Theme: Passengers – The Non-Existence Thereof

If we can ask what that sportscar is doing on that rough, narrow road or jammed in urban traffic can we also ask where are the passengers for all those lovely saloons?

This is for carrying passengers: 2004 Nissan Cube
This is for carrying passengers: 2004 Nissan Cube

With a sportscar or indeed any performance orientated car one is aware of a contrast between what the vehicle is capable of versus what it is asked to do. When I see a Lamborghini in Ireland, for example, you clearly see that the car’s capability is at odds with the environment it sits in, like seeing a speedboat on a mill pond.

At a less extreme level, the saloon car suffers a similar problem, unless it’s a taxi. The missing passengers in the back make one wonder about the real purpose of the car. Why did the owner buy it? You can see this on any long drive on a motorway as you pass car after car with three empty seats.

You also notice it when you take a look inside of any old car. There will be a worn bolster on the driver’s seat and when you inspect the back seat it will be box-fresh or, at worst, a bit faded. Evidence, then, of under-use. In its own way, the saloon car is as over-engineered as any high performance two-seater.

How often do you see four people get out of a car? It’s rare enough that I notice it. For example, last year I saw two couples emerge from a Peugeot 508 somewhere in NW Denmark. The car had Dutch plates so I concluded this was one of those rare occasions when four adults decided to have a motoring holiday together. I can’t recall the last time I saw what should be an occurrence too banal to remark.

2004 Opel Signum: no one here.
2004 Opel Signum: no one here.

Why then do people buy four seater cars when 98% of the time the extra seats are unused. The ashtrays remain pristine. The armrest is always tucked up in the seat back. Some people even leave the plastic on the rear seats for as long as they can, a conceit I always despised as it’s laughably suburban to want to have furniture that looks like no one ever uses it.

Think of those semis with a “good room” that visitors are shown into now and then. If you contrast that with the opulent tattiness of many stately homes you can see that the rich don’t have “good rooms”. Rich people wreck stuff. Middle class people can only afford to buy it once.

What I am getting at here is that the passenger is a rather mythical creature. They exist on public transport though or in taxis. The passenger compartment is generally an underused area, designed to look nice enough in a showroom when the buyer – for one time – opens the rear door, pats the seat and finds nothing alarming. For the rest of the car’s career the rear footwell is a good place to put a bag of shopping so it won’t fall over. The boot is even further from their thoughts.

2002 Renault Vel Satis rear compartment - as new, never used.
2002 Renault Vel Satis rear compartment – as new, never used.

This is perhaps why in recent decades mainstream saloon cars have developed rather cramped and unwelcoming rear comparments and designers’ time is rarely spent bothering with the rear of the centre console. On my 25 year old car the rear console is a little piece of design excellence: an ashtray and an electric socket nicely styled to look of a piece with its surrounding trim.

These days I see cars with a blank expanse of plastic. There’s £185,000 worth of development cost saved. Pity the person who put all that effort into the rear centre console of the last Saab 9-5. It was lavishly worked-over. Not only would no-one see it if it was used as normal but the car ceased production after a few months.

As a fan of saloon cars I have to admit that my fond notions of travelling four up to somewhere other than the in-laws’ house with kids are probably never going to be realised. And the kids don’t really appreciate the limousine-like space they are perched in.

More often than not the saloon is a statement of aspiration just like the sportscar. It suggests uses to which it is seldom put. I wonder how many times the walnut tray of an Allegro Van Den Plas was ever pulled down in anger. And Opel know to their cost that designing a car that put rear seat passengers as a high priority was not a path to profitability.

The Signum, with its huge rear leg room and unusual packaging didn’t go over as too few people thought “Yes, this is the car I’ll take my friend in on that trip to the Ardennes”. The Renault Vel Satis* is another passenger’s car and again, it fell on stony soil.

You might not think it at first glance but passenger cars are mostly statements of intent or the manifestation of dreams never realised. These days as saloons become more sportscar-like they are getting even further away from a felicitous blend of utility and form.

*This is a super article from The Truth About Cars dealing with the Vel Satis.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Theme: Passengers – The Non-Existence Thereof”

  1. I broadly agree with Richard that no-one seems to care about the back seat, but I don’t understand why this is so. There are lots of families out there and they do travel 3, 4 and 5 up frequently. I have no kids but I’ve always felt that I should have a car that affords decent accommodation for anyone travelling in the back. My Audi is as comfortable in the back as the Audi-like ride allows and, on my occasional in-law visit when we go out to lunch, it seems well received. And apart from the very occasional work colleague, that’s all the use it gets. So I prove Richard’s point but, all the same, when I look at a car in a showroom, I always try the back seat and would reject any 4 door car that doesn’t come up to the mark. Why is that? Possibly the same mindset that gave the British ‘Front Room’ that Richard mentions, a smart area that you only used when guests came round. I would not feel comfortable, I would not feel a good host, if my rear passengers were contorted into the dark cramped space that many modern cars seem to offer.

    Simon’s introduction to this month’s Theme (which I think is partly tongue-in cheek, but you can never tell with him) hints at the selfishness of a driver who would choose a car solely for himself. The evidence Richard offers of the fate of the Signum and Vel Satis suggests that there is no demand for cars that look to the passenger, but the Renault was an ungainly looking car and the Signum looked like a stretched Astra (something I quite admired, but probably not a good marketing feature). It would be interesting to see a concerted marketing campaign directed towards the passengers rather than the driver, shaming him (for it’s less likely her) into considering them.

