Paris Motor Show 2018: The Night Is Darkest
This year's edition of the Paris car show turned out to be an even gloomier experience than expected.
Trying to sum up this year’s edition of the biannual Mondial de’l Auto is like attempting to find what upside there might be to disappointment. One such upside might be that Mercedes-Benz is not producing Germany’s most vulgar cars anymore. Or that the lack of exhibitors (and visitors) made for a more casual motor show experience than usual. Yet either argument would constitute nothing but utter self-deception.
This year’s Paris Motor Show was so sparsely packed with exhibitors that a stall of considerable size, in the main hall, had been set up by none other than Lego. The presence of a life-size Bugatti Chiron, made of Danish plastic bricks, therefore served as a metaphor of many meanings - none of which were complimentary. Yet this lack of significant exhibitors was by no means the most regrettable component of the proceedings at Porte de Versailles.
Despair might appear to be too dramatic a term to describe a feeling evoked by a consumer goods fair. But to anyone even remotely passionate about the automobile and automotive design, Paris anno 2018 constitutes a deep hit. For in its present state, neither a large part of the car design industry, nor the concept of the traditional motor show appear to have very bright a future ahead of them.
Ironically, it is possible that the bright past of the German manufacturers has become such an enormous burden that their products now appear utterly bereft of vision, conviction and creativity. None more so than in the case of their supposed halo electric SUV models, namely the Mercedes EQC, the BMW iX3 and the Audi e-tron. All of these models are obviously redecorated versions of existing ICE-powered models. For that reason, they all strike a most odd balance between the conservative and the supposedly futuristic, in that their basic architecture was obviously designed for a very different kind of source of propulsion, leaving it to just a few details to convey any sense of progressiveness. That these details consist of very cheap-looking plastic addenda and deformed brand insignia in the case of all three models highlights just how collectively stifled and at the same time arrogant the purveyors of German ‘premium’ motoring have become.
Arguably the most successful (in most relative terms) of these is the Audi E-tron. It sticks closest to the style of its fossil fuel-powered brethren, only adding even more LED light accents, slightly busier graphics and a grille made of shiny grey plastic. The look and feel of the latter - which is strikingly similar to that of a Chinese-made toy - is all the more astounding, given Audi’s decades-long lead in the fields of materials and perceived quality. The optional extra of cameras instead of wing mirrors is a matter that will be considered proper progress thanks to high tech by some and needless overcomplication by others.
BMW’s iX3 may be more upfront about its generic architecture in terms of nomenclature, but tries to make up for this by abandoning the kidney grille that has served the Bavarian marque rather well for almost 80 years. As we are thus led to believe, BMW i is no mere sub-brand anymore, but a marque in itself that deserves a corporate face of it own - in this case, a deformed take on Kia’s ‘tiger snout’, with added lozenge pattern (a curious reference to the state of Bavaria?) on the blacked-out part. The rest of the car remains quite obviously a regular X3 with superfluous bodykit and striking (yet misplaced) wheels.
Against the backdrop of this simply revolting repudiation of one of the strongest visual identities in the car world, the debatable use of frosted silver plastics, rather than chrome, around the grille appears negligible. That those in charge of BMW’s fortunes appear to believe the obvious lack of creativity betrayed by the iX3 could be disguised by radically toying with the brand’s heritage suggests at once a worrying lack of both respect and true daring. All of which is truly alarming to anyone with any emotional attachment to the Munich carmakers.
As Mercedes-Benz had already started messing with the three-pointed star’s traditional insignia a little while ago, the EQC’s misshapen snout did not shock to the same extent as the BMW i muzzle. Rather than featuring the previous EQ concept cars’ ‘virtual’ front end, the production EQC plays with the regular GLC SUV’s grille in similarly clumsy fashion as the EV’s laborious monicker. Hence an (almost) traditionally shaped chrome grille, albeit with the upper border abruptly cut off by the bonnet, is underlined by a strip of shiny black plastic (what else?), which, in conjunction with garish Crayola blue accents and already dated-looking EQ brand insignia, makes for an amusingly low-rent overall appearance.
BMW’s mind-boggling decision to abandon the classic kidney grille apart, all three German ‘premium’ EVs are astoundingly similar, not just in terms of basic conception, but also in their vain attempt to differentiate them from the regular models by way of adding inconsiderate embellishments. That all three companies also happened to choose shiny, insubstantial-looking plastics as the main material to set these models apart speaks volumes. Obviously, car designers believe that the aesthetic of traditional, ‘heavy industry’ materials such as stainless steel would be an anachronism for a product that is supposed be the ‘iPhone for the road’. Instead, the automobile is put on a level with a consumer good that has redefined the concept of planned obsolescence in the tradition of Detroit’s darkest days. Such a lack of self-awareness and thoughtless opportunism says a lot about the present state of affairs within the (German) car design community.
