By on June 8, 2010

Meet the Renault Vel Satis, erstwhile flagship of the Renault range. Dreamed up in the go-go ’90s for “non-conformist” customers who sought to “distance themselves from the traditional saloon,” the Vel Satis ended up being something of a whipping boy for styling critics. And why not? In retrospect, it’s hard to deny that the thing looks a bit like the love child of a Nissan Versa and a Cadillac DTS. And yes, it is the only car on earth that can make Nicolas Sarkozy look attractive by comparison. In fact, the most apt critique of the Vel Satis’s styling was probably Stephen Bayley’s assesment that it wasn’t quite ugly enough.

Ultimately, the Vel Satis will go down in history as one of the bigger design gambles of recent automotive history. Along with its possibly even more distinctive Van-Coupe sibling, the Avantime, the Vel Satis was an attempt by Renault to bring a distinctive flagship to its brand without having to actually keep up with the Germans’ technological arms race.

Even Jeremy Clarkson had to give Renault an “A” for effort.

Sadly, then, the Vel Satis is an appealing but ultimately hopeless replacement for your 4×4. But don’t despair, because one day a company with more experience of quality engineering will follow suit and sell us a car that’s not only properly stylish but good underneath as well.

BMW mechanicals. With a Conran look. It’s the next big thing.

And guess what? He was absolutely correct. But back to the Vel Satis…

Right or wrong, visionary or just plain French, the Vel Satis did not help Renault’s sales or brand image. Both this and the Avantime were roundly acknowledged as flops, although the Vel Satis stayed in production from 2001 until last Summer. And with plenty of time to reflect on the lessons learned (although not enough time for the Vel Satis to stop being ahead of its time), Renault is responding to the solid decade of snide put-downs from smug Audi owners. By not giving a shit at all.

No, that’s not a future Volkswagen Passat facelift. Good guess though. It’s actually Renault’s new flagship, the Latitude. And as it’s dull name suggests, it’s an extremely dull car. Under the skin, it’s the Samsung SM5, a car that was nearly sold as a Saturn in the US as part of the failed International House of Penske. In short, it’s the international symbol for quirky promising brands that have given up completely.

So what’s the moral to the story? Snarky auto writers like ourselves should think twice when we get nasty about quirky-looking cars like the forthcoming Nissan Juke. Because, believe it or not, no amount of ugly is worth more bland. God knows we get more than enough of that.

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25 Comments on “Never Make Fun Of Ugly Cars: A Cautionary Tale...”


  • avatar

    Nice piece, Mr. N. I would take issue with “no amount of ugly is worth more bland.”

    I parked my wife’s S2000 next to a last-gen Z4 recently and was struck by how incredibly ugly was Bangle’s interpretation of the classic two-seat sports car. The Honda, which I had originally seen as bland, is definitely more bland, but a far more beautiful automobile. Now I’m not a fan of bland, but ugliness – Pontiac Aztec or Z4 ugliness, just cries out for the crusher.

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      How can you call the S2000 bland ? I might have a problem with the instrument panel , but everything else about the car is wonderful.

    • 0 avatar

      Uncle Mellow – when the S2000 was announced, I had hoped for something as dramatic as the NSX and it just didn’t seem that dramatic. Ten years out, and I view it as brilliant. The drape of the front fenders over the tires has not been done like this by anyone, even in Italy. The larger point vis-a-vis the Z4 is that Chris Bangle and Co pulled out every sophomoric trick in the book from flame-surfacing (ripped off from J. Mays) to cutlines only a high school car doodler would appreciate. Comparatively speaking, there’s not a line out of place on the Honda.

      Honda does deserve 50 lashes however for failing to plant a V6 or even V8 of 3 liters or so in this chassis. That they did not update it for ten years, turn it into a legitimate coupe (a la Cayman) and then put it out to pasture is something perhaps only the Japanese leadership at Honda could ever explain. How could a company who makes some of the best sporting motorcycles in the world so neglect both of their truly sporting cars????

  • avatar
    NN

    I admire the pure strangeness of French auto design. In a way I find American auto design similar–not the design ethos, but instead in the fact that both the French and American automakers design cars that only their domestic market would ever deem attractive. It lends to rolling cultural icons, which is cool. And sometimes, like certain Citroens or Buicks, for example, they lead to beautiful, truly original designs.

