As yesterday’s sales graph proves, this is not the greatest time to be re-launching an entry-luxury brand. With Kias and Fords offering the kind of tech gadgets once found only in the upper echelons of true luxury brands, and with well-regarded import luxury marques moving into the front-drive, mass-market, the so-called “premium” brands are finding themselves caught in the middle and losing sales. But in spite of these damning dynamics, GM is moving to overhaul its entry-luxe Buick brand at top speed. Why? Because it can…
Local Motors wants to create unique automobiles that conventional automakers cannot possibly make. They want to design with creative talent from around the world, using the Internet and open source practices to make computer renderings into reality. After seeing (via word-of-mouth Facebook event) their first offering, the Rally Fighter off-road coupe, I have to say this business model is so crazy it might actually work.
March 20, 2010. Spring Equinox. Spring has sprung. How could Thetruthaboutcars.com celebrate the first day of spring 2010 better than with a concise pictorial history of springs?
Apart from tires and seats (which typically have their own springs, the seats, not the tires) the car’s suspension is what protects your (personal) rear end and spine from the rigors of the road. Apart from shock absorbers (which we’ll celebrate the minute we’ll find an appropriate season for shock absorbers), springs are an essential ingredient of your suspension. Springs come in three basic flavors. Read More >
The history of mid-engined Corvette concepts is almost as old as the car itself, but even more colorful. Once the performance and racing potential of the ‘Vette was unleashed by its father, Zora Arkus Duntov, ambitious developments intended for the race track, Futurama, or the front pages of buff books speculating about the coming mid-engined production Corvette have never ended.
Duntov is shown here, proudly posing with his 1959 CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle) I, clearly a racing-oriented concept intended to test advanced designs and components for future use. The CERV’s independent rear suspension was adapted to the 1963 Corvette. It’s 350 hp 283 CI V8 featured aluminum block and heads, and fuel injection. A grand start to a long series of exciting Corvettes, even if they never made it into production. Read More >
At the Geneva car show, this year’s bon mot among the journos is: there are two kinds of auto companies, those with problems and those that will have problems in the future. That’s one of the many reasons to take interest in the latest crop of concept cars: today’s concept could just be tomorrow’s catastrophe. Look past the bright lights and posed displays, and you can see visions of designers gone mad, branding gone astray, and a complete lack of any managerial imagination. Luckily, not all is dark on the horizon…
Read More >
[Note: A significantly expanded and updated version of this article is here]
For most of the fifties, sixties and into the early seventies, automotive aerodynamicists were mostly non-existent, or hiding in their wind tunnels. The original promise and enthusiasm of aerodynamics was discarded as just another style fad, and gave way to less functional styling gimmicks tacked unto ever larger bricks. But the energy crisis of 1974 suddenly put the lost science in the spotlight again. And although historic low oil prices temporarily put them on the back burner, as boxy SUVs crashed through the air, it appears safe to say that the slippery science has finally found its place in the forefront of automotive design. Read More >
[A significantly expanded and updated version of this article is here]
In the “streamlined decade” of the thirties, automotive aerodynamics was promoted as the great breakthrough to the modern high speed automobile. It was almost a religion, and its influence was essentially universal. By the end of the thirties, highly streamlined concepts were in every manufacturer’s styling studios. Everyone assumed the post-war era would be dominated by further developments on the air-splitting Tatra theme. But the reality turned out quite different, especially in the US.
[Note: A significantly expanded and updated version of this article can be found here]
That air presented the greatest obstacle to automotive speed and economy was understood intuitively, if not scientifically since the dawn of the automobile. Putting it into practice was quite another story. Engineers, racers and entrepreneurs were lured by the potential for the profound gains aerodynamics offered. The efforts to do so yielded some of the more remarkable cars ever made, even if they challenged the aesthetic assumptions of their times. We’ve finally arrived at the place where a highly aerodynamic car like the Prius is mainstream. But getting there was not without turbulence. Read More >
A good window into someone’s soul is their screen saver/wallpaper. You’re looking at mine. Read More >
Few aspects of the automobile are as examined, analyzed and obsessed upon as styling. Ask most people about cars and they won’t talk about engine displacement or suspension setup; it’s the physical presence of cars that captures interest and sparks passion. For a niche luxury brand like Jaguar, which survives on the margins of major markets without the backing of a full-line automaker, the art and science of auto styling is of supreme importance. Unable to match its rivals in the technological arms race of the upper-echelon luxury segment, Jaguar’s relevance is perhaps more tied to its ability to create compelling designs than any other modern brand. Were this the only challenge facing Jaguar’s chief designer Ian Callum, his job would be one of the most interesting in the business. Thanks to Jaguar’s nearly 40-year stylistic stasis however, Callum’s tenure is nothing less than one of the most significant in the history of automotive design.
