Cookie Cutter

“Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation” –  Edward Abbey.

1981 MB SEC
1981-1991 Mercedes-Benz SEC: source

17 years. You would think that was long enough to convince my girlfriend that a W126 is the ideal family car. It seems not. I’ve always loved the cars MB produced during Sacco’s time (I like to think he had called in sick the day they designed the W210) but his first S-Class (especially the coupe) is top of the heap for me. For some reason his theory of Vertical and Horizontal Affinity has always had a strong resonance.
With such a rich and distinctive heritage at his disposal, Vertical Affinity made perfect sense. In one shape or another we have been looking at that gorgeous grille for almost 100 years (Geiger and Sacco did it best). The family of three saloons available during the ‘80s embodied Sacco’s ethos perfectly. Each member of this trio was quintessentially Mercedes yet didn’t render previous generations obsolete (obviously the Baby Benz had no case to answer here). Despite the affinity between these three beautiful cars being unquestionable they each had a very distinct separate personality. One could never have been mistaken for another.

I love looking at new cars trying to spot where their inspiration came from. Volvo is often a happy hunting ground here but many brands are happy to disregard their history when designing new generations. Renault, Ford and most Japanese marques all spring to mind when I think of companies that are willing to regularly start with a clean design slate. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a different way of doing business.

However pretty much every manufacturer now has a design philosophy of Horizontal Affinity that means each of its models shares cues that are meant to show its “DNA”. We all know that as each year passes a new niche model or vehicle category emerges meaning that there are more SUVs…sorry I mean cars… to be designed than ever before. In 1989 there were 8 different models of passenger car sold by Mercedes. Today there are over 25. This deluge of “choice” of course makes it more and more difficult to retain a familial resemblance throughout the range while allowing each car to have its own individuality.

An Audi: source
An Audi: source

Audi’s interpretation of Horizontal Affinity really gets up my nose. Their cookie cutter approach sure is successful but to me it feels way too calculated and cold. The difference between the Q3 and Q5 is little more than size. The A6 is a fine-looking car but at a glance, especially from the front are you sure that’s not an A4 or even an A3 saloon? This is surely taking their proverbial efficiency too far. Such a safe perspective leaves me less and less interested in Ingoldstadt’s products. Looking back at the original Quattro full of straight lines and fury, the curvy 1991 80 (B4) and the classically beautiful A8 of 2002 I feel sad that there really is no passion in the design of the current batch of monozygotic siblings.

Another Audi: source
Another Audi: source

Opel on the other hand seem to have recently grasped both the spirit and the meaning of Horizontal Affinity. It is true to say that up until relatively recently they were Germany’s most adept purveyors of truly nondescript cars. The only Opel produced in the ‘90s that I might look twice at is the Calibra. Times change though. The current Astra, Corsa, Vectra and even Mokka are all sharply designed and attractive cars. Each has its own distinct charm and personality yet each one is unmistakably Opel. Thankfully they have left the blandness behind whilst showing us that you can be innovative designing cars that are distinctive yet still remind us of their common provenance.

2015 Opel Astra - no sign of heritage but still an Astra- source
2015 Opel Astra – no sign of heritage but still an Astra- source

21 thoughts on “Cookie Cutter”

  1. Isn’t it ironic that Mercedes have just recently increased the Horizontal Homogeneity and opted for a cookie cutter approach à la Audi? The company that once led is now following the heard. What a pity.

    I don’t mind Horizontal Homogeneity at all, and Audi actually used to be good at keeping a family resemblance, yet allowing each model to have enough of an identity of its own to develop some individual character. The pre-de’ Silva cars are good examples of the right balance between homogeneity and individualism, just as the current, Wolfgang Egger-penned range has gone too far in the pursuit of corporate looks.

    Regarding Opel, I’m fully with you, Mick. It’s a pity Mark Adams didn’t get Ed Welburn’s job.

    1. I actually quite liked the “banana” look on the CLS but it’s certainly gone too far and I could easily have chosen MB instead of Audi to illustrate the point. That said it is difficult to live with such a back catalogue. I agree Audi really nailed it pre 2000 but I have begun to despair.

    2. Up until the current W213 model, the E-class used to plough its own furrow in stylistic terms. That’s relatable insofar as the E defined the core of the brand. Now, with the W213 very much aping its bigger and smaller brothers, it appears as though the Audi method is applied. It’s probably the Chinese market that demands such extreme stylistic consistency.

    3. There wasn’t a bad E-Class before ’95 or a nice one since but they were always distinctive. They should have kept that sleek look for certain models. The new shooting brakes are really beautiful cars (imagine what a 3 door would look like?) but are less and less special as that look is spread thinner and thinner.

    4. Car companies get obsessed with their ‘DNA’, probably much more than many punters do. The lazy application of a term from the biology of living organisms to a bunch of wheeled artifacts is endlessly irritating.

      I’d point out that, if you came across a human family whose DNA was such that the members all looked so similar to each other that there was no doubt at all that they were related, it would be rather rare …. and somewhat creepy.

    5. As the engineering is becoming increasingly more similar, the brands feel urged to highlight their peerlessness in other areas. Hence the spreading of the ‘family look’, hence all that designers speak about ‘pure’ this and ‘unique’ that.

