We live in a world of micro-niches. The Mini Paceman perhaps illustrates that most effectively. A blown-up, outsize variant of a car that was initially conceived to be the most efficient automotive form of packing possible, engorged into some West Coast-targetting automotive bauble and presented as a (distinctly un-packaging efficient) Coupe/SUV crossover.
One would think that, given the exploitation of the niche, we’d be celerbrating the variety of different conceptual formats on show. And yet, looking around Paris, what appears to be happening at a macro level, is convergence.
Everyone appears to need a B-sector sized (or based) SUV/Crossover. B-sized hatchbacks must have a touchscreen to compete. Lexus is playing with some interesting surface language, but ultimately just chasing Audi and its successful ability to hit the ‘sweetspot’ in every segment in which it competes. Likewise Jaguar – whose roll out of a ‘long-needed’ coupe is cause for celebration – ultimately, simply shoots calculatingly between Cayman and 911 and wraps things up in a saccharine sweet, pretty but largely predictable coupe body.
The cars that define – or once defined – their segments: Range Rover, Golf, Clio and Mondeo – present new versions that in the most parts, are simply subtle evolutions of their previous incarnations. 10% better every which way, but nothing more than predictable.
In the midst of this we wonder whether the ‘different by design’ philosophy is dead? A decade ago, Renault was in its wheelhouse of flamboyant, anachronistic design – Megane II, Avantime and Vel Satis leading the wooing customers in some markets, repulsing them in others. BMW was undergoing a surface-based design revolution under Bangle, which challenged even the most avant-garde-leaning customers. And we were treated to cars like the Mazda RX8 – a conceptually unique rear-drive Coupe, whose rotary engine brought packaging advantages that meant four, adult-sized seats fitted in a coupe body style and which then threw in suicide doors for good measure. Today, the Megane is dull, the Avantime and Vel Satis dead, BMW is becalmed – chastened even with the sensible, front wheel drive Concept Tourer, while the RX8 is no more – its rotary engine consigned to the bin thanks to regulations.
There are perfectly good, financial, environmental and hard-nosed business-logic reasons for all of this. But from a design perspective – and especially when we look beyond the superficiality of exterior graphics, details and surfaces – there is little to excite, spark the imagination or truly challenge. Even Lamborghinis are predictable, lacking the shock factor they once had. In a crisis, it seems, no one can afford to create a car which risks challenging – and therefore ultimately failing – in its market. But we can’t help but hope that somebody, somewhere soon takes a risk – and remembers that conceptually innovating can often be the fastest way out of the abyss.