No, I Don’t Think So

Taking the unveiling of the facelifted Golf as the starting point Autocar thinks all car makers should aspire to evolutionary design. DTW disagrees.

2017 VW Golf: source
2017 VW Golf: source

“It’s a ballsy move, though, making a car look like its predecessor. But one that’s starting to spread – Audi’s in on the game too, with its new Q5, and BMW did it with the new 5 Series not long ago” writes Autocar.

The Golf is a text-book example of a product that has evolved gradually over the course of its 40 years on the market. Audi have also cleaved to such a strategy as do BMW (nearly). Mercedes have been less adept at this. Sometimes they’ve adopted quite florid designs such as the fintail cars and most of the current batch. At other times they’ve had the urge to

2015 VW Golf: source
2015 VW Golf: source

present carefully rational and conservative cars (and let’s also remember their vertical affinity custom) for a few model cycles.

So, there is a case for some caution in car design. However, a blanket statement to the effect that all car makers should aspire to gradual evolution is just that, a blanket statement. There are times when gentle updating of an existing design is the wrong move. The market shifts and perhaps there comes a time when it’s strategically wrong to do more of the same (ask BMW). It can be necessary to signal a change of character and technology. If everyone is doing the same thing, swimming the other way in the river of custard might be a sensible move. That can be “ballsy” to use the phrasing from Autocar.

Some manufacturers have studiously avoided gradual evolution and done well-enough. Toyota, for example, are quite a big and profitable company and one thing they don’t bother with is respecting the design heritage they have. Every new Corolla is a new design and they sell steadily. Renault, Ford and Opel have also been consistently inconsistent yet also still shift the products (and remember that VW has had plenty of dud years these last two decades, for all their product consistency). Even with VAG, you can pick out Skoda for their wandering style and it has not hurt them all that much). The design strategy also depends on the market position. For a commodity car, gradual evolution might be useful – as we have said here the Renault 5 and Clio could have benefited from evolution. Point, counterpoint: they sell buckets of them anyway. Their customers don’t worry too much about design consistency. Ford’s Focus has been through three entirely different looks and still shifts the metal.

About the only dogma that applies in car design is that dogma is best avoided. What every car makers should aspire to is the right product at the right time and that might mean a polite genuflection to past glories and it might mean a clean sheet vehicle.

Author: richard herriott

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

14 thoughts on “No, I Don’t Think So”

  1. Ballsy? What a load of bollocks. Autocar used to be a sweet old magazine, populated by polite , stuffy gents in tweeds. But long ago they seemed compelled to join the Clarkson school of crotch-centric journalism. Actually, I don’t think VW really felt that Ballsy (by which I assume they mean brave) when they just thought to evolve their designs. But, certainly, looking at someone else’s success and copying it is the very opposite of Ballsy, which is …… timid / uninspired / worthless.

    Also ‘in on the game’. For God’s Sake! Whenever we try that sort of hyperbole at DTW, Simon Kearne comes down on us like A Ton Of Bricks.

  2. What a silly article (the Autocar one, Richard!).

    I have nothing to add to that assessment.

  3. Apart from the “ballsy” part, the author´s sweeping generalisation disturbed me. The same problem exists in Danish architecture where everything has to be groundbreaking.
    The truth is somewhere in the middle – and the best designers know which way to go when the time comes, or I should say, the best design managers. While not every Bangle car was a success, it led to a nice burst of creativity. Ford´s Focus had a similar effect. Did Ford need another Escort at that time? Imagine if the current Focus was an iteration of the 1973 Ford Escort, still rear drive and with some form of dog-bone lamps. Thankfully, there is still some variety in design approaches.

  4. I would argue that the Ford Focus is a case where evolution would have been a wiser course of action. The mark 1 was a massive European sales hit, selling 543,378 units in 2001, its third full year of sales. Since then numbers have halved, reaching 232,160 units last year. At this point most pundits harp on about CUVs, but hatchbacks are still hugely popular in Europe (see the Golf for proof) and most CUVs require a higher spend. I would posit the main reason Focus sales have slipped is that it is simply too big. In the UK, it has been supplanted at the top of the sales table by the Fiesta, which has steadily grown towards the mark 1 Focus in size. Seemingly, that is about as much car as UK buyers reasonably want, need or afford.

    Meanwhile, VW successfully morphed the Golf into a kind of nuevo Focus, marrying a trim footprint to a quality interior. Sounds far fetched, until you remember that VW poached the team behind the mark 1 Focus’ independent suspension back in the day.

    1. It depends then on the point of reference. A conservative follow-up to the last Escort would have been wrong. A conservative follow-up to the Focus 1, is you say, a good idea. This probably proves my point that sometimes it´s good to change and sometimes not. The current Focus is 4.358 metres long and 1.82 metres wide. The Golf is 4.255 metres long and 1.79 wide. I don´t think anyone would detect those differences if asked. So, if the Focus is too big, so is the Golf. Maybe the problem lies somewhere else.

    2. Agreed. Ford have long been dreadfully fickle in their design direction, and they don’t seem to realise when they are on to a good thing. They come up with some ‘exciting new direction’ then dump it. Their current Astonesque grilles don’t endear themselves with familiarity, it just seems tacky to make the reference (as if they’re saying ‘we poured enough money into effing Aston, the least we can do is pinch the grille’).

