The more I’ve thought about this post, the more I’ve realised that no matter how I write it, it’s going to sound anti-American. That’s a shame, because I’m not anti-American at all.
My wife and I are actually in the beginning stages of planning a driving holiday there – sea to shining sea and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been to a few places in the US: felt ho-hum about LA and hated Detroit, but loved Seattle and Boston, and was completely awestruck after seeing only a minor glimpse of New York City.
So….. not Anti-American. Even if this post sounds like I am.
The automotive world is one that’s becoming smaller every year. That’s not in terms of sales, which keep expanding as developing nations become wealthier and demand more cars. It’s becoming smaller in terms of the convergence of companies through either sale or closure. It’s becoming smaller due to the fact that cars and car companies are becoming more and more alike through the pursuit of common fuel economy goals and adherence to common safety regulations.
It’s as if there’s a magic formula out there for The Car that will appeal to the most potential buyers and all car companies are pursuing that formula. Have you noticed how the basic shape of most sedans is the same these days? The only difference seems to be the face they draw on the front.
This is true of the global market in general terms, but it’s a concentrated truism in the world’s most established, mature, and cutthroat market – America. America’s one place I wouldn’t want to live as an automotive enthusiast. There are other places too, of course, but I don’t think I have to explain why I wouldn’t want to live in Afghanistan as an automotive enthusiast. America, however, does invite some explanation.
It’s not my distaste for American cars. There are a number of cars you can buy in the US that you can’t buy elsewhere, but aside from some of the stuff from Chrysler/Dodge, American vehicle styling just doesn’t appeal to me at all. So even though I’m not a fan, it’s not the cars that you can buy in America that make me glad I’m not an American car enthusiast. It’s the cars you can’t buy there.
Cars like the hot Ford Focus models. Any Alfa Romeos. Peugeots. Even the Dacia Duster and Skoda’s Yeti and RS vehicles have their merits and none of these can be bought in the US. There are a whole lot more, too. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read stories on US-based automotive websites that include the words “of course, we can’t get it here……”
Why is this? Well, Americans have particular tastes in powertrains, ride comfort and most crucially, price. It’s the most cutthroat market in the world and I’ll go as far as to say that whilst the desire for companies to succeed in America has led to some vehicles becoming better in some respects, the need to maintain profitability has also led to some degradation of materials and quality, as a result. Bottom line, the American market is driven primarily by price and volume and if a company can’t achieve those, or chooses not to worry about them, then that company needs either great margins, or some very deep pockets behind them.
One of the brands that Americans can’t buy is Renault. I’m no Renault aficionado but I’m becoming more and more interested in their RenaultSport line of vehicles. As a Saab person, the idea of a slightly odd looking hatchback with a 2-litre turbocharged engine and class-leading handling is quite appealing, and the RenaultSport Megane from a few years back is deliciously close to my price bracket right now. It’s nowhere near as practical as an old Saab hatchback, but a Saaby friend of mine had one a year or so ago and still raves about the driving experience.
Carlos Ghosn is a rare CEO, regardless of industry. He’s actually the head of two quite distinct automotive companies – one French, the other Japanese. They own bits of one another and there’s all sorts of corporate incest going on there, but basically, Renault and Nissan have managed to combine their corporate and national cultures into a combined entity that allows them to rely on and cooperate with one another, and yet still maintain independent brand identities.
That’s one reason I like him.
The reason I’m giving him the Swadeology Automotive Executive of the Year Award for 2012 – just two weeks or so into the year – is because he recently came out and said that Renault is not going to expand into America. Instead, Renault will focus their expansion efforts on developing markets, in particular the company’s introduction into China.
My interest in Renault is focused on their RenaultSport line of vehicles, comprising smaller vehicles finely tuned for bringing smiles on twisting, turning mountain passes and un-gridded city streets. These cars are about as un-American as you can get (check the video at the top-right of the page).
Renault, to me, is a European car made for European roads. It’s not particularly fancy in any way, but the cars do their job and carry their own certain je ne sais quoi whilst they do it. Some European car companies have adapted their cars for American life. They build them bigger, softer, more suited to the long and straight multi-lane highways that dominate there so much. And in order to be profitable in America, some manufacturers have to scale down on the materials or the sophistication of the vehicle. Compare Saab’s leathers in the 1980s to the last ten years. Or other interior trim parts, plastics, etc.
My experience from Saab tells me that a company selling in the American market sees itself subjected to a very large degree to what the company boss in the American market wants. Sometimes that can mean great things – the Saab 900 Convertible, for example. Other times, it can lead to a company setting aside some of its core traditions in the chase for the only thing that matters for most in the US auto market: volume.
The more a carmaker becomes dependent on higher volume instead of decent margins, the more that carmaker will de-content the vehicle.
I’ll freely admit that I’m an outsider when it comes to the US market and this is only my perspective. But the mainline car companies that are absent from the US market aren’t missing because they make bad cars. Renault is one of those companies, and they don’t make bad cars, either. In fact, their RenaultSport line is now ranked pretty consistently at the top of hot-hatch wishlists.
The decision by Ghosn to keep Renault on a steady course and preserve whatever DNA the company has is one that I applaud. And when you consider how easy it might be for him to piggyback an established Nissan dealership structure to reintroduce Renault in America, it’s even more cause for applause.