Auto Shanghai 2019: Misunderestimation

To quite some degree, the western view on Chinese tastes in car design has been informed by awe and condescension. This year’s Shanghai motor show suggests that may have to change sooner, rather than later.

Good enough for China, photo (c) Motor1.com

China, as every donkey knows, is the centre of the automotive world these days. Without it, some of the fundamental changes to the business model of the western world’s car makers that are now on the verge of being addressed would have needed to be tackled a decade ago.

China is the lifeline of the car business as we know it, yet the dramatic dependance upon this market hasn’t resulted in similar levels of respect for it – quite the opposite, in fact. ‘That’s what the Chinese demand’ has been used as an excuse for a great many a dubious product and design decisions in recent years, often spoken with an expression of regret on the face of those so obviously forced by the Middle Kingdom to do rather less decent a job than they might otherwise have done.

Yet judging by what’s on show at this year’s Auto Shanghai, coming from some homegrown manufacturers, the sound of that excuse becomes increasingly hollow. For the huge grilles, overwrought graphics and excessive ornamentation that are typically blamed on oriental tastes are not quite the norm, as far as the new offerings of certain Chinese car makers are concerned.

Obviously, more than one western automotive news outlet could’t help themselves but regurgitate the old ‘Chinese copycat car design’ mantra as part of their Shanghai 2019 reporting, but such a stance of European superiority is clearly taken at one’s own peril these days. For Chinese car design has come close to matching the standards of established marques quicker than the Japanese or even South Korean players did, back in the day. And not just in terms of craftsmanship, but also the even more delicate matter of taste, the Chinese showed up more than one western design prejudice.

XPeng P7, photo (c) Mark Kane

So while clearly emulating Tesla’s fastback architecture to quite some extent, the XPeng 7 sports graphics sufficiently different from its Californian role model to lend the design an expression of its own. In terms of shutline treatment (odd clamshell bonnet apart), it even appears to be rather more accomplished than Tesla’s designs.

Nio ET, photo (c) Autocar

Also following the fastback EV template is the Nio ET, although in this case, the Tesla flair is not as conspicuous. Instead, the Audi A7 and BMW GT fastback models are likely to have been included on the designers’ mood board – as well as the Volvo XC40, whose distinctive, chiselled graphics are echoed by the Nio’s haunches above the wheels. That being said, the overall impression of the Chinese car isn’t as disjointed or generic as these references might suggest. As a matter of fact, the Nio appears positively restrained and  coherent next to quite a few excessively busy, overly ornamented Western designs, most notably Audi’s E-tron GT.

Grove Granite, photo (c) qz.com

The Grove Granite’s flair is rather more oriental and ornamental than the Nio’s, which is particularly intriguing, as the former was designed by none other than Pininfarina. Wheels, lights and ‘airy disk’ effect grille are all rather glitzy and expressive in their execution, but coupled with the expert surfacing and some neat graphics (including Pininfarina’s new trademark thin metal arch above the side windows), the Grove avoids the gin palace flair that informs so many prestige car designs aimed at the Chinese market.

Karma GT, photo (c) Cnet

Intriguingly, the Grove was not the only Pininfarina-designed car on show at Shanghai, as Karma, best known for producing an adapted version of Henrik Fisker’s EV of the same name in the US, brought along the GT, whose shape had been created at Cambiano. Using the rather comical Karma saloon as the basis, the Pininfarina designers toned down the original car’s extreme proportions and created a classically elegant GT.

The rear aspect in particular illustrates why the carrozzeria remain purveyors of classical elegance, whereas the front’s F1-derived graphics aren’t as convincing. That being said, the Karma GT flies the flag of the elegant large coupé at a time when this automotive staple has undeservedly become an irrelevance.

Karma SC1 Vision, photo (c) Twitter

As if one concept car wasn’t enough, Karma also brought the SC1 Vision along, an EV barchetta with the most impressive scissor doors since the Bertone Pandion. Designed in-house, the SC1 Vision is closer to the original Fisker Karma than Pininfarina’s GT in that its proportions are utterly and deliberately extreme.

Apart from this, it’s a competent piece of design that suffers from the Karma marque’s generally rather anodyne flair, owing to the lack of a strong logo or front graphics – just like the GT, incidentally. Unlike the Pininfarina design though, the SC1 Vision also appears rather heavy, owing, to some extent, to the immense discrepancy in terms of proportions between the windshield and the lower body. A lithe (electric) race car this Karma is not.