    Long live the ugly car!

  • avatar
    Syke

    OK, so I’m a sucker for French cars. I’ve always found the Vel Satis as a worthwhile design and wished I could have owned one. And I really wish Renault would come back to the U.S.

    I’m a sucker for ‘interesting’ cars. I like the Aztek. When I was a kid, I like the Edsel and the ’57/’58 Mercurys. Better to drive interesting cars like those than be stuck behind yet another bland loaf of white bread on four wheels. You know the kind, the car you have to see the name on the trunk to realize who’s product it is.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Renault’s styling circa 2000 was definitely distinctive and French. The Renault Avantime shared the same styling cues at the rear C pillar.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Interesting point about the Vel Satis: long before Toyota’s troubles, a Vel Satis owner went on a merry little chase and blamed the car’s electronics, notably that the brakes didn’t work.

    Did Renault do a mea culpa? Did the French media excoriate the car and the company? Were there claims of a ghost in a the machine?

    No, Renault investigated and then promptly sued the guy for (I think) defamation.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The biggest problem is that front grille. The rest of the car is quirky but interesting; that grille looks tacked on and not a little bit mundane. The comparison to the DTS (where it also looks terrible) is apt.

    This isn’t unique to the Vel Satis: every Renault of this era had a terrible front-end. The Vel Satis just made it more evident.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I’ll give them an A for effort. And for a company not in the big league, different is the way to go. If you can’t compete head on, use that to your advantage and find a niche that isn’t filled. Or invent one. I have always been on the bandwagon for this kind of car, it was made in the same mindset that made the Mercedes R-Class, Chrysler Pacifica, and by all means, Ford Flex. And I thought they were up to something, and I still believe they were right. Sadly, cash is king, and sales is cash. The thing is, there will always be a market for those that doesn’t want the same thing as all the Joneses on the street.

    Jaguar XJ and Maserati Quattroporte are nice niche brands for all of those that wouldn’t wanna be caught dead in the same type of S-Class or 7-Series as the Lebanese boss of the local pizza franchice down the street. Being different can be better than being not good enough. If you want it, have the stomach for it, and the cash to carry it forward, that niche will always be up for grabs. And kudos to Renault for holding it up for so long.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    The rear end of that car, and the previous gen Megane, remind me of your beloved cheezburger…

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    I for one find it interesting….would probably drive one to see about the more important issues….reliability, comfort, performance, economy….the design of this car wouldn’t dissuade me from owning it, other things being equal. It is not the abomination that, say, the Cobalt is….but then I like French designs. The Peugeots of the mid-80’s and nineties, for example, I though beautiful. Too bad they absolutely sucked…

  • avatar
    threeer

    I always found the Vel Satis to be just quirky enough to be interesting…in that “we don’t get that kind of car here in the States” interesting. It’s (did I use the grammatic form correctly??) sad that Renault has decided to go the way of the extremely boring Chinese also-ran as the replacement flagship vehicle. One thing you could usually (not anymore, apparently) count on with the French at least was unique styling.

  • avatar
    srogers

    Leave it to me to like the way this Vel Satis looks. I think that I like the Juke too, but I’m reserving judgement until I see one in person. I guess that I do prefer ‘ugly’ to bland.

  • avatar

    Depends on the ugly, and depends on the bland. The French do a terrific job of ugly–Ami, 2CV (and this thing has a little Ami in it)–the Japanese (b9 tribeca) and us (Aztec, Caliber), not so much.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    I think you give yourself too much credit. There are plenty of ugly cars that are successful. Japan put out entire fleets of ugly cars for a decade, but have captured the US market anyway. From 1969 to 1979, Japan shipped out millions of “interesting” designs that only the Japanese could find attractive. Yet, regardless of how dreadfully ugly they were, they were also reliable and inexpensive, which caused them to be successful.

    The Val Satis flopped because it wasn’t capable of being sold as a good value. If it had the worksmanship of a BMW and the price of a Kia, it could still look like a Nissan F-10 but sell like stink.

    Honestly, have you really looked a a Nissan Milano? Have you really looked at the gross frontal design of the new 1948 Studebaker, I mean Camry? These designs are successful despite their unsightliness. You strip off the ugly on a Pontiac, like GM did, and no one wanted them anymore.

