RENAULT CONCEPT: The shape of things to come
05 August 2011
Renault is to unveil a commercial vehicle concept at the Frankfurt motor show that signals its new design direction. James Dallas glimpses a brave new world
The first thing you have to do when entering Renault's vast global research and development centre at Guyancourt, near Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, is to hand over your passport.
Next you sign a confidentiality agreement in case you were thinking of breaking any embargoes.
With the help of an escort and a couple of electronic security passes you are then permitted to venture into the inner sanctum, although the most sensitive areas remain under lock and key, hidden from prying eyes, particularly those belonging to interested parties from rival manufacturers.
This is where Renault decides upon its future direction, pores over and (literally) dissects its competitors' products and determines its own DNA.
BusinessCar's sister title What Van? was invited into this secretive world to get a sneak preview of the process behind the manufacturer's latest commercial vehicle concept, codenamed the Z27.
What's in a name?
Renault's design director for concept cars, Axel Breun, explains that the 'Z' designates zero-emissions, for the vehicle will be battery-powered, while the '27' signifies that this is the 27th concept to come out of Renault since former design director Patrick le Quement revolutionised its design operation in 1988.
Breun reports to Renault's current head of design, the Dutchman Laurens Van den Acker, who has stamped his influence on the manufacturer since taking up his role in 2009, having previously worked for Ford and Mazda, by encouraging it to reassert its core brand values.
As Breun recalls, Van den Acker instructed the design team to ask: "What does Renault mean?"
Citing examples of strong brands, Breun says Toyota has successfully established a "global-centric" identity, which, he confesses, is a little too bland for his taste. BMW, for instance, although not present in the commercial vehicle market, has nurtured an aggressive, power-orientated image and Breun says it is time for Renault to rediscover its own essence with fresh and sensual designs. Renault, he argues, should be "human-centric and emotional", less cold and functional than other brands. He insists its identity should be expressed just as strongly in its commercial vehicles as in its passenger cars.
"France is in between Germany and Italy and we are trying to shift more towards the Latin world," says Breun.
Renault's new design strategy is based upon a 'circle of life' philosophy encompassing the ideas of exploration, family, work, play, wisdom and love. The project's first design to emerge in clay from the modelling room was the Dezir (Desire) sports car. The Z27 is the fourth design, and will represent the family and work elements of the circle. Renault imagines it being used by a family business making and delivering its own produce.
The day before our visit to Guyancourt in late June, the design team bestowed the name Frendzy upon the concept, which it believes conveys the sense of warmth and user-friendliness that it hopes emanates from the design as well as once more highlighting its zero emissions with the inclusion of the letter Z. It is under this somewhat cuddly name that the concept will make its public debut at September's Frankfurt motor show.
Breun says of Frendzy: "It's a little bit like a pet - it's always with you at work and with the family." Renault envisages the Frendzy as functioning as a working van during the week and as a family vehicle at weekends.
The clay model we saw envisages a vehicle that features an enlarged access to the interior due to the lack of a B-pillar. It is asymmetrical with the near-side, or "work side", reached through a sliding door and the off-side accessed via hinged pillorless doors, which open like French doors, or, as Breun describes them, "antagonistically".
From the rear it looks more like a conventional LCV although the use of fibre optic LED lights free up more interior space by eliminating the need for bulb units.
The concept features split rear doors with the upper portion swinging open in the conventional manner like, for example, on a car-derived van. But the lower section folds down parallel to the rear bumper in order to reduce the space required for parking when loading and unloading the cargo area.
But it's back on that sliding "work-side" door that Renault has really decided to go for something revolutionary. Thanks to a partnership with smartphone producer Blackberry, the driver will be able to project images and messages onto the exterior of the door, which doubles up as a screen, from a small laptop-sized computer integrated into the cockpit. If the screen is not advertising the owner's business it can give details and times of the tradesperson's booking availability or display messages such as 'back in five minutes'. Breun says one reason for using a sliding door for the screen is so that it is always in the same easy-to-view position - flat with the near side of the vehicle.
"The inspiration for the screen came from the pixilated walls used in motoring shows," he explains.
