What do mock-wood panelled estate cars and electric cars have in common?
Design is often about managing incremental change to existing forms and the use of metaphors from existing products to “explain” new features or new technology. Our mobile phones show the icon of a camera to identify the image -capture function even if nearly nobody uses cameras any more. I’d hazard that 75% of the owners of a mobile telephone have never used a camera. By analogy, the wooden panelled estate car existed long after wood was a necessary material in the construction of such vehicles. Designers felt customers expected their estate car to
look as if it was made of bits of tree so wood effects were deployed. Today, the designers of electrically-propelled cars are, in some cases, still forced to refer to the grilles (the “front grilles”, of course) of ICE cars because customers have been accustomed to seeing a big dark oblong at the front end of a car. A car without a grille is thought to look deficient.
Some firms are more willing to challenge customers’ expectations than others while a few are designing the modern equivalent of wood-effect vinyl decals.
At the extreme end of the spectrum Tesla have what looks exactly like a grille on the Model S. This is analogous to putting real but decorative wood on the outside a car whose structure is metal.
In the middle of the spectrum we have the model X, which nods at the grille by having an slim but actual hole (I think there’s a hole there) and creases underneath it to hint at the earlier existence of a larger grille. This is reminiscent of the fake boot lid humps on Lincolns, suggesting the presence of a spare wheel under the boot that was not actually there.
VW’s ID concept goes unbegrilled, only having a faint suggestion of a grille.
Now I’ll turn to the problem cases. Despite GM having pioneered electric car design, with their EV-1, twenty years later they are designing their Ampera as if it has a fuel-burning engine under the bonnet. Clearly they got this wrong.
So what do we make of the 2016 Mercedes EQ concept car? Here it is again. Is this okay? It’s not a grille.
This is not a blank panel like the Tesla X, either. It’s not quite the full-fake air intake of the Ampera. This can be viewed as either a really huge badge or a direct analogue of the wood-effect vinyl appliqué as seen on a car like this:
What we see here in the Dodge is a totally decorative finish that references the material that might have been used, (had they made MPVs in the 1940’s).
On the surface the MB EQ concept car looks as if it is a clever re-working of the grille which acknowledges the traditional appearance of a car and also puts it to new uses. What we really find, though, is a very large and complex badge that co-opts the form language of an air intake for a car that doesn’t need such a thing.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s customers were thought to have no trouble with grille-less cars:
Or indeed this:
So, there we are. Mercedes are giving us modern technology designed to nod in the direction of the obsolescent ICE. For Mercedes that famous grille, which they have exploited for decades, now becomes something of a mill-stone. If they use a grille the design will be semantically misleading. If they don’t use the grille the design might not convey an important element of the car’s identity or the reason you should pay more than for a Nissan.