As Ferrari leaves its traditional elegance aside in favor of expeditions to the limits of geek-gauche, few efforts by the Modena firm are as dismaying as its Special Projects one-offs. Jimmy Glickenhaus’s million-dollar Enzo-upgrade, the Pininfarina P4/5 set the pattern: one-off Ferraris must clearly signal that their owners have far more money than taste. Following in that bold tradition is this, the P540 Superfast Aperta, based on the 599 GTB. Though it looks like the buyer, Edward Walson, simply asked for a gold, targa-topped 599 with 250 GTO styling cues, the Aperta was actually inspired by the gold Fezza from Fellini’s Toby Dammit. Not that the pedigree keeps the Aperta from looking like a 1970s oil-sheik special. And considering this dismal re-working does such disservice to Ferrari’s best-looking car (plus the targa-top adds 50 lbs), it’s hard to see why they were so certain the project was “in keeping with the brand’s ideals,” as Autocar puts it. On the plus side, Walson gets the 540′s tooling to ensure uniqueness. Here’s hoping it stays as “unique” as it is “special.”.
Paul West of Mahoning Automotive Design is a tenacious guy. While most merely rolled their eyes at Cadillac’s front-drive “XTS” flagship plans, West wasn’t going to take Cadillac’s flailing sitting down. With Mahoning, D&D Classics and some promising industrial design students, he mocked-up an SRX-based study for a potential Cadillac flagship. “We did our best with the prototype,” he says “but only Cadillac can do the idea full justice.” It takes balls for a few upstarts from Ohio to show a major luxury brand how it should be preparing a flagship, and West knows it. But Cadillac’s inability to develop a true flagship gives West’s study a significance that is more than just skin-deep. It’s a provocative, gutsy way to shake up the thinking at Cadillac. And if nothing else it’s provided plenty of food for thought. [West's complete powerpoint proposal can be found in the gallery below]
TTAC: What attracted you to the idea of designing a Cadillac flagship sedan?
Paul West: While at Ford I pushed pretty hard for an update to the traditional sedan. The idea was for a car with more comfort, utility and value. And compelling road presence. The problem I ran into was that in this industry everyone has an opinion but few have data to back it up. The idea generated lots of interest but ultimately I couldn’t get the execs to bite. So I made the decision to do it independently and get real consumer feedback. Limited finances meant a vehicle mod rather than an all-new ground-up design but luckily the SRX was available. It had good proportions particularly from the B-pillar forward, and an added significance in that I felt it could help Cadillac leverage the precedent they set with the fabulous Gen 2 CTS. My vision was basically for a taller, larger version of the CTS with extra utility. It would sell alongside CTS and negate the need for the DTS (and XTS), the new SRX and possibly even the Escalade/EXT. And it would allow Cadillac to stick with the RWD commitment it made a number of years ago. Once I completed the prototype, exhibited it at this year’s Cleveland Auto Show and gathered ten days’ worth of mostly positive feedback, I realized that if designed properly the vehicle could legitimately carry the flag for Cadillac—especially in the absence of an ultra exclusive vehicle such as a production version of the Sixteen concept.
TTAC: What should a Cadillac flagship be? What’s at stake in the design of a new flagship for Cadillac?
Paul West: Cadillac’s history is in comfortable, luxurious travel for 4 to 6 passengers. Through the years the brand ran the gamut from sporting to spacious but at its best, Cadillac always showcased innovative, predictive engineering and classy, extroverted styling with elegant flowing proportion. A Cadillac flagship of today should possess all those elements too, and the good news is that they have the tools and talent to create it. Art & Science is one of the strongest design languages in the business and CTS is an example of its proper application. What’s missing is the big brother, the one you take cross-country. The one that makes everyone’s jaw drop when you pull up.
Today I think Cadillac is in a conundrum. The traditional multi-passenger American vehicle is caught in a four-way tug-of-war between roomy mundane FWD sedan, high tech Euro performance sedan, imposing thirsty SUV and humble practical crossover. If you lump Escalade and EXT together and exclude STS and SLS, both of which are probably on their way out, Cadillac fields one vehicle in each category. The problem is that because the customer base for each is so discrete, the distance between each so great, that owners wishing to upgrade have nowhere to go. For example, the CTS owner looking for more room, comfort and utility may look elsewhere if he wants to continue driving a high-performance styling statement. Escalade and EXT owners may leave to get the visually substantial vehicle they demand but with improved efficiency and handling. Competitive alternatives abound for the upcoming SRX, most of which are just as practical, some of which are more exciting. And DTS owners are nearing their last vehicle purchase and want the familiar sedan but would appreciate a taller package that they don’t have to fall into or hoist their bad back out of. If Cadillac doesn’t provide all these folks with a reason to stay, they’ll lose them.
