Defining luxury in an age of conspicuous consumption isn’t easy. Judging by two concepts encapsulating futuristic decadence, this task will not become any less challenging in the years to come.
The fight for luxury supremacy of the future officially started in March 2018, at the Geneva International Motor Show. There, Aston Martin chief designer – pardon: Vice President & Chief Creative Officer – Marek Reichman openly criticised the traditional purveyors of automotive luxury, namely Crewe’s Bentley and Goodwood’s Rolls-Royce, of pandering to an obsolete definition of top-end motoring.
Judging by the vehicles on show at Palexpo – Rolls-Royce’s regrettably stagnant new Phantom saloon and Bentley’s confused new Continental GT – Mr Reichman would appear to have a point. Luxury isn’t about the density of diamond pattern stitching on leather, the different shades of programmable mood lighting or the number of knurlable surfaces, yet those (and hides of the finest quality) are the features that are supposed to make the difference between ‘premium’ and bonafide luxury.
Of course, Mr Reichman’s statement was based on an agenda: To put his own attempt at a futuristic mobility device for the movers, shakers, rich, beautiful and famous in a favourable light. To cause a bit of controversy and show that, rather than being an tightly funded also-ran, Aston Martin (Lagonda) is, in fact, the disruptor of a complacent industry.
Reichman’s comments certainly caused Rolls-Royce Motor Cars CEO, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, to lose his sunshine boy composure for once and (rightfully) lament the unnecessarily boisterious tone of the Aston design chief’s attacks, even though he could have pointed in the direction of his own company’s supposed glimpse of the future, which was unveiled in 2016.
Dubbed 103EX, the Best Car in the World of the Future is huge, yet only seats two. It also sports a traditional performance car silhouette with an exceedingly long bonnet and sloping tail, despite not needing to accommodate an engine in front of the cabin. Its complicated door arrangement includes a gullwing aperture that probably necessitated the creation of a fast-drying, self-cleaning variety of Wilton carpet.
Like the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, 103EX obviously attempts to marry extreme dimensions with a sense of lithe elegance, an endeavour that sounds as oxymoronic as the results have turned out to be. 103EX proves this even more forcefully than the new Phantom.
Of course, such similarities are hardly surprising, for both these cars are the first models whose design was fully overseen by current Rolls-Royce chief designer, Giles Taylor. Both the new Phantom and this concept car therefore act as showcases for what’s to come (which, of course, includes the Cullinan SUV).
Also in keeping with the new Phantom is the impression of brittle bulk 103EX creates – for despite its imposing stature, the graphics and odd proportions result in a highly compromised stance. The unused space underneath and beside the ‘bonnet’ also does not lend 103EX an air of grace, but makes it appear structurally unsound. Not to mention the side effect of rendering the awkward, enormous wheel casings even bigger and hence ill-proportioned than they are anyway.
Yet it is the shrinking the Parthenon grille to such an extent that it appears to belong to a downsized, Irv Rybicky-era Cadillac that is the most baffling component of 103EX’s exterior. The rounded-off edge on the new Phantom’s grille may not do that car any favours, but in the concept’s case – despite/because of the addition of a thick strap of chrome which also forms the ‘bonnet’s’ leading edge – it simply destroys any sense of balance.
Of course, any visual shortcomings could be excused in the context of an autonomous driving device, if the interior offered interesting enough solutions and pleasant enough an ambience for those to be chauffeured about. Unfortunately, Goodwood failed to come up with a worthwhile approach on this instance too.
Based on what Mr Taylor and his team created here, the luxury car of the future’s ambience shall be defined by carpet. Like a family van with the last row of seats taken out, 103EX’s supposedly sophisticated-minimalist cabin appears rather barren. Even more so as there is only so much satisfaction even spoiled plutocrats can get out of the opportunity to fully stretch their legs. Unfortunately, the floorspace isn’t quite large enough to enable stressed dot-com billionaires to indulge in a bit of yoga, either.
