Category Archives: Design

Frankfurt shows the way forward

Frankfurt - MBUnlike the Geneva motor show, Frankfurt isn’t an annual event – it alternates with Paris. But it’s the big one. A vast, sprawling mini-metropolis of a show, a temple to the German auto industry which powers the European market.

But the 2013 event came at a time of severe market decline. Five years of sliding volumes, sales down 6.7% in the first half of the year, and the mighty German market falling by over 8%. Meanwhile Spain’s decline is such that the Big Five has become a Big Four of just Germany, the UK, France and Italy. The region’s manufacturing base needs major surgery, with VW Group boss Martin Winterkorn saying in Frankfurt that 10 factories should be closed to relieve the industry’s chronic overcapacity, and none of his counterparts is under any illusion that weak lending and high unemployment mean recovery will be anything other than slow and long.

Yet Frankfurt 2013 was the most positive for years. OEMs like Nissan which didn’t attend two years ago were back. There was no single stand-out high-volume model launch – partly because these days there are so many niches – but you couldn’t move for new product. Concept cars were strewn like confetti. Cutting-edge technology oozed out of the products. The feeling was that the market has hit the bottom and there’s only one way to go from here, so let’s design and engineer our way out of this.

Renault, the company which has fallen hardest in the downturn, had no less than five concepts. You have to hand it to them – after the massive commitment to launching five battery-only EVs at the worst possible time it’s going on another product offensive. But a statement by the company that it’s aiming to get 60% of its business outside Europe is telling: it’s pinning hopes on emerging markets and the continuing growth of the Dacia budget brand.

Nevertheless, the strategy is in sharp contrast with Fiat Group, which is failing to invest in new product, and also, when you look closely, Volkswagen. VW Group has very nearly 25% of the European market – helped by the decline of Renault, PSA and Opel but with the VW brand alone now accounting for a larger share than other OEM group. Yet apart from the Golf and Up! its huge Frankfurt stand was filled with ageing product.

What was new was the showing of its first electric production vehicles, the e-Up! and e-Golf. Always one to enter new segments when the market has already been primed and with well-proven offerings, VW has come late to the party but with impact, talking of up to 40 electric or hybrid variants, 14 of which will arrive by next year.

Frankfurt marked the moment when EVs began to move seamlessly into the mainstream of the displays, with almost every manufacturer showing versions of existing models with electric powertrains of various sorts. EVs were part of Frankfurt - i3 shuttlesthe show’s fabric as soon as you entered the gates, BMW providing a fleet of i3s to shuttle press around the showground, a high-impact demonstration of the car doing what it does best – moving four adults around a confined, busy road space in swish, stylish silence, and here giving a glimpse of the megacity. Mercedes and Kia also provided hybrid shuttles but everyone wanted to ride in the i3, which says a lot about the fascination it holds. Elsewhere the production version of Tesla’s Model S, a car as remarkable the i3, was displayed on a stand as underwhelming as its technical prowess is astonishing. This is a landmark car presented and styled like a Mazda.

Porsche showed how it should be done with the $1.05m 918 Spyder and a Porsche Design recharging point but, back in the real world, Volvo displayed the world’s first diesel PHEV (plug-in hybrid) engine. Range Rover launched and began taking orders for diesel hybrid versions of both the Sport and flagship Vogue models, Mercedes had a PHEV version of the brand new S Class, and BMW revealed a prototype PHEV system in its new X5. The trend for hybrid technologies to be used for performance as well as efficiency and performance is very much on its way.

Toyota even showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini, developing 420PS. But its core message was giving its entire stand over to hybrids as it rather belatedly tries to establish perceived ownership of hybrid technology leadership. Since it launched the first Prius it’s quietly – too quietly – sold 5.5m hybrids, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate. The next three years should belong to Toyota.

The growth of the B-segment crossover is one of the key current trends in Europe, and it Frankfurt - GLAwas moved onto a new level in Frankfurt by the introduction of the Mercedes GLA. Audi has inevitably already entered the segment with its something-for-everyone product strategy, and BMW has extended its X range down to a 1-Series model, but the Mercedes, with less of a scaled-down SUV shape, could be the most popular of all. This could conquest sales from the mainstream offerings of Peugeot, Renault and Opel, and to make their lives more difficult Lexus previewed its own crossover with a leftfield Darth-Vader-like concept. But the car which stole the Mercedes show at its massive hall was a concept S-Class coupe set to replace the CL next year. Even stripped of some of the chrome and detailing, the production version will be a must-have in Florida, LA, the Middle-East, Moscow and Shanghai.

