Theme: Facelifts – Bodylifts

When only basic proportions are giving the game away

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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.

Mercedes_ML_280CDI_Edition_10_rear Mercedes-Benz_ML_250_BlueTEC_(W_166)_–_Heckansicht,_26._Februar_2012,_Velbert

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.

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w222-vs-w2113-557x600

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.

3 thoughts on “Theme: Facelifts – Bodylifts”

  1. Over the last 5 years, we have seen VW go all out for body-lifting: the Mk6 Golf was a re-skinned Mk5, the still just about current Passat a full re-skin of the previous car, etc. This seemed to be driven by a lean mentality due to a sudden need for better margins – the basic platform was still fine, but perhaps expensive to manufacture, so focus was on re-use and production techniques to eek out more margin from the original (high cost) investment in an all new platform. You can’t say it has not worked for VW ….

  2. One thing worth mentioning is that newer is not necessarily better, and that there are comparatively fewer improvements to be found on the mechanical side compared to e.g. electronics, so why build a new platform when the existing one still fits the brief?

  3. I’m far from condemning the entire concept of bodylifting – as some might be aware, I’m rather fond of VW’s efforts on that front actually. And I understand the need for a platform to pay its dues, but whenever I see the current X5 or ML, I cannot help but wonder whether all the new body pressings did any favours to the product. In the S-class’ case, I’m also asking myself if carrying over such substantial elements of its engineering is good enough for a model that’s always played such a mayor role, not just for Mercedes, but for the entire industry.

    VW’s bodylifting efforts I can understand: the Polo needed replacement, and the MQB wasn’t quite ready. The Golf V was both too expensive in terms of production and lacklustre from a perceived quality point of view*, so VW needed to act swiftly. The Passat’s looks had aged very quickly (an effect exacerbated by the de’ Silva restyling of VW’s corporate identity), but was still competitive in all other areas, so new body panels were all it ever needed, actually.

    *There’s actually another Golf VI buried deep in VAG’s vault – a Wolfgang Bernhard-headed effort, that was mainly aimed at addressing the production cost issue. This alternate Golf VI, along with the original ScIROCco and a Phaeton facelift, was cancelled when Martin Winterkorn was appointed head of VAG, as those models would have “killed off” the Volkswagen brand, according to an unnamed insider.

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