Friday, October 14, 2005

Sacred Cow: Creativity in car design

I've been rather negative lately, and while yes, it's true that criticising is much easier than suggesting an improvement (and much more interesting for you folks to read, as my journalistic background tells me), it would be good for me to engage in a little bit of praise. So here goes.

If you read the editorials of big car magazines, you will notice that an unlikely large percentage of them is on two topics: how things used to be better in Ye Olden Days, and how we have never had it as good as we do today. The authors seem completely unphased by the dichotomy, in fact because the editorial introduces the magazine, the slant depends entirely on whether they've managed to do a Gallardo vs F430 road test this issue or had to fill it up with mundane dribble like the exciting new Renault diesel. CAR Magazine, my personal favorite (well, I could only justify one subscription), has been changing editor-in-chiefs a lot recently. Every new person who was in charge of it, for however brief a time, made it his duty to publish one of each - a glory piece about how new cars are awesome, and a jeremiad about how there is no real innovation in car design any more. I suspect this is part of a class they take at college, or at least that every professional car hack has a copy of each in his desk drawer that he polishes to perfection in the wee hours of the night.

I can appreciate the sentiment that new cars can be dull. Both the new Golf and the new Focus are highly capable, but disappointingly bland. The MkIV Golf was quite possibly VW's best ever design effort, short of the outsourced Karmann Ghia. Then again the general shape of a Golf seems to last for two generations, introduced as average and then updated to very sharp. The MkVI may be quite good. The new Focus is just a betrayal of aesthetics. If BMW can make their cars flat-out ugly and still sell them by the hundreds of thousands, Ford really shouldn't have been afraid.

And that's the real problem: fear. There are still brilliant designers out there, producing brilliant shapes - Ian Callum has made the entire Aston model range, plus the new Jag XK, out of a single sketch photocopied to plus-minus 10%, and the result is stunning. Unfortunately the decision-makers don't have the balls to commit to innovation. Creativity gets channeled into side projects, which worked for a while in rich companies like DaimlerSomething, who could afford to produce niche vehicles. At this point however even Mercedes is fed up with diversification.

Beautiful cars do still get made. You just don't see that many of them. Bean counters and executives have this idea of the average family that wants an average car - in shape if not attributes - so they won't allow anything groundbreaking to threaten their bread-and-butter model (case in point - the new BMW 3-series: blandness in an exceptional range). But what made that model popular? It certainly wasn't conformity.

Mercedes made the current E-class bland because they wanted taxi drivers to buy it. Taxi drivers didn't, because it's unreliable, and they can get an Avensis instead. And then normal people didn't buy it either, because it was both unreliable (which they could almost live with in an emotional purchase like a Benz) and boring (with which they couldn't). Don't you think that if the CLS was the original E-class shape - none of this four-door coupe nonsense - it would have been a roaring success?

Alfa Romeo is in possession of probably the most incredible shape in recent memory - the Brera concept. It is simply beautiful, without relying on shock value or novelty. What do they do? They sit on it. Initially they said it wouldn't be built; then, that it would be built on the Maserati 4200GT platform; then, that it would be FWD and V6-powered, built in low volumes for a lot of money. Obviously they want high margins out of this one, but look: people will only buy this car for the way it looks. You don't need to invest in new technology or R&D or anything, the killer feature is already there. So here is your solution: make the Brera the new 147. Get a good graphic technitian to shrink the dimensions and keep the proportions in such a way that it fits on a Golf-class chassis. In fact you don't even need to shrink it that much - use the 159 platform; with a wheel at each corner, it will still be roughly Golf-sized, and you can save in volume if you don't bother cutting down the floorpan. Introduce the Alfa Romeo Brera with a 1.6 four-banger for 14,000 Euro, and you will sell a million cars a year. Guaranteed.

Interior space? Who gives a flying fuck. The people that do, buy MPVs. Everyone else hardly ever carries a passenger, let alone two or three. My 1982 Mazda 323, a positively tiny little thing, had more rear legroom than the current Mercedes S-class with the regular wheelbase. European cars are not bought as white goods, that's down to the Koreans and partially still the Japanese. These days even if you buy a Skoda Fabia, you're making a fashion statement. Functionality is actually not hugely important. If you still want to manufacture and sell your Golf Pluses and your Opel Zafiras, go ahead. But forget about the goddamn Mazda3 saloon, and give me the RX-8 body on a Focus platform instead!

I'm going to send this to CAR Magazine. Who knows, maybe they'll actually print it.

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