While brand retention is an important factor, even more important is Cadillac’s credibility in offering the market a consistent and compelling set of ideals and in making good on their claim to be an innovative leader. Their recent abandonment of RWD in two of their vehicles is an example of the wavering they need to avoid. I think they wavered because the STS and original SRX failed in their missions, which was unfortunate because the problem with those cars wasn’t the platform, it was the unwanted top hats they carried. The market didn’t need and couldn’t support another expensive performance sedan nor did it want a 7-passenger CUV with almost nonexistent 3rd row seating. What my prototype and photo-altered images try to demonstrate is a top hat that lots of people will want. Really, passionately, emotionally want. Something that leverages the design and performance ideals laid down by the award-winning Gen 2 CTS, reduces the vehicles in the showroom to a number that is financially supportable, generates higher net volumes and profits, gives each of Cadillac’s four customer groups a place to go and a place to stay, and speaks to the industry’s future rather than its past. For those automotive planners who espouse market fragmentation, this proposal shouts the opposite by collapsing the industry’s decades-long entropy build-up into a single product that delivers a higher level of customer value. This wouldn’t be the first time the industry has experienced such an event and likely won’t be the last. In a later question I discuss a similar paring down event that began in the late 1930s and from which came the modern sedan. Who initiated it? Cadillac.
TTAC: Why did you base your prototype on the SRX? Interior packaging? Performance? Styling?
Paul West: The SRX had classic long hood and short deck proportions and was the most car-like CUV out there, aligning with my vision for a sophisticated super sedan rather than a 3-box truck. It also had a good interior package and offered a pretty cool ride from the vantage point of the driver’s seat. Critically, it had a C-pillar and rear door window frame of sufficiently fast rake that I thought I could avoid a costly redesign of the rear door’s frames, glass, seals and rain channels, and the roof and side air bags. It also permitted Vistaroof, which looks impressive from inside the car.
TTAC: What do you think of GM’s decision to go with a stretched FWD platform for the planned XTS flagship?
Paul West: I assume they chose the platform for fairly straightforward reasons: DTS owners, who are larger in number than STS owners, wanted the traction and security of front wheel drive, the platform was less expensive than GM’s global RWD platform and came with a comprehensive set of low-cost commodities, the Two-Mode HEV fit, the interior room promised best-in-class dimensions, Cadillac had available plant capacity and… GM ran out of time debating and had to make a decision! Assuming Cadillac opted out of a taller package to avoid the fuel economy hit, the only unknown is whether they widened the track and flared the fenders. Cadillac dealers told me this was very appealing to Gen 2 CTS customers. That car appears to have borrowed the STS suspension. The XTS likely required a costly redesign.
I mentioned FWD in Question 2 but think it’s important to get into the details a little more. There are many designers in Detroit who are frustrated that they haven’t been given the best platform upon which to design a winning product. In this regard, Cadillac may end up being a victim of its own success because GM did give their designers the correct platform, and the designers made the Gen 2 CTS so damn good that even Cadillac has been challenged to live up to it. But such a stroke of brilliance should be harnessed, not run away from. I think Cadillac needs to recognize that there is a difference between design language and styling. The Art & Science design language as manifested in the Gen 2 CTS is much more than diamond-faceted surfaces, jeweled lighting and a signature grill. It embodies the CTS’s RWD proportions and promise of performance. I haven’t seen the XTS but must assume they nailed it with styling, but spectacular styling alone does not make a spectacular car. Look at the new SRX. When Cadillac applied Art & Science to that FWD platform, with its cab-forward greenhouse and long front overhang, and made it a crossover wagon of all things, they reduced their award winning design language to mere styling. Shallow, almost gimmicky styling. I heard this consistently, if articulated in varying words, from hundreds of Cleveland show-goers who had just seen the 2010 SRX exhibit. I have no doubt that Engineering met the program’s attribute targets but the car’s shape simply does not telegraph anything inspirational. Cadillac might be able to get away with a wagon body on a RWD platform as with the new CTS, because the long hood still communicates performance. They also might be able to get away with a crossover sedan on a FWD platform as with the MKT image that I provided for this article, because the height still communicates presence.
