Practical cars. Rationalism, or not.

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.

Model T repair workshop?

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).

An expensive but capable design – which looks rugged, but is it?

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.

https://www.carmagazine.co.uk/features/car-culture/ferrari-to-the-sahara-part-1-car-archive-may-1995/

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.

T-Roc design “sketch”
Kings Road SUV soft-top
OFF Road SUV soft-top

#DesignTop5 4-door saloons

Thanks to a car designer named Matteo Licata I wanted to expand on another Twitter discussion. At this link Matteo complied a nice write up of his Top 5 saloon cars (with 4 doors). Since the first day I saw the Rover SD1 that my father bought from our neighbour (in 1987?) I have always preferred a more sleek silhouette to the 4 door 3 box type of car. As a family we grew up with hatchbacks, estates, and even that Rover fastback. At some point my dad was forced to drive company cars which included some saloons, such as a Sierra Sapphire (a comfortable little shed), and even a Ford Orion (not as bad as we expected it to be), but mostly given a choice we had hatchbacks. I’ve only ever owned one saloon car myself in 24 years, and that was a Hillman Avenger. Nevertheless I decided to choose my own favourite designs in this globally popular car shape. In no particular order…

Firstly I agree with Matteo that the Citroen DS is possibly the greatest “saloon” car ever designed. It looks nothing like a traditional 3 box saloon! It is so different I don’t even count it myself, it is just so far removed from all preceding or following designs. So that might be my no.1. and 5 runners up could be…

Mercedes W124

Surely the definitive Mercedes? Solid, but light, formal but elegant. Not too big, not too small. I’ve driven one briefly and it felt (and looked) like granit formed into a car shape, from exterior right through to it’s wonderful interior. Never to be bettered?

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Alfa Romeo 164

Yes the Alfa 156 is truly stunning. Beautiful and interesting at the same time. The 164 though, is outstandingly restrained and beautiful. Formal, and informal. Quite utilitarian looking for an Italian car, with its many plastic panels and rubbing strips- but at the same time it is elegant and sophisticated. Pure magic that only Italian designers can conjure up!

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Rover Sterling

Yes, I loved the SD1 and was amazed that Rover replaced it with a saloon (but rapidly added the fastback style too). I had a Matchbox model of this, and it predated the Alfa 164 with a similar look (two-tone body) by one year (1986, then 1987 for the Alfa). I loved this linear, modern high-tech look in my youth. It is so wonderfully 80s, but at the same time expertly executed in it’s design details. The original styling model is shown here, from 1983! Find out more from Keith Adams excellent website.

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Lincoln Continental 1961 – 1969

The definitive long, low, wide and truly American saloon car design. The Wachowskis new what car was needed to represent the peak of the 20th century in The Matrix, and it was this one (a 1963 model actually).

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Jaguar XJ40

Controversial, but again my love of rectangular saloon shapes means I genuinely prefer the XJ40 over the XJ series III that it was supposed to replace. The subtlety of this design is fantastic. It borrowed from global design trends then expertly mixed those with more traditional forms of Jaguar.

jaguar_xj_1986_favcars

Audi A6 (C5)

The design lecturers example. Perfect proportions, almost to the point of not knowing if it’s FWD, or RWD or perhaps AWD (Quattro as intended). The arc of the DLO and it’s perfectly balanced placement within the wheelbase, combined with the dangerously unadorned rear end (imagine a tow hook added, or an exhaust pipe!) this was the Apple iPhone of saloon cars.

audi A6

Skyline R32

An oddity. When I discovered these existed I was amazed. Did they design the 2 door first, then just extend it to be a saloon? Like coach built limousines. To see a sporty shape like this, as a core part of a saloon design (not bulged and added post-design) is unusual. Subaru used this theme on many saloons after, but Nissan did it first!

nissan_skyline_history_picture (65)

Lagonda Taraf and Aston Martin Rapide

Declaring a personal interest here as quite a lot of my friends, and even family, work at Aston… but I really can’t help loving all the 4-doors they have produced over the last few years. The Rapide was a beautiful if somewhat impractical +2 development of the DB9 shape. Then later Lagonda was reborn with the astonishing low volume Taraf model. Enormously long, but aimed at giving a massive amount of rear passenger space, the shape reminds of the original William Towns Lagonda while also connecting with other Aston form language. This design might have inspired many other big saloon designs that have followed, such as the VW Arteon or the Mazda Vision Coupe. I’ve cheated a bit here including both, but there’s actually 7 cars mentioned in this post!

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Update: my inspiration for this post has now created a YouTube video showing his choices! Check it out, it’s fun! https://youtu.be/CcbLSEBHyNA

Crossover evolution

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!

