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One car manufacturer rarely seen among the vast array of motors swarming the UAE’s roads is looking to raise its profile.
Renault is hoping the launch of five models in the Emirates this year will help it carve out a bigger foothold in the highly lucrative local market. And when Mohamed Bennani, managing director for Renault in the GCC, arrived to speak to Emirates Business, the most noticeable thing about him is his choice of vehicle.
Not because it is a super-sleek machine – even though it does have a meaty 3.5-litre engine – but because it is a largely unfamiliar model. Only a look at the boot helps solve the mystery, for it has some hallmarks of the car-maker’s Mégane model, but not enough to be one.
It turns out the car in question is a Vel Satis. If it’s not a car that has ever appeared on many people’s motoring radar, there is a good reason why. Renault imported a number of Vel Satis models to the UAE in 2004. However, poor sales led to their withdrawn within months of arrival.
Now, as Bennani comes to the end of his first year in his new role in Dubai, he says he is looking forward to implementing a new strategy for the manufacturer in the UAE.
This involves five launches as well as new showrooms in Dubai and Sharjah plus projects in connection with the much-anticipated inaugural Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi next year.
Renault, along with Peugeot and Citroen, are France’s favourite manufacturers. The French are famously loyal to their home-grown vehicles, with many choosing them time and again over foreign brands.
But in the UAE none of that loyalty exists – despite a substantial French expat population – which is why Renault has an even bigger task on its hands to entice drivers away from their current car of choice.
Not only that, but in a market where many drivers prefer luxury vehicles, Renault has an even bigger mountain to climb given its range of practical yet affordable cars.
It is, however, set to make its first foray into the 4x4 market this year when the Koleos is launched. Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show last year, the UAE will be in a privileged position when the car makes its debut in the third quarter of this year, a number of months before Europe. The concept was only made possible thanks to Renault’s relationships with other manufacturers.
“The Koleos was designed by Renault but we rely on Nissan technology and it is produced by Samsung,” explains Bennani.
“It will have the pleasure of driving a 4x4 but with the comfort of a sedan.”Other launches include the Mégane, Clio, Logan and a mystery car that Bennani is very excited about, but is trying to keep quiet. What we do know, however, is that it will be based on the Samsung SM5, which is Renault’s Korean partner.
Even though Renault has had a presence in the UAE for a number of years through space in its partner Nissan’s showrooms, it is branching out on its own and is hoping the cars that have proved popular in Europe will have the same impact here.
“We’ll be bringing our traditional cars like the Mégane and Clio, but other products that are being built for the Middle East will not be available in Europe,” says Bennani.
“Our objective is to bring cars that fully comply with the GCC’s needs, such as the heat and dust. It’s been a challenge for everyone, but has also provided opportunities to enhance our engineering,” he adds.
But Renault is not short of engineering experience. On top of its road cars it also has a significant presence in Formula One.
However, once the Grand Prix comes to the UAE for the 2009 season, Bennani hints that he will be involved.
“We have projects with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but it’s too early to say what they are,” he says coyly.
Throughout the discussion about Formula One, Bennani peppers the conversation with “Alonso is now home” in reference to the Spanish driver quitting McLaren to return to Renault, with whom he won the championship in 2005 and 2006.
He also has ambitions for the Middle East, which he hopes will one day produce a star of its own. “We want to build motorsport in this area and create home-grown talent. We also want to produce the first F1 driver from the GCC,” he says.
The sporting heritage of the brand will become evident in the UAE by the end of this year. Both the Clio and Mégane sports models are being put through their paces before they go on sale, but measuring by orders already taken for the Clio, it seems customers are eagerly awaiting the new direction from the sensible cars it has on offer now to something a little more fun.
“Our main target here is young people who are open to change and want to try new products. I have no worries about the product but the big challenge is to build the brand, which we aim to do on sport and safety,” says Bennani.
But with the desire to build a brand comes a need to raise the money to do it and it seems that this is where Renault could fall down.
Despite having a presence here for a number of years, they have not generated much publicity, but the MD says all that is about to change.
“There’s not a day goes by in France where you don’t see a Renault advert, but we can’t do that here because we can’t afford big campaigns,” he admits.
“Having said that, there will be campaigns when the new models come out in June.”
Despite this, the Middle East is one of a number of emerging markets Renault is working on, which also include Brazil, Russia, Iran and India and it is hoped these will help to build worldwide sales by 10 per cent over the next year.
Here in the UAE, they have a long way to go to do this, but in this region with the more than 10 models to be launched over the next three years, the company expects sales to rise 10-fold.
It is a very ambitious plan, but when asked to sum up Renault cars in five words, Bennani sits back and contemplates for a second, before deciding on: “Close to people, affordable, sporty and safe.”
It’s not quite five words, but no doubt three of them will appeal to many drivers here and three out of five isn’t bad.
And if consumers are receptive, it could just be a winning formula.
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