Remember when designers had to draw a side view over a package? The actual production vehicle package? It seems designers no longer do this. Obviously at sketch phase, character is key- but eventually… surely…. one MUST draw the same design over a package? This is what I was taught, but I guess design schools stopped, so design studios stopped? A production car being a disappointment compared to a concept car is nothing new, but these sketches are FOR the production car!! Roof height is a typical “cheat” when sketching and even making a scale mode, but the overhangs? The overhangs are completely different on the production car and I cannot understand who is sketching different overhangs – then just accepting whatever overhangs the production team create.
Consumerism and useless product design…
This blog is title autoSTYLING for a reason. I couldn’t get a car design URL…. but seriously it is important that the word styling was used. I am a design lecturer, but when I started this blog I just wanted to talk about cars as a passionate hobby and only in terms of aesthetics. Car design is a complex process but the members of the team that are called designers mostly work in the area of aesthetics. The design departments that were initiated in the 1950s, were defined by one template in particular, in Harley Earl’s GM “styling” studio. Principally the aim was to sell (and re-sell) similar cars every year, with new visual gimmicks and colours, inspired by the seasonal nature of the fashion industry. This was a clever change to the automotive business, where previously people bought cars that could potentially be fixed and last for many many years. It is something Henry Ford struggled with, once everyone had bought his Model T. They didn’t need a new one.
So we entered into an era when cars became desirable and fashionable consumer products, marketed to us as lifestyle accessories and whimsical statements about our wealth or status. Bachelor? Buy a car with no space for kids! Where do design teams come into this? Well, they are briefed to design products initiated by market research, and possibly years of sales experience feedback. Designers are asked to deliver a product for precisely defined customer wants and desires. We are now so conditioned to this aspect of cars that it’s not something we think about, but some consumers push against the impractical feeling or aura given off by styling. The growth of SUV demand really began with customers buying ex-military vehicles for use on the road. In the UK for example, functional farm vehicles were seen in country villages and the non-farmers who lived there took note. Land Rover had a great idea to combine a road car (Rover)- with their farm work-machine to create the Range Rover. Still this was not quite utilitarian enough for some, and those people continued to buy and use the “proper” Land Rovers on road. The majority wanted the comfort of the Range Rover though.
The Land Rover Discovery was essentially a reverse of this, attempting to cater for utilitarian vehicle customers AND school run urban users with one vehicle spun off the Range Rover chassis. This was in direct response to the popularity of Japanese 4×4 rivals such as the Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun in the UK).
In general though, cars continued their push to be marketed and sold as lifestyle accessories, and the large corporate car producers had the money (and risk aversion) to carefully study their consumers. These companies learned the motivations for customers to purchase a vehicle, and researched niches to be filled. The evolution in customer focused design has led to diverse ranges of cars from most manufactures, and in 2009 Nissan pushed the SUV craze to its’ current situation with their 2WD Qashqai. A very clever, if somewhat unoriginal concept, to merge the on road user scenarios of SUVs with the mechanical economy and low cost of any ordinary road car. The benefits were numerous and despite the usual lack of foresight by motoring press- the car was obviously going to be a huge success. It was. The same old arguments were brought forth for the Qashqai… that it lacked functionality. That customers wanted and needed 4WD, and that they needed utilitarian looks that had been established with actual utility vehicles. They beleived customers only bought off-roaders that could actually off-road, and worse still they seemed to believe that only an ugly non-styled vehicle could ever be capable off-road. All these arguments against the Qashqai were proven completely false, and of course the link to the way a car looks and its function is quite elastic. Nissan knew they were false from their own market research and the relative failure of their previous crossover vehicle (the X-Trail).
No manufacturer gambles $billions before finding out even a little about the likelihood of success or failure.
So this leads me to a recent tweet- and the basis of this post, regarding the press getting things wrong yet again. Since the Range Rover Evoque convertible we are seeing a new breed of seemingly implausible vehicles- in the eyes of the myopic motoring press. The convertible Crossover/SUV. What all commentators on these designs forget- is that the original 4x4s were ALL soft tops. The Jeep, the Land Rover. The lack of roof was an essential part of any lightweight versatile military vehicle. On the farm, the Land Rover Series II developed to have a warmer cab enclosed on 3 sides, and even 4 sides in pick-up form, but still a canvas covered rear. The VW T-Roc cabriolet continues a time honoured tradition of soft tops on off-roaders. What really struck me was the wording of a Top Gear Magazine tweet, to say that designers of the VW had “strayed from the mission statement of an actual utility vehicle”. There are so many things wrong with this statement, but of course TG are joking, much like it’s comedy TV show format. The new Ford Bronco clearly defines itself as a functionality-led design exercise (using it’s aesthetics) and it comes with many options for removing the roof on 3 and 5 door models! So what exactly is the problem with the T-Roc?