2WD and based on a b-segment car- here’s the original urban crossover from 1977! The Matra Simca Rancho

crossover evolution
Various Crossover models

nissan clay

A reporter explores the basics of how a clay model is made. Some very simple questions, but lovely to see the raw materials. I love the smell of that stuff! Magic.

white urban style

January 2010– I turned 33, and my wife is now expecting a baby- so naturally we drove straight to our nearest lifestyle/crossover/soft-roader dealer and purchased a brand new Nissan Qashqai. Now this may sound like a total cliche- partly because it is- but it is also in my opinion the perfect car choice for our lives. I was personally quite surprised at some friends reactions (a Qashqai is NOT a gas guzzling behemoth!), but mostly reactions were positive. If activity at the dealers is any indication, a Qashqai is the ONLY car to be seen buying right now. Our dealer carries Seat, Audi, Volkswagen, Peugeot, and Nissan- the showroom housing everything except VW/Audi who seem to need their own space (to lord it up).  I can assure you there were only 2 cars that any customers were looking at in the showroom- Qashqai, and the occasional glance at the new Peugeot MASSIVE LONG UGLY BUS/PEOPLE CARRIER thingy. I live in Finland, and Finns love a spacious car- they love a CHEAP spacious car even more, hence the Peugeot being looked at. The Qashqai however is something of a sales legend across Europe. When compared directly with my father-in-laws Honda CR-V it makes so much sense. The CR-V is about the same size, is very similar to drive, but costs €10,000 more than my Qashqai!! Northern Finland is also covered in deep snow for a good 6months of the year, so anything with higher ground clearance or 4WD hardware is snapped up here. Even more appealing to me, was the fact I could save money and improve fuel economy by ordering my Qashqai as 2WD. It is law here in Finland to run winter tyres, and where I live we all use metal studded tyres- which means that 2WD is adequate (but obviously not as ideal as 4WD) in even the worst conditions. The equipment spec on our car is amazing- with touch-screen sat-nav, full length glass sunroof, dual zone climate control (how on earth can air a few cms from other air- be a different temperature?!), cruise control, bluetooth and ipod connectivity, rear view camera and for the summer- 18″ alloy wheels! The boot is huge, and the rear seats have great legroom.

sunset across the frozen sea in Finland (-20C)

If we had to specify a perfect car for us and future baby +gear, it needs to have lots of space, do 38mpg, have sat-nav and ipod connections, good ground clearance, isofix seat stuff (not sure what all that is yet, but I’ll let you know later on this year), 5star NCAP ratings, be nice to drive (nice enough, nothing fancy!) and cost as little as possible while also looking awesome. We considered a shortlist of Nissan Qashqai, Skoda Yeti, Citroen C3 Picasso and maybe a second hand Mercedes B-Class. After seeing the Qashqai we never made it to test drive any of the other options! But we ruled them out for a few reasons- Merc would have to be 2nd hand, and also didn’t have the ground clearance, the Yeti had fake wood on the dash in the brochure- so that’s also a non-starter, and the best alternative would be the lovely C3 Picasso and it’s actually a shame we didn’t try one out. It did seem a little small on paper, but then it is a lot cheaper than a Qashqai. So we went to look at a Qashqai together, and frankly fell in love after one test drive! We didn’t hesitate, and on the spot bought a Qashqai 1.6 Acenta-RC 2WD in white, with 18″ wheels, and we’re really pleased with it. It’s  38mpg or 7.3L/100km on long journeys is a long way from the planet harming image of other SUVs!

Spring change to 18" wheels

Right, lets talk design- and first of all we come to the fact that nearly all the cars I considered purchasing were designed by friends of mine! Mile Nurnberger’s C3 is a delightful urban transport product- fit for the 21st century, but as I said perhaps not quite rugged or large enough for the outback of Finland. We were impressed with the perfect reliability of our C3 over the last 2 years however. Next the Merc B-Class has been a real grower, from when I first saw the design back in 2004 I believe, it actually seems to have improved- perhaps fitting in more as other cars ape it’s style. Mark Fetherstone created an impressive amount of visual drama and speed of lines in a very compact package that must have been difficult to stick to. The car is very spacious inside, and very square in plan shape, but thanks to some serious sculpting of the bonnet and nose it maintains the Mercedes DNA. A very slick job indeed, and clearly the reason Mark’s next assignment was to design the flagship SLS supercar.