Aiways U7 Ion, photo (c) Formacar

For a change, Aiways chose to present neither a fastback saloon nor a sports car design as their most recent EV concept car, but an MPV. Designed with some input courtesy of Ken Okuyama, the U7 Ion sports a great many styling details currently en vogue (light bands, blackened roof – even featuring a strip of metal reminiscent of Pininfarina’s canopy graphics), albeit presented in slightly straighter & squarer a fashion than is currently the norm.

Aiways U7 Ion interior, photo (c) Formacar

The interior also appears to be far from outlandish, but conveys a tastefully Asian interpretation of ‘premium’, while taking advantage of some of the packaging advantages an EV architecture brings about.

Given its unusual positioning and its accomplished appearance, the Aiways would seem to be among the more relevant unveilings at Shanghai. Given the popularity of chauffeured motoring in China, a focus on interior space and comfort clearly seems to be far more sound a concept than the usual performance-oriented offerings.

Leapmotor C-More, photo (c) Autohaus

More mainstream is the Leapmotor C-More, an electric sports SUV, which features some interesting light graphics, in addition to the prerequisite black roof with metal trim. Its soft surfacing is not too dissimilar to Mercedes-Benz’ current style, but rather more convincing in terms of shutline placement and graphics. It’s unclear if this C-More was designed in-house or by a consultancy, but regardless of its origins, the car appears to be far above the international industry average in terms of its stylistic execution.

Enovate ME-S, photo (c) Car Design ews

After the Leapmotor or Aiways, the Enovate ME-S would seem to be a throwback to those years when Chinese motor shows truly were mostly about copycat designs, given its rather obvious nods to Porsche’s Panamera and Mission E saloons. Even so – and garish wheels apart – the ME-S’ overall flair comes across as being far more ‘western’ (as in ‘restrained’ and ‘refined’) than the recent EV concept cars from Audi or BMW, with their overwrought ‘digital baroque’ appearance.

When even the less impressive exhibits by the upstart domestic industry can teach the establishment one or two lessons, it becomes glaringly obvious that this is nothing short of a watershed moment. Also taking the limitations of judging show cars on the basis of photos only into account, there is no escaping the conclusion that some Chinese brands are working hard on achieving levels of sophistication which hitherto appeared unattainable to them – while a great many Western brands were busy lowering their standards in order to (supposedly) pander to Chinese tastes.

Patronising one’s clientele can be very treacherous business indeed.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

 

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine //

19 thoughts on “Auto Shanghai 2019: Misunderestimation”

  1. Christopher, thanks for the detailed and very informative article. What a pleasure and an eye opener!

    I think many European automakers (at least the big three German ones) have dropped the ball when it comes to the aesthetic designs of their vehicles. So if the gigantic grilles and aggressive front ends are to -supposedly- “serve customers in the Far East”, then where else is there beauty and aesthetic integrity to be found for the rest of the car? In profile? From the rear? In the details? In the surface textures/finishes? Nop. Nop. Nop. Nop. Nop. Nop. Nop. Nop either. Was the latest 8 Series enterily ruined because of the massive snout alone?

    I’ve posed this question here before: do automakers without gaudy or ostentatious or incredibly aggressive front ends find it particularly difficult to sell cars in China? Would Volvo do better in that country if the grilles on their cars were upsized another 50%? I think most certainly not. Societies in many developing nations the world over look up to the west and western ideals in equal parts aspiration and admiration. I don’t think European automakers need to resort to crass and dumbed down designs to please the masses in the east, what more with aspirational status symbols like luxury automobiles. (I could be wrong!)

    1. My pleasure.

      The reasons for so many German car designs looking the way they do right now and some of the most talented designers leaving these OEMs behind are one and the same. Today’s corporate structures are, quite simply, not suitable for fostering either creativity or good taste.

      As you brought up the example of Volvo, you should understand that Thomas Ingenlath was granted a lot of creative freedom, which formed the core of the brand’s reinvention. He could choose quite a lot of his personnel and enjoyed the trust & support of his superiors in his competence & taste, rather than having his every move second-guessed. Now that may not sound like an exceptional approach, but it is today, when most choices need to be backed by what is called ‘due diligence’, but is actually an aversion to risks and an unwillingness to stick one’s neck out.

      Some/most of the Chinese cars you see here were created under the supervision of industry veterans that had enough of this and accept smaller budgets, less mature facilities and quite a bit of uncertainty in return for greater creative freedom – it’s not just the pay check that draws designers towards China these days.

