There are some people in the automobile world who have their finger on the pulse of the industry. They watch and track every move, and they are in their own right considered the leaders at what they do. One such individual is Chris Bangle, the former head of design at the BMW group. Now for over a year Chris has enjoyed setting up his own design studio and carries out specific assignments he takes on rather sparingly. Chris was in India recently, and I got the chance to spend a couple of days with him at Lavasa, near Pune, where he conducted a car design workshop. And what I found more encouraging than Chris’ humility and desire to interact with these students was the sheer belief he had in the fact that in the near future, Indian design talent will be at the forefront. Given the rapidly evolving industry here, the need for car and bike designers is going to suddenly jump, and this will not just be for India-specific products but products that would have a use in other emerging markets too.
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The reason I have begun with Chris and design this week, is to applaud the fact that India is really exciting today when it comes to the automobile sector. Every major automobile group is now represented here with either a manufacturing, assembling, retailing or sourcing presence. In 2010, we have seen an acceleration from the likes of Ford, Volkswagen and Nissan. And 2011 isn’t going to be any slower. We are going to see Audi, Volvo, and Toyota heat things up, besides Renault.
So after taking the slow and steady path to India, and ditching its joint venture with Mahindra, Renault is finally setting itself up for the big time. And no this doesn’t mean yet another small car. That too will come—but only in 2012. Before that we will get two mid-sized Renaults. In June, expect the Fluence—a mid-sized sedan that will compete with the Honda Civic and Skoda Laura. Following the Fluence by October will be the Koleos—a compact SUV that will be pitted against the Honda CR-V and the new Skoda Yeti. And I have test-driven both Renault cars, so I have lots to share.
First the Fluence. The car has a reasonably attractive design, and given it’s a Renault, the design makes it distinct enough to stand apart from the crowd. The Fluence has good stance, though it gives the impression of being more compact than it really is. The car’s got good ride height, and presence on the road. While I drove the 1.5 DCi or diesel engine, it’s not clear what will come to India. Renault is inclined to introduce a diesel and a petrol version, and so besides the 1.5 litre diesel, there is the option of 1.6 and 2 litre petrol engines for Renault to choose from. The Fluence is unexpectedly nimble and its gear shift (I had the manual) was also surprisingly quick, precise and taut. The interiors are also on a par with what one expects in this class. The fact that this is a French design though does show up inside too, with the shape of the dash and its textures again seeming different, in a pleasant sort of way.
Fluence: It’s distinctive enough to stand out from the mid-sized cars on Indian roads
The bits I didn’t like? The growly DCi motor is audibly apparent as being a common rail diesel at higher revs. The user interface on the car’s multimedia optional equipment was not great either. But then it’s too early to know what kind of bells and whistles the Indian version of the Fluence will have.
The Fluence is built on Nissan’s “C” platform, which is basically the base on which multiple car models are built. The same platform also supports cars such as the Renault Megane, a larger sedan than the Fluence, which is expected in India by 2012. The platform has also spawned SUVs such as Nissan’s own X-Trail which we have in India, Nissan Rogue, and similar to the X-Trail—Renault’s new Koleos. The Koleos, as I mentioned, shall be Renault’s second major launch in India, rolling off the company’s Chennai assembly line just as the Fluence will. The Koleos is a compact 4x4, so like many others before it, the SUV aims to offer a rugged ride coupled with urban convenience and highway power. That is exactly the segment that offers big growth prospects to many car makers. In India, the Koleos would be pitted against the CR-V and Yeti as I mentioned. With Skoda offering the Yeti from Rs15.40 lakh, pricing would be key for Renault. More premium offerings such as BMW’s X1 being priced below Rs20 lakh will also make it hard for Renault to position the Koleos well.
So what is it that sets the Koleos apart? Since it’s based on the X-Trail, a large part of the development work on the Koleos comes from Nissan, even though the exterior design and cabin are typical of Renault. The Koleos I drove had a 2 litre diesel engine—and I strongly expect this to make it to India on debut. The other options include a 2.5 litre petrol and another iteration of the same 2 litre diesel. The car’s looks take some getting used to though, the drive is smooth, yet the automatic gearbox on my car was a tad sluggish. It is also reasonably spacious (and no this one does not have a third row of seats) and has decent cargo space for road trips. The Koleos has the goods to take on the aforementioned competition, and even the recently launched Hyundai Santa Fe. But competing with brutes such as Toyota’s Fortuner may not be easy given its compact urban size.
Koleos: Renault plans to launch this compact, urban SUV in 2011.
The reason I am not getting into specifications in detail is that I know Renault hasn’t signed off on the final configuration of the cars for India. What I can tell you is that since the Koleos, Fluence and the others I mentioned earlier are built on the same platform, Renault-Nissan would seek aggressive volumes targets from the C platform. And given this plan, the platform sharing will lead to economies of scale, which could result in very aggressive pricing from the French biggie. That would truly shake things up in both segments that the Fluence and Koleos will play in. So I expect the Fluence at Rs10-12 lakh, while the Koleos should be priced at Rs6-19 lakh. That is the only way Renault will enjoy any kind of success. Add to that the quirky designs and good material quality, and I say bring it on. Let’s see if the Indian buyer gets fluent in French now!
Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is editor (auto), NDTV.
Write to Siddharth at email@example.com