Six years ago, social commentator David Brooks published his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Brooks’ explained how the countercultural values of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s were adopted by the mainstream by the mid-‘90’s. Marketers devoured Brooks’ book like it was crab legs on a Chinese buffet. Ever since, we’ve seen an explosion of style in every aspect of our lives and every room of our homes– except, of course, the garage. If Wal-Mart (of all places) sells dinner plates suitable for the Museum of Modern Art, why are today’s cars so dull? My theory: car designers are still in the thrall of the 1984 Audi 5000.
When the Audi 5000 debuted in 1983, the motoring press slobbered all over themselves. They showered the model with endless praise, touting it as “the world’s most aerodynamic sedan.” In fact, the car’s styling was a remix of the previous year’s 5000. Its soft corners, unsculptured sides, flush glass, and understated “blackout” trim had all been done before. The new 5000 simply combined all these exterior features into an easy-to-fawn-over form. Inside the car, the 5000’s interior belied its upscale aspirations; it was a Jetta wearing a corduroy blazer. Maybe the sublime (for its time) experience of driving the 5000 blurred the critics’ judgment.
The 5000 died a quick, undeserved death in the American marketplace, stabbed in the sales chart by investigative journalism. Its influence, however, is still with us twenty-three years later. Within just a couple model seasons, most Japanese manufacturers had appropriated the 5000’s “no nonsense” persona for their own, more modest vehicles. Mazda styled its late-80s 323, 626, and 929 sedans as knockoffs of Audi’s flagship saloon. The 1987 Toyota Camry and 1990 Honda Accord also carried surprising amounts of Teutonic styling DNA. It took American manufacturers a little longer, but eventually even they stripped their cars of chrome, complicated sheetmetal bends, and any other ornamentation.
As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of assassination. Typical of both Japanese and American auto companies, excessive me-tooism quickly turned the 5000’s look into a cliché. Even such decidedly non-wonderful cars as the Chevy Celebrity wound up looking like ersatz Audis.
Much of the 5000’s lingering influence isn’t immediately obvious. The ongoing effect lies in the car’s proportions: the relationship of the front and rear overhangs to each other and to the car’s total length, the relationship between the roofline and the beltline, the tumble-home of the side glass, and other minor details. Even manufacturers who were slow to adopt the 5000’s Bauhaus aesthetic enthusiastically embraced its proportioning. It’s as if designers had suddenly discovered the Golden Rectangle of automobiles. Again, the 5000’s influence is still with us. Other than front wheel drive, what do the Acura TL and the Chevrolet Impala have in common? The Audi 5000’s proportions, that’s what.
These days, when a carmaker deviates from the Audi 5000’s basic proportions even slightly, everyone notices. Consider the most roundly praised recent mainstream sedan, the Chrysler 300C. Everyone is all over this car because to our eyes it looks so different from every other sedan on the road. What, stylistically, has changed in the 300C? The relationship between the beltline and the road. Otherwise, it too embodies the 5000’s basic proportions.
Occasionally, some designers will sneak a bit of subversion through the design process, even though much true design innovation gets the kibosh from platform engineers. Chrysler’s “cab-forward” styling of the mid-1990s is an example of this. Yet, in twenty-three years, there hasn’t been a serious challenger to the Audi 5000. Nothing else has even showed potential of becoming a new car design icon.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There was one car: the 1996 Ford Taurus. While the original Taurus was slagged by some as a 5000 rip-off back in ‘86, the ‘96 version could not really be accused of following any known influence. It couldn’t have been more iconoclastic had Ford put all four wheels on the roof and asked the driver to sit in the trunk. Its Mercury Sable sister car was just as radical. Ford’s multi-billion-dollar gamble didn’t pay off, however. The Taurus eventually lost its status as America’s best-selling sedan. Some of that was down to Ford’s decision to price the car much higher than its Japanese-branded competition (and then cut and run by dumping the car into rental fleets). But a lot of the blame for the Taurus’ demise is attributable to the car’s too-far-out-there styling.
Marketers may imitate successful products a little too much, but they go to great lengths to avoid imitating failures like the 1996 Taurus. Why do cars all wear the same dull clothes these days? Because the sales charts tell us that we can’t ever get enough of the 1984 Audi 5000.