BMW’s hall was demure by comparison. The production i8 electric supercar was there, albeit rather shyly presented, which is no bad thing. BMW likes to manage – and exceed – expectation, and no doubt it will with the i8. It’s no 918 Spyder, but then it will cost a mere $150,000, and in its own way it’s just as clever, with super-lightweight carbon and aluminium architecture, a futuristic body form, 100 mpg and the performance of an M3. Talking of which, the M3’s replacement, the M4 coupe, also debuted at Frankfurt.

BMW’s big rival Audi, for all its sales success, seems to be running into a designer’s equivalent of writer’s block. It trumpeted the Quattro concept, an homage to the original, groundbreaking Quattro of 30 years ago. Yet this looked very similar to – and not as well resolved as – a concept shown 2010. Its other Frankfurt concept, the Nanuk, was a total surprise and yet familiar. Anyone who was in Geneva earlier this year would have seen this, less some Audi detailing and minor styling changes, on the Italdesign Giugiaro stand as the Parcour concept. As an off-road supercar it’s interesting, but it should have been designed as an Audi from the start.

Where Audi has been hugely successful in recent years is in introducing premium products in lower market segments. Like Renault with its Initiale sub-brand, Ford is now attempting to go in the opposite direction by providing a premium experience for its mainstream models using the Vignale banner. The company showed a restyled Mondeo, a conventional product in the declining D segment, which under the Vignale name will give customers a dedicated dealer contact and concierge services. It’s a tough goal and Ford may well be better off letting the product do the talking– the S Max concept in Frankfurt is a compelling design and clearly close to production.

Frankfurt - C-X17But perhaps the most significant show theme was platforms and specifically scalable and flexible architecture. In addition to the Renault-Nissan architecture showcased in the new Nissan X-Trail, PSA’s low-cost, low-weight platform underpins the vital new Peugeot 308 launched at Frankfurt. But the importance of platform strategy is underlined by being absolutely vital to the fortunes of two smaller companies – Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo.  Volvo’s star was the Concept Coupe, sitting on the next XC90’s platform, which has been designed to accommodate Volvo’s new family of four-cylinder-only engines and hybrid drivetrains announced in Frankfurt. Jaguar’s C-X17 concept, built on a new aluminium architecture, is a remarkably successful styling interpretation of the brand in an SUV form. It’s clearly intended for production, and Jaguar will be expecting a Cayenne-like uplift when it launches. But more importantly the same unerpinnings will give rise to a compact model family to compete with the BMW 3-Series off in 2015, transforming volumes and potentially changing the motor industry order: the C-X17 is not merely an SUV and the first iteration of a new architecture, but a disruptor, a catalyst to the change within Jaguar necessary for growth.

This may have been the most significant Frankfurt show for decades.

Lexus becomes different by design

LF-CC_004_1280x1024_tcm880-1177805No matter how good its cars, Lexus has struggled to find its place as a brand since it was launched over 20 years ago. Now, however, it seems to have found the resolve to be the bold, confident, alternative brand it always should have been.

The paradox for Lexus is that to be a viable competitor to the established premium makes it needed to avoid trying to compete head-on.  It cannot be a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi, and being seen to try left it a me-too, a second-best.  Lexus needed to see its newness as an advantage and to clearly state its position. But it still has an opportunity to create a brand around the current and future needs of the market, uncompromised by demands for high volumes. So it can be not only relevant but cutting-edge, daring and appealing on an emotional level.

Ironically, Lexus could always have been the independent-thinking person’s option. I was involved in the launch phase of the brand and its only launch product, the LS400 luxury car in the early-1990s. The economic downturn then meant the LS was a no-brainer boardroom option. Objectively as good in almost every respect as an S-Class, with astonishing refinement and a price about half that of the German car with equivalent equipment, it should have been the smart choice. But this wasn’t backed up emotionally or intellectually. And to the annoyance of the UK marketing department the company was inundated with requests for a tow-hook for customers’ caravans. Imagine that on an S-Class.

Now Lexus is adopting a more lateral approach. The strapline is ‘Creating Amazing’, and it’s aligning the brand with cutting-edge design, technology and creativity. The website is peppered with short films, videos referencing landscape and architecture, travelogue images, design objects, studies in motion.

This last element is significant as it’s reflected in the styling of the latest cars. Movement is embedded in the emerging Lexus design language, and nowhere more so than the ‘spindle’ grille on the new IS series and LF-CC concept. It’s a full-height design, framed by the bonnet panel and the front spoiler, but with a pinch in the sides about a quarter of the way down, where it sits noticeably forward of the rest of the grille. The effect is of a malleable surface being stretched in 3D, of natural energy and force, enhanced by the zigzag mesh being distorted above and below the pinch like a graphic illustrating space bending theory; think Audi grille redesigned by Stephen Hawking. It’s not a form we’re familiar with, so it jars at first. It’s not classical or beautiful but complex, innovative, even disruptive.

