Geoff Matthews agrees senior management has a lot to answer for: ‘The car industry is becoming increasingly cost-conscious, owing to the huge sums now involved in launching a new model. As a result, most managing directors are now finance-based, not product-based. And they’d rather play follow my leader than innovate. It’s safer that way. It may not be lucrative, but – for truly innovative ideas are usually highly profitable. And it may not be better for the industry. But it’s safer, and less likely to lose money.
For instance, after the launch of the Golf, other company bosses knew that concept – radical at the time – was successful , so they got their designers to design a car virtually based on the Golf. The Peugeot 205 was the next big step in the small car class. Other companies, when trying to design a 205 rival, used it as their base. That’s no way to innovate.
‘The phobia all major manufacturers have about market-researching a car has also stifled innovation. Of course, you can understand management wanting some feedback from the general public, before committing hundreds of millions of pounds to a project. But many clinics – where the public pass judgement on new prototypes – just aren’t done properly.
‘It’s pointless asking the general public properly to judge an advanced car. These are people with today’s eyes; what do they know about tomorrow’s cars? They don’t have the vision to see one step ahead. I know from experience that, if you clinic potential small cars buyers in France, many will be Renault 5 owners: if you’re new car looks like a Renault 5, you’re flattering their tastes and they’ll probably like it. They feel more comfortable with a car that looks like their own. Clinics can slow progress. Some clinics, of course, are run more professionally than others. You should only take so much notice of a clinic. Some makers take too much.’
Le Quement agrees that market research now has more power than ever before. ‘Test conditions, in clinics, are quite artificial. The public often get about two hours with the car. If they are surprised by something new, they’ll often reject it. Perhaps two hours later, after the clinic’s over, they’ll like it.
‘I’m absolutely convinced that the biggest risk of all is to take no risk. I have always been an advocate of instinctive design over exhaustive marketing. I told that to the president of Renault, when I joined. To my gratification, he agreed.’