What, or indeed who, has been the car industry’s most regrettable victim during this economic downturn? Tens of thousands have lost their jobs, factories have closed, companies have gone under. And still the pain goes on.
For me, two victims in particular have made me cry into my cornflakes. They weren’t laid-off workers or bankrupt brands, tragic as those cases are, but small, affordable sports cars with enormous potential.
Both projects were cancelled due to the massive shortfall in demand for new cars. And now, looking back, I can’t remember which I was more excited about: the prospect of a new Renault Alpine roadster, or the much anticipated replacement for the Nissan 200SX.
We started reporting on both of these cars back in 2007. Because news of the projects emerged at more or less the same time – and because Renault and Nissan collaborate on so many projects – our understandable assumption was that their development would be linked. But only this week I discovered that, if the credit crunch hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t actually have been related ‘alliance cars’ at all.
A Nissan Europe product manager let it slip that the 200SX replacement was very real - and all Nissan. “It was called the ‘NS’ project,” he told me. “We discussed working with Renault on it, but actually decided to proceed on our own. After all, we could have given Renault our rear-drive platform, but what would we have got in return?”
“We spent a few months considering our options, and what positioning the new car should have,” he went on. “We even got as far as a ‘targeting’ exercise in the US, when we spent several days evaluating the established players in the affordable sports car market; Scirocco, MX-5 RC, Elise – even Scion tC and Hyundai Coupe.
“The funding for the project was pulled out from underneath us shortly after that targeting exercise. But had we proceeded, it would have been with a rear-driven, four-cylinder turbo car.” What a shame they didn’t.
The Renault Alpine’s fate may have been sealed the day that Nissan decided to go it alone with its affordable sports car. All we know about that car is that, as little as a year ago, very senior Renault executives would regularly hint that a proper, affordable, rear-driven Alpine was in the works. And then, all of a sudden, they just stopped talking about it.
Toyota and Subaru also suffered the loss of their joint-venture ‘Toyobaru’ sports car, of course. With a flat-four engine and rear-drive, maybe that would have been the car to finally stick it to Mazda’s long-reigning MX-5. We’ll never know.
What we can do is have a damn good barney while we speculate. So which do you think would have become the next decade’s best affordable sports car: 200SX, Alpine, Toyobaru or MX-5?