The only people to get any satisfaction from these German EV-SUVs must be the designers of Jaguar. It is not as though it needed this kind of endorsement, but next to the Audi, BMW and Mercedes, Jaguar’s excellent all-electric I-pace appears even more confident, sophisticated and up-to-date than before.
The Paris Mondial debut of one of the German car industry’s core products did elicit an astounded gasp, however – but for all the wrong reasons.
A benchmark in its sector for decades, as well as the model that has defined the BMW brand like no other, the 3 series has always been subject to careful, mostly evolutionary changes - certainly over the past 30 years.
Superficially, the new 3 series unveiled in Paris (internally dubbed G20) appears to adhere to this formula too. That is, until one pays more than the most superficial kind of attention to it.
For lack of one convincing theme, this Dreier exhibits such a cacophony of creases, graphics and surfaces that the fact that this BMW’s stance is very similar to that of the Alfa Romeo Giulia - which is hardly a benchmark design - becomes irrelevant. Starting with the oversized, puffy kidney grille (whose design appears intent on highlighting that it frames nothing but black plastic of various kinds and in different shapes), over the discordant front lights (aping older Peugeot’s), along its Lexus-like flanks and ending with a perplexing combination of Bangle-era-like boot lid and 1980’s aftermarket ‘smoked’ rear lights, G20 comes across as not so much a committee design, but the ultimate embodiment of the BMW ship’s current rudderless journey.
The evidence is quite overwhelming - the disfigured Hofmeister kink (a thoroughly disjointed affair that adds edges where none were ever required), the cack-handed double crease above the rear wheels and the egregious character line at the lower end of the door, which starts with arguably the most ill-judged tick graphic in automotive history (which suggests an accident at the stamping factory) add up to a physical explanation of the reasoning behind some of BMW’s most prominent stylists having left the FIZ for less prestigious addresses recently.
In this context, it would be foolish to suggest that BMW’s corps of foot soldier designers is in any way less capable than those of the competition. As always, it clearly is the high-rung decision makers that must take the blame - in this case for obviously having failed to provide sufficient guidance, inspiration and ambition to those they are supposed to lead. And with most BMW Group executive designers having been promoted only recently, the root of the problem must therefore lie at the very top, where someone whose rank so obviously exceeds his capabilities has been allowed for far too long to lead this once proud Bavarian brand into such a dramatic design crisis.
Against this backdrop, the novelties from Stuttgart Sindelfingen did not remotely possess the same shock value as they used to. The new GLE SUV certainly appeared almost restrained compared with the new BMW X5, which boasts a character line of late Harley Earl ridiculousness, not to mention a particularly incongruous take on BMW’s now standard front wheel arch vent. Neither car is acquainted with the concept of gracefulness, but it is the Bavarian SUV that goes for the cheapest tricks.
Despite its decidedly disenchanted facial expression, the new Mercedes B-class must be a contender for the most inoffensive German car of the year. It also happens to be equally generic a design, but in the year 2018, that hardly constitutes an insult anymore. Particularly when the new Audi A1 is on show as well, a supermini whose aggressive demeanour could be considered amusingly silly, if it was not quite so unpleasant. For while the haunches above the wheels, (in most cases) falsely suggesting Quattro power, could be considered playful, the Audi’s frontal aspect is quite simply as appalling as it is inappropriate - a Lamborghini Urus’ form language appears no more aggressive by comparison. Which would be all that needs to be said, if the excess of fake mesh and the offensively daft ‘print’ on the front grille graphic did not make such a mockery of Audi’s once unparalleled design quality and integrity.
The new BMW Z4 achieved the astonishing feat of combining another mean front end design with an overall limp stance. Inconsistent surfacing and details (in overpowering quantities) overburden the car’s overall shape, but similarly fail to mask the droopy front and rear ends, awkwardly shaped light units and haphazard shutlines. Mercedes’ EQ Silver Arrow, on the other hand, is a mostly featureless entity whose very raison d’être is not apparently obvious.
