Although I don’t mention it very much, my degree is in American Studies and Marketing; most people find my course pretty unusual (particularly the American Studies aspect) and although it’s pretty unexciting in the nitty gritty, it does at least give me some interesting topics of conversation when it comes up.
Doing a dual honours degree also meant that my dissertation ended up being a little different from the norm too. Most third year students in the UK have to do some sort of final project/dissertation in a field of their choosing, as long as it comes under the umbrella of ‘History’, ‘Geography’ or whatever subject they are taking, but somewhat thankfully I didn’t have to to two separate ones to cover both halves of my degree. Only American Studies required me to complete an extended essay, but rather than researching and writing about some obscure presidential race or civil war battle I decided to combine both aspects of my studies in a piece of work called ‘How has consumerism been debated in the United States since the 1970’s’. Rereading even that title takes me back to hours upon hours pouring over library books and also makes me cringe at how simplistic I was choosing such a broad title…but I digress.
In the subsequent 3 years since I have finished my degree that dissertation topic has reared it’s head seldom often, more often than not in relation to university experiences, but also occasionally how consumerism/commercialism has continued to grow as a source of problem for both the global economy and society on a more local scale. My brother drew my attention to this issue again when he lamented about the ‘Americanization’ of UK’s society in recent years, particularly in regards to housing, cars, shopping and bizarrely parking habits too. Now I can’t really say I agree on all of the things he ranted about (after all you are talking about somebody who drives a BMW SUV and finds shopping malls and retail parks fascinating), but I certainly agree that the UK’s fascination with upmarket products has reached levels that certainly match and may even exceed the USA’s.
One glaring example that has emerged over the past decade or so has been in the car industry (what else with me right?!), where sales of premium cars have rocketed and more mainstream manufacturers, whilst still selling lots of cars have seen shrinking profit margins and market share greatly eaten into as buyers focused on the brand switch to Beemers and Mercs, aided by cheap financing and a low interest rates. The situation is now so advanced that previous big-sellers like the Ford Mondeo have been left to wilt (European buyers are still awaiting the new-for-2011 Ford Fusion) whilst others have been completely withdrawn from sales like the Renault Laguna (at least in the UK market, along with half of Renault’s line-up). Buyers of these big saloons and other vehicles have flocked to crossovers, MPV’s and basically anything else that doesn’t scream ‘UNCOOL’ as loudly as any of those rep-mobiles.
Renault in particular is an interesting case, especially as it’s brother-in-arms Nissan has benefitted hugely from the buyers switch to cars like the Juke and Qashqai. Apart from culling the various Laguna derivatives back in 2012, they also got rid of the Wind roadster, Modus compact MPV, Kangoo van/lifestyle MPV and former range-topper Espace. None of these vehicles sold in particularly large numbers, but the Espace particularly must have dealt a blow for dealers looking for some sort of aspirational product to lure high-spenders in with. Admittedly the Espace’s design debuted in 2002 and was getting on for a decade old, but now it has finally been properly overhauled and given a modern twist which could well draw some buyers back in.
The Espace has now been turned into a large crossover along the lines of a giant Qashqai of sorts; it’s general dimensions are pretty similar to before (albeit with a longer bonnet) but the ride height is raised alongside some chunkier styling and of course larger wheels. Overall the effect is quite attractive, with a very interesting side profile and rear 3/4 view matching the bold front-end in a bid to create a strong brand identity across the Renault line-up…with a little more va va voom shall we say. Unfortunately I havn’t yet seen pictures of the car’s interior, but as a £30k car one can only assume that it will be a more upmarket version of the tech-laden cabins inside the likes of the new Clio and Captur…so pretty attractive overall and available in either 5 or 7 seat guises.
Under the bonnet the Espace has also benefitted from another recent trend – engine downsizing. Unlike in the US where smaller turbo petrol engines are boosted to give similar performance to larger predacessors, in Europe it seems that mainstream manufactures are content to offer the lowest power engines they can without endangering the lives of drivers. That means that most Espaces will come with a 1.6dci engine, with ballsier customers having the option of a 2.0dci producing circa 170bhp (versus I’d guess 120bhp for base versions). I know that most buyers will lap up the much lower emissions and supposed higher fuel efficiency of these options, but I can’t help think that buyers in this price bracket would probably appreciate a little more power in their 2-tonne, all-wheel-drive, family vehicle.
And that’s probably what Renault HQ were worrying about when they made the decision not to bring the new Espace to the UK market; in an age where a well specced Megane can list for well over £20k it seems that it may even be conservative to suggest a £30k starting price for the new crossover. With range-toppers hovering at a likely £40k with AWD, posh wheels and auto gearbox, you’re looking at a Renault that is dangerously close to big-hitters like the Volvo XC90 and even smaller models like the BMW X3 and Audi Q5, let alone Korean rivals like the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe, which now strangely command more respect than any French car on sale today. Sad as it might be, Renault have definitely made the right choice for now whilst buyers are content being weened on a very German diet.
Interestingly Renault’s previous attempt at a crossover failed dismally in the UK too; the Koleos was an admittedly lazy design based off of a South Korean Samsung (yes they make cars too!). Unfortunate styling and relatively high pricing meant that it was dead in the water even before it went on sale, and it was withdrawn in 2010 after just 2 years on sale. That said I am seeing quite a lot of Renault Capturs on UK roads, so maybe when the Laguna is inevitably reborn as a crossover in a couple of years time (more or less confirmed) they will consider fighting for a slice of one of the biggest growing European market segments…we’ll have to see.