      On the other hand imagine the panic at VW design if Matthias Muller walked in and said “Right, for the next Golf I want something really different … radical … edgy … ballsy!”

    3. In the UK, width tends to be more of a factor than length, although both are important. According to the always reliable Wikipedia (cough) the dimensions of the mark 1 Focus were 4,175 mm L x 1,700 mm W, so considerably thinner than the current model. The current Fiesta clocks in at 4,067 mm L by 1,722 mm W, so pretty close.

      And yes, in shopping its MBQ platform about so much, I would agree that the Golf is getting a bit big. Arguably VW have done more to disguise its size than the current Focus, which appears much heavier on its wheels.

  5. Ford is an American company and it is more in thrall to the stock market than the German firms. As a result, short term decision making and the internal politics drive the design direction more than they do in Germany. For this reason all it takes is for a dip in sales or some minor change in the membership of the court of Ford for a demand for a new design direction. Added to that is that Ford is still, like many companies, anchored in planned obsolescence. Renault, Fiat, Citroen and Opel have a similar modus operandi and they have all sorts of ownership structures.

  6. VW has a long tradition of changing little. Look at how long they soldiered on with the basic Beetle and, when it faltered, equally horrible derivatives. Look at the travail they suffered during the transition to water-cooled engines. Dr. Porsche thought ruled until it failed miserably.

    If this http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2016/11/volkswagen-figures-can-keep-car-platform-around-basically-forever/#more-1447858 story on TTAC is correct, VW is again soldiering on with an old platform.

    There’s something very German about this. From the early ’70s through the mid-’90s the models that Honda and Toyota sent to the US were on a four year cycle. Make it for four years, then replace it with something different, often completely different. I suspect, can’t prove, that this was driven by the Japanese market’s dynamics. German manufacturers couldn’t keep up. I remember a think piece in Road & Track by Paul Frere (remember him?) in which he floated a trial balloon from Mercedes to the effect that Honda and Toyota should join the cartel and adopt ten year model cycles. This, he said, would benefit all of the cartel’s members.

  7. The Autocar piece is unspeakably stupid clickbait, and also, nothing less (more) than I would expect from contemporary motoring journalism in general and that rag in particular. I would emphasise that there is no tension between these two observations.

    We start with the admission that it’s a facelift. Of a Golf, perhaps the definitive mass-market example of an evolution-centered design approach. Clearly a solid basis upon which to assert such a sweeping argument.

    We are then informed that it is a ballsy move to make a car look like its predecessor. Which is why, of course, Autocar hailed the Mk1 Focus and Sierra as bold, courageous plays by Ford, since as we know, they were pretty much indistinguishable from their predecessors.

    Our intrepid author Adept W. Crayons further sagely notes that there is no doubt the key exemplars of his argument “will sell by the absolute bucket-load.” An observer who was less than entirely au fait with the subtle intricacies of the automotive industry might imagine that Crayons inadvertently undermines his own point by citing the Bangle 5 as a similar hot seller. But, as with the oracle at Delphi, it does not behoove us mere mortals to question the deliberations of such elevated wisdom. As befits such an enlightened individual, Crayons does not prostrate himself at the altar of such lower-order, heathenish actions as justification or reasoning. Such a course is, of course, reserved for those who retain reputations that are anything less than impeccable, a description that patently does not apply to motoring journalism.

    “Design is important, there’s no doubt about that, but when it boils down to it, content is king.”

    Yeah… I got nothing. I’m just going to assume this was copied and pasted off an unrelated article, because it helpfully clarifies that the preceding paragraphs were a rock-solid, 24-carat waste of bandwidth.

    1. Someone at Autocar will have to write that every car must be radical. They can cherry pick a few examples and insist that breaking paths is the only way to go.
      I don’t expect a lot from some of the staff but others are not bad. Hilton Holloway seems to be quite reasonable. Autocar’s user input is very small considering their readership. If there was more room to comment then articles like that would receive more and more constructive feedback.

    2. I haven’t looked at the Autocar site with any regularity for a long time, but there was a period where virtually every second article included the word ‘radical’ in the headline. The best one was, “Radical look for next Renault Clio”. The design it was describing is the current Clio. The Clio might be many things, but it is genuinely quite difficult to think of a less appropriate descriptor than this.

  8. Evolutionary design does make sense – although of course the starting point has to be worthwhile persevering with. The Golf, 911 and 3 series have all developed a great deal since their respective introductions, but remain recognisable. All three are German and all three enjoy considerable brand equity. A coincidence? Nope, just confidence in the engineering solutions that have been employed.

    It is getting harder and harder to develop distinctive new shapes, however. OK, the 911 stays alone, but both Golf and 3 series have many imitators. The latest Toyota Prius is still upsetting me – mk 3 was a welcome refinement of mk 2 (and also spawned imitators, such as the drag 2nd gen Honda Insight and the new Hyundai hybrid). The simple surfaces and Kamm tail look were starting to become iconic, in a quiet, minicab way. But the new one is flashy and horrid. I thought that Prius stood for a kind of unassuming rationality, but now I am confused… this, in the proper sense, is a loss of brand equity.

  9. Half a thought: the Passat is not a paragon of design stability, is it? But it sells in huge numbers. So, I can´t tell. Is design stability needed or not? How is that the Golf stays the same and sells well but the Passat is all over shop and sells well? In truth, the Gol´f´s trump cards are a high perceived quality, a large engine range and lots of spread in the specification, just like the Passat.

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