In family mode images and children's games can be projected onto a screen inside the vehicle.
Deyan Denkos, the exterior designer, has introduced another innovation in the form of a flexible fabric roof. But this is no run-of-the-mill soft top - the intention is for the material to be elastic and tough enough to stretch around a load that would otherwise be too big for the van's interior to carry.
"The vehicle is compact but it can carry more because of this last-minute solution," Denkos says. "We are testing materials and the structure now."
A clay mock-up of the interior in the modelling room shows that the creativity of Renault's design team did not stop with the Frendzy's exterior. The driver's cockpit includes a bulkhead and safety system integrated into the Seat and the structure of the vehicle. Therefore the seat remains fixed but the block holding the steering wheel and the foot pedals moves to suit the required driving position. Renault claims getting the ergonomics right for the driver is a priority for the designers. The seats themselves will be covered with woven leather.
Interior designer Ana Zadnik devised Frendzy's distinct work and family "faces". "Nowadays your job intersects with your private life. My inspiration comes from both the workshop and home," she says.
The cockpit is fitted with a plethora of accessory plugs, which are used to attach storage fixtures. These come as hangers, cup holders and containers for holding small objects. The plugs can switch between green in work mode and a "warmer orange" in family guise while the load space can be filled with delivery boxes fixed to the floor magnetically.
The vehicle also features a code sensor on the inside of the rear door that works like a supermarket barcode reader - able to display information such as load weight or sell by date if the goods are perishable.
Before Renault's vehicles of the future are shaped out of clay in the modelling room the concepts start life on the drawing boards in the design studio, which, bathed in natural light from extensive glass panels, is more reminiscent of an art college seminar or perhaps a botanical house at Kew Gardens than an integral cog in the machine of an industrial powerhouse.
The process usually involves a designer making a sketch by hand, which can then be scanned onto a computer and worked on in 2D or 3D images.
Before Van den Acker took the helm, the design studio was separated according to vehicle segments. He removed the divisions and put the designers in one space to foster a greater degree of coherence across all the models in the brand's range.
"Now they all feed from each other," says Breun.
He stresses that for consumers, the face of a brand is very important.
"Renault had gone a little bit everywhere," he admits, becoming known for individual models rather than for the brand as a whole.
Consumer surveys indicated that customers didn't know what Renault stood for, so Van Den Acker set about creating a "unified front end" for the line-up without compromising the freedom of the designers.
"Each vehicle has its own interpretation," Breun claims.
He says the inspiration for a vehicle design can come from anywhere (the studio is strewn with books, magazines and a variety of intriguing objects), but suggests the growth of the internet has made the process easier than before.
There is, of course, no guarantee that an idea will make it beyond the clay model stage - the equivalent of getting left on the cutting room floor - but Breun reckons it typically takes four or five years for a vehicle to develop from concept to production stage.
He says the Z27 sets out to prove that "even a utility vehicle can be very attractive" and suggests the model could set the tone for the brand's commercial vehicles taking on a more sensual appearance in future. He is cagey, however, when it comes to predicting when the Frendzy might make it onto the production line. Renault's current small van, the second-generation Kangoo, still has plenty of life left in it having launched just two years ago. Though Renault's history of putting concepts into production means we should expect to see a version of the Frendzy on the road in the future.
Once a new Renault concept has passed muster in the design studio and met with approval in the modelling room, the design files are passed onto Renault's coachbuilder, Protostyle, which is conveniently situated close to the Guyancourt complex. Protostyle boss Jean-Marc Pineau says it generally takes four to five months to build a concept vehicle once it has received the design. Renault keeps all its previous models dating back to 1898, including Prototypes, in a warehouse at its Flins factory north of Paris. The one-off, hand crafted concepts, it claims, are generally valued at circa £1m.
What Van? had the chance to see the Renault Frendzy being bolted together in preparation for its debut at the Frankfurt motor show in September. Once the doors were in place the body builders successfully negotiated the tricky manoeuvre of slotting the front grille into position before fitting the bonnet, which slammed shut with a reassuring clunk. All of a sudden it did not require a suspension of disbelief to imagine an evolution of the Frendzy busily delivering to stores on the local high street.