  2. The Skoda Superb, however,was well received and it is a quite unusually proportioned car. There is huge room in the back of those, probably more than in an LWB Mercedes S-Class or a CX Prestige. I find the reaction to the Signum excessive by which I mean to say it was not strikingly wrong and not so clearly odd as the Vel Satis. I think they did a pretty nice job of it overall. Perhap the problem was that the Vectra estate had exaclty as much leg room but didn´t have the fancy seat options. My aesthetic “problem” is that I quite like cars with unusual proportions. I find the deviation from the norm interesting. It´s like the fashion designers who like frankly ugly clothes, I think, while everyone else strives to look conventional.

  3. I like ugly too. But the Vel Satis just seemed the wrong sort of ugly.

    The Superb works because it is straight to taxi. I actually liked the profile (though not front and rear at all) of the original Citroen C5 because it suggested a generous passenger area.

  4. Isn´t that the fate of spacious and less expensive cars: taxis. One man´s meat is another man´s poison, so goes the saying. The Vel Satis doesn´t seem ugly to me in the Porsche Cayenne/Pontiac Aztek way. Perhaps people´s reactions to the car are multi-modal: strong dislike, strong approval and a large middle ground of indifference. Having had a long time to asess the C5 I finally appreciate that it´s a packaging car yet I just can´t forgive the way the package was shaped. It´s not radical, not especially classical. It shouts indifference and was styled by people who were not up to the job. I would love to see the focus group data for this. Did they do one?

  5. As a shape, proportionally I think the first C5 was quite distinctive. Admittedly a notchback Big Citroen was wrong but it’s the actual detailing – that awful grill, etc that made it so very unacceptable. As a passenger vehicle it is far superior to its successor.

  6. Robert Cumberford hit the nail on the head: the C5 looks widest just under the side mirrors. You can see how snow falls on the car and lands in all the wrong places. As far as I know, Auto & Design never ran an article on the car which means Citroen never sent them the information in the first place.

  7. I really like the tail lamps of the 1st generation C5 estate. But that’s the only good thing as to design.

  8. It´s nice to be able to find something positive to say, I suppose. For me it´s a mystifying piice of industrial design. And for all that, they sold boxes and boxes and boxes of them. A lot of the cars I most like have been sales disasters.

  9. The most successful cars appeal are versatile and have multiple functions. Most people can only afford one car, so the more things it can be used for, the more value it is to the owner. Sporty four door saloon cars can offer families with space but enjoyable sports driving. Sports cars such as the RX8 had a four door coupe design to appeal to both racers and people who enjoy the benefits of having a few extra seats. A commuter car for one adult during the day, can be a versatile family mover in the evenings.

    The Nissan Cube is a compact people mover. The Cube you have pictured is actually a Cube Cubic which has a longer wheel base than a regular Cube. This allows for the addition of 2 extra seats that can be folded away when not in use – taking the total carrying capacity to 7 seats. These cars are designed to appeal to a younger audience that enjoy the versatility of space and a funky appearance. In the front of the series 2 Cube, there is a bench seat and a column shifter to increase floor space. When you get into a Cube, despite it appearing small from the outside, the cabin feels huge.

  10. Thanks for that. I was not aware of the difference in models in that series. Isn´t the impression of space inside the Cube to do with the nearly vertical sides? I notice how roomy vehicles like the Ford Transit Tourneo is though the car´s footprint is not that big.
    About the car´s flexibility, yes, quite right. Essentially, people really crave a car with more capacity than they need most of the time. It´s the volume equivalent of range anxiety and the same reason people buy a house with a guest room that´s used eight days a year. In the last case I knew a family in Ireland who discovered that for the price of extra room they could put family up in a five star hotel for a month each year.
    Another point that I didn´t quite get across related to some saloon cars now embodying not one but two unrealised goals: sportiness and carrying passengers. Whereas the saloon car still embodies the unrealised dream of carrying friends around on fun trips, the sports car embodies the unrealised dreams of high speed driving. Now a sporty saloon can represent two unrealised dreams in one: no chance for sporty driving and little opportunity to carry guests.
    That said, nobody really thinks along these lines and as I said, cars are mostly about statements of aspiration (which is why I wear a C of E bishop´s habit….one day, one day…)

  11. I was suprised you chose the Vel Satis and Signum as examples to illustrate your point. If anything I suspect those cars were bought in most cases (albeit in small numbers) with actual intent to ferry people at the back, be it French government officials for the former and probably fare-paying passengers for the latter (although I seem to remember Whitehall running some, even to carry the PM around London). I think it’s in the medium segment (Focus/Mondeo) that the rear space is rarely used by passengers, as those with regular need for mass transportation (i.e. parents with children) seem to now prefer either so-called ‘people carriers’ (the clue is in the name) or the illusion of practicality offered by SUV, the latter replacing the sport saloon as the aspirational vehicle of choice.

  12. SUVs. I had forgotten those. They can carry lots of people too. Yes, people who might have wanted to carry passengers bought the Signum and Vel Satis though evidently not enough wanted to buy them. Perhaps MPVs covered that demand.

  13. I’ve always despised SUVs (and still do). But I had a backseat-drive in a BMW X3 recently and it was far more roomy and comfortable than I’d expected. Still wouldn’t buy one, but I can see the appeal.

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