• A Manifest for More Originality and Substance in the Automotive Industry

Stop peeking over the fence and do your own thing already

Back around the time they were first conceived, the way a car looked was directly dictated by its purpose and functionality. It looked a certain way and had specific features that helped it achieve its design goal - if said features also happened to look cool while also being useful, that was just a bonus. Functionality was still the prime concerned of both engineers and designers.

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Nowadays, more than a century since the first car rolled under its own power; cars are very advanced, efficient, quick, and good looking. However, the original idea that functionality should dictate design is not as prominent as it once was and manufacturers seem to have dropped the ball a bit in this respect.

Most cars you buy today have some features that are there purely to woo you into believing they serve a real purpose. When it comes to interiors, for instance, metal isn’t metal, wood isn’t wood, carbon fiber isn’t carbon fiber; it’s essentially just textures applied onto plastic with various types of finish.

I’ve already written a piece about the eight new car trends manufacturers should be ashamed of, but this is more of a personal piece where I try to explain why I think they are bad from a more philosophical standpoint, if you will.

Firstly - where have manufacturers gotten the idea that buyers like things to look expensive and flamboyant even though it actually cost one dollar to build? I mean, who benefits from that piece of clearly fake carbon fiber plastic running all across the width of your dash - it’s not really pleasant to the eye and it isn’t pleasant to the touch in most cars, so why not try to come up with a better trim idea.

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I’m sure thinking outside the box for the creation of that piece of trim would come up with some crazy ideas - take the new gallery feature you get in the Rolls Royce Phantom’s dashboard - that’s a cool feature, and while the BMW-owned uber-luxury automaker will charge you a lot for the privilege of having it, in all honesty it could be reproduced for not that much money, using materials that just need to look good as you can’t really touch them directly.

This is definitely outside the box thinking from Rolls Royce and it’s a bit of a shame that only such manufacturers are willing to try something new - in fact, Rolls’ profile as a manufacturer is a much more conservative one than many more mainstream brands, so the fact that you can have the gallery inside your Phantom is an even bigger departure for it than it would be for, say, Kia.

What I’m trying to say here is that even with lower grade materials (you don’t need to be Rolls Royce and have everything made out of milled aluminum) it’s really important to try to innovate through design and not always only think about costs - beside sometimes, if you take a gamble and add a very cool feature to a car - a feature that is good looking or really useful or one you can’t find on any other car, that will help sell it and you will recover your investment.

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Manufacturers seem to be afraid of innovation too, so much so that there are quite a few cars that look alike these days, both inside and out. If an automaker sees that a formula is successful for another, they will try to emulate that formula, often ignoring what made their brand appreciated in the first place, all in the quest for sales and tapping into new market segments.

Take the BMW X6, for example, a car which I can still wholeheartedly call quite ugly, even in its third generation (the best looking so far).

Rivals like Mercedes could have gone down a completely different design route with its rival model, but it just created a blatant X6 copy with Mercedes fascias grafted on the front and back.

Back when the first GLE Coupe was announced I remember actually laughing out loud when I saw they’d just gone ahead and copied the X6 - and this is Mercedes we’re talking about, one of the oldest and most prestigious names in the business.

Don’t get me wrong - I understand the importance of paying close attention to your competition to not be left out, but this is just a shameful ripoff of the X6. I really think the world would have been a prettier place if Mercedes had had the balls to try something new (like BMW did with the X6 and hit the jackpot) and not try to sneak a piece of the same exact cookie created with the same cookie cutter.

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And we know Mercedes is capable of launching an innovative new model that will inspire other manufacturers - I am, of course, talking about the CLS tapered coupe-like sedan. It’s a car that may have ruined rear headroom forever in sedans, since it started a coupe-like design craze that drastically transformed the familiar three-box shape, and this more fastback-like design was adopted by most manufacturers. So we know they can do it, but chose not to when it comes to creating an X6 rival; now Mercedes also has an X4 rival that is, I’m sad to say, exactly how you imagine it.

Even the explosion in popularity of crossovers and SUVs over the past decade is evidence that substance and originality are overrated.

I mean buyers are essentially paying more for what is usually a hatchback on stilts where the tradeoff for a bit more space, safety, and ground clearance is worse handling, worse fuel efficiency, and being more of a safety hazard for other motorists in conventional hatchbacks or wagons.

What I’m trying to say here, essentially, is that I’d like to see manufacturers do less peeking over the fence and more actual innovation - and I mean real innovation, not adding an inductive charging pad for wireless smartphone charging - that really isn’t a substantial feature in my book. Besides, probably until the 1980s, luxury cars cost more not necessarily because they had more plush interiors and features (although they did, but the discrepancy between them and regular cars was not vast in this respect) but because they were better engineered and the mechanical components underpinning them were more advanced, lighter, stronger...

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Nowadays even some established luxury automakers are cutting corners on quality, but filling their cars with many flashy sounding but ultimately useless features that are pure gimmicks - yes, I’m looking at you BMW gesture control, a system that you can have on most new BMWs, and one that sounds really cool on paper, but in reality it works inconsistently and is more of a nuisance. So even though it doesn’t really work well, it kind of works and BMW is the only manufacturer to offer it and it’ll definitely sell cars, but again it lacks substance.

I’d like to see manufacturers really floor the innovation pedal and cut the corporate espionage - it’s not really helping the car move forward; its only goal is to boost profit margins and sustain constant growth. This concept is utterly stupid in my book as growth has to come from somewhere, so if you’re getting a bigger piece of the pie, you’re leaving less for others. In other words, if you have confidence that you’re providing unique and genuinely good products (in this case cars) then you won’t need to spy on rivals to know what to come up with next.

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Some manufacturers seem to work as if part of a larger conglomerate of linked companies, even though officially they are rivals fighting for the same segments. Take the big German three, for example.

Mercedes, BMW, and Audi have very similar model lineups and under peer pressure, BMW is even ditching rear-wheel drive in its smallest cars, solely because rival front-wheel-drive models are cheaper to manufacture and the profit margin is greater.

But the fact that BMW still made small rear-wheel-drive cars is what made the Bavarian automaker special and in launching front-wheel drive 1 Series and 2 Series models, it is willingly diluting its brand for profit - in essence, I feel you are presented with the illusion of choice even though there’s not that much diversity any more and I would like this to change... somehow.

Further reading

8 New Car Trends that Automakers Should be Ashamed Of
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8 New Car Trends that Automakers Should be Ashamed Of

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