But a tall wagon on a FWD platform is pushing their luck too far. Will the XTS be any better? I have my doubts and believe my proposal would attract most of the XTS and SRX buyers Cadillac is looking for, some Escalade/EXT buyers not in need of a tow vehicle, and a whole lot of new buyers.
If Cadillac were to conclude this pared down strategy insufficient for dealer volume or in attracting younger buyers, I would caution against a smaller RWD platform because it might prove expensive to build and overly cramped inside. Nor would I put a new top hot on an existing FWD platform for reasons already stated. There might be an opening for a transverse mid-front engine, a transverse rear engine or a pure electric powertrain, with 3-passenger seating described in my comments about the Chevrolet Spark later in this article. Beyond that, there is potential for a premium personal mobility vehicle, probably electric, of similar scope to BMW’s Project i. Think of it as a companion accessory to Cadillac’s main line-up, like the Viking microwave that matches the company’s big ovens in color and badging but deviates completely in size, shape, technology and intended use. The bottom line is that if Cadillac wants the gold they need to roll up their sleeves and dig for it, and the flagship that I am suggesting is just the first in a series of bold steps needed to get out in front of the competition.
TTAC: Talk about the challenges and limitations of mocking up a Cadillac flagship concept independently, without GM’s support.
Paul West: We did our best with the prototype and in the presentation I tried to clean it up with photo alterations, but only Cadillac can do the idea full justice. GM’s resources would have allowed it to be vetted in terms of design, engineering, dimensions, interior package and manufacturability. Interestingly, one of the people who saw my car said he saw something similar at a Cadillac design clinic a few years ago. I can’t speak to what Cadillac presented or the feedback they received, but I can say that the feedback on my prototype from people who saw it up close was extremely positive, at times even ecstatic. That’s pretty good testimony to the underlying idea particularly since, although the prototype’s craftsmanship was fabulous and the dual trunk/hatch worked as planned, none of us involved in the project were happy with the car’s formal roofline, upright C-pillar, high decklid, raised suspension and small wheels.
Although there were challenges creating an LLC and driving the project forward, there was also a positive side. Doing the build independently allowed us to set up a lean, fast moving skunk works operation. We leveraged the industry’s parts bin and invented only the must-haves that didn’t exist. The people at D & D Classic were amazing. There did it all – fabrication, design, CAD, clay modeling, engineering, paint – and were professional, knowledgeable and excellent problem solvers. It’s easy to see why people trust them to restore vintage Duesenbergs, Ferraris and the like. An added benefit was that they regularly hire co-op students from U. of Cincinnati’s Industrial Design School. The students were well-schooled in automotive design and exceptionally talented, and I’d hire them instantly if I were an OEM.
One added note about the build experience. The shop was 3 hours south of Detroit, my place of residence. I’d come down every 3-4 weeks for a day or two, we’d move the project along and D & D would continue in my absence. I gotta tell you, what with the beautiful classic cars everywhere, the smell of clay in the air, the hammers banging and Zeppelin cranking, it was pure heaven. OEMs of late have been denying too many employees the true car design experience. That’s a shame. Car nuts come to this industry to make cars, not data charts, org charts, bar charts, process charts and cover-your-ass charts, and certainly not to be treated like nameless, faceless numbers that eventually get deleted with a keystroke. There has to be a better way.
TTAC: Talk about the low-cost electric AWD proposal mentioned in your presentation.
Paul West: Mechanical AWD systems add cost, weight and internal friction that reduce fuel economy and most of the time are just there for the ride. Some AWD sedan and crossover buyers see the feature as an added level of performance or a necessity for the occasional off-road jaunt, but most just want to get up their snowy driveway or out of a wet intersection. For roughly the cost of a mechanical AWD system, electric AWD gives a RWD platform all-wheel traction when customers need it most, and captures energy at every braking event. It’s a win-win that OEMs can get real revenue for. The key is to keep the cost down by downsizing the electric motors (one per wheel, mounted inboard), the battery or ultracaps and the voltage level. The last spec permits less expensive inverter technology. One of the reasons you don’t see the system is, I suspect, that it flies against an HEV engineer’s inclination to maximize fuel economy. With this system an engineer has to find happiness in a 2 mpg improvement over a standard RWD system and be content in helping the customer avoid a 2 mpg hit. What OEM wouldn’t take a 4 mpg net improvement with profit margins maintained?
TTAC: Your proposal mentions avoiding mainstream “traditional sedan” segments for the Cadillac flagship, but also for potential Chevy variants. Why?