  2. There´s nobody better at making a mess of analogies than car designers. You get the idea that they heard about DNA from someone who once heard about a book review of book by Richard Dawkins. A lot of bad things have happneed to car design since it became self-conscious around the late 90s. Up to that point there was less sense of a brand doing what it thought others thought it was supposed to do. The DNA concept is second-guessing the consumer, isn´t it? I´d take a less rigid view and say a good approach is to make what you think someone will buy based on where the car range is in the market. Of course if you´re range consists of a utilitairian super mini and a 6 metre long limousine you might have problems – but do you? Who really cared that Citroen made the XM and the 2CV at the same time? Lancia was stuffed the moment someone decided its DNA meant soft luxury. And Rover too. I don´t know what Fiat sells anymore – do I need to know what the DNA is like? No, and I think the idea confuses the matter more than it helps. It´s a clichee now. Time to stop using it.

    1. Actually, there was a Citroen ‘DNA’ (though I’d use a term like common philosophy) but in a less superficial way. I’ve owned both a Citroen Dyane and a Citroen SM – two cars made within a year of each other. And, although both cars successfully answered very different briefs, driving them there is no doubt that they are made by the same company.

  3. What I like to see are discreet touches that make you think of the link with other cars from the same marque. Sean’s Dyane and SM is perfect example. The spats, curves up front and cut off rear are completely different on each car yet have an almost indefinable similarity.

  4. I think the problem is that they mistake design cues for DNA. Plastering a car full of design cues isn’t the same thing as “showing brand DNA”, it’s just meaningless bling for the uninformed. It doesn’t mean anything. And that’s why we have a five door Mini Countryman that’s bigger than any Maxi old Austin ever produced. It doesn’t have Mini DNA, that’s just marketing fluff. it’s a full grown car plastered full of Mini design cues, and somewhere something got lost in translation.

    1. I agree Ingvar. That countryman strikes me as a bloated copy of a pastiche. It really looks overweight and in no way nimble, light or nippy which were meant to be the hallmarks of the original mini. Even some of the design cues seem to come from Stephenson rather than Issigonis.

    2. Ingvar – that’s wonderfully put. I tried to write something similar about Jaguar/ Porsche/ Maserati SUVs, but your version nails it. Bravo.

    3. Despite the SUV representing the automobile’s hubris to me, I must admit that – possibly due to 15 years of conditioning – I’m beginning to find certain examples of the breed less unappealing than others. The Bentley and Maserati versions, for example, are utter stylistic aberrations, yet Jaguar’s F-pace and Porsche’s Macan are, well, not too bad for a turd. Maybe that’s just the results of having had to suffer all those ill-fated attempts at creating a ‘sporting’ utility vehicle, mind.

      But apart from Land/Range Rover’s largely successful reinterpretations of the traditional utility theme (after all, they’ve been building these kinds of cars for quite some time), it’s the Porsche and the Jaguar I’m finding less revolting than the misbegotten rest of the pack.

  5. As I understand it, the Countryman is regarded as a small, cute car in the USA, hence it finds favour there. The three door Paceman version has been largely overlooked, and won’t be replaced.

    Fiat are equally guilty of the genetic mutations, with the three row 500 L MPW, which I find strangely appealing. Likewise the 500X, I’m not sure if the rest of the world agrees.

    1. Have to confess I prefer the more utilitarian look of the Panda. I drove one of the originals and it always kept me very focused. You felt the smallest mistake would surely lead to disaster. Glad to hear there will be no new paceman. I tend to always prefer three door cars but this must be the exception that proves the rule.

    2. I’m afraid I can’t abide the 500L/ X/ MPW. I like the current Panda, but preferred its predecessor. My niece has a used one in a bright metallic blue and it’s fun and charming, narrow but breezy inside – a great first car.

    3. I too am a great Panda admirer and find the 500L a disappointment – how people can like it and, at the same time, say that the Multipla was ugly…?

      One thing about the 500L is that I’m convinced it started off as a bigger Panda then, in the grip of 500 fever, it had the requisite styling cues grafted on – and it shows.

  6. Kris, totally agree with you . I grew up in the ’80s admiring big saloons and coupes. I sometimes think it would be easier to kick crystal meth than to change my ingrained preferences /prejudices. That said if I absolutely had to have an SUV I think I would reluctantly choose the Macan.

    1. What is it saying about our age that the car trend of our time is the SUV, in contrast with, say, the 1990s, which were all about convertibles and MPVs?

      There’s some value to the concept at the heart of what we’ve come to define as SUVs – a Range Rover has always been an appealing car and will remain to be that for the foreseeable future. It’s when a tall, heavy, all-terrain vehicle is supposed to be offering saloon or even sports car-like traits that things are taking a turn for the absurd.

      If I want a steak, I’ll have it with Sauce Béarnaise, thanks very much. Serving it with roasted quinoa and guacamole doesn’t make it any more sensible or modern.

    2. I suppose I do admire the engineering that makes those massive vehicles handle more like a car but I much prefer the beautiful simplicity of a low centre of gravity, engine and gearbox up front and RWD. Instead of trying to bend nature to our will why not work with it.

    3. I totally agree on the centre of gravity. Together with a good FWD layout it helps making cars light-footed, confortable and safe to drive.

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