Bosses at Renault are demanding the production of higher quality vehicles in a bid to help them win a greater share of the UK fleet market.
Upgraded manufacturing standards aimed at enhancing reliability, improving fit and finish and extending service life should start paying dividends in the UK fleet industry by the end of next year, claims chairman and chief executive officer Louis Schweitzer.
Speaking as the French company launched Sport Tourer and Sport Saloon versions of the Megane II at the Barcelona Motor Show, Schweitzer said he believed Renault products rated well with their competitors when compared in terms of overall quality. But he sounded a note of caution, adding; 'When I think about where I want our company to be in future, there is room for improvement – so we have set ourselves the major goal of improving quality in all areas over the next 18 months.
'Since we introduced Laguna II, we have made significant improvements in perceived quality. However, reliability is an issue and we are finding that electronics can create headaches.
'In addition, we are concerned about durability and we have set the target of extending the useful life of our cars to 300,000km, rising to 400,000km for our light commercial vehicles. We are already making good progress in the first area, but our alliance with Nissan is proving to be a great help with reliability and durability because the Japanese are the masters of process.'
An aggressive marketing campaign is being planned to provide Renault with a foothold in two new areas of the business car sector.
Volkswagen and Ford will be the targets when the French firm launches fresh new versions of the Megane range in the lower medium saloon and estate segments later this year, Schweitzer claimed.
Due out in November, the new Sport Saloon and Sport Tourer models will compete head-on with their Bora and Focus rivals, front runners in niche areas that accounted for 8% of total C-segment sales in Britain last year.
He said: 'The campaign will begin in July when prices will be announced well ahead of availability. We feel customers will be impressed with the package. We are looking to achieve 8,000 extra registrations with these models in 2004 and we'll get there with competitive pricing as well as offering class-leading levels of equipment.'
Launched at the Barcelona Motor Show, the variants are significantly bigger than their predecessors and boast longer passenger compartments than the Laguna. Schweitzer said: 'The previous cars achieved a total of 680,000 sales, but our ambitions are higher with the new models.
'We regard them as conquest vehicles and because they are more spacious and finished to a higher level, we are confident they will help us break into higher categories across Europe. Sharing 80% of their parts with the hatchbacks, these cars have been optimised without compromise. They will allow us to broaden our customer base.'
At 61mm longer than the hatch, the wheelbase of the new models allows extra legroom and longer rear doors for easier access. Load capacity of the Tourer is also claimed to be best-in-class at 520 litres.
The Tourer comes with electric variable-assist steering, anti-lock braking with emergency brake assist, a tyre pressure monitoring system and ESP.
Renault UK officials expect fleet buyers to account for 75% of Sport Tourer and 60% of Sport saloon sales. UK market models will have a choice of three petrol engines of 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0-litre capacity, and the diesel choice will be from 80bhp and 100bhp versions of the 1.5-litre dCi unit and a 1.9-litre dCi producing 120bhp. A 140bhp turbodiesel option will be available later.
Asked about his views on the Avantime, which was dropped from production in February only 18 months after being launched, Schweitzer said: 'Avantime is a sad story with a sad ending and the question is: why did it end this way? I think we probably overestimated the niche sector for the coupe Espace. It attracted a number of people, but fewer than we thought.
'Then the execution of the car was not up to standard. The launch was too late and quality was not perfect. The saddest part about it is that we were enjoying the best sales of the car during its last month.'
Schweitzer also admitted output of the Vel Satis luxury model was 'below expectation' at 100 units per day – half the planned volume – but he insisted Renault had no need of a separate brand for a high-end car to compete with German premium models.
'We have talked in the company for years about adopting an upmarket brand. I have been against it for the 11 years I have been chief executive and nothing I have seen has changed my mind. The history of Renault shows it is legitimate for us to go upmarket with a car like the Vel Satis. It would not be productive for us to have another brand,' he said.