Paul West: Wow, that’s a completely different ball game. Talking about Chevy requires a different language. Permit me to switch gears and have a little fun by laying it out the way a coach would if his team were down 3 touchdowns with a quarter to play…
“Malibu! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.“ “You’re get’n manhandled up and down the field, boy. What’s with that namby pamby FWD stuff? “I was just trying to be like Camry, sir.” “Camry! If you want to be like him, go to the other side of the field and join THEIR team. On this side if you’re gonna carry 5 people, FWD is for sissies, and most of the sissies already love Camry, got it? “Yes, sir.” Now look kid, I know you tried hard and it ain’t entirely your fault. I need to have a word with the boys in the front office. In the meantime, take your pads off and have a seat.” “Yes, sir.”
“Camaro! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.” “You’re a real hot shot out there, flying off the lots like you’ve been. Nice job. Take a look at this kid, team. He knows what revs up Americans! Good pep, a long hood, big wheels, coke bottle shape and ROAD PRESENCE.” “Thank you, Coach.” “Shut up.”
“Global RWD Platform! Comeeer!!!” “Yes, Coach.” “I need you to play a different position. You need to carry 5 people and swallow all their gear, look like a car but stand tall and tough, and you need cleats that will get you through the mud, got it? Caddy’s flagship will show you the new plays, Camaro will help you bulk up and work on your smile.” “Yes, sir.”
“Spark! Spark!!! Where is that little pip squeak?” “I’m over here, Coach.” “Sorry, kid, didn’t see you. Well comeeer boy!!!” “Yes, sir.” “Look kid, you’re the linchpin to this whole plan. Since Global RWD is going to be sucking down a bit more gas than Malibu – ‘HEY GLOBAL, NOT TOO MUCH MORE, RIGHT?!!! ‘Right, Coach’ – right, well the thing is, I need an offset on fuel, the customer needs to travel for pennies and the country needs to wean itself off the bottle. Now I know the boys in the front office pegged you as the one to pull in the stingies, the greenies and the emaciated college kids with no money, but I need you to carry the ball five times more often than the volume call they gave you, OK? “Yes, sir.” Good. Now what I need you to do is take Jane and Joe Commuter to work every day, drop off the little one at day care and hit the grocery store on the way home, got it?” “Got it, sir.” “Now stand back, let’s take a look at you. Mmm . . . you’re too tall, your cowl’s too high and your tires are too small. Go see Camaro when we get done.” “Yes, sir.” Now open up the door, let’s take a look inside. Aaaaaahhhh!!! No wonder you get the emaciated ones! Look, kid, you can’t carry four people like the linebackers over there, it’s gonna make your driver cramped and miserable, and if he’s miserable you’ll sit on the dealer’s lot. You wanna be a bench warmer? “No, sir.” Neither do I and neither does your country. Here’s what I want you to do: get rid of that front passenger seat, nobody ever sits there anyway. Scoot your driver’s seat inboard and make it wider. Put the child’s seat in the right rear where nothing’s in front of it. Now, where’s your storage? “I don’t execute that play too well, sir.” “Well you’re gonna have to if you want the Commuters to love you every day! Get a big wide console in there, make it go all the way to the right, and run the exhaust under it. Your gonna need to carry breakfast, lunch and dinner up top and the lady’s purse in a pull-out drawer below, got it? “I think so, sir.” “Go See Corsa, I worked with him on this play in training camp. And don’t worry, kid, you’re gonna be alright.”
TTAC: Your proposal has many similarities to the upcoming BMW GT and Acura ZDX. What do you think of those products and the prospects for this new type of vehicle?
Paul West: I applaud BMW and Honda for reading between the lines and discerning what’s really going on in the consumer’s head. What they are attempting is historic. I do wonder if BMW’s dual-action liftback has a large enough throat opening when the smaller decklid is used, and am concerned that the awkward 2-box fastback styling and poor rear visibility of both vehicles might stunt the growth of the new segment. On this last point there’s a relevant historic automotive milestone that I believe offers an important lesson. Prior to the early 1930s, with the exception of a few expensive customs all 4-door passenger cars were of the “2-box” variety with no defined, integrated trunk. Throughout the 1930s manufacturers began increasing the rear overhang and integrating a trunk in the form of rear “bustle” that gave a “2-1/2 box” appearance. Then all of a sudden, the mold was cracked and the modern 3-box sedan was born. The sledgehammer was the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special. It was lower and wider than most cars of the time, had close-coupled front/rear seating and, at last, a big trunk. Although it was priced higher than Cadillac’s traditional touring sedan, which the company continued to produce, it sold extremely well. GM, confident in its success, followed up with C-body torpedo sedans in 1940 and the rest is history. A key lesson from that history, apart from Cadillac’s proving that innovation and styling leadership tend to make a brand embarrassingly rich, is that it confirmed the aesthetic appeal in the eyes of the consumer of the 3-box’s visually balanced profile. When I look at the new 2-box BMW and Acura vehicles I see an opportunity not fully realized.
