Never Make Fun Of Ugly Cars: A Cautionary Tale

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
never make fun of ugly cars a cautionary tale

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.

Join the conversation
2 of 25 comments
  • Nick Nick on Jun 09, 2010

    *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.

  • TonyJZX TonyJZX on Jun 10, 2010

    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

  • Probert There's something wrong with that chart. The 9 month numbers for Tesla, in the chart, are closer to Tesla's Q3 numbers. They delivered 343,830 cars in q3 and YoY it is a 40% increase. They sold 363,830 but deliveries were slowed at the end of the quarter - no cars in inventory. For the past 9 months the total sold is 929,910 . So very good performance considering a major shutdown for about a month in China (Covid, factory revamp). Not sure if the chart is also inaccurate for other makers.
  • ToolGuy "...overall length grew only fractionally, from 187.6” in 1994 to 198.7” in 1995."Something very wrong with that sentence. I believe you just overstated the length by 11 inches.
  • ToolGuy There is no level of markup on the Jeep Wrangler which would not be justified or would make it any less desirable [perfectly inelastic demand, i.e., 'I want one']. Source: My 21-year-old daughter.
  • ToolGuy Strong performance from Fiat.
  • Inside Looking Out GM is like America, it does the right thing only after trying everything else.  As General Motors goes, so goes America.