The Imitation Game

Too much bratwurst has our correspondent wishing for a more varied menu.

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Go on. Guess. (Image: netcarshow.com)

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).

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Leaving the badges on does not help much. (Image: netcarshow.com)

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.

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Confuse these, if you can. (Images: Google)

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).

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Spot the difference. (Images: netcarshow.com)

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.

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A Golf. VW counts that tiny front quarter window as progress. (Image: netcarshow.com)

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.

wurst

Author: chrisward1978

Professional pixel pugilist and word wrangler. Unprofessional pub snug raconteur.

27 thoughts on “The Imitation Game”

  1. Thinking on, it would seem the design of the Europeanised hatchback is settling into three distinct tropes: Golf clones, long bonnet prestige German clones (1-Series, A-Class, Mazda 3), and trapezoidal potatoes (Focus, Astra, Auris). The Venn Diagram drawn up by the Tipo’s product planners covers a bit of all three, with a healthy dollop of Dacia chucked in.

  2. Co-incidentally, around this time yesterday, I was sitting in Central France looking at a Fiat Bravo and thinking, first, that it wasn’t that bad looking and, second, that surely it was due for replacement soon. So, you’ll understand that your first image meant nothing to me either. On recollection I had seen the new Tipo before, but immediately forgot it. As a proud principal of The World’s Least … etc, this lack of knowledge causes me no shame, of course. By all accounts it’s unremarkable to drive, but quite cheap. Once Fiats were cheap but fun to drive. Couldn’t they have made them nicer to drive and just a bit more costly?

    VW’s ‘Like A Golf’ ad campaign of a couple or so years back might have seemed a bit self-congratulatory, and might also have shamed copyists into trying harder to be themselves. But it appears not.

    1. Yes, the last Bravo was handsome and more distinctive than the previous model, but only by comparison.

      My opinions of all Fiats are clouded by my experience designing newspaper adverts for a Fiat/Alfa Romeo dealer. You could not hope to meet a bigger prick than the CEO. Detail orientated, he was not.

  3. Very good article!
    There were always Mainstream-Cars – such as the Auris 1st generation or the Xsara, the Civic from 2001 or the Fiat Bravo (last generation) or all Nissans. But never before there were such a lot of Mainstream snd such a few number of exceptions in this class.
    But where are the exceptions? Like the Megane of 2002, the first Citroen C4, the A-class W168/169, the Mazda 323 with retractable headlights, the Volvo c30, the Alfa 33 or 147.
    Ok the current Auris and Civic are different, but they look like insects or commuter cars for a Star Wars – Stormtrooper.

    But i am not sure if the companies don´t have enough courage to create something different. I think, they are convinced, those people which don´t want a mainstream car at all are buying now a Nissan Qashqai, a Peugeot 3008, a DS4, an Opel Mokka, a Prius or a Kuga.
    If you want to be different – choose another car category…

    1. Many thanks. Your observations are all true. The class has undergone a malaise brought about by dwindling sales and the onslaught of CUVs. A radically styled entrant into the class would really mix things up.

  4. Quite a poignant piece, Chris. I’ve always felt agitated by the ‘they don’t make ’em like this anymore’/’all cars look the same today’ camp, but, well, the automobile as we know it seems to have ended up in a cul-de-sac in a number of ways.

    I also won’t ever tire of pointing out that the same symptoms are to be found at the other end of the spectrum: I’m actually convinced that the current S-class and Seven series are pretty much carbon copies of one another, in terms of proportions and straying off the golden ratio. It really does seem as though there’s only one winning formula in each class of automobile anymore.

    1. Very true, every sector has its archetype. The S-Class is a great example as it too has a lock on sales in its sector. Likewise, every junior executive car is immediately compared to the 3-Series, and every small car the Fiesta.

  5. I’m old enough to remember the original Tipo’s introduction. Alongside its contemporary, the Renault 19, it was seen as ushering in a new trend in family hatchbacks – heavier (due to better crash protection and more equipment) and more conservatively styled. It was praised for its refinement and relative solidity, but also seen as timid and lacking sparkle.

    No one does incremental improvement better than the Germans. VW, BMW, Porsche… all settled on a template long ago, and have since focused on refining it. Even all new models instantly resonate with what went before, and big technology innovations are carefully managed.

    So yes, a Golf is boring, but it’s also very good. A 2016 model carries echoes of the 1990 one I learned to drive in. It would be on my top 3 shortlist today as it was then. And everyone else is still playing catch up.