      The German car design malaise, on the other hand, can be compared to the earlier stages of the downfall of Detroit’s Big Three. In either case, we’re talking about a combination of complacency and sprawling corporate structures/bureaucracy that result in a lack of focus. Just like Detroit believed it was too big to fail, the Germans are convinced that ‘premium’ will work forever.

  2. Yes, Christopher, thanks for a very perceptive article. Your last paragraph really struck a chord with me: it may well prove the case that European marques are wrong-footed by the speed of evolution of the Chinese domestic manufacturers and market. That VW concept that heads your article looks very clunky and awkward, certainly compared to the Chinese concepts you feature.

    As for BMW’s obsession with ever more expressive (i.e. aggressive) faces, where will it end? I stumbled upon this photoshopped (I hope!) proposal for an 8 Series facelift, in similar vein to the 7 Series facelift and X7:

    Completely preposterous, of course, but we would have said that about the 7 Series facelift and X7 before they appeared…

    1. Oh my word! I had to scroll past this image really quickly for it to not give me the creeps. Can’t think of much else as visually repelling, except maybe the gigantic spiders in the 2005 King Kong remake with Adrien Broody and Naomi Watts.

  3. I think that absent genuine innovation, design is generally cyclical.

    The Chinese trend doesn’t seem too different from what we have seen with Korea, Japan, USA, and UK (fueled in no small amount by the perpetual aspirational nature of Rolls-Royce, keepers of the “party like it’s 1919” flame).

    Europe, however has been the spiritual home of the grille-less face since…practically forever.

    European designers have been remarkably resistant to the urge to top off the wedding cake with the leaper on the bonnet (mostly Americans bought that useless appendage, not Sir William’s fault), one European company however is excepted.

    “They call us ‘vulgar’ so we might as well own it”?

    “Sacco has left the building!”

    Let’s think positively though “there will always be a Golf”, if not a Fiat 500, or a true DS, then at least an entire line of contemporary Porsches. There will always be a market for those with questionable taste. But as tastes evolve, they can also become more sophisticated as is evidenced by the Shanghai crop that Chris has presented here.

  4. Christopher, thanks for your clarifying report on Chinese car design, and for your clarifying reasoning on German car design.

    Before reading about the Shangai Motor Show, I considered Chinese cars immature and overdesigned, and now I’m looking at them with a mix of respect and optimism. Regarding German premium brands, I only hope that the photoshopped 8 Series will stay as a joke!

  5. Thank you for this refreshing perspective on the latest Chinese concept cars!

    I observed Chinese car design quite closely during the time I was living in China a few years ago. Immediately after first stepping off a plane on Beijing Capital Airport I felt very profoundly that Western prejudice is trailing Chinese realities by ten years. At least. Rule number one a foreign visitor takes away: Never underestimate China!

    However, while many Chinese realities far exceeded my boldest expectations, the same wasn’t quite true for car design. Signs of an independent design language were still not easy to spot, while silly old clichés were very easy to feed.

    I visited the Shanghai Auto Show 2013 and the Beijing Auto Show 2014. For most Chinese models presented at the show back then, it really wasn’t hard to spot where designers had taken their inspiration: the now infamous Range Rover Evoque copy, the G-Class Doppelgänger, the Lexus RX300 look-a-like, yes, they were all there…

    Qoros was the star of the Shanghai Show in 2013, presenting quite a neat looking, independently styled car that people had high hopes about. (I also thought it compared favourably to a Kia Shuma that I remembered laughing about when it first came to Europe in the 1990s.)

    So, looking at the examples Christopher discussed above, I can certainly say that they are a gigantic leap from what I saw only 5 years ago. If the sophistication of Chinese cars continues to increase at this rate, breakthrough success cannot be far away.

    Probably the most reliable indicator: How successful are the manufacturers on their domestic market? Chinese consumers tend to be very critical about what they spend their hard earned money on. And nobody I ever spoke to in China used to take domestic manufacturers seriously. It’s not a far exaggeration to say they were the laughing stock of the nation. Everybody who could afford it would buy foreign cars. (Well, half-foreign as they are always co-produced by local joint venture partners.)

    Last time I was in China exactly a year ago I noticed signs of change. Domestic brand density had clearly increased on the road. Though a clear winner was still hard to make out. Qoros in any way doesn’t appear to have been one of them. While sales were projected to reach 150.000 in 2014, they reached a measly 7.000 units and still haven’t exploded. Not to my knowledge anyway.

    I think it would be very worthwhile indeed to do a more thorough study of the most promising Chinese offerings and portrait them in greater depth!

