When only basic proportions are giving the game away
Plastic surgery may not be limited to people’s faces, but only on few – usually bizarre – occasions do the stylists tempering with flesh and bone go for a change of the entire body. However, in car design, the situation is presenting itself rather differently: the choice is between either just a facelift or the full Monty.
Bodylifting is, in fact, a rather old trick of the automotive trade, established in the United States (where else?). When the annual nip ‘n tuck wouldn’t do anymore, the US car industry would present its costumers with an “all-new” model. “All-new” standing for “all-new body”, that is, as the engineering oftentimes only changed in details.
Keeping the simplistic – some might say cynical – character of this approach in mind, it appears all the more astonishing that the bodylift is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance in today’s globalised, fast-moving automotive realm.
Surprisingly, it is one of the currently most popular categories of cars where bodylifting has been performed most prominently in recent years. Two of the prime fathers of the modern SUV (a well-earned title of dubious nobility) have recently received new guts and new skin, but kept their backbone, so to speak. To the moderately alert eye, it is rather obvious that the current Mercedes ML (W166) and BMW X5 (F15) are sharing much of their bodies-in-white with their respective preceding models.
Why is that the case? Why do two of the most respected marques in the business deny two of their most lucrative models new bodies designed from scratch?
Because it’s saving them money, obviously. And because this development stands for current trends in automotive engineering.
Electrification is, of course, the name of the game. Hybridisation of power units, connectivity of infotainment systems, electronically supervised active safety measures: these domains are at least as dependent on data processing as they are on classical automotive engineering. And their evolution is, to be blunt, bloody expensive. The money spent here needs to be saved somewhere else.
And it’s not as though all the major manufacturers had sent their traditional body engineers packing. To the contrary, they are actually exceedingly busy delivering on the promises of variable platform strategies. With the intention of great advances both in terms of body engineering and and (fiscal) efficiency, the money that isn’t poured into electromechanical solutions is spent here. And once in place, the rewards of variable platforms should be plentiful and heralding a sea change, insofar as it is promised that the era of escalating car weight is about to end. VW’s Golf VII, arguably the most important car to feature Volkswagen’s MQB platform, actually manages to achieve the latter (even though a few dozen kilos less don’t sound that impressive), but the gargantuan up-front costs of the MQB programme are reportedly still causing a few sleepless nights to Dr. Winterkorn and his boffins.
But it is not as if VAG is completely unaware of the blessings of bodylifting – the current VW Polo, for example, is also heavily based on the innards of its predecessor, yet it is such a carefully executed design that one wouldn’t necessarily hold that against it.
More dubious are the effects when the recycling is becoming all too obvious. Therefore even Mercedes’ mighty S-class has to fight off allegations of meanness, thanks to its proportions so obviously resembling the preceding generation of the world’s ultimate saloon car.
This isn’t actually the first time the mighty Merc reuses chassis components of its older brethren, but back in the day nobody could’ve guessed from their appearances that the W126’s suspension was in large parts based on the W116’s. The W222 precisely sharing the W221’s wheelbases, on the other hand, is too blunt a hint for it to be all that easily buried underneath Gorden Wagener’s exalted styling cues.
To old-fashioned minds, it is particularly hard to justify why such “premium” models, of all cars, need to undergo the bodylifting process. And that is not even taking into account that, in the BMW X5’s and Mercedes ML’s case at least, it could be argued that what new panels have been put onto the old construction are far from an aesthetic gain.
In the olden days, when certain models could remain in production for longer than the typical seven years, the preceding models would have been updated with, say, a modernised cabin and technological upgrades – a mild facelift, so to speak.
It would make for an interesting experiment to see whether modern car buyers would give such an update a chance or whether they demand some new sheet metal bolted onto the car they, it can be assumed, bought in the first place because they liked its looks.
No, unlike some of the Big Three’s less impressive attempts at redressing the odd shelf warmer, these new bodyliftings are not just cheapskate measures. And yet they do remain to be of dubious value.