By on June 7, 2016

7072

Jeremy writes:

I’d love to know your thoughts on the proliferation of plastic cladding on pretty much every CUV/SUV on sale today. I’ve noticed that pretty much everyone does it now – Toyota, Mazda, Ford, Jeep, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, the list goes on.

Is this just lazy design? Is it easier to seal under the wheel arches when it’s a piece of cladding rather than sheet metal all the way? Have they just decided it’s a cheap way to make their cars look “tough”?

Sajeev answers:

It’s not a lazy design, easier to seal, etc. The CUV cladding’s proliferation parallels the rise of the SUV in the last 30 years, from niche player (Jeep XJ) to ubiquitous roadside landmark.

And FWIW, car designers do get a crash course in marketing: I saw it for myself at CCS

Which begs the question, why do people flock to the stereotypical SUVIt’s the tough, un-minivan style keeping everyone out of the best vehicle for their needs and into space/fuel inefficient, machismo-laden soft roaders based on sedan platforms with jacked up suspensions and AWD transaxles.  Because First World Problems are both legit and a fantastic target for marketers. 

CUVs must incorporate elements of wagons/minivans while aping the rugged handsomeness of off-road vehicles and even sleek sport coupes. If BMW’s Sports Activity Coupe isn’t proof of the CUV’s identity crisis, perhaps I give up.  That said, today’s CUV’s intrinsic diversity is nothing if not boring.

So you deliver on this difficult-to-execute promise with plastic cladding: simple to make, easy to style up to your target market’s demands, and cheap to insure/replace. Like our last Vignette on plastic bumpers, this is one of the glorious benefits of plastics engineering. It boosts creativity, adds low(er) cost/high margin profits, appeases insurance companies and makes the majority of buyers happy enough to sign their monthly cash flow away for the next 2-8 years.

Put this another way: it’s all about the money, honey.

[Image: BMW]

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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67 Comments on “Vellum Venom Vignette: The Proliferation of Plastic Cladding...”


  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    A’Automobiles, and especially CUVs, mostly look like a sea of similar-looking, often nearly indistinguishable, blobs, wedges, creases and appendage-laden shells, today.”

    – Grumpy old man

    • 0 avatar
      Dave M.

      Meh, the 30s-60s cars all blend together for me with the rare exception of a new design direction.

      I do wish someone would update the classic Volvo sedan and wagon design.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/do-todays-cars-all-look-alike/

    • 0 avatar
      Papa Smurf

      My two year old son is going to have problems identifying cars as he grows older… Vehicles are all morphing into the same bulbous, blob shape…I’m 34 and remember twenty years ago being able to identify every car by their respective headlights at night… not so much any more.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    So what’s Pontiac’s excuse for that horrible-looking wavy stuff they glued to some of their cars prior to their demise? ’cause I don’t see that it served any purpose beyond making the cars afflicted with it butt-ugly. They can’t use “ruggedness” as an excuse, and it sure didn’t say “sporty”.

    • 0 avatar
      ...m...

      …bah; the aztek was the ur-crossover suburban-utility-vehicle, they were just a touch too far ahead of the market and a touch too clumsy in execution…

      …that cladding was all about rugged sportiness; it oozed the same all-weather extreme-adolescent-athlete aesthetic as all those other overwrought nineties athletic shoes, digital watches, and recreational equipment…

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        I would leave the Aztek out of it. At least that cladding wasn’t out of place like the GrandAm, Grand Prix, Sunfire, & Bonneville. The Firebird was the ‘cleanest,’ even though it had gaudy grown effects that protruded outward.

        The Aztek at least had fender flares that made the cladding resemble that of a modern Expedition XL. The Aztek was ahead of it’s time.

        I remember defending the vehicle for years as a lot boy. Here we are, 16 years later and the world has gone Aztek crazy. GM gets something right and no one seems to remember or give a flying f*ck.

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          GM likes to get things right at the wrong time, or finally get them right and then unceremoniously kill them.

        • 0 avatar
          stevelovescars

          I give you that GM was ahead of the curve with the Aztek regarding crossovers. It’s their execution that left a lot to be desired. Bob Lutz had a lot to say about this as an example of “bean counters” ruining what wasn’t a bad idea. The final product was misshapen and in my experience, unpleasant to drive. At least it’s failure got Wagoner to hire Lutz.

          I was working at Saturn around the time of the Aztek. I recall a company wide voicemail going out from the president of the company begging employees to stop badmouthing the Aztek in public. Inventory was piling up and execs even at other divisions were forced to drive them as company cars to help get the inventory level down by turning them into used cars.

          I also drove the Buick version of this as a rental car once and never before had I gotten car sick while DRIVING a car.

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Probably the same excuse Mini uses on all their cars – cost savings.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      I take it none of you have ever had rock chips. That or you really love plastic silicone / vinyl applications on your paint. Or have never driven on anything besides pristine, freshly washed asphalt.

      • 0 avatar
        wolfinator

        This. There are times I wish my entire front end could be plastic. I view plastic cladding as a practical way to protect the visible portion of the vehicle that get’s the worst wear.

