The changes in car layout sparked by electrification have created new challenges and opportunities to keep designers busy – and Renault Group design chief Laurens van den Acker is busier than most.
The Dutchman is responsible for design at Renault, Dacia and Alpine, three very different brands that face disparate challenges when it comes to electrification. He spoke to Autocar about the future styling of all three.
You recently revealed the shape-shifting Morphoz concept. Does it preview an electric Renault crossover?
"The Morphoz announces the new CMF-EV platform, and we wanted to show off a few things. Firstly, it has great proportions. It's flexible and modular in length. It's lower than an SUV and taller than a hatchback. We tried to make it as compact as possible outside and as spacious as possible inside. In terms of future production cars, we always hope you recognise where they come from. We're playing with a new lighting signature and want to keep the central sensual shapes of the current Renault line-up but give it a more technical, sharp edge [for an EV]."
Dacia recently showed the Spring Electric concept, previewing its first electric car. How close will the production version be?
"Very close. It's no secret that it's heavily based on the Chinese-market [Renault] K-ZE. We're doing everything to keep the price as low as possible. Ironically, some people thought it wouldn't be a good fit for Dacia but, in fact, it might actually be what many people are waiting for. Not everyone can afford a premium EV."
The A110 was incredibly well received, but now Alpine has gone quiet. What's next?
"Alpine is front and centre in our deliberations. We've re-established the brand with the A110. We did a pretty good job at making a car that bridges the past with the future. While we were considering our next steps over the last two years, we have had an overnight transformation of the industry because of CO2, Dieselgate and the coronavirus. We believe there is a place for Alpine. There will always be people who love a fantastic drive."
Will Alpine go electric?
"In the long run, it's inevitable that we'll electrify Alpine – and it's not negative. We're not only doing it because of the regulations. People's expectations will shift and will push us into this direction. The challenge will be making something electric which is lightweight. Straight-line speed is no issue but that isn't the attraction of Alpine. It's about throwing a car around. It's like a Mazda MX-5 or Lotus Elise in spirit."
We know a new Kadjar is coming next year, but what about a new Koleos?
"We're designing cars now for 2024/25. If it's coming in the next two years, it has already been done. The Koleos has worked very well for us in Korea and China. I like these sorts of cars, because they offer a lot for the money and help us to pull up the brand. The next Koleos will definitely be a big step for the powertrain. These types of cars will be very hard to sell if you don't electrify them to a certain degree. If you electrify, the price goes up, so the exterior and interior ambition have to go up. These technologies push us to improve our quality."
How will Renault evolve over the next few years?
"What we're living at the moment is unique in the car industry. Everything is being questioned. As we make the shift from ICE [internal combustion engine] to EVs, something has to give. We don't have money to develop a complete line of EVs and keep all our existing cars. So which cars do we keep and which cars do we axe?"
Is the Scenic likely to be axed given falling demand for MPVs?
"In the Scenic, we made a pretty vehicle which is number one in its segment in Europe, but the segment itself is down. I'd rather be number two in a growing segment than first in a dying segment. This, combined with the need to develop electrified vehicles, puts into question the business case for a future line-up. EVs are more expensive so where is the money going to be made? We hope our early experience with Zoe gives us an advantage in being profitable from EVs."
How important are Renault Sport models, given the focus on EVs?
"We need cars that can pull up our image. We need cars which are flagships of technology, that create a link with our presence in Formula 1. That's where RS comes in, in my view. It gets you that step closer to living the dream of top-notch technology. The RS range is doing very well but, at the same time, these cars are challenged by [legislation], so even RS models will have to be electrified."
What about electric RS models?
"There's no lack of power in EVs: look at 1800bhp supercars from companies you've never heard of. Electric cars are much simpler than ICE, given you can buy off-the-shelf components and power to create a driving experience. With RS, you want to use the car on track. We have to find a way to trick you into believing an EV is light when it isn't. Technologies such as torque vectoring can help make a car feel light when it's actually two tonnes. I'm hoping technology will be able to give us a fantastic driving experience."