“You can’t always have what you want, and I don’t like what I can have,” sang Peter Hein of the German Punk band “Fehlfarben”. That was back at the beginning of the 1980s – from a present-day standpoint it was an era that dripped bleakness and glamour in equal measure. People’s expectations for the future may have been rather subdued, but the conservative politics in the USA, England and Germany triggered the growth and personal enrichment that would later lead to globalization as well as stimulating subjects and topics that would become cause for great irritation and controversy. Even at this early point, there was little separating supposed Armageddon and manifest economic upheaval. Furthermore, the world was not structured according to personal, aesthetic preferences alone. Or was it?
At any rate, the refrain from the 1980 Punk song “Paul ist tot” (Paul is dead) is rather fitting as a motto for this year’s edition of the largest European motor show, the “Mondial de l’Automobil” in Paris. Until now, the transition to new automotive drive systems has been advancing at a rather sluggish pace. Many manufacturers seek their salvation in the hybridization of their products, which is by no means synonymous with simply adding electric motors, but also embodies new types of car that aim to merge the qualities of the former models with one another, something that has not always proved to be a success. Those electric cars that have been launched so far have not been particularly popular. Limited in mileage, they also cost a great deal to purchase and subsequently run, which has left them sitting tight in the showrooms. But it is not the new technology alone that seems to be turning customers off; traditional compact cars are also experiencing a difficult period on the European market. The trade fair’s French hosts, PSA Peugeot Citroën and the somewhat more stable Renault-Nissan Alliance, tried to make the most of bad numbers. The Euro crisis has hit the traditional markets they rely on hard, as is also evident in the case of traditional Italian brand, Fiat. In addition, manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda have been affected by territorial disputes between China and Japan – even Volkswagen has slowed production of the Passat.
“I can’t have what I want”: 15 years ago, Mercedes presented the first generation of its A-Class to the public in Brussels as a revolutionary new automotive concept. Devised as a family car for urban environments, it aimed to offer easy access, upright seating, best possible safety and clear-cut bodywork with minimal overhang. Its sandwich floor was originally (when “Vision A” was presented at the Frankfurt IAA in 1993) conceived to eventually incorporate batteries in an electric version.
But then a swift swerve by Swedish journalist Robert Collin caused the car to overturn. The “Elchtest” on the other hand was cause for sensation; Mercedes had succeeded in making amends. This incident also led to the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) becoming a standard feature for all compact cars. A total of 2.1 million units of the 1998 A-Class (W168) and its successor (W169) have since been sold. Only very few cars were actually fitted with the electric drive or E-Cell, for which the model was originally conceived. However, for those who considered design an aesthetic display the A-Class was just as abhorrent as it was to fans of the classic and indeed far more elegant limousine. But the car did have its supporters. I profess, I was one of them.
Mercedes has now halted production of the A-Class and introduced another model to the market in its place; it may share the same name but it boasts an entirely new construction and objective.
Conquerors of the present
“I don’t like what I can have”: The A-Class has now undergone a transformation and has nothing in common with its predecessors of the same name – a rather unusual move for a German manufacturer. In contrast to let’s say Honda, where the Civic has been reinterpreted and renewed over and over again throughout the decades, until this point the development of the A-Class has been subject to the principles of evolutionary design. This careful, cautious advancement enabled Mercedes to avoid the potholes while always driving down the same road. The new A-Class does anything but: It is intended to radiate a sporting feel while remaining economical at the same time. Designer Mark Fetherston is the man behind its new look, which is supposed to exude dynamism and attract new buyers. By all accounts the risk has certainly paid off. Preorders are off the charts and Mercedes is citing the most successful model launch ever.
Of course if you were to consider the design in relation its usability, the A-Class would be far from top of the league. Getting into the back without hitting your head on the sloping roof line that intersects the car’s C-column is more than a challenge. This design detail also restricts the driver’s view to the back, but does free rear passengers from the feeling of claustrophobia at times associated with such cars. The newest A-Class also makes hard work of transporting luggage; the interior is not at all adaptable and the sporty rear constricts the width and height of the trunk. However, the car does get an A+ for its (in some cases standard) advanced driver assistance and lighting systems. After conducting a benchmark test, leading German automobile magazine “Autobild” raised the question: “What does this new Mercedes A-Class actually stand for?” The model is aimed at wealthy young professionals, but I would recommend it only (and with some reservation at that) to those who see a car as a consumer product and nothing more.
Take something good and make it even better
Volkswagen, currently one of the most profitable manufacturers, demonstrated the potential of evolution in automotive design. “The car”, the Golf, celebrated its seventh-edition world premiere in Paris this year. Even today the Golf illustrates that reengineering can shape both a company and everyday culture, and that over decades. The somewhat farouche head designer Herbert Schäfer (born 1932) only modified Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design for the first model very slightly. In place of the futuristic-looking, right-angled headlights, he installed large round headlights in the car’s grill that consciously superseded the grill’s dimensions. This detail was less elaborate, but this contrast to the Golf’s otherwise very angular contours gave the car a friendly touch. Later Schäfer asserted that its successors should follow more evolutionary design principles and in doing so paved the way for the series’ long-term success, which has held true to the present day. The first three Golf series were produced under Schäfer’s direction. The Golf 7 is the second model by current head designer for the VW Group, Walter Maria de Silva.