Audi brought the PB 18 e-tron, originally unveiled at name-lending Pebble Beach, along, whose most Ingolstadt-like feature is its flat grey paint. Apart from that, it could just as well be a Lamborghini concept car, or a better effort by one of the myriad of top-end upstarts that try and relieve the rich of some of their fortunes these days. Next to Audi’s current production cars, PB 18’s relatively soft surfacing and almost measured graphics appear rather considered, yet its unclear purpose and rather generic flair (which is mostly devoid from nods to Bauhaus) prevent it from leaving much of an impression.
Even Porsche, the one remaining stronghold of German car design for the time being, matched this year’s overall standard of Parisian offerings by unveiling the kind of cynical, half-hearted cash-in that should truly be below Michael Mauer and his team. For the 911 Speedster concept looks more like the effort of an average kustomizer than the only German marque still seriously invested in the idea of coherence. The ill-fitting tonneau cover, laughable retro wing mirrors, front fuel filler cap and half-hearted 911 G series mimicking decal on the rear wing, coupled with the mostly stock aprons front and rear, appear more like the work of an enthusiastic owner/collector than the utterly professional stylists of Weissach. Needless to say, the 911 (991) Speedster would sell well, at almost any price, regardless of its aesthetic demerits.
With even Porsche performing below average, it was up to VAG’s Škoda brand to come up with some kind of saving grace. And despite hardly being the Czechs’ most impressive effort, the Vision RS once more proved that the brand’s former chief designer, Jozef Kabaň, who has since been poached by BMW Group to run the core brand’s design department, is a man who might at least stand a chance of steering the lost Bavarians back on course.
In terms of stance, surfacing and proportions, the Škoda Vision RS yet again made a mockery of the Czech brand’s supposed role of a ‘budget brand’. For where VW and in particular Audi fail at employing the VAG edict of sharp creases and slashes, Škoda’s ‘Bohemian Crystal’ form language simply works a treat. For there is just enough softness apparent (particularly on the doors, underneath the character line) for the precise edges not to appear overwhelming; the well-integrated clamshell bonnet also looks neat, rather than incongruous. Even the superfluous boy racer addenda that supposedly turn a mere preview of the next-generation Škoda Rapid into the racy ‘Vision RS’ does not distract from the quality of Kabaň’s legacy at Mlada Boleslav. His successor, Oliver Stefani, certainly has a lot to live up to.
Toyota’s mainstay RAV4 SUV has now also undergone the Waku-Doki treatment, resulting in a design that exceeds even the German ‘premium’ brands’ efforts at lowering the standards of overall automotive aesthetics. For on this Toyota, any crease is accompanied by another crease, or an opposite crease. The front features no less than three layers of grille. At the rear, a dark silver coloured bezel underneath the window and rear lights exhibits all the sophistication of a bit of late 1990s Max Power kit. And as though that wasn’t enough, this SUV’s small wheel dimensions and moderate track width create the impression of a vehicle on the verge of collapsing under its own stylistic overabundance.
Given this concoction comes courtesy of the world’s deservedly most successful car maker, the RAV4 is not so much a butt of jokes, but a worrying symbol for an industry out of touch with the concept of decency. For the RAV4 is no ‘enthusiast’s car’, which might explain its juvenile aesthetics - it is a car for housewives and husbands. Or, in other words: Regular people, rather than their testosterone-driven sons or some entrepreneur trying to make up for his lost youth. That Toyota deems this utterly overwrought, unpleasant SUV a ‘regular’ piece of design therefore illustrates how the very standards of automotive aesthetics have been amended. Moderation and elegance are simply no desirable mainstream attributes anymore.
In this context, Peugeot’s E-Legend concept car could be and was by many considered an antidote to the vulgar excesses of current automotive design. After all, any tribute a piece of work by Aldo Brovarone (even a lesser one) ought to be commendable. And with Peugeot design having reportedly worked on the E-Legend for a full two years, one would rightfully expect a pleasantly soothing piece of design. Regrettably though, the Peugeot does not truly deliver on these promises - even when disregarding the convoluted idea of an autonomous, fully electric, three box retro coupé, and viewing it simply as a designed object. For the Peugeot’s visual appearance to quite some extent matches its rather scattershot conception: So while its lower body is almost muscle car-like in terms of stance - what with its pumped wheel arches and enormous track width - the canopy appears almost Lancia Fulvia-like rawboned by comparison. There is also a significant variance between the radii employed for either part of the body, as the roof and even windows appear to consist of almost straight surfaces, whereas the body sides possess quite some plumpness. A rather confused attempt at paying homage to the original 504 Coupé’s wavy character line also goes against the supposed intention of creating a design of elegant simplicity, as do the wheels and busy front end designs.
