By E. Layton Dorey
Going somewhere formal, take the dark colored sedan. A day at the beach, maybe the orange convertible. Helping your girlfriend move in this weekend, maybe a red pickup.
Few of us have the resources to maintain a household fleet sufficient to support the whims of the moment, nor can we afford to trade cars in for a new one when the fashionista’s declare “that” color “so last season.” Notwithstanding the financial considerations of car ownership, however, car manufacturers are racing down a path to make the car a fashion accessory.
Some time over the past 20 or so years the car became a commodity. That is to say, quality, performance, safety and content standards have risen among virtually all vehicles to the point where even the most basic, inexpensive vehicles exceed the minimum requirements of typical users. New vehicle buyers can count on even the humblest of conveyances to start everyday, get you where you’re going without a breakdown, and to keep doing so for the entire time most will ever own the vehicle.
In a purely functional sense, they are virtually equal. Sure some go faster – either straight ahead, around corners, or both – provide more gadgets, carry more people and/or stuff or “look better,” but as a means of providing reliable private transportation, virtually all new cars today meet a minimum standard that is actually quite high. This has lead to steady erosion of “brand” as a meaningful differentiator. While once buyers had strong expectations from specific brands, today “brand” is little more than a proverbial price sticker that never gets removed.
Through the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the auto market had matured to a field of relatively stable players, a drive to diversify started it all. While once “a Chevy” or “a Buick” carried with it a range of connotations, from those relating to the vehicle itself, such as performance and comfort, to broader social class standing, manufacturers began introducing sub-brands. “A Chevy” was no longer just one easily grasped “thing” – it could be a Belair, or an Impala or even a Corvette. Suddenly, the primary brand lost relevance. A Buick Skylark was a less “prestigious” car than a Chevrolet Caprice.
Fast forward to today. In an automotive world where Hyundai’s have 10 year warranties and aerodynamics and market planners have stripped creativity out of car design, what really differentiates one vehicle from another? Why choose a Taurus versus a Regal? A Camry versus an Accord? For most people, the answer is increasingly “because of the deal.”
This is not something auto makers want to perpetuate. “The deal” often comes at the expense of their profit margin, and the crushing level of rebates in the current market stands as the best illustration of why auto makers need to create a new “why buy” criteria. Many manufacturers are now in the distressing position of introducing a rebate within months of the launch of a new vehicle.
After a period of tinkering with “brand management,” automakers appear to have largely abandoned any real effort to differentiate product from a functional standpoint. Today, product parity is so strong that “brand” is losing functional relevance, and is instead like a logo on a polo shirt.
Realizing this, it has now fallen to “style” to take up the baton of profitability. In many ways, we are entering a golden age for automotive diversity and expressive styling. As automakers try to break out of the profit-killing spiral of a commodity market, exterior – and to a lesser degree interior – styling will become more pronounced as new models are introduced.
The first signs of this styling renaissance made their debut in the late 1990’s in the form of VW’s “New” Beetle, the PT Cruiser and others. Highly expressive exterior styling as a tool to differentiate an essentially commodity product – small hatchback vehicles – where the styling alone was justification for (relative) “premium” pricing.
The problem is, these vehicles have a very short “shelf life.” They are “hot” until the next big thing comes along. Historically, automotive product development cycles have meant that nothing “comes along” terribly quickly, with a new vehicle taking 4 plus years from concept to market ready execution.
That too, however, is changing. Manufacturers are developing new niche vehicles using a lot of parts shared with their higher volume cousins – especially the basic vehicle “platform,” engines and other mechanical components – which allow for derivatives with unique exterior styling to be developed in much shorter time (and at much lower cost) than comparable “all new” vehicles.
Between now and the end of this decade the market is set to explode with new vehicles wearing very expressive – or at least unique – exterior styling. Some will come from well known brands, and a few will be from never-before heard of names, but what they share will be an attempt to maximize profit for the manufacturer by appealing to a buyer’s emotional reaction to the look of the vehicle. This bold use of styling is already evident on the road in the form of Chrysler’s 300, the MINI and the dramatic “new” look from BMW.
While the actual architecture of a vehicle is fixed and immutable, can expressive styling reflect the multi-purpose nature of a private vehicle? Is the boldness of a Chrysler 300 appropriate all the time? Does the pert funkiness of a MINI reflect how you really feel today? Certainly many have already decided that the “slave to my kids” look of a minivan isn’t suitable for them.
The need for vehicles that do more than just reflect one emotion has already started to appear in “crossover” vehicles. Generally derived either from an SUV or Minivan, these are now the fastest growing segment in the market. Vehicles like the Infiniti FX35/ 45, the Chrysler Pacifica, Nissan Murano and Pontiac Vibe are meant to reflect a variety of emotional requirements. They can be seen as either tough or elegant, rugged or cute, functional or fancy depending on the setting or just how you feel today.
The next step, already appearing in Europe, are multi-personality vehicles that actually change architecture to suit alternative requirements. The Citroen Pluriel is a compact hatchback with a roll-back canvas roof. The actual sides of the vehicle that form the roof rails are designed to be removable, so the car can become a full open convertible. Further, the rear seat can fold flat to the cushion and a divider can be installed behind the front seats to create a pickup style utility bed.
Another Europe-only manifestation of this emerging trend is evident on Smart’s ForTwo city car. The exterior body panels can be changed with relatively little effort, allowing the owner to change color or even add patterned or textured exterior body panels when the mood strikes. Here in the North American market, Saturn introduced a range of accessory roof trim rails for the Ion (though, perhaps typical of GM, the leopard print and tiger stripe panels looked really bad and never caught on).
The trend won’t happen tomorrow. The complexities of vehicle design and manufacturing are slow to respond to fundamental change, such as flexible architecture. The increasing use of composite materials in vehicle construction are creating more manufacturing possibilities, however, and market pressures are putting new emphasis on design.
We are approaching an era of tremendous choice, and the inevitable impact on auto makers will be to create vehicles that are better able to “be all things to all people.” This can only result in a proliferation of flexible-architecture vehicles that appeal to a mass market because they needn’t be just a mass market commodity. Vehicles can then become a reflection of your mood, not just your personality.