Occupying an enormous stand in Paris, Volkswagen presented almost exclusively Golfs, from the rather subdued “BlueMotion” study to the sporty GTI version. The good news is that despite the subtle sporty treatment that young VW exterior designer Phillip Römer has given the new version (it’s wider, longer and lower), the marque has been unable to dent the fundamental values of this once classless car when it came to functionality. But if you take into account that the new construction techniques and the so-called “modular transverse matrix” has shaved off around 100 kilos from the former model as well as 30 percent of the production costs, it seems a little unfair that not a single cent of these savings has been passed on to the consumer. However, the designers (Tomasz Bachorski worked on the interior, Manuela Joosten on the color and trim) were justified in their decision to lend the Golf a superior appearance despite having to make savings, and they did so brilliantly. Many could learn a thing or two from Volkswagen about how to make things that are in fact lighter and cheaper look more expensive: kudos!
Every now and again, Mick Jagger pops into my head: “You can’t always get what you want…” A stupid line but one that takes on a rather ironic tone as soon as you have the London Bach Choir sing it as the Rolling Stones did in 1969 with “Let it Bleed”. And how did it go on? “But if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need…”
Luxurious pianos, lame markets
Peugeot’s trade fair stand proved to be a cause for confusion. We were presented with a show car called “Onyx” that was based on the Peugeot 908 racing car and elegantly combined matt-black carbon bodywork with large, high-gloss copper panels. This was neighbored by a self-supporting piano that was developed in collaboration with Pleyel. One could easily take it for one of Zaha Hadid’s designs, though it is in fact a brainchild of the Peugeot Design Lab. The striking piece is intended to demonstrate that car designers can also move in other circles, work for other companies; but at the fair it simply looked out of place. The Peugeot 2008 study suggests that Peugeot will soon introduce an SUV, a step already taken by most of its competitors, though it was no cause for sensation despite having been underscored in a garish yellow and interest in the study was somewhat limited. Citroën could be found directly next door presenting “Numero 9” a “shooting brake” study conceived especially for the Asian market and unveiled in Beijing earlier this year. Standard models such as the new DS3 Cabrio were well executed in their design, with plenty of glitzy extras, but not much that would stick in your mind after moving a few stands along.
Something for the young ones, and sustainability
Matt-black SUVs that double up as rolling boomboxes and the sleek “TeRRA” study, a shining example of environmental friendliness that is purportedly “inspired by the lifestyles of young Scandinavians”: Nissan is clearly trying for an image change, and coolness is what they are going for. Large forms combined with promising hydrogen-fuel systems herald a new all-rounder: a 4x4 off-roader that boasts zero emissions seems to be within arm’s reach. Or is not? Everything has a very relaxed look about it in any case, although the cars on show are anything but an elegant treat for the eye. The same could also be said of the new New York taxi, which is based on the Nissan NV 200 and is intended as a model for cosmopolitan flair.
Then Renault is one of the most peaceful, relaxing stands at the show. Forming a slight hill, numerous versions of the new Clio amass here, a sea of yellow and red tones. Head designer Van Ackeren has succeeded in giving all of the brand’s newer compact cars a shared face. Now the Clio looks very similar to the Twingo, which in turn greatly resembles the electric car Zoe. But will that be of any use in the long run? However that may be, Renault and Nissan have other irons in the fire. Their low-cost brand Dacia has inspired emulation by none other than Volkswagen and the partnership with Mercedes is said to be going swimmingly.
The “Audi crosslane coupé” concept study has already announced Audi’s next creative turn; namely, their plans to intensify the brand’s focus on the sport segment, which will manifest itself in the coming Q models. The “Singleframe Grill” is the name the Ingolstadt firm has given to its distinctive frontal feature, which envelops and accentuates the Audi logo. In future, the grill, which was previously distinguished by its flush-mounted installation, will now take on a more angular three-dimensional form. But has this new design detail already been tested for its effect on aerodynamics? In terms of construction, Audi has moved away from the aluminum space frame of past times towards a multi-material space frame, combining the material characteristics of carbon fiber and glass fiber reinforced plastic and aluminum. In addition, the concept car’s plug-in hybrid motorization paves the way for new possibilities for the combination of sport-like driving with lower energy consumption. Well, in the future at least.
The big cat’s on the run
E comes after F – Jaguar took an incredibly long time to figure this out. And we immediately take Head of Design Ian Callum’s word for it when he says “This is the car that we as a team have always wanted to design.” The E Type, of which around 30,000 were made and which was presented for the first time in a Geneva park in 1961 and remained on the production line until 1974, is one of the few true icons of automotive design. This sports car is a popular point of reference for those who tend romanticize those as the glory years. The traditional British brand seems to be thriving wonderfully under its new owner, the Indian company Tata Motors, and presented the newly constructed sports car in Paris, its world premiere. Adrian Hallmark, the company’s Global Brand Director, proclaims Jaguar as the founding member of this market segment, and he’s quite right in doing so. Those who at this point might expect Jaguar to fall into riding the retro wave along with the others will be left rubbing their eyes in surprise. The most pleasant thing about this 100%-aluminum car (scheduled to launch in 2013) is not least that it is in a normal, exotic-looking sports car that does not attempt to play the environmental hero with a few electric gimmicks. It is a car that doesn’t really kindle memories or a feeling of nostalgia but looks like a state-of-the-art car without claiming to have re-invented the wheel. It’s a wonder that something like this still exists!
Well is it Peter Hein or Mick Jagger? After the tour of the Paris Salon (as the trade fair was once called) I wouldn’t like to come down on any one side. Gloom or caution? Aggression or irony? Emotions are per se contradictory, and not only when they are pressed in steel by automotive designers.