I will confess. I do not like the T-Roc convertible, or the very similar Range Rover Evoque Cabriolet. There are aesthetic reasons for this, mostly the very short but tall proportions combined with a full convertible providing no B or C pillars. The short square shape plus canvas top- is too close to a baby pram/stroller look for me, or perhaps even a skip. For the same reason, I don’t think the Mini Convertible is visually successful either. This is aesthetically opposite to the utilitarian or military design aesthetic of nearly all off-road vehicles. Roll-over in a T-Roc convertible? Dread to think what that would be like, it certainly looks less safe, and as for flexibility of the monocoque? Engineers are shuddering across Wolfsburg. The “joke” that TG are attempting here, is that this car is NOT designed to be an off-roader. Well yes, that is patently obvious. The design team have made no mistake at all, and were well briefed by marketing on exactly who the target customer was. Those customers would have bought a convertible Golf GTi 30 years ago, or a BMW 3 series convertible maybe 20 years ago. Today’s urban upmarket small but classy vehicle of choice is: yes the baby crossover. The amount of drivers that want to experience sunshine on their heads is significant. Range Rover pioneered, and upwardly mobile VW followed. The trope of “wrong car in wrong place” was created by innovative Car Magazine a long time ago, and to be fair, it can still be very entertaining. It’s definitely a reminder that Top Gear is not about sensible automotive journalism and that’s fine. What is clear is that people need to face up to reality, and that is: nobody buys any vehicle for truly practical reasons, with truly rational and logical selection criteria. Brand and image and styling all affect us subconsciously. That skill of manipulating the observers thoughts and emotions, is exactly what excites me about car design and why I started this blog about styling.
Above: the original “car out of place” article?
Car Magazine have a great history of this, and the above link shows a classic of the genre. Top Gear TV series took these odd juxtapositions to extremes. Mostly they adapted this style of article into long distance adventure drives, sometimes with the ideal (but old and broken) machinery, sometimes with the opposite- such as an Esprit V8 across Argentina (attempted… because: Clarkson). The new Ford Bronco has been accepted with huge praise, and of course this is exactly because it is much more capable than it needs to be in terms of off-road credentials, and the styling aligns with the implied functionality. In design language, we call this over-specification and this type of product is all around us. A certain demographic tends to favour over-specification. Wearing all condition trainers/sneakers that were designed to hike up Everest, cycling 2 miles across London on a 6kg carbon road bicycle that was designed to win the Tour de France, while wearing a 1000m water resistant divers watch (yes these exist, 1km under water where you will be crushed to death!) in case there is a brief shower. All of this over-specification leads to some impractical cars… in the “wrong” scenarios, and in another post maybe I will need to address the Ineos Grenadier vs Land Rover Defender debate (seems relevant to this post). To summarise for now I will simply suggest that the reader demographics of TG Magazine do not match the buyer demographic of the T-Roc cabriolet, and the result is ridicule…. which precisely none of it’s buyers will ever read.
Recently we’ve seen a couple of major Auto Shows go head to head, West vs East in May with New York and Beijing shows back to back. Toyota chose the Beijing show to launch the production version of their Lexus branded small crossover. I’ve posted here before regarding crossover vehicles (and I once owned the trendsetting Qashqai myself). The new Qashqai has been underwhelming in design, and other manufacturers are still following the styling of the previous model. Toyota have been finding their design stride recently, especially with the bold designs under the Lexus brand. Risks are being taken, and that is very nice to see. Some designs are successful, others not so much. Their small crossover concept, the LX-NF, last year was radical in it’s surfacing treatment (incredibly over the top) but has translated very nicely to a less frantic production design. Thank goodness for those metal stamping production limitations… the changes are subtle, but for the better.
Here’s the original Lexus LF-NX crossover concept. And then the production version Lexus NX (this one is the 200T)which was launched in Beijing.
If we go back to March 2014 we also saw some great auto design work at Geneva, and another very nice transition from concept to production for the Citroen C4 Cactus. This one has been in the works for a long time, and began with the C-Cactus concept of 2007. The C3 Picasso for example follows a similar styling theme. The production version is very innovative, and not just in styling terms. Citroen are experimenting with selling the Cactus in a new lease contract based system. These two manufacturers can be applauded for their risk taking, unlike the ultra conservative German manufacturers who seem to be painting themselves into a corner.