One additional factor worth mentioning is vehicle height. In this, both new products succeed. I spend a lot of time at classic car shows and have a special passion for the heavy iron of the 1930s. Standing next to a 70-inch high Packard with a hood almost as long as a B-car tends to leave a person awestruck. Although my prototype looks awkward in pictures and from 20 feet away, when people stand next to it they feel its presence. That’s what a tall 3-box sedan with a long hood can do, and it’s a truism almost as old as the industry itself. Cadillac has a big opportunity here. I hope they give the voices outside GM a chance to be heard.
Three years ago yesterday, on a Jalopnik-TTAC joint podcast, a certain Robert Farago foresaw the rise of a “hybrid aesthetic” in automotive design. In order to break into the consumer psyche, went his logic, a hybrid car must look unmistakably like . . . a hybrid. Fast forward to 2009 and the new Honda Insight seems to confirm that looking like a hybrid means looking like a Toyota Prius. Chevy’s Volt might someday become the third member of the Prian party, while the forthcoming Lexus HS250h looks to be a Prius rebadge of GM-level laziness. If hybrids are the cars of the future, are we doomed to inherit a world of identical, beetle-shaped rides?
The obvious explanation for Prian design influence run amok is found in the wind tunnel. The outgoing Prius boasted a low-low coefficient of drag (Cd) of .26, making for one slippery hybrid. But the current Mercedes S-Class and Lexus LS460 also earn the exact same rating. For a four-door, the Prius’s CdA (Cd multiplied by area) is also surprisingly good at 6.24. But that’s not much better than, say, a 1991 Subaru Legacy which scores a 6.81.
The point is that the pursuit of wind tunnel efficiency does not lead inexorably to the Prian form, like some aerodynamic Mandelbrot set. There’s more to the wave of Prius-aping than mere laws of nature. The hybrid, writ large, has entered the American psyche. And it looks just like a certain Toyota.
To many Americans, the outgoing Prius was more than just a car. Through eight years of George Bush’s presidency, the Prius became symbolic statement of iconic power. It would not be unfair to say that, in 21st Century American iconography, the Prius took on the role of the Volkswagen Beetle to Bush’s Richard Nixon. It’s distinctive looks, unsullied by visual association with humdrum “regular cars,” created an undeniable statement. The bumper sticker had wagged the car.
The always-incisive cartoon South Park tapped into the Prian archetype in its send-up of self-satisfied hybrid drivers, “Smug Alert!.” The episode portrays the “Pious” and “Hindsight” as near-identical Prius-alikes, a subtle metaphor for the lockstep conformity of their “enlightened” owners. And with Honda’s latest hybrid so sincerely flattering the Prius’s looks, the South Park critique clearly had some merit.
But the real threat presented by the Priusification of the hybrid sector is not a looming cloud of smug. Rather, the very soul of automotive expression could become a victim of trend-following. Mass-market automotive offerings have long lost any stylistic luster, but more profitable “dedicated hybrid” models offer new opportunities to shape the automotive zeitgeist. In the face of this opportunity, automotive stylists seem to have raised the white flag, surrendering to (and thereby reinforcing) the power of the Prian archetype.
And this doesn’t just hasten the dystopic day when car buyers are forced to choose between a few flavors of hump-backed hybrid. Chasing the Prius’s self-defined segment too closely forces a comparison of the pretender to the original in which the newcomer may not fare well. The new Insight seems to have already fallen victim to this vicious dynamic. With so little separating the driving experiences of the Toyota and the Honda, reviewers are forced to conclude that the Insight is a slightly cheaper Prius without usable back seats.
Beyond this model-specific self-sabotage, the pursuit of the “dedicated hybrid” segment creates other dangerous temptations for automakers with hybrid ambitions. The early stages of the hybrid market favored unique models that identified their owners as early adopters. But as hybrid technology filters into the mainstream, Prius-like “dedicated hybrid” models will lose their unique appeal. If South Park jabs doesn’t get ‘em, technological proliferation will.
Honda may have traded in its Hybrid Civic and Accord efforts for the Insight due to weak sales, but it may well have missed out on the “dedicated hybrid’s” moment in the sun. The third generation of the Prius hits dealerships this year, and early reports indicate that its blockbuster predecessor has been relentlessly improved upon in typical Toyota fashion. Oh, and the looks haven’t changed much. Honda’s decision to attack the Prius on price alone may run into some heavy competition.
