Motoring: Gavin Green

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The Renault Clio was bought mainly by women, so little wonder that, when it came to conceiving its replacement, Renault turned to a woman. Anne Asensio was one of the senior designers involved in styling the new Clio - on sale in Britain at the end of this month - and she is now responsible for the design of all small- and medium-sized Renault cars. She is reckoned to be the most senior woman in the car industry.

Those keen on furthering the cause of women in the motor industry (and who could deny that it's a good idea?) will point out that Renault probably has the best reputation in Europe - and possibly, the world - for avant- garde car styling, and that Asensio has a lot to do with that. Anglophiles, on the other hand, could equally point out that Asensio's boss - the overall head of car styling at Renault, Anthony Grade - is English. And his boss - the head of design for the whole of Renault, Patrick Le Quement - is half English. Either way, a recent survey of car-design students showed that Renault is the company that most would like to work for. Its international reputation for conceiving handsome, advanced cars is second to none.

I met Asensio at the international unveiling of the new Clio. We spoke bikes and cars for a bit (she rides a Ducati and has a Porsche) before getting on to one of her pet subjects - how to win over young buyers. "The car industry is doing a poor job at connecting with youngsters," she said. "We're way behind many other industries."

She is seeking inspiration from British youth. "There is unstructured, informal spontaneity about British youth which intrigues me and which is very contagious. I try to spend as much time as possible wandering places like Camden market, just trying to get a feel for youth culture."

One of the problems facing the car business, as it tries to win over under-30s, is research that suggests that young people behave differently when buying a car to when they buy other products. Cars are obviously expensive, but that can't be the only reason that under-30s tend to be particularly conservative. Says Asensio: "Research suggests that young people want the reassurance of a conventional car. They tend to buy quite plain cars. Cars supposedly aimed particularly at young people, oddly, tend to be bought mainly by older buyers."

The Renault Twingo, not sold in Britain but a big seller in France, is a sub Clio-sized baby that looks cute, has big Fisher Price-type switchgear and wacky seat trim. Renault thought the under-30s would love it. Instead, early buyers were mostly 50-plus. The average age has now dropped a bit, but it is still especially popular with greyhairs. "Older people are more willing to experiment," says Asensio. "They're often more comfortable with themselves and like a bit of fun later in life."

The Ford Ka, marketed at young trendy urbanites, isn't exactly bought by the Zimmer frame set, but the average buyer age (41.6 years) is older than Ford imagined.

The car most overtly targeted at youth - the Smart City Coupe, co-developed by Mercedes and Swatch - hasn't gone on sale yet. Deliveries start at the end of the year in mainland Europe, with UK sales starting probably in 2001. It's a cute two-seater, finished in bright colours with bright cabin trim and boasting lightweight, interchangeable plastic body panels. It's a four-wheeled version of a Swatch watch and is unashamedly aimed at under-30s. Asensio won't comment on its chances of success - she's too diplomatic - but her body language is clear enough. She thinks it won't sell. Nor do I. Young people don't want a car that is youthful in a contrived way, nor one (just as significantly) that costs as much as a roomier, better-performing, "normal" small car.

Really trendy cars, among The Face set, seem to be older, classic cars such as certain Mercs and various Sixties British cars such as P5 Rover saloons and Triumph Heralds. They're distinctive, cheap, imply a disdain for flashiness (the coolest models have just a touch of rust) and yet look great. They're the motoring equivalent of horn-rimmed specs - the sort of thing your granddad used, but now ultra-cool.

Quite how Renault interprets all this, Asensio would not divulge. A new car inspired by street markets is difficult to imagine (the Renault "Doc Martens" fitted with oversized tyres? The Renault "Soiled Levi's" fitted with ripped upholstery? The Renault "Fake Jewellery" with earrings on the wing mirrors? Replace Nicole with a grunge rocker?). About the only thing she has ruled out is the use, in Renault dealerships, of barrow- boy salesmen.

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