However, despite these caveats, the E-Legend is by no means an unpleasant occurrence. Its intention of striving for elegance certainly is laudable, as are certain aspects of its execution, such as the rich champagne coloured paint on its exterior and the wonderful turquoise velours seats on the inside. It is just a bit of a pity that its creators could not go about reinventing delicacy à la Brovarone in slightly more determined a fashion. However, some aspects of E-Legend (particularly in terms of colour and trim choices) would be a worthwhile addition to a coupé version of the fine 508 saloon - a car that ranks among the best looking four-door cars in its class, without aiming for any outright retro vibe.
In contrast to the premature praise lavished upon the E-Legend, Renault’s EZ-Ultimo concept car had to face more of an uphill struggle in terms of perception. For its EZ-GO sibling unveiled at Geneva earlier this year must rank among the most disappointing of Renault concept cars. EZ-Ultimo’s stated intention of depicting a luxurious take on autonomous mobility had thus far also mostly led to deeply lacklustre results. And then there was the rumoured inclusion of a marble table, in the context of a device that ought to be designed with crash safety and weight efficiency in mind.
In spite of these reservations, EZ-Ultimo turned out to be proper Renault concept - if one was inclined to view it from a certain perspective, that is. As a realistic look at future mobility, it was certainly bound to disappoint - what with the hardly space-efficient use of 5.8 metres of length and wheels that stand no chance of coping with any kind of speed bump or pothole, this Renault would be utterly unfit for use on any road whose surface does not possess the smoothness of aforementioned marble table.
When viewed as a slightly fantastic divertissement however, the EZ-Ultimo does exude quite a bit of charm though. Its basic proportions may be slightly predictable Stéphane Janin fare (little wonder, given the designer has been in charge of the brand’s concept cars for quite so long), but the haunches above the wheels, the choice of colour, and the lozenge-shaped ‘tiles’ covering the canopy in semi-translucent fashion lend it a remotely Bugatti Royale-like quality - or, in other words: A futuristic kind of elegance.
This is most welcome in an age when any look into the future is either of the nostalgic/retrospective kind, exudes some sense of aggression, or a technoid, clinical feel. Or has been designed without any intellectual effort whatsoever (as in the case of the simply deplorable Rolls-Royce 103 EX).
As a fashion statement, EZ-Ultimo therefore truly shines. On the Renault’s inside, this impression is strengthened, thanks to a thoughtful choice of materials and colours. Particularly the strip of ceramics encircling the cabin, which can be used to emanate any perfume of one’s chousing, is an equally charming and interesting take on personalising the ambience of a luxury vehicle - certainly more so than the now standard swivelling seats or flatscreen displays.
If one was interested in a more feasible take on autonomous mobility, the EZ-PRO commercial vehicle concept car parked next to EZ-Ultimo was a more worthwhile subject (and cleverly used as a coffee van at the show, serving high-quality Parisian speciality coffee from a La Marzocco espresso machine, which was most welcome). For if the future of the automobile indeed turns out to be autonomous, it will also turn out to be pod-shaped. But for a romantic mind, and with a certain degree of suspension of disbelief, EZ-Ultimo acted as a welcome futuristic distraction from the dismal state if affairs at this Paris Motor Show.
An even greater distraction proved to be the unannounced visit of French president, Emmanuel Macron, during the Mondial de’l Auto, which resulted in most of Paris Expo’s main hall being cordoned off and the rest of it crowded with regular visitors and exhibitors, who were left with no choice but to interrupt any kind of regular car show business for the time being. To some, this had the effect that some Parisian exhibits - such as the DS 3 Crossback, Ferraris SP1 & SP2 or the Vinfast range - could not be sampled.
Yet, in a way, this could also be seen as welcome excuse to flee an event that showcased the current dysfunction of the automotive business, as well as the traditional car show, in truly unsettling fashion.
The main impression one is left with in the wake of the 2018 Paris Motor Show is therefore one of hope. The probably vain hope that this proved to be some kind of nadir. That the night truly is the darkest right before dawn.
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Comment by @jnphlpp |
What a nice read! I truly agree to 99% of your statements. Let's hope that dawn is near.
Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |
Thank you, Christopher, for an excellent and fearless analysis of the Paris motor show. The mainstream motoring media have largely abandoned their critical faculties, so this was a welcome riposte to the rehashed and recycled manufacturers' press releases published elsewhere. Most depressing, for me, is the new 3-Series, which does not represent any advance in design terms over its already atrophied predecessor.
