The noun “design” signifies “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made”. That seems simple and accurate, but actually too basic a definition. Design is much bigger than that.
When they think about automotive design, many people will mention the Jaguar E-Type. It’s widely regarded as the best vehicle design in history, and even Enzo Ferrari described it as “the most beautiful car ever made”.
But is design just about a car’s aesthetics? Not according to Joseph Simpson, research lead at Car Design Research in the UK, and a tutor in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art. Simpson consults with car manufacturers around the world about designing a car that’s the complete package.
“There is so much more to it than the way a car looks,” he says. Long before a designer actually pens that very first sketch, Simpson and his team will receive a brief from the car company on the type of vehicle it wants to produce. His role is to help the manufacturer make a car that fits into people’s lives.
Back in the days of the E-Type, things were simple. Design a sports car that was also a good tourer. Make it beautiful. Make it fast. Done. Today, things are much more complicated. Making a car that suits people’s lives means that it must be connected, it must have crumple zones and safety systems, and it must have space for future technology, such as batteries or fuel cells. And it must have cup holders. When Malcolm Sayer designed the E-Type, there were no cup holders.
Technology is undoubtedly changing the way vehicles are designed. Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW’s head of design, says there are certain elements of design that have to remain, but he adds that design freedom has been enhanced by the move to vehicle platforms and modular technology.
Design is not just about a car though, but often about the creation of a brand. To this day, the E-Type remains the poster child for Jaguar, a car that lures people to its dealerships to buy a XE or a F-Pace. The company has even just converted an original E-Type to run exclusively on electric power. Porsche is another example. It might make the Cayenne and the Panamera, but it is defined by the 911. Many people will buy a Cayenne today because they have “made it”; but they buy a Porsche because when they were young they had a poster of a 911 on their wall. Think BMW and you think 3 Series. Think Mercedes and you might think about the W123, the car that goes on forever.
It is not going to be thought of so much for its exterior design, as for the design that went into making it fit into people’s lives.
You might also be surprised at which design element actually sells the car. Simpson points out that: “Exterior design gets someone into the showroom, but the interior design is what sells the car.” It is a point I have often made: a car can look great on the outside, but you can’t see it when you spend all your time inside it in traffic. Interior design is more important than many think, which is why car companies are now focusing on it more than ever.
Volkswagen will launch its new Polo models in South Africa in 2018. Their interiors feature colour-coded panels and gesture-control infotainment systems. The Polo is aimed at young customers who want individuality; but move up the Volkswagen hierarchy and things change. The interior of the Passat, for example, blends tradition and modern touches, but without moving too far from convention. It appeals to those who buy it.
If anything is moving away from convention, it is the electric vehicle, and here things get very interesting. The Tesla Model 3 has been criticised by many people for being a bit bland in its exterior design. But Simpson says that makes sense because customers that are moving from traditional vehicles to electric vehicles do not want too big a change. Psychologically, they have made the brave step to go electric, but give them something that looks dramatically different, and that might be a step too far.
It explains why the rather drab Nissan Leaf is the world’s top selling electric vehicle, and not the unique BMW i3. Recently, Nissan announced the second-generation Leaf and not surprisingly, it looks unadventurous in its styling. Things are even more unadventurous inside, where the company has maintained a sea of black plastic, sticking very much to the theme of many German cars over the years.
So take a look at your car more closely. Look at the intricate detailing in the headlights, the practicality of the boot, and even the adjustment of the seats. From functionality to engineering, and meeting safety legislation, design in the automotive industry is definitely more than skin deep.
1. BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT
The Bentley Continental GT has been the rock in the British marque’s range since it first launched in 2003. Now the company has revealed the next generation, which features styling cues from the EXP10 Speed 6 concept car. The design has been toned down from the concept, but the new GT still has looks lower and more dynamic. The biggest changes are inside, where there is now an almost seamless line around the cabin.
2. PORSCHE CAYENNE
The Cayenne is a very big deal to Porsche. Today the company sells more sports utility vehicles than sports cars, and when it pulled the wrapping off the latest generation, people paid attention. The design is more of an evolution than a revolution, and many people will wonder exactly what has changed up front, but the rear is very different, with an LED strip that now runs across the width of the redesigned tailgate. Inside things are very different, although it will be familiar to those who drive a Panamera, because much of the design is similar.
3. VOLKSWAGEN POLO
A new Volkswagen Polo is a big deal and even more so when you realise just how much of the technology that was previously only in more expensive vehicles has filtered down. The design makes it look a little more like a baby Golf, which is no bad thing, but inside it has colour-coded trim panels, a touchscreen infotainment system with gesture control, and the option of the digital Virtual Cockpit for the instrument cluster. The Polo has grown up, yet is more youthful than ever.
4. NISSAN LEAF
The Nissan Leaf is the world’s biggest-selling electric vehicle, and now the company has revealed the second generation. The styling is a big improvement on the rather mundane looks of the original, and brings the Leaf more in line with other models in the Nissan stable. The interior isn’t exciting, with lots of black plastic, but the big news is that the new version has a range of 400km, and features ProPilot, the company’s latest level of autonomous driving capability.