PARIS - David Arveiller is the kind of customer Renault had in mind when it launched the Megane Scenic.
The 31-year-old marketing executive and his wife have young twins. Just over a year ago, he bought a 1.9-liter Scenic diesel.
'We wanted a family car,' he said. 'The choice was either a minivan or wagon. We ruled out a wagon because they are too long for Paris. We thought of the Espace, but a fully-equipped diesel model was too expensive.'
With an 11 percent rebate, Arveiller paid FF140,000 ($24,100) for his new Scenic with options.
'It's a handy car,' said Arveiller, who works for a French luxury goods company. 'But we also like its style.'
Customers like Arveiller gave Renault the surprise hit of 1997, and journalists named it the 1997 Car of the Year. Almost every other carmaker will follow Renault into the new compact minivan segment, starting with Fiat and Opel this autumn.
Renault not only invented a niche, it boosted its lower-medium sales overall. Total Megane production is running 12 percent higher than expected.
Renault initially planned to build 2,500 Meganes a day, or 550,000 annually. With the Scenic selling well above expectations, the daily rate for all versions is 2,800, or 616,000 a year.
The Scenic accounted for 35 percent of Megane volume in the first 10 months of 1997. When introduced in October 1996, a year after the hatchback, it was expected to make up 20 percent.
Renault says the reasons for the Scenic's success differ from country to country. In France the Scenic accounts for 48 percent of Megane sales. French customers like the concept, said Remi Deconinck, Renault vice president for product planning.
'It reflects a way of life,' he said. 'It's also a fashionable car.'
In the Netherlands, where the Scenic has 50 percent of Megane volume, 'people like its rationality,' said Deconinck. 'They talk about the size of the trunk, the functionality.
'In Italy, it is the opposite. The car is attracting young, affluent, male executives who usually buy a wagon.' The Scenic accounts for 57 percent of Megane sales in Italy.
Increasing output to keep up with demand has meant unplanned investment. Renault decided last February to spend FF30 million ($5 million) to raise the capacity in Douai from 700 units to 1,000 units. In July, it had to commit another FF200 million for new equipment in the body and paint shops. The new daily target of 1,400 units is due to be reached early this month when a third shift starts.
The Scenic was added to the Megane range in 1992, after development was already underway.
'We knew that the customer was eager for a compact minivan,' Deconinck said. 'The problems were technical. Would the Scenic be attractive enough if it had to share common parts with other models? But we looked at Japanese carmakers and discovered that it was possible to make different models through the same manufacturing process.'
The next two years will be critical.
Competitors are coming, beginning with the Fiat Multipla and Opel Zafira this autumn. Next year, Citroen, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi will likely introduce compact minivans. Ford and Peugeot will enter the segment later.
But Renault is prepared. A facelifted Scenic should appear in 1999. At that time, it might even become an autonomous model inside the Renault range.
'When it comes to the Scenic,' says Deconinck, 'everything is possible.'