Reply by Christopher Butt
The pleasure wasn't mine, but it's a relief to hear that the work wasn't entirely in vain. Thank you.
Comment by Domagoj Markovina |
Thanks for the piercing analysis of the sad state of affairs in German car design - thoroughly enjoyed the humour of your thinly veiled sarcasm.
Going back to the topic - could it be that the "shift" (for wanting a better word) is due to German makers now trying to align their design with taste of the growing Chinese market?
It seems only Porsche is holding its' nerve?
Reply by Christopher Butt
China obviously plays a big role.
What I find so surprising about this is why the Germans would be so willing to throw away much of the thinking that made them successful in the first place to appeal to a single market. The US market obviously also played a major role in the brands' considerations for decades, yet it was always clear that Americans bought German cars because they were, well, Germanic.
It's as though BMW et al don't believe in their products' inherent appeal anymore - Porsche excepted, who, to some extent, started the Teutonic stylistic sell-out with the abhorrent Mk1 Cayenne, but have since evolved into this country's single remaining purveyors of design consistency and superior craftsmanship. (Which isn't to say that they don't possess the capacity for cynicism, as showcased at the Paris show.)
Comment by R |
I have been lulled into a mild frown. Although I don't really identify with the themes set out by the mainstream products criticised, I sympathise with their conception and the difficulty in their realisation. The kidneys (lungs?) on the iX3 are deliberately interrupted to co-ordinate with the iNext, which needs the gap for its radar. Meanwhile in the flesh the 3er is a very handsome design, tight and taut like an E46. The bodyside theme is spritely and leaves a hewn-from-solid feeling behind the front wheel. In an era of cars that have been lacklustre, this is a return to form (although I do concede the Hofmeister kink is odd, and would suggest the black trim here looks better than chrome).
Mercedes has white-washed most of their car range's character with their fuselage theme that leaves the new B- and CLS curiously static. Although I won't be queueing up for an EQC, it is impressive how quickly this has been brought to market. EV cars are expensive, so pitching this at C rather then E level helps manage the expectations of cost-cutting too. As for the M, although the bodyside is familier, I am at least glad they didn't throw out the body-colour C-pillar that has become its distinguishing feature. But overall, in emulating the crease-free/one-size-fits-all approach to car design of Porsche, Mercedes has proved this model is not scalable to mainstream cars that have their inherent cost and proportional pressures. A new direction is needed -might I suggest the era of the 190E for inspiration.
Renault's EZ strategy boldly illusatrates how strong a role a return to industrial design sensibilities has carved out an advantage, plus demonstrating a mature understanding of potential changes in context. It is the perfect fit for Stephane Janin, who made such a bold impression with cars like the Koleos concept under Patrick le Quement.
As Porsche continues to show than less is more, Audi shows than more is less. The over-complexity and big-wheels-solve-all attitude to car design in Ingolstadt shows how a great designer does not necessarily make a great director. I am still waiting for Audi to find the meaning in their designs that has underpinned all their previous successes.
Reply by Christopher Butt
First of all, thank you for taking the time to comment in such extensive fashion.
Regarding the new 3er, we must agree to disagree. I find it a dog's dinner to E46's Tournedos Rossini.
I never believed iX3's front organs to be the result of some kind of accident, but I do find the form not particularly fetching, just as the choice of materials used to separate this offering from the regular/smelly X3 doesn't make me think of a more advanced variant - but then again, I personally don't consider the aesthetics of consumer electronics the apogee of desirability, so maybe I just 'don't get it'.
As with the current E-class, these new de-creased Benzes prove that Sensual Purity® hasn't much more to offer than conspicuous ornamentation, but I prefer the vacuous anonymity of these cars to the clueless excesses of others. Which isn't to say that de-creased Sensual Purity® 2.0 resembles any kind of elegance, rather than that I find slightly clumsy blankness preferable to the excessive dissonance found elsewhere. (Bless you for bringing up Ushido himself in this context - I've given up comparing what Mercedes-Benz is to what Mercedes-Benz used to be myself.)
As far as Renault's concerned, I must state that it's not just the cars, but the designers themselves who continue to be more convincing than others, on the strength of their means of expression and thoughtfulness. I guess some of the le Quément spirit has never left the buildings at Boulogne-Billancourt.
I wish you hadn't mentioned Audi though. What a fall from grace. I can't prevent myself from shaking my head whenever I come across one of those four-billion-Euro A8s (which, thankfully, doesn't occur terribly often) - I therefore shudder when I think of the army of mean-spirited A1s that'll soon take to the streets...