    1. Incremental improvement is exactly right. It irks me that other manufacturers think that they can somehow shortcut their way to a Golf clone, when the car has taken so long to evolve.

  6. I had a go at your comparisons. The Peugeot profile distinguished that car, particularly the DLO and overall silhouette. I reckoned the middle one was a Clio thuogh to be fair it was only launched six moments ago and there are none on the roads….No, it´s not a Clio. It´s a Megane. The top one is probably a Hyundai or Kia. I have done this without reading your text.
    The title image is a composite of several cars, made using Photoshop. Am I right? Am I being serious?

  7. Trends shift and design goes along with it. In the ’80s hatchbacks were the trend and got more design diversification (because customers were looking for design). In the ’90s we had the MPV’s where customers were looking for design (Multipla, Scenic, Picasso, Twingo). Nowadays the focus is on the SUV’s where you can currently find anything ranging from retro (Renegade) to funky (Juke) to Germanic (Tiguan) to sporty (Macan) or neoclassical (Evoque). Once upon a time, the launch of a new Golf was a big thing, but nowadays I fear its the Tiguan that is becoming more important. Nowadays, people buy a hatchback because of practicality. And probably you didn’t know: the Fiat Tipo is the most spacious offering in this segment. Customers who are looking for originality can and will get a 500X.

    1. The 500X is such a terrible looking device though, don’t you think? And it this the right time to admit I really like the Renegade?

  8. When everything looks the same, then you must buy on merit, which then leaves the Golf floundering. British and a true Hybrid? Auris. RWD gives us the 1-series. Old-skool and elegant? Its the Alfa. Quirky with a practical interior (and shortly obsolete) then its the Civic. British, cheap to run and CoTY? Its the Astra. Massive warranty and spec for the money? Hyundai shortly followed by its KIA klone. Cannot give them away and will probably be reliable? Pulsar (and why couldn’t they have just called it Sunny?) Essentially however its all gravy as the last double wishbone car was, as mentioned, the dear old 45. The segment has meant nothing to me or probably anyone else since then.

    1. I can chip in here and say I tried the Golf around springtime and found it utterly disappointing. It, more than the Auris, Focus or Astra, is a car for people who don´t care about cars or design.However, in its favour is that it does everything to a decent standard for most people. All the others have a focus and the extent to which they are focused reduces sales. I would not recommend a Golf and certainly would never dream of buying one. I understand why people do though.

    2. Every car has its merits if you look hard enough. I find the Golf is the inverse: it looks good but the car underneath is deeply mediocre.

  9. The design of the three VW imitators is disappointing in that they attempt to follow the Golf’s design and that they do it so badly. The Golf has two swages in its doors; the upper one sharp, parallel to the window base and almost exactly the length of two doors, the lower one is the same length and parallel to the sills. On the other cars the swages are literally all over the place. The glazing on the Golf does not taper noticeably towards the C-pillar, resulting in a less heavy appearance. The wheels, rear lights and frontal appearance are all simpler. The choice of a Golf may be boring but its appearance certainly is not. Evolutionary design has worked for VW/Skoda/Audi as well as Volvo, to a lesser extent Porsche and sometimes Alfa Romeo. It seems counter productive to design a car which has no recognisable features but attempts to follow the market leader.

  10. I have lived and breathed Italian cars (meaning Fiat Group) for longer than I care to remember, and I am another who would have guessed wrongly about the ID of this… thing. It has the feel of a decade-old Kia, or similar. The sole giveaway that it is a Fiat product is that the 156 indicator repeater gets dusted off for yet another appearance (after the 147 FL, Delta, Ypsilon…). Certainly, absolutely nothing about it says either ‘Italian’ or ‘Fiat’ – it is the most depressing by-the-numbers box on wheels I’ve seen in a long time. In the profile shot, especially, it comes across as a remarkably dorky-looking piece of work that engineering has been obliged to squish over an allocated set of hard points, rather than styled as a coherent piece of work.

    1. Stradale: don’t be so worried. It’s not an actual car but a Photoshop montage used in article about bland design. Someone has blended some bits together. Considered that way it’s not a bad shape for a focus group to compare to the real proposal.

  11. I have found two things I like about the Tipo: the surfaces are rich and I like the grille’s infill material. I don’t like much else though, purely because my perceptions are poisoned by its overarching unoriginality.

    1. I agree about the grille. However, ‘rich’ surfaces I’ve seen enough by now, form my taste it’s about time to revert to more simplicity.

  12. The RWD BMW 1 series still holds high the sputtering torch of individuality. I love my 135i coupe and the hatchback is also striking. What will happen when it goes FWD though?

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