Car design is at a crossroads. There is more diversity in form language today than ever before as each company defines its own expression. There is, however, an increasing trend toward consistency across brands and segments that has some design executives worried.
Volkswagen Group Design Director Walter de Silva blames aerodynamics for the trend. He says designers are under pressure to make cars more wind-tunnel friendly so they are more fuel efficient and produce fewer CO2 emissions. He says this will lead to complex-looking vehicles cluttered with unnecessary exterior graphics. "A wind tunnel does not care about brand image," de Silva told Automotive News Europe.
Ford of Europe Executive Director of Design Martin Smith disagrees. “There are many ways to design an aerodynamic vehicle. Look at the most recent Mercedes cars: they are very efficient. They don’t look at all like they were designed by the wind tunnel,” Smith told ANE.
Mercedes Vice President of Design Gorden Wagener says the new C class best embodies his new design philosophy, which is called Sensual Purity. “There is only a single line on that car. Other than that it’s pure, clean, sheer surfacing,” Wagener told ANE. “We are not doing wedge-shaped cars anymore. Wedge-shape for me is kind of late ’90s, a bit dated. We’ve actually been inspired more by 1930s-era streamline design.”
Wagener has redefined Mercedes’ design language since succeeding Peter Pfeiffer in 2008. His influence can now be seen in products such as the CLA, GLA, S class and S-class coupe. The consistency of the Mercedes look is not new, however.
“The industry is beginning to realize, consciously or unconsciously, that the design of a car is not just about looking a certain way but about signifying the brand,” Sam Livingstone, director of UK-based consulting firm Car Design Research, said. Mercedes, BMW and Audi are embracing this trend with smaller and larger versions of vehicles that have a common aesthetic. Livingstone said that this trend will only increase as brands aim to make their mark on a new customer base in emerging markets.
To some, this trend is not seen as advancing the current design paradigm. Former BMW Group design director Chris Bangle, who is one of the most outspoken critics of the current state of the automotive design industry, contends that people have preconceived notions of what cars should look like and there is a general lack of courage to get past them. “It’s not where we were and it’s not where we’re going to wind up,” Bangle told ANE. “Where we’re going to wind up is with cars that drive themselves. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s get it over with.”