If the Insight sells like gangbusters, the Farago principle will play out with a grim determinism. This scenario would not only prove that the hybrid market still demands visual representations of eco-awareness; it would also permanently cement the Prian form as the distillation of this hybrid aesthetic. But the automotive future is simultaneously too exciting and mundane to be represented by a single, instantly-recognizable (and baggage-carrying) form.
On the one hand, hybrid technology must eventually enter the mundane realm of the Fit, Corolla and Matrix. On the other, truly cutting-edge technology must be packaged in ever-more inspiring new forms. Not just another Prius.
When it comes time to chart designer Chris Bangle’s contribution to the BMW brand’s aesthetic, few pundits will praise his pulchritudinous perversion of pistonhead passion, or thank him for the aesthetic affectations for which BMW is now known. In other words, the “Bangle Butt” will be Chris’ lasting legacy. Of course, this is also the man who removed the words “flame surfacing” from art school and placed them on the tip of his detractors’ tongues. That and Axis of White Power. (Oh! How we laughed!) Equally improbably, the Buckeye State native helped the expression “Dame Edna glasses” cross into the automotive lexicon. Yup. It’s been a wild ride. Literally.
Bangle may not have been the most pretentious pontificator to ever describe an “ow-tow-mobile,” but it’s hard to imagine who could challenge him for that distinction. The vehicles he birthed were almost as intellectually challenging as the words he used to describe them. But not quite.
The gallery above is a snapshot of the kinda post-Bangle era; all photos ripped straight from today’s BMW website. Strangely, revealingly, most of BMW’s model photos do NOT show the most popular viewing angle: front three-quarter. Those that do are almost all computer generated. It’s a tacit admission that Bangle’s designs lack the kind of cohesion which was once the marque’s defining visual characteristic.
The brand’s Bangle-related fall from sheetmetal grace coincided with two major developments.
It’s easy enough to surmise that Bangle had no say in the matter of whether or not his engineering-obsessed paymasters would equip “his” cars with their fiendishly complicated multi-media controller. But one can guess that he welcomed the device as a break from the past, signaling his own arrival.
In any event, the iDrive appeared in Chris’ first major work: the E65 7-Series [see: main picture above]. The iDrive was a disaster. It drew attention to the brand’s move away from its core, technologically illiterate customers. The iDrive and Bangle’s creased sheetmetal drew attention to each other—and not in a good way. Bangle was off to a lousy start.
The second major event: BMW’s success.
Success has many fathers, and it won’t take a DNA test. There are plenty of pundits who have no trouble putting aside their personal distaste for Chris Bangle’s showy designs to credit him and them for BMW’s dramatic rise in the sale charts. I hate it but I’m a snob. Das volk have spoken.
The counter-argument: false synchronicity. You straighten your tie a car horn beeps. Two events related in time, unrelated in cause and effect. We’ll never know if BMW would have enjoyed more success without Bangle’s rude awakening.
Countering the counter argument, you could argue that BMW’s are still instantly recognizable vehicles, right across the now-vast model lineup. For better or worse, it’s probably for the better. The Japanese have been struggling with this overarching brand aesthetic issue—and failing—for decades. For example, L-Finesse is this decade’s best design language, but Lexus’ badge-engineered sedans and SUVs still don’t speak it well, if at all.
Regular readers can guess my take on this matter: in terms of a car company’s long term health and survival, branding is all. There’s only important question: did Bangle’s tortured designs help or hurt BMW’s Ultimate Driving ethos?
I’m thinking neither. During the Bangle era, BMW maintained its well-deserved rep for driver-oriented mechanical engineering. Not reliability. Fun. Passion. Performance. The latest M5 lost all its visual sang froid. Every. Last. Bit. It’s an ugly, self-referential, over-wrought, arriviste pastiche. (AND it’s cursed with both iDrive AND the world’s worst gearbox.) But the über-5 still goes like hell and corners like the ultimate handling metaphor.
Again, other carmudgeons chiming in on the Bangle bamboozle will have a kindler, gentler take. Members of the autoblogosphere reporting Bangle’s exit, stage right, are sure to couch their criticism carefully, deploying their own obfuscation via words like “challenging,” “daring” and “controversial.”
Truth be told, Bangle took a car company best known for its oxymoronic Oberbürgermeister chic and turned it into an upmarket blingfest. His successor Adrian van Hooydonk has dialed it back a bit, but Bangle lingered long enough to make sure no one cancelled his contract with Fifty Cent. Maybe now they will. Here’s hoping.