This IS is the first production iteration, but the super-sculpted LF-CC shows where Lexus will be in a couple of years or so. For the first time, Lexus styling will reflect the advanced technology of the company’s hybrid powertrains. Dynamic form will follow dynamic function.

Lexus has the assets to be a truly exciting brand, different from the German standard-bearers by design. To occupy its own space. To make you think. Which is what a Lexus should do.

Bentley SUV must not be an SUV

Bentley logoSo the Bentley SUV will be made, and not in Bratislava alongside other VW Group cars. Bratislava’s an intriguing place. I first went there 20 years ago to launch the latest Toyota Corolla, when the ancient cobbled streets were still lined with lovely old Tatras and McDonald’s hadn’t arrived. It’s nicer than Crewe for sure, but Britain is where the car needs to come from. Otherwise it’s a German-owned, Czech-built car with shared VW Touareg, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne underpinnings and a British badge.

The concept of a Bentley SUV has been much debated but it won’t be an issue if it’s seen as having a British, handcrafted core. Forget the SUV tag – Bentley surely won’t be letting this distinctly un-British acronym anywhere near the car. But a practical luxury car is part of the tradition of British motoring – think shooting brakes, plovers’ egg picnics and Pimms; Glyndebourne, Henley, country estates, polo and the grouse season. Putting a bespoke picnic hamper together with four-wheel-drive and a bootload of status makes complete sense. Historically Bentleys were used to pound around victoriously for 24 hours at Le Mans, to equip Fleming’s original James Bond, and to take gentlemen adventuring in dusty, far-off places. The new car is a far better brand fit than for Lamborghini, which has also shown an SUV prototype, or even Porsche, despite the fact that its fortunes have been transformed by the Cayenne. And it’s something the Rolls-Royce brand simply can’t stretch to.

But if this Bentley is to make complete sense it needs to express its Britishness clearly. Traditional British luxury design is understated, timeless, with simplicity of lines and natural materials. It has design honesty. From E-Types to Burberrys, the best British products have always had a functional beauty.

The market for the new Bentley will inevitably be primarily in Asia and the Middle-East, where luxury is designed to be displayed. It is gilded and gauche. Bentley needs the volumes these markets offer but if it designs the car specifically to appeal to their tastes it will undermine the brand. It must fundamentally appeal to British tastes even if UK sales are only a fraction of the total. When the production car is revealed, put it to this test – if you can’t think of a credible British celebrity ambassador for the car they won’t have got it right.

Designing this car is a difficult task. The EXP 9F concept shown last year to widespread disapproval was an exercise in seeing how far the expectations of Bentley styling themes could be pushed. Bentley got its answer but should not simply apply the existing DNA to an SUV-type body as Porsche did by bolting 911 features onto the original Cayenne. The new Bentley should be contemporary, daring even. But it should say ‘ British’. Effortlessly. The execution will be everything.

Top Kia

KED 10 Teaser 1 - IAA Frankfurt 2013So the Kia Cee’d, Top Gear’s Reasonably Priced Car, has gone, replaced by a Vauxhall Astra. Top Gear says it was the programme’s decision. Kia says the company decided.

Whichever, Kia had outgrown the programme, no matter how big a brand Top Gear’s become. The fact that there’s a new-generation Cee’d isn’t important. Kia had already moved on. Moved up in fact. Kia and sister brand Hyundai have grown massively in Europe over the past five years or so. In 2012 they sold about 250,000 more cars in Europe than Toyota and were not far short of Renault, Peugeot and Opel/Vauxhall.

Hyundais and Kias are good value and come with long warranties, which has helped them in the downturn. But more significantly that they’ve become desirable, especially Kia, by instilling great styling across the range. In 2006 Kia brought in Peter Schreyer, designer of the Audi TT, and has since elevated him to president of the company, the first non-Korean to hold the title. He now heads global design for Hyundai too.

The Korean company has recognised the importance of design in generating appeal and desirability. It was canny in leading with Kia, the junior partner and a brand with less baggage, and following with Hyundai, with a well established and conservative customer base. But people still buy cars on the basis of how they look. If they come with great customer care then what’s not to like? Now there’s a plan to re-launch the Lada brand on the basis of a style revolution under a British designer, Steve Mattin, who was previously design boss of Volvo.

Even Top Gear’s new incumbent is at it. The Astra is a decent-looking car, and Vauxhall/Opel parent GM Europe has introduced a rash of very well styled new models like the Astra GTC coupe, Cascade convertible, Mokka mini-SUV and the Adam, a Mini/Fiat 500 rival.

The carmakers are waking up to design. And the Reasonably Priced Car has become better looking than some of the stars who drive it.