BRUCE GAIN

New Clio sets tone for Renault's future

Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.
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The new Renault Clio's bold design and attractive options could help the company regain traction in Europe's biggest segment, where the French automaker has struggled. The subcompact's sensual looks make it stand out from the three previous generations, which is what Renault design chief Laurens van den Acker wanted for the first car he managed from start to finish since joining the company from Mazda in 2009.

Market watchers say the Clio does what van den Acker promised: It sets the tone for a new, more consistent style for upcoming Renaults.

"As the first hint of what we are going to see in the future, I think it bodes quite well for the company," said Ian Fletcher, an analyst at IHS Automotive.

Van den Acker told me a couple of years ago that Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn said the French automaker is in the business of "making hamburgers and not sushi." It was Ghosn's way of reminding the designer that the carmaker's styling should be more mainstream. But the Clio shows that mainstream doesn't have to mean boring.

"The design should draw interest in the showroom, which Renault is desperately in need of," said Fletcher said. "It will be interesting to see how it will [appeal] to drivers in French villages or around Europe."

Renault also packed the car with affordable options such as its new R-Link infotainment system and a back-up camera. Even with the upgrades, Renault has lowered the new Clio's starting price in France to 13,700 euros compared with the 13,950-euro base price for the car's previous generation. Renault started taking orders for the new Clio this week.

Renault needs to find the right price and the right perks if it wants to become more competitive in Europe's crucial subcompact segment, where the Clio ranked fourth in 2011 behind the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo and Opel/Vauxhall. Renault sold 305,000 Clios last year, down 13 percent from 2010 and well below the 420,600 units sold in 2007, according to market researchers JATO Dynamics. That means Renault will need a sales surge to reach its European sales target of 350,000 units to 400,000 units in Europe.

If it achieves the tough target, the fourth-generation Clio would provide Renault the kind of momentum needed to end its struggles in its most important market.

You can reach Bruce Gain at bgain@crain.com.

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