Please Displease Me

Hey, sometimes innovation ain't pretty. And neither are the cars Patrick le Quement designs for Renault. He's known for inspiring equal amounts of awe and anger -- along with strong sales

Will Patrick le Quement take it personally if we say that some of his cars are . . . um . . . well, ugly? "No, of course not," he says sarcastically. "It's the same as telling me my son is ugly."

Renault's dapper design chief has a wit as guillotine-sharp as the corners on his latest models. And from the French carmaker's technocenter at Guyancourt near the palaces of Versailles, le Quement is staging a French revolution of unlikely angles and suggestive curves. His risk-taking designs are loved -- and loathed -- by critics and customers in equal measure. But many of his gambles are paying off, emboldening his fellow executives to take other chances in their audacious bid to make Renault one of the industry's Big Three.

Americans may remember Renault, which vanished from the U.S. market in 1987, for poor quality and rotten reliability. But in Europe, no one has driven design further or faster in recent years. From Madrid to Munich, if you want to show you're different, you drive a Renault. And U.S. drivers may soon get their chance to make the same statement.

Le Quement's work proves that innovation doesn't necessarily have to be pretty. But it does have to be original. One of the auto industry's most provocative and uncompromising designers, le Quement has scored huge hits with small cars such as the Clio, Twingo, and now the Megane -- a cheeky little compact that has overtaken Volkswagen's conservatively designed Golf to become western Europe's best-selling car. He has also served up stylish flops such as the Avantime, an oversized four-seat, pillarless coupe, and the Vel Satis executive sedan.

Critics damn him as principal architect of "uglification" -- a confrontational school of design that's given us such brutes as the BMW 7 series and the Porsche Cayenne. Fans fete him for reviving French style and injecting cars with personality again. Either way, le Quement says, bland, lowest-common-denominator design is the kiss of automotive death; better to anger some potential buyers to win the love of some others. "The future does not belong to designers creating products that do not displease the customer," he says, citing a J.D. Power and Associates survey that says carmakers that polarize opinion make juicier margins on the cars they sell. The study found that cars that people either love or hate -- such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Infiniti FX -- "sell quicker and at a higher profit margin" than cars that get lukewarm reactions.

Le Quement, 59, learned his trade at Ford Europe, where his signature products included 1982's seminal Sierra, ridiculed at the time for its jelly-mold shape. Meanwhile, Renault had stalled, bleeding sales with lifeless products. Then-chairman and CEO Raymond Levy recruited le Quement on a hunch that French design could jump-start the company.

Before he took the job, le Quement demanded structural changes in the role of design at Renault. For starters, he told Levy, his department would no longer answer to engineering. Stylists were told they would become full-fledged designers, active from the initial concept to the manufacturing phase. Outside consultants were nixed, and the design team was doubled to more than 350 people. The department took a seat on the executive board. And le Quement answers to no one but the chairman.

The first test of Renault's commitment to risk-taking design came with le Quement's Twingo, a tiny, boxy car to which he added a playful pair of frog's eyes for headlights. Focus groups, he recalls, weren't keen. "Fifty percent of consumers said they hated it, and 25% were dubious," says le Quement. "But 25% said they loved it and wanted to know where they could buy one."

Still smarting from le Quement's shake-up, Renault's engineers and product planners demanded he tone down the Twingo. Le Quement sent a note to his chairman. "The greatest risk is not to take any risks, and I ask you to vote for instinctive design against extinctive marketing," it read. Levy's reply? "I agree." The Twingo was an instant hit in 1992, and the spark for nearly 20 influential concept cars over the next decade.

Interiors, says le Quement, are the next frontier for his approach. His "touch design" philosophy means tactile controls that are visually descriptive of their function and that work by intuition: credit-card keys, hand brakes with loop handles, and steering wheels and gear levers with finger grips. In Renault's Wind concept roadster, the steering wheel and pedals fold away when the door is opened. The driver shifts gears using a paddle on the steering wheel.

Le Quement's daring has vaulted the ambitions of the company. Renault now aims to become one of the world's top-three automakers in terms of profits, quality, and technology (it's now number four, thanks in part to its 44.4% stake in Nissan) and vows to sell 4 million cars by 2010, up from just under 2.4 million last year.

The United States is likely to figure in those plans. Publicly, Renault says that it won't reenter the U.S. market until 2010, but that could change when Carlos Ghosn returns to take the CEO post in March 2005 after running Nissan in Japan for four years. Nissan's U.S. dealer network is bound to look attractive, and Ghosn may also be eager to beat out French archrival PSA (makers of Peugeot and Citroen), also considering a return to the United States. Le Quement says he has already been instructed to make all new vehicles comply with U.S. standards.

Doubters in Detroit say that American motorists still don't "get" French design. "Renault design resonates very well in Europe, but I don't think it is understood here," says Anne Asensio, who used to work for le Quement and is now General Motors' advanced vehicles design director.

Then again, displeasing some people is what le Quement likes doing best.

Ian Wylie writes for Fast Company from London.

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