Way back in 2007 Nissan decided to abandon the battle that they were losing against the VW Golf and Ford Focus (C-segment). The Almera was a good car, but a sales/profit disaster. To replace this model, they looked to their brand new London “think-tank” design studio. That team came up with a radical and fashion led urban concept they called a “crossover” vehicle. In essence it was the standard FWD Almera hatchback underpinnings, with an SUV style (but much less macho, and more sporty) body on top. Other Japanese manufacturers had tried the crossover idea before, as a commenter has mentioned, the Subaru Forrester was released in 1997 and the Honda HR-V in 1999. Both were more traditionally (non-sporty) styled SUVs which also had energy wasting AWD. The market niche was empty for Nissan to test the water by ditching that AWD hardware and avoiding the rugged styling… and now, 5 years later the Qashqai is a phenomenon. Over 2 million of them have been sold across the world, and every manufacturer has been inspired by the design, the engineering (2WD) and have targeted Qashqai customers. Nearly all manufacturers got greedy though, and didn’t stick with Nissan’s winning formula of SUV looks with totally comparable C-segment prices. This year, Nissan had the scary prospect of following up their smash hit vehicle with an all new Qashqai. Again designed by the London studio, by the same designer I believe? Matt Weaver (another Coventry University graduate) is now the official Godfather of Qashqai. I’ve created a montage for this article, of various production and concept Crossover designs…. see if you can name them all. Some are Nissan’s own concepts leading up to the final new Qashqai design. Two or three concept cars were used to test ideas on the public, before choosing the final design for Qashqai 2014.
edit: to add to this post, I of course managed to overlook the original Crossover design. Which was not produced in Japan. Just like most market niches, it originated in the creative pool of France. The Matra Simca Rancho was a small, urban SUV styled vehicle with FWD only!
Rear view… comparison of Jaguar and Mazda design language for their crossover vehicle designs. Both look great, but so similar…
Comparison of just how close the Jaguar and Mazda design language has become recently… (both look great in my opinion).
I received this email from our co-blogger here, regarding a design talk given some months ago by current head of Advanced Design at Jaguar, Julian Thompson. It relates to the CX-17 crossover concept, and also gives us clues to the deep rooted changes in Jaguar management that have enabled the design-led (Apple like?!) resurgence of this great brand. Thompson and Ian Callum have fully vindicated the new management’s confidence in them, surely?
Julian Thompson at the talk pointed out that Jag were stuck in a rut. Ford had transformed the quality and reliability of the products but they had stuck to the same look. This was because Ford used ‘consumer focus groups’ where they asked the consumer, the customer, what they wanted. Even worse Thompson pointed out they did this in the USA as that was Jags biggest market at the time. So what did the consumer say they wanted? Well as they were mainly 55 year old company directors they wanted the cars to STAY THE SAME, to LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME as the previous model. Jag listened, and the S-Type, previous XJ and X-Type were born. Sales figures went from bad to worse. Average consumer age went from bad to worse too! Or at least didn’t improve. Profits evaporated.
The new management threw this out of the window.
The next bit I am adding myself, as Thompson didn’t say it:
I believe they decided to look at what consumers are actually DOING rather than what they were saying. What they were DOING was buying super modern, sporty, diesel BMWs.
So this spawned the XF (commercial, diesel) and the new XJ (stunning modernity) and what happened? They sold THREE TIMES as many XFs as S-Types and now look at Jag! Making profit and storming on to be one of THE hottest brands on the planet. Even if you include any brand, not just cars, Jaguar is COOL. The F-Type has already sold 1000 units within 2 months!!! Despite the high price.
Right, so this week we have seen published images of the new Audi Q3 crossover, based on the cheaper VW Tiguan of course. The best part as you can already guess perhaps…. is that Audi teased the press with preview sketches as is the usual process these days, and now the final car is revealed, with almost total predictability. It looks so much like the larger Audi Q5 most of us car geeks, let alone the average person on the street, can BARELY tell the difference.
Wow- those Audi designers really earn their money…. So they did nothing
at all in the process of creating this car? Picked some new LED’s for the headlights? I guess we can expect this sort of evolutionary and cautious design language from the Apple of the car world, and they have of course proved this tactic to be incredibly successful. I guess I just wonder about the enthusiastic, idea-filled, young designers trapped in that Audi design studio…. how do they feel when the bosses just ask for this kind of work?!
Here are some comparison shots in a slideshow, see if you can tell the difference…. (hint: the blue one is a Q5!)