        I don’t understand the hate. Is everyone on this site really over 60 or something? Yearning for the days when cars were made entirely from poorly formulated steel?

      • 0 avatar
        ...m...

        …my elise looks like danny trejo’s face; there’s definitely a place for plastic cladding gracefully set in high-wear areas…

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      cladding like that was generally used when the designer wanted surface features which couldn’t be stamped out of the sheetmetal. There’s a limit to how much “draw” you can do on a piece of sheet steel before the metal rips and tears, and a limit to how “fine” you can make surface shapes w/o creasing in visible areas. with the old “Pontiac way,” you could stamp a far simpler outer door skin and use a plastic panel to get the desired surface features.

      we may point and laugh at plastic cladding now, but in the ’90s it wasn’t out of place for the design trends of the time. It just hasn’t aged well.

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        That cladding is added cost. People forget that. The sheet metal and paint is still present underneath it, you just have piece cost for a design feature that gave you ‘driving excitement.’

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          yes, but “old GM” was pretty good about spending a lot of money foolishly. ISTR Bob Lutz saying something to the effect of “we don’t have cheap interiors. we have expensive interiors which look and feel cheap.”

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            haha, I never heard that one before. Call me nostalgic, but I’d still rather buy a car with overpriced interior components shot in a cavity in Flint.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      Ribbed…for her pleasure.

    • 0 avatar
      LS1Fan

      Alright, time to check some folks.

      I realize Pontiac may not be a lot of folk’s aesthetic cup of tea. So be it, diversity makes America better and whatnot.

      But say what one will about the cladding, it’s freaking practical. I owned a 2000 Grand Am GT I put 200K on. The cladding didn’t rust, and when John Q Idiot hit my doors it didn’t leave a mark on the metal.

      Way better then the furrin cars with their clear slab sides. Looks good for a week, then it accumulates enough dents to look like someone clear coated the surface of the moon.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatist

      I have an old Grand Cherokee and find cladding fairly protective against minor incidents (shopping cart, opening car doors etc)

  • avatar
    Joss

    Plastic is lighter. That chromed plated metal of yesteryear relied on electrolysis, which was water intensive and put heavy metals back in the water table.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      plating is usually done using nickel for base layers, with a chromium top layer. neither nickel or chromium are heavy metals.

      the risk was back when chromium plating was done using hexavalent (Cr(VI)) chromium, but due to its carcinogenicity is/has been phased out in favor of trivalent (Cr(III)) chromium.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I don’t think the CUV has an identity crisis. It’s a blank canvas. There’s no other body style that can legitimately pull off rugged, subdued, luxurious and/or sleek either in isolation or simultaneously. It’s a much more flexible form factor than the sedan for example, which has basically been killed by pedestrian regs and competitive requirements for cabin space.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    One happy result of using textured unpainted plastic is that for the most part, any damage resulting from an impact will require replacement as it cannot be repaired. So an (insurance cost) $100 repair on a painted rear bumper turns into a $600 bumper cover replacement for a minor tap in traffic.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Blame Pontiac.

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    If there is not a *good* interference fit on that cladding (and if the fit is sh1t and there is no padding), that cladding will eventually lead you down the path to broken paint & corrosion.

    The body usually just has cut outs for various push pins or clips, which the cladding uses to secure itself to the body.

    Body sealing is done prior to any piece of final trim is assembled onto the unit. The reason for this is the various ovens utilized to cure (and in some cases, vulcanize) the sealant.

    Any piece of paint or non painted trim (fascia, rear bumper, etc) is painted by a tier 1 and thusly isn’t part of the corrosion / pre treat / paint / body sealing cure process at the assembly plant.

    • 0 avatar
      anti121hero

      Yep. Here in cny one of the first things I do to my xj Cherokees is rip off the stupid flares that gather salt and rust

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Even though it had electrical gremlins, my 2011 X5 was solidly put together. I vividly remember how much work it was to remove the textured-plastic side sills and install running boards (completely non-functional for something with so little ground clearance, but I liked the look).

  • avatar

    I’ve noticed plastic cladding alot. Makes perfect sense when you think about it. It’s the most likely portion of the car to be damaged or destroyed aside from the bumpers.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    It may save money but it looks like utter crap on most cars and has no business on a “premium” SUV. I can understand the fender flares on a Wrangler or an old XJ, but on that BMW it brings it down to Honda Element class.

    JMHO.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      I disagree. BMW generally executes plastic cladding very well, a little less so here on the X1. As for the Wrangler, the plastic pieces in the front are the actual fenders, not just fender flares.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    In the rust belt, would these cause additional rusting where the salt can hide?

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      See my comment above. It definitely can. Especially is dirt and debris get trapped between a vibrating piece of trim and a painted surface.

      Will your door fall off before your BMW mill self destructs? Highly unlikely.

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    All that black plastic cladding does is make the entire vehicle look blatantly cheap.

  • avatar
    energetik9

    This isn’t really new on SUVs is it? They just do it better now.

    I had always attributed this to the utilitarian nature of SUVs. A modest level of protection from nicks and dings.