qashqai concept
2004 Nissan Qashqai Geneva Concept

Moving on to the Nissan Qashqai- this car also has a very close link to my studies at Coventry University, being design by one of my peers a few years ahead of me- Matthew Weaver. Matt actually designed the original concept car, for the 2004 Geneva Motor Show, while working at the brand new Nissan Europe Design studio at the Rotunda, London. The Qashqai concept was an amazing success for that studio first public design, and proved absolutely it’s worth. The crossover vehicle was radical, combining 4×4 ruggedness, with sporty hints on the upper surfaces while aiming for normal passenger car levels of space and refinement. The design was aimed squarely at urban dwellers, succesful young city workers that also would like to travel out of town for adventure. This brilliant mix of urban and lifestlye reminds of the original Range Rover, but the Qashqai proposed this in a much less tough utlitarian way. Bulging wheel arches, and even Mercedes SLK inspired bonnet bulges were shameless hints to sportscars and seemingly at odds with what was underneath. The public got it though, they had no cares at all about what was underneath the exterior. The bonnet bulges are a great example of this- inspired as they are by the SLK, and before that pre-war Mercedes F1 cars, where those bulges cover longitudinally mounted straight engines. The Qashqai of course has a transverse engine layout, but those kind of style over substance details are what the urban hipster is all about! The concept shows the key elements that made it right throught to production- the bonnet bulges, the curved and muscular wheel arches, the side DLO graphic and also the general sweep of the very low and sporty glasshouse. This was radical in 2004 remember, and compare with its competitors such as the Honda CR-V, a very boxy design which has since taken inspiration from the Qashqai.  The concept did exhibit some of the early 2000’s obsession with clean but ultimately a little lifeless Audi inspired surfaces, which happily were actually improved on for the production car. Matt’s original superb sketches had a lot more sportiness and dynamic life about them- which again can be seen more in the final production car thankfully.

qashqai concept sketch
Matt Weaver's concept sketch

qashqai concept sketch
Another of Matt Weaver's concept sketches

So moving on to the actual production car- one of which I now own, we can see that the design has changed in detail, but the overall character of the idea is brilliantly maintained and in fact improved upon. The really brave, but very clever step Nissan took, was to make this car cheap and to make it replace an entirely normal Golf segment vehicle- the Almera. The Almera, and Sunny/Pulsar before it failed to beat the Golf or Focus, or even Astra in terms of sale so Nissan decided to so something smart. They built the Qashqai on basic mechanicals from the Almera, charged only a little more money than the Almera- but then at this price point there were no other off-road style vehicles at all. They correctly predicted that urban consumers couldn’t care less about the smelly oily bits underneath, they didn’t even need the extra complexity of 4WD (almost pointless on-road anyway). The production version kept the initial idea talked about by Matt Weaver- of dual personalities, with the lower body showing black plastic, off-roader inspired functional design leading to curves, bulges, and even that most sportscar like feature of all- the sweeping, tensioned boneline from front wheelarch right along to rear lights. The bonnet and headlights were criticised for being very similar design to the Mercedes SLK- which is an amazing fact when we consider how utterly different those two cars are in genre. An SUV with a sportcars body? Yes, Nissan did a crazy thing, and 6 years later we’re all finally getting what the hell they were on about.

2006 production qashqai

Incidentally, this Nissan was intended to sell huge numbers globally- obviously the only way we could actually be offered the prices we are! In the US the Qashqai is sold as the Nissan Rogue, and in Japan as the Nissan Dualis. The Dualis is identical to the Qashqai, but the Rogue is styled differently and is also larger (well, it is aimed at America- what did you expect?). The design of the rogue shows us interesting aspects to American tastes, as it essentially loses all of the utilitarian and rugged features- such as black plastic lower panels. The inability for any American to buy any car with black plastic on it is perhaps due to the “cheapness” factor associated with it. They sure love shiny things, and the Rogue shows us just how shiny! An advantage of re-engineering the US version to be much larger, and also to offer 4WD versions is that Nissan has now used the larger base platform to launch own very own European larger Qashqai- called the Qashqai +2. The 4WD underpinnigs have also made themselves available over here on any Qashqai, for people who just feel they can’t fake it with the 2WD version. Frankly the Rogue is horrible to my euro tastes, all plasticky and shiny and tacky- but considering it is larger, with much larger V6 engines it is of course ironically much cheaper than our tiny Qashqai! $20,000 is really not much cash for such a good car. The Qashqai is and was a gamechanger (to paraphrase Steve Jobs?) for the car industry. It solved a difficult problem Nissan was having in the volume market, by coming at that problem from a new angle. It continued the drive of 4×4 inspired vehicles downwards in size and price to levels that everyone could afford, but it also did this without using heavy, expensive and inefficient 4WD hardware. It created the eco-concious SUV buyer, it also took on the very succesful Honda CR-V in America and pushed that market to a sportier look which even the next CR-V bowed down to.

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2008 Nissan Rogue (US market)

rogue
2006 Nissan Rogue (US market)

I’ll end with a gallery of things I’ve talked about, and also lots of pictures of my own white Qashqai- with black tinted windows for that painted clay look, again another standard feature which shows Nissan really know their market! Oh, and my car is on it”s winter wheels- which are 16″ steelies, but we have some gorgeous 18″ alloys for summer!