  6. Christopher, I suspect you’re spot on about talent retention and risk aversion at the premier German automakers. Despite having made a couple of comments, I was unable to articulate my point, which is malaise, complacency and lack of courage being primary reasons for them to have lost aesthetic leadership. This is more likely than the notion that it is the prevailing tastes in China driving the current design language of vehicles… a very weak and hollow reason to me.

    I’d like to add to your insightful comments, Max, that if one were to take a casual stroll down the middle class or affluent streets in cities in China, one would be hard pressed to say that gaudiness and extreme tastelessness is the name of the game.

    We also have to take into account that especially in developing countries, local manufacturers might not and often do not represent local sensibilities, since these OEMs themselves are immature and unsure what it is that the domestic markets desire. “Designers” are equally inexperienced and the vehicles have to climb from the bottom of the ladder (budget tin cans for cars, anyone?). Perhaps in simpler terms, it’s the same as how first models from Kia and Hyundai back in the 70s/80s/90s did not entirely represent “Korean design”.

    And while it is true that tastes need time to develop and refine, id like to point out that even in advanced markets like the developed West, many individuals of questionable tastes do exist!

  7. Thanks again and always Herr Butt for another of your educative world view of Automobile.
    I would like to add to this discussion, dear excellent co-commenters, the question whether China’s car industry contribution to the world automotive design is just a refinement of the current western design language ( and maybe eastern, i.e. Japan?).
    What I mean is that, maybe the West is trying to discover something new, make some steps in unknown territories, balancing at the same time between its past rich heritage and experimenting with some views forward to the future?
    At this time point BMWs, MBs, Audis, products are unquestionably not in their best, but is this just a passing point and not a stand still?
    So, what I am really asking is: If, at some point, a new design language is to emerge, where will that most probably happen, in China or Europe (or the US or…?
    Thanks again.

  8. It strikes me that most of the Chinese cars discussed here are in reality German/Italian designed. Chinese car design is missing in action here. Mostly due to well known Chinese incompetent shortsighted management style (especially when it comes to design, from own experience). If an economic crisis will hit China, we are going to witness a bloodbath unlike any other. Already we can see some Chinese brands that were bestsellers some years ago mismanaged to the brink of bankruptcy. Unlike the managers, Chinese customers are no fools. They will not be tricked into paying extra for an average product (Qoros and Borgward). A general golden rule to evaluate new car brands: very fancy presentations correlate with a lack of capability (vaporware exemplified by Faraday Future). The more capable, the less fancy (Toyota).

    1. Speaking of Borgward, I hope we will hear from Anders Warming again. The concepts pictured here are promising, but for me not as original and refreshing as Warming’s Isabella was. I suppose it has evaporated now that Warming has reportedly left Borgward.

    2. This mobility and connectivity stuff, please help me out here. I’m a software engineer, every car has or will have these features. What does it have to do with the exterior design, or for that matter the interior aside from the infotainment screen and Bluetooth/WiFi/LTE integration, which to me seems to be almost completely about software?

      I understand the role of industrial design in the user interfaces of software, but all of these new videos show sketches of automobile exteriors which appear to be unbranded, as one might expect.

      I feel a bit queasy now. “Mobility” is the same PR Ford fed us before they started killing their cars. I appreciate Mr. Warming’s declaration of commitment to bringing “character” to design, it is his strength. But shouldn’t IT experts worry about phone integration? What am I missing that he understands which I clearly do not?

  9. I will provide an example of the Chinese ‘situation’. Currently there is a project for a Chinese company that involves more than 15 design studios worldwide who each had to deliver drawings/renderings of more than 15 different cars. This makes for a grand total of more than 250 designs, made in record short time. I can not imagine the budget, but I can imagine ways to spend it better.

    1. Very interesting, thanks for the insight!

      I hope I didn’t insinuate that the cars shown above were all created by and solely for Chinese. If my overview of the industry’s current state is sufficiently informed, I’d have to doubt there are enough trained Chinese car designers available for such a scenario anyway – though there will obviously be an unprecedented flood of young Chinese car design graduates coming from the RCA, Pforzheim and many more much less prestigious design colleges over the next few years. Yet I don’t envisage many Chinese chief designers taking office over the next five years or so (unlike Russians and Indians, of course).

      Back to topic: Not a single designer I ever talked to who’d worked for the Chinese had many pleasant things to say about the experience. But Chinese work ethics/management style isn’t what this article is about, but an overview of prevalent tastes – and as you pointed out, ‘Chinese customers are no fools’. The sophistication of quite a few designs aimed at them reflects that. Which is all I wanted to say.

  10. In general, I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles. The society of car design desperately needs some critique and you do a great job.

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