Bangle’s departure raises the Lilly Pulitzer question: did he fall or was he pushed? Either way, is his acolyte now, at this very moment, using the ultimate office shredder? Will the Bangle schtick stick? BMW’s Board has been behind Bangle in the most Wagnerian of ways. But their willingness to dump his predecessor’s designs for something entirely new speaks of a new design direction.
Meanwhile, BMW says Chris Bangle is quitting “to pursue his own design-related endeavors beyond the auto industry.” Note: not “outside.” “Beyond.” Egomaniacal to the end, it seems that Mr. Bangle is ready to ascend to a higher plane, beyond mere “automobiles.” We wish him luck in his self-imposed exile from main street.
The entire autoblogosphere is abuzz over the new Buick LaCrosse. And not just in the pre-show preview, “check this out” kind of way. Or even in the sniggering “guess what the name means in Quebec” way. No, full-service pimping of GM’s latest mid-sized sedan is clearly the order of the day. And a single thread runs through all the breathless commentary, namely the alleged youthful, modern appeal of the new LaCrosse. The message is loud and clear: this is not your father’s Buick. Or, as The DetNews‘s Scott Burgess puts it (in hopes of avoiding the painful Olds legacy), “this is not your grandfather’s Buick.” The Freep opens its paean to the LaCrosse by pointing out that it was designed by “twenty- and thirty-somethings.” “No More Blue Hair!” screams the headline at Jalopnik, who also parrot the “not your grandfather’s Buick” line. But, like the infamous “not your father’s Oldsmobile” ads everyone keeps referencing, all this sound and fury merely cements long-standing brand perceptions in the minds of consumers. And hastens the long-overdue death of Buick
GM’s Susan Docherty reveals to Automotive News [sub] that Buick’s youthful reinvention is not being kicked off by LaCrosse. “With the introduction of the Enclave, we have broken through the perception that Buick was just a brand for old people,” says the Pontiac Buick GMC VP. “The Enclave started a transformation of the brand that has only just begun.”
Oh really? So the DetN’s Burgess wasn’t kidding. This really is about repositioning Buick as “your father’s” brand instead of “your grandfather’s.” And with an average buyer age of 63, that may not be a bad goal. But if Enclave buyers were still well into their 50s, how far are these claims of youthful reinvention really going to carry the Buick brand?
Not far. Not only will this LaCrosse fail to appreciably bring down the average Buick customer age (for reasons explored later), the entire marketing effort sends the clear message that its core buyers are an embarrassment to the brand.
As does the car itself, which is loaded with techno-gizmos and has optional all-wheel drive. Why? To tempt the youthful hordes from their “near-luxury” Toyota Avalons, Acuras TLs and the like. And further convince their core market that Buick’s are no longer senior-friendly havens of low-tech in a world gone mad.
Compared to the last few decades of Buicks, the design is understated and elegant. But that’s like bragging about attracting 50-year-old customers instead of 60-year-olds. From some angles the new car looks suitably Lexus-like, echoing the current LS at the rear and first-generation GS from the side. From the front its splashy waterfall grille is subtle in comparison only to Mercury’s chrome-bauble bling.
From the vantage point of online press pictures, the interior does look undeniably decent. Unfortunately, it also does away with the sense of spaciousness and simplicity that defined Buick’s appeal even when its styling and performance was at its worst.
Even if the new LaCrosse is the best Buick made in years (and it probably is), it does nothing to rescue the brand. The relentless emphasis on customer age in marketing and media coverage shows deep insecurity on GM’s part about Buick’s appeal.
Buick is one of the most traditional symbols of middle class achievement, an image that over the last few decades has appealed to fewer, older customers. That image has been successful in China, where a young emerging middle class hold many of the values that once made Buick a success here.
As a well-qualified youngster in the car-buying demographic I feel confident in arguing that America’s aspiring 20 and 30-somethings are generally striving for individuality and expression, not suburban comfort, conformity and subtlety.
As a brand as steeped in tradition, Buick needs to reinvent itself in a way that builds on its past and broadens its appeal without alienating long-term fans. Something along the lines of Canadian Club’s “damn right your dad drank it,” campaign. When brands outlive their historical moment, only some sense of irony or humor can keep their core values relevant. If trying to keep Buick relevant even makes any sense at this point. Which it probably doesn’t.
GM has had a hard enough time updating Cadillac’s staid image in a way that doesn’t completely alienate traditionalists. Attempting this balance with Buick does little besides create the brand engineering and cannibalism that destroyed both brands in the first place.
Me? I actually want one of my father’s favorite Buicks, the 1963 Riviera. Which was actually marketed to people like his father. In terms of recapturing the immediate yet timeless appeal of Buick’s heyday models, the new LaCrosse comes up well short.