    I would welcome the piece on the front BMW bumper on more cars. I see far too many people that either can’t park parallel or blatantly park by feel.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I love the irony of affixing delicate plastic forms to make a vehicle “look rugged and tough”

    • 0 avatar
      IAhawkeye

      In my experience most of the unpainted plastic cladding they put on vehicles is pretty tough. Yeah it fades, but a little plastic restorer/time makes it look brand new again. Plus it’s way cheaper and easier to replace.

    • 0 avatar

      It really depends on the design and execution. I ripped RAV4.3’s chin spoiler twice, in rather benign conditions, too: against rather soft ground. Yet I found the exactly same component on JK Wrangler is about indestructible. I hit it upon rocks, sand, snow – even in reverse, and nothing happened to it. And it does not seem made of a thicker or tougher plastic. It mostly holds together because of the shape and pop-off fasteners that give way before its body rips.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    I get the logic of cladding protecting the vulnerable lower parts of the body. Seems like a practical idea. But so why are almost all modern bumpers just the opposite? They’re easily damaged with even the slightest contact, and soon look awful on many vehicles. Years ago, I had a Camry with, believe it or not, rubber bumpers. They still looked perfect the day I sold the car.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Speaking of rugged, I miss the old style 5 mph crash bumpers hung on spring loaded shock absorbers. They were tough. The plastic bumper covers combined with the cheap honeycomb bumpers now used offer no protection to bumps from other vehicles. The modern bumper covers are sleek and good looking, but very easily damaged by the slightest impact and are expensive to replace.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      I was able to replace a bumper cover for our 2012 Sonata for under $300, including paint (and it was a good paint job, too) and the lower grille. It would have been a bit more expensive if the car had had front parking sensors or had been a luxury marque.

      But, yes, while modern cars sacrifice themselves structurally to severe collisions, they sacrifice themselves cosmetically to modern ones. However, I don’t see the trend reversing itself. So now, what you have are new suites of technology that seek to prevent collisions in the first place…things like cross-traffic detection, lane keep assist, forward collision warning / braking, and partial / full autonomous modes.

      • 0 avatar
        Mandalorian

        Brush guards for the front and twin tubes for the rear are the way to go.

      • 0 avatar
        Johnster

        I’m thinking of a “BumpShox” front license plate holder for the front of my car, and a “BumpTek” rear bumper guard. I just hope the rear bumper guard stays stuck on the car and doesn’t peel off. This is to protect my car from parallel parking. These kind of things really should be standard equipment, though.

      • 0 avatar
        tedward

        The problem with those technology additions is that they only prevent you from dinging your own car. I owned my current wagon in nyc for two+ years and was responsible for no body damage on my car (sure a rim scuff or two). Still, my bumpers are chewed up with little dings, there’s some obvious indentations on the passenger rear door and a big crease in a front fender. Just looking at those marks I can point to where sensors would probably have met their fate.

        I honestly think driver assist features are great, so long as you have a driveway at home, a lot at work, and you aren’t unlucky in shopping centers. That’s a huge percentage of the car buying public actually, so maybe repair costs won’t end up being that huge of a problem. Still, something to be cautious about.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Heck, I would like to go back to the water filled bumpers of the mid 70’s. Crash them and just re-install and refill some water bladders.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    If Marcelo were still around (or perhaps, alive?) he could speak on all the Adventure trims for the Brazilian market.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Somewhere, a former Pontiac designer is shaking his/her fist at the sky screaming, “See, we were right, it’s the cladding!”

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I wouldn’t mind having black plastic rocker panels instead of metal ones that rust. Use plastic clips to fasten them to the upper body.

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    Can you remove the plastic body cladding or at least paint it body color? I had thought that something like a Mazda CX-5 with a lowering kit and the ugly body cladding removed or painted would make a nice substitute for our unfortunately non existent Mazda 6 wagon.

  • avatar
    STS_Endeavour

    Why did the even uglier Honda Element get a pass where the Aztek didn’t?

    • 0 avatar
      Dave M.

      The only ugly aspect to the Element was the off-color plastic cladding, which certainly stunted the looks of the Aztek and Avalanche as well. Where Aztek took it 10 yards farther was the overall miscreant look and shape, starting with front fascia and ending with the for-no-reason slanted liftgate.

      15 years later, the Aztek still looks like an Appalachian kid. Kissing cousin to the X6. Literally.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    So why did Mercedes do it on the W126? To catch road spray/salt in the grooves and keep windows clean? Because it covered up the part of the door that liked to rust with a material that wouldn’t rust? What exactly? Because they were a relentlessly engineering-driven company at the time and didn’t do anything for “no reason.” And certainly not for styling reasons (though the 450SEL was beautiful in an era of cars that were not).

  • avatar
    redapple

    Running Boards = Pant leg Dirtiers

  • avatar
    thelastdriver

    It helps. So much so that Honda America sells little-known about additional mudlflaps and color-matched plastic door bumpers for most of their vehicles.

    Really helps on an Element. Of course Dad had to buy and install them himself.


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