Too much bratwurst has our correspondent wishing for a more varied menu.
I would hope that I am fairly knowledgeable about cars. Not in a useful way, obviously; I know so little about how they actually function that I attribute their abilities to modern day alchemy. But from the mid-1990s onwards when my brain began its fruitless journey towards maturity, a large (-ly useless) part of my memory has been dedicated to passively storing and updating a mental catalogue of new cars available in the UK. Imagine my surprise then when a recent advert on TV sparked precisely zero recognition of the make and model being sold.
Presented in grey on a razzle-dazzle background of neon colours, I could discern that the car was a five door hatchback, but after that my mental catalogue’s search and retrieve function floundered. After what felt like an aeon of rising panic, the closing card finally flashed up a name: FIAT TIPO (available for threepence ha’penny per month with tuppence down, E&OE).
Ah, so this was Fiat’s latest effort at chiselling a small notch towards the bottom of the European sales charts. Fair play to them for having a go; faced with the futility of their task, I would likely struggle to get out of bed of a morning, never mind develop a hatchback, saloon and estate.
But still, my unprofessional pride chaffed at not instantly recognising the car. Then it struck me: the Tipo is styled so generically that it could have been any number of models.
Immediately I was put in mind of the original Tipo. Sold between 1988 and 1995, the Type 160 boasted distinctive styling; designed by I.D.E.A, its flat planes and rectilinear shapes were a million miles away from, say, the contemporary Renault 19 (attributed to Giorgetto Giugiaro), which itself looked much different to the sharply tailored Peugeot 306 (another fine job by Pininfarina).
Compare nuovo Tipo to its Renault Megane and Peugeot 308 contemporaries however and the differences are not so obvious. All are similarly proportioned two-box shapes. All have thick C-pillars and lack quarter windows. All have rounded shoulders and deep sills. All have a rear door shut line that avoids tracing the flattened arc of the rear wheel arch. In short, they all look very similar, three peas from the same dull grey pod. No wonder I had trouble working out which model that TV advert was trying to flog me.
We know the reason, of course. It is not that the respective stylists of Fiat, Renault and Peugeot lack imagination. No: they have all been told to go off and play Golf.
To say that the Volkswagen Golf is the best selling hatchback in Europe is an understatement. Swatting aside Dieselgate and a shrinking B-segment, in Europe alone VW continually shifts in excess of 500,000 Golfs a year. The Golf currently outsells the second placed Opel Astra (itself having a great year by its own standards) by a factor of over two-to-one.
The most popular model in our Italian/French trio, the 308, commands 200,000 sales a year; the Megane, slightly less. Not terrible numbers but a marked decline from peaks of 400,000+. Fiat barely competes at all, the Tipo’s Bravo predecessor having its best year on introduction in 2007 at 81,000, slipping to a frankly diabolical 3,850 copies in 2014. (Rover sold just short of 6,000 45s in 2005, the year the company went belly up.)
The huge gravitational mass of the Golf draws everything towards it, including it would seem the light of creative inspiration from rivals. The corridors of Fiat, Renault and Peugeot must be like visiting the set of The Walking Dead, staffed by the shambling corpses of executives bereft of free thought. “People buy Golfs,” the glassy-eyed cadavers hiss, their suits tattered into ribbons. “We must offer them something like a Golf, but with flair/cheaper/better perceived quality,” they intone before lurching off leaving behind a shoe, blind to the fact that VW themselves already cover these variables with their Seat, Skoda and Audi brands.
The result of this intellectual malaise is a European B-segment in which every car looks like a Golf, is based on a Golf, or is a Golf. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the differences between a Tipo-Megane-308 and the Golf they ape are either so minuscule or negative that they can only pale in comparison.
Volkswagen is simply too adept at playing its own game to lose. Rival manufacturers would do better to change the rules entirely, offering the kind of products that Wolfsburg cannot. The French and Italians might have a chance if they can offer distinctive regional flavours in dishes that have not been wilfully undercooked. Serve up more German sausages like the Tipo-Megane-308, however, and Fiat, Renault and Peugeot only demonstrate how much they fear the wurst.