”.

The Kangoo van is a classic boxy van. Renault built an infrastructure to lease the batteries, significantly reducing the ticket price on each vehicle, and launched an online video campaign titled ‘The Electric Life’, which may be the most effective campaign to date for championing electric drive trains to buyers more interested in upfront cost and reliability than game-changing technology.

Their mantra is simple: “You’ve already switched to electricity for many things, so why not for travelling?” The accompanying video shows our simplest everyday appliances running on thimblefuls of oil and belching fumes. In less than four minutes, with only the last few seconds depicting any sort of vehicle, ‘Drive the Change’ renders the concept of internal combustion engines as completely archaic.

Interestingly, the buyers lining up to drive the change with ZE are not buying the familiar shapes. Sales of the Fluence sedan are flat, but the light commercial ZE Kangoo, with its utilitarian form and 160 kilometre range, tops the ZE sales, followed by the unconventional zipper-doored carnivale-esque Twizy.

Zoe, the neatly styled and keenly priced hatch launched at the end of 2012, is off to a flying start with a 2000-unit order from the French Government, but overall it would appear that European electric vehicle customers, at least, are looking for either extreme utility, or functional quirk.

ZE is just one part of Ghosn’s grand plan for Renault. Van den Acker was given “free rein” to work up a new Renault logo, and “a new chapter, a white sheet” to design the company’s iconic, multi-award-winning combustion engine hatch, the Clio.

Like all modern 
auto designers, van den Acker has supersized, lowered and centred the signature vertical lozenge, planting it squarely on the nose of signature vehicles like the Twizy, Zoe, Clio and Megane. His vision for Renault returns to a focus on ordinary living with a six-petal daisy diagram expressing the cycle of life, and three key words: Simple, Sensual, Warm.

Van den Acker acknowledges that the fate of Renault rests in a vision that resonates with a mass market, noting: “The corporates realised the importance of the new design expression for the company’s future. We needed 
to get this one right.”

Utilising the full force of its Nissan-enhanced production and technology capabilities, the rollout of Renault’s new visual identity has been swift: the sensuous DeZir 2-seater coupe concept in 2010 emoted “falling in love”, the 2011 crossover concept Captur “explored the world”, the R-Space indicated “the time has come for them to start a family” and Frendzy was all about the work–family balance.

This year will see the debut of the Captur as a production vehicle, and the unveiling of a “play” concept in April. According to van den Acker, we still have the concept of “wisdom” to look forward to.

The design language so far is less boxy than traditional Renault, but flows with the right degree of Gallic swagger. Clio IV is the first production vehicle to bring Circle of Life language to the masses, and is equipped “with the right guts”, courtesy of Renault Sport F1, to continue the model’s winning streak. (It also features 
a plastic “baguette” on the lower edge of each door to accommodate drivers banging doors into kerbs, 
a feature no doubt relevant to emerging markets as in France).

Van den Acker also plans to resurrect Renault’s sports heritage and some of its iconic race cars including the Alpine – “it’s every little kid’s dream!” – but for now, under the watchful eye of Carlos Ghosn, he is focused on this century’s ‘blue jeans’ car.

Whether that is the Clio IV, Zoe or possibly a future ZE Captur, is out of his hands and up to the consumers. “I’m primed for the future, not for the past” he says, but once Circle of Life is realised “we can go to the attic and dust off!”  


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