PARIS - The new Clio introduced this spring is more than just a renewal of the car that was Renault's best seller from 1991-96.
It is the blueprint for how Renault will develop its cars in the future.
Renault executives consider it a landmark in the company's history, as crucial as the opening of its technical center in Guyancourt and its assembly plant in Curitiba, Brazil.
Project X-65, the internal code name, marked an upheaval in Renault project management.
It put much greater emphasis on cost reduction, team organization and closer relations with suppliers. It also led to major changes in the company's manufacturing process.
THE GOAL: REPEAT SUCCESS
Development of the new Clio began in 1991. By that time the Clio 1, introduced in May 1990, had been voted European Car of the Year and was a smash hit with customers.
'It is very difficult to replace a successful model,' said Pierre Beuzit, the Clio 2 project manager since 1992. 'You are not sure what is making it a success and you don't know whether the elements of success will last.'
Renault considered four different concepts for replacing the Clio:
A small Volvo, dubbed 'the Tank,' that stressed safety and grew from a Renault plan at the time to merge with Volvo.
A city car smaller than the Clio, with flexible interior space.
A car taller and larger than the Clio.
A simple evolution of the first Clio.
Renault chose the last - the most conservative approach.
'The Clio was successful,' said Beuzit. 'We preferred a secure option rather than exploring new concepts. We also knew that the segment was evolving.'
Several superminis from competitors appeared in 1993 and 1994 including the new Nissan Micra, GM Corsa, Seat Ibiza, Fiat Punto and VW Polo.
'That was a great help to us,' said Roland Perrot, head of product definition in the project team.
But another factor led to a re-examination of the entire project.
GOING UP, DOWN SCALE
In 1993, the European car market fell 16 percent after several years of growth. A price war began.
'Cost was not a priority at the outset,' said Beuzit. 'We planned to sell the car for a higher price than the Clio 1, which sold very well despite being priced higher than competitors. But after the 1993 crisis the targets changed. Renault was still mainly a small-car producer and we had to earn more money with small cars.'
In 1992, Renault's plan was to achieve the same cost level as on the first Clio. By mid-1994, the goal was 10 percent below Clio 1. The new target had a huge impact on the project.
'When we listed all that we wanted to put in the X-65, the manufacturing costs were 20 percent higher than the Clio 1,' said Beuzit. 'The target was 10 percent lower, so we had to slash costs by 30 percent.'
The goal was complicated by the growing importance of safety features that resulted from the link with Volvo. The merger later collapsed.
A new project team organization was critical to achieving the cost target. Teams were given more autonomy than ever before, and more responsibility.
In 1994, Renault rented a 129,600-square-foot building in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, west of Paris. More than 600 people from Renault and its suppliers went to work there.
The Clio 2 project team became a laboratory for the Guyancourt technical center.
Forty teams were created, each responsible for a section of the car. They functioned like mini project teams, Beuzit said.
Called elementary function teams, the groups included specialists in engineering, purchasing and manufacturing.
Once every four months, the 40 team managers met formally with Beuzit.
Each manager had two hours to make a presentation. The process took up an entire week.
New guidelines also were established with suppliers. When the project started, 100 Tier 1 suppliers were chosen
'I told them, 'You are equal with Renault people,' ' said Beuzit. 'Suppliers may oppose choices made by Renault people and the project manager will arbitrate. To arbitrate means to decide, not to solve a conflict.'
NEW PROCESSES CUT COSTS
The process quickly led to tangible results.
For example, a product engineer proposed using a new technology to assemble the body sides of the car called laser joining.
'Of course, the manufacturing engineers opposed it because the tools were very expensive,' said Beuzit.
'However, we studied the risks and we decided to go ahead. As a result, 200 francs ($33) was saved on each car.'
On top of all else, Renault President Louis Schweitzer added an extra burden late in the development process.
He asked the Clio project team to bring out the car sooner than they had intended.
'In February 1997, we decided to bring the introduction forward by a month, from April 15 to March 11, 1998,' said Beuzit. 'We wanted to come out before the Peugeot 206. We knew we would be ahead of them.'