Ali Kassai was named executive vice president, product planning and programs at Renault on April 1. He is also a member of the group's executive committee. Before that, he oversaw development of the Clio, Captur and Twingo programs at Renault, and he also led the group's collaborative projects with Daimler. Kassai, who holds a doctorate in the field of electromechanical vibrations, spoke with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Peter Sigal at last month's Frankfurt auto show about Renault's current and future lineups as well as the next steps in its relationship with Daimler.
Midsize and large minivans and sedans are losing sales in Europe to crossovers and SUVs. How will you serve buyers who still want lots of space?
The challenge is to continue to satisfy the customer, keeping in mind trade-offs between the size of the car and the functionality and roominess inside. A few years ago, functionality was driving the whole car purchase, but now buyers are willing to make trade-offs. If you think about the Captur, for example, it is a something of a successor to the Modus [small minivan]. Modus customers were very happy, and the price was low -- that's good for customers but not so good for our profits. What we tried to do with the Captur was keep the function but add more style and design. It's about emotions, and the car industry is partly about rationality, and partly about emotions.
The minicar segment is also declining. What is the future there?
We have seen some competitors leave the segment in Europe, but there's still a real customer need for cars this size. Although you don't have the scale effect of a global car, we will stay in that segment and fight for market share because Renault was one of the first to historically develop that market.
Will Renault continue to collaborate with Daimler on a minicar once the current Twingo and Smart ForFour reach the end of their life cycles?
It's a little bit early to say. We are thinking about the next generation, but it's not done yet.
What's the overall status of the Daimler collaboration?
The collaboration between Smart and the Twingo is very successful. We have achieved high quality and good feedback from the market. On the engine side, diesel, which was a big, big chunk of that cooperation, is going down. But the new 1.3-liter gasoline engine we have together is surpassing all our volume forecasts. On the vehicle side, we announced in August that we will develop the new Renault Kangoo and Mercedes-Benz Citan small vans together. This is an increasing segment with a lot of combinations. It's a huge program from a development point of view. There will be electric versions, so we have several drivetrain technologies, and there will be different sizes. Altogether, it's becoming a very big project.
How will the changing vehicle ownership model affect your business?
It's likely to keep the market stable or even increase sales, but it won't cannibalize the market in our opinion. People want their freedom and their individual use of cars. Many are coming to mobility through these new services. Therefore, we will have an expansion of the use of the cars. Altogether, we think the future use of cars is still quite bright.
Renault has shown concepts based on these new services, such as the EZ-GO robotaxi and EZ-Ultimo luxury autonomous vehicle. How will Renault develop these services?
We are considering what the business models and sales volumes for these vehicles will be. At first, volumes might be quite small, and that is why we are thinking about partnerships and collaborations. If you have a range of new mobility products, each one of them is very small, so you need the scale effect. One of the aspects we are investigating is how the brand relates to the ecosystem, for instance, should the brand apply to the service side or the vehicle side? We are still in the shaping period.
Renault will soon launch new electric vehicles on a dedicated EV platform developed with Nissan. Will that mean parallel internal combustion and electric vehicles, but on different vehicle architectures?
We look at it pragmatically. The issue with having only EV derivatives [of internal combustion platforms] is that there will be trade-offs. But if the customer accepts them, then it's wise to do derivatives from an industrial point of view.
You are not putting industrial logic first?
No, our starting point is the customer. I'm an engineer, but I try to forget that I'm an engineer.
Dacia has been a success story for Renault, but it does not offer electrified vehicles. How are you adapting Dacia to changing emissions standards?
Dacia sales are built into the Renault Group's emissions plans. Dacia's "proven technology" approach means that we will use amortized technological features from the Renault brand. Renault will become more and more technology-driven, as in what we are showing on the [hybrid] Clio and [plug-in hybrid] Captur, autonomous driving features and connectivity.
So eventually, you could have an electrified Dacia, using proven Renault technology?
Why not? That's the plan.