    So enjoy yourself and tell us how hideous some new cars are. Your judgement won’t really condemn them.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    Yes, but… the Z4 coupe is much more tolerable than the Z4 roadster (or possibly I only think so because I was once a passenger in a Z4 M Coupe – I haven’t been so delightfully pushed back into my seat since my mom’s ’67 GTO with automatic on the column, which means I’ve been in very few cars that powerful in the interim, to my shame).

    As for the uglier-Pontiacs-sold-better theory, I think it might be revealing to do a few case studies from the days when designs switched more frequently, to see what impact a sudden change in styling might have. I’m thinking of the change between the full-size Pontiacs’ 1967 versus 1968 front ends; the rest of the car was essentially identical between those two years, but the ’68 substituted that horrible vertical chrome beak (and horizontal headlamps) for the elegant origami-like ’67 nose with stacked headlamps. I don’t know sales figures for those years, but I do know that the 1970-71 Thunderbird (although much the same as the 1967-69 car; same doors, windshield, etc.) suffered a drastic drop in sales because of its hideous (and fragile) beak.

  • avatar
    Dr Strangelove

    Renault has put a lot of effort in endowing their cars with top notch crash safety and increasing build quality. It seems only consequent to match these conservative virtues with a conservative styling.

    Renault is a big player in Europe, not a niche player that can afford to focus on quirky designs. They are trying to beat the European market leader, VW, at their own game, and this new design simply reflects that. That said, it does look too anonymous.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    I think I’d wait for the Peugot 508, or if I was looking for a quirky looking saloon, maybe the Citroen C6.

  • avatar

    Agreed that the Z4 coupe comes off better than the roadster, but both are a mess of cutlines linked to one another for no apparent reason. Why does the cutline at the headlight and hood intersect with the door cutline? What the heck is with the “Z” in the side of the car? Both the nose and the tail have swirls and lines going every which way.

    The real shame of the Z4 is that dynamically it is a great car and a worthy successor to the Z3. BMW had two chances to get it right and still did not end up with a design as satisfying as a Z8 or Mazda Miata.

  • avatar
    th009

    If it’s based on the Samsung SM5, then it’s really just a stretched Laguna. The SM5 is based on the 2007 Laguna platform …

  • avatar
    niky

    The Z4 was an incredible looking car when it came out… marred only by the awkward lines around the tail and the need to incorporate the double-kidney into the nose (come hell or high-water, that… remember the ridiculous vestigial grille on the M1? Or the Bugatti EB110?).

    The way the lines wrap around and instersect are actually purposeful if you take the time to really study them. The seemingly random cutlines point towards the wheelhubs, in areas, or continue from the headlight swoop.

    It’s the only first-generation “flame-surface” design that is truly cohesive… the 1 wasn’t, the 7 really wasn’t… well… the 5 was nice… but didn’t rely as much on flame-surfacing.

    If anything, I was incredibly disappointed with the second-generation Z4… which gave up its quirkiness for a very dull corporate look schnoz and fake side-vents. Boo.

    Another car that has it all together in terms of interesting line flow is the second generation Mazda6 (pre-smiley)… which has roof lines and swage lines intersecting tail-lamps without touching them and a wonderful play of compound curves around the front fenders.

    The Vel Satis… I’ll agree with Bayley… not ugly ENOUGH. The Avantime was fascinating… it was completely out there… too bad it wasn’t a success.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    Unsophisticated critics often view subtle as bland. Time and perspective often vindicate the designer.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Can’t agree more.
      A more interesting topic for an article would be, though – why the purposfully ugly and in-yer-face designs are getting increasingly popular and acceptable.

  • avatar
    NickR

    *shrugs* I dunno, I don’t see that Renault as being particularly unattractive. I’ve seen a lot worse. The new full size Lincoln SUV or whatever the hell it is being one example.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    we may make fun of this car but the phrase “Vel Satis design language” is something we see every day…

    this Nissan Versa, the Infiniti group, the Skylines, the Maximas… even the Muranos… the Vel Satis is ground zero and its mutant French/Japanese children are everywhere… EVERYWHERE

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