The choice of either taking in the traffic/scenery through the windshield (without the driver’s head spoiling the view) or watching a movie, playing a video game or monitoring the stock market in real time on 103EX’s enormous screen also hardly encapsulates ‘the good life’. But there is, of course, an analogue clock attached to the piece of interior that used to be the dashboard (and looks like a dashboard without controls and footwells) – so all should be well in the world of the rich and famous, after all. Allegedly.
The lack of thought and beauty of Rolls-Royce’s supposed glimpse of the future is, all things considered, as irritating as it is astonishing. For this wasn’t the project of some half-talented design student at one of the less prestigious design schools – professionals got paid to come up with this. And no matter how rushed the creative process behind it may have been (very, on the basis of this evidence), the end result is of such embarrassing quality that those involved should have rather kept this under some oversized dust sheet.
So, given the enormous aesthetic and intellectual disappointment that Rolls-Royce’s 103EX represents, Mr Reichman’s statements are inevitably lent some credibility.
Next to the Rolls-Royce, the Lagonda’s proportions certainly augur rather well in comparison. Despite claims of a ‘Concorde-like’ silhouette and having drawn inspiration from William Towns’ seminal 1976 Lagonda saloon, the luxury vehicle of the future bears most similarity to a sleek MPV – or, in other words: A less amiphibian-looking take on the semi-forgotten Mercedes R-class.
Though not nearly as visceral a damnation as this may sound at first, it nevertheless suggests that prospective buyers would have to have been prepared to accept such a set of proportions in the context of a luxury device in the first place.
Jaguar’s excellent I-pace has only recently begun the process of introducing EV-appropriate, yet appealing packaging to the production car fold, but it’ll take much more drastic changes on a far bigger scale to make the Lagonda’s basic form palatable to the very rich – and that includes the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Mr Reichman openly panders to. After all, even Steve Jobs owned a BMW Z8, rather than a Fiat Multipla (which would’ve been a more appropriate substitute to the original iMac design).
Nevertheless, the Lagonda’s complete absence of a ‘prestige gap’ is unquestionably preferable to the Rolls-Royce’s daft ‘prestige crevice’.
In keeping with the ‘sleek MPV’ theme, the Lagonda’s interior features seats that can be swivelled, not to mention a far more intricate environment than its Goodwood counterpart.
In addition, Reichman and his team have commendably chosen to employ some unusual materials for a luxury car interior, just as they decided to abandon polished wood, chrome and the typical fine-grain leather. In terms of seating comfort, the Lagonda could therefore be expected to be a more pleasant experience than the Rolls-Royce, both in objective and subjective terms.
Unfortunately, in striving for a striking, dynamic silhouette, Aston Martin designers have either inevitably or inadvertently lent the Lagonda a rather restrictive window line. The addition of glass elements in the roof cannot quite counter this basic flaw, either.
However, some time spent in a Range Rover or previous generation Renault Espace would have been enough to demonstrate what a pivotal role daylight plays in creating a thoroughly pleasant, generously proportioned interior ambience. And a stint in the back of a Rolls-Royce Phantom would have shown that this can be combined with a sense of privacy, too.
Yet another caveat concerns the Lagonda’s basic shape though.
The man in this picture is the originator of the somewhat boastful claims that form the core of this very article. Admittedly, Marek Reichman is of above-average build, being about 1,95 metres tall. Yet even taking factors such as the distortion caused by a camera’s lens into account, it would appear as though the Lagonda’s cabin isn’t all that commodious, due to a simple lack of space. The seats certainly don’t give the impression as though they would bestow Mr Reichman himself with an awful lot of comfort, owing to the fact that they are just a bit too small.
But unlike Rolls-Royce’s affront of a concept car, the Lagonda warrants a closer look. Yet above all, both vehicles highlight the simple truth that none of these purveyors of luxury automobiles have a convincing answer to the questions autonomous driving might bring.
This isn’t to say these questions shouldn’t be asked in the first place, but it does suggest that no answer is better than an insultingly silly one.
The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com