Electric cars are coming. But when are we going to be presented with one we might actually want to buy?
During a recent conversation with an automotive design commentator and critic I pointed out that motor manufacturers had so far failed to create a truly desirable electric car. He agreed, suggesting they appear stuck at the Blackberry phase and that their i-phone moment has yet to occur. He isn’t wrong, as this week’s deluge of concepts and production cars illustrates. On one extreme we have Audi’s Frankfurt-fodder Aicon, which as implausible flights of conceptual fancy go, is about on point and on the other we have the 2018 Nissan Leaf, which takes retrenchment to new levels of jaded whatever.
One of the advantages of a pure electric car is that by taking the engine and powertrain out of the equation, the entire architecture of the vehicle can potentially be reimagined. Without a conventional powertrain to package, the beltline of the vehicle can be made lower, both pedestrian and occupant safety can be improved, the frontal area can be reduced, giving designers new proportions to play with.
That no production electric car has so far made good use of this says volumes about the institutional conservatism of the motor industry, to say nothing about customer’s fear of the unfamiliar. Returning for a moment to the 2018 Nissan Leaf, I fail to see any reason to purchase a vehicle trying so desperately hard to pass itself off as a mildly facelifted Pulsar – (not that there’s anything terribly wrong with a Pulsar if you like that sort of thing). Looks aside, (and to be frank a new Micra is more arresting to the eyes) why is a pure EV packaged and proportioned like a FWD hatchback?
It’s difficult to escape the notion that Nissan’s product planners concluded that the outgoing car alienated customers who found it too outlandish in appearance and pushed for a more normalised aesthetic for its successor. The outgoing Leaf failed to add up to an attractive whole, but you got the sense Nissan tried. It was a design that I think people wanted to like, but simply found they couldn’t. Perhaps by playing it safe, they will sell a few more, but my feeling is that early-adaptors still want a visual receipt for their pains, which the new Leaf just doesn’t provide.
Returning for a moment to proportions and the possibilities electric propulsion could offer car designers, I dangle before you the delightful Honda Urban EV concept, said to form the basis of a production car to launch in two year’s time. Now, Honda has been here before with the electric 2009 EV-N concept and the more contrived (if still amusing) combustion engine N-ONE Kei-car of 2012. But I really don’t quite know where to begin when it comes to how much I love this concept.
Look at that low beltline, the tiny overhangs, the slim pillars, the relatively large glass area, those delightful details. It is neat, compact, friendly and utterly charming and I fear, highly unlikely to see the light of day in any meaningful form, regardless of what Honda are saying now. Especially in the wake of news that VW are questioning the future of their UP! family of small cars.
Another reason I have my doubts about Honda translating this into a production car can be illustrated by a cursory glance at their current styling direction – (if indeed it can be called that). Take the Clarity EV for example – (a car I desperately wanted to like) – which is far from the worst offender by the way. Marks for attempting to change the conversation but marks lost for sloppy proportions and another ginormous front overhang. It also appears to have escaped Honda’s notice that its styling appears to offer the diametric opposite of what its name suggests. As for its combustion engined range, the relevant adjectives have yet to be coined.
So here we are, two years down the road from VW’s unintended paradigm-shift and with the entire motor industry frantically trying to learn an entirely new business model on the hoof, perhaps design is not their top priority. But if the car industry is to bring customers with them on their electrified journey into the promised dreamscape, they better get a grip on the visuals, and show some design leadership. Making them a little friendlier wouldn’t be a bad place to start.