Renault has introduced sweeping changes in manufacturing and systematic checking in a dramatic bid to win back the hearts of corporate drivers.
After a succession of reliability issues with the Laguna range cost it dearly in market share across Europe, the French firm is pulling out all the stops to make sure next-generation versions of its vital model boast top-line quality and reliability.
Laguna programme director Patrice Ratti told Fleet News: “We held 8% of the upper- medium segment across Europe when Laguna II was launched in 2001, but that has dropped to around 2%.
“As a result of our problems, the car no longer appears on many of the fleet chooser lists in the UK.
That is a situation we are keen to address because we want to be back in consideration as one of the market contenders.”
So what were the gaffes that were to prove so costly on the previous model?
“Maybe we sold too many cars in the first year and simply pushed sales too hard”, added M. Ratti.
“I don’t think we had the right engine range and the quality was not as good as it should have been.
We were first with key card technology and paid the price for rushing in with it.
Our last versions were much improved, but by then it was too late.”
Despite the model’s chequered career, the new Laguna is spearheading a drive to add 800,000 units to Renault sales in 2009 under an expansion plan announced by company chairman Carlos Ghosn.
The car is being pitched as among the top three in its segment in terms of product and service quality and will come with a sector-leading three-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Renault opened the doors of the Laguna factory at Sandouville in Normandy to show off the improvements it believes will pave the way for a fresh start with the fleet buyers who have been accounting for 75% of sales in Britain.
During a tour of the plant, which also produces the Espace and Vel Satis and is now focused on executive vehicles, manufacturing chief Michel Gornet said the use of best standards from within the Renault-Nissan Alliance had been preferred to investing in totally new systems – a decision that saw Renault borrowing heavily on the Nissan factory in Sunderland for ways to improve its assembly processes.
“We have reconfigured the flow of our operations, optimised all our work stations and worked very hard on the verification processes.
We take better care of our vehicles by using protective covers as they go through the line and every car is now subjected to a full electronic diagnostic check before it leaves.
“Believe me, all the quality problems of the previous car are now behind us”, he said.
One of the most significant Nissan “imports” is Strike Zone, a system that provides operatives with every component needed for every operation on the line.
Parts sorted by a computer system are delivered to the track and left within easy reach of workers.
“This might not be rocket science, but it saves lots of time and is a big factor in improved efficiency,” added M. Gornet.
Major fleet executives have already driven the Laguna and seen the revitalised factory, which now boasts 20 inspection stations – a far cry from the days when only one Laguna in 10 was singled out for inspection.
Now every car gets a thorough check and even passes through a new “anti-noise” zone near the end of the line where it is tested for rattles along with checks to make sure that doors close with the right “clonking” noise.
Just before it is driven through the door for a 600-metre test drive to evaluate ride, handling and suspension, every Laguna is now checked for wheel alignment.
In another attention to detail, no car is allowed to leave if its battery is under 90% charged.
M. Gornet added: “Our validation process has improved hugely. We’ve copied many ideas from Nissan and are following them closely. As a result, we’re turning out cars that are compliant and consistent.
“The Japanese have been here to look over the new set up, but I think we have proved that we can do the job.”
Asked for his views on the past, M. Gornet said: “We sold the Laguna with things that were badly designed.
“Keyless entry was a big issue. We kept fixing it but it was still not right. Then there were some turbo problems, which also took too long to fix. These were the issues that killed the car, especially with fleets.
“In the end, they just didn’t believe us – and who can blame them?
“We’ve had to take lessons from that. Thanks to improved validation, we now know that what is in the car does actually work.’