You will be forgiven for thinking that motoring writers are all about power, power, more power, and, perhaps, cupholders. That’s just not true. Actually, it is partly true, but it is a stereotype that even Jeremy Clarkson will be forced to rethink, as electric cars become more prevalent.
Whether we’re talking about a V8-powered muscle car, a long distance manager’s diesel, or an electric car, everything that keeps a vehicle moving is hidden beneath design, and it is present in every component — even those cupholders.
The automotive industry has been preparing for the future for decades. Just think back to the dramatic concept cars of the ’60s and ’70s that looked as if they belonged in science-fiction movies. Most were relegated to storerooms or private collections, but today the designers are actually having to design for a once-predicted future that is almost upon us.
“The question is always one of how far you can go,” says Michael Mauer, chief designer at Porsche. “Everything that happens here is a wager with the future. The fashion industry is designing things today that will be shown in three months. But for us, at least two or three years will go by before the presentation, and the car will spend another five to 10 years — or much longer for a Porsche — on the roads. As designers we, therefore, have to throw our stone way out ahead. But if I throw it so far that no one will find it, I might have created a fantastic, ground-breaking product that people will need another 40 years to understand.”
For Mauer, design might seem relatively easy, although a completely new model, such as the Mission E, presents new challenges. Most companies are having to find new design solutions in response to changes in engineering or legislation. The latter is crucial, because carmakers need to produce cars that protect those inside and outside the car in the event of a crash, and designers have to take this into account.
“When one day cars are so connected that they detect and communicate with each other, and collisions become unlikely, that will give design a totally new freedom and lightness,” says Ivo van Hulten, director of interior design at Porsche. “That will liberate design as well. We won’t even need traffic lights. Cars will be able to shed their armour.” Recent fatal crashes involving a self-driving Tesla and Uber’s Volvo, show that we are still a long way from the day when cars can “shed their armour” completely, but technology is dramatically changing the way cars can be designed.
Electric cars are an obvious example. Electric motors can be in the wheels, under the floor, or on the axles. Designers will no longer have to accommodate big engines, gearboxes, and fuel tanks, but just an electric motor and its batteries. Designers will be free to have more fun; to be more experimental. An example is the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace, which will go on sale in South Africa early in 2019. “The I-Pace’s electric powertrain offered us unprecedented design freedom,” says Ian Callum, Jaguar’s director of design. “Starting with a clean sheet enabled the dramatic cab-forward profile, unique proportions, and exceptional interior space — yet it is unmistakably a Jaguar. We wanted to design the world’s most desirable electric vehicle, and I’m confident we’ve met that challenge.”
The focus is often on the exterior, but we can expect major changes in the interiors too. Volkswagen is preparing to launch its new ID electric vehicle brand with 20 battery-electric models by 2025. One of these is the ID Vizzion. With its electric motor and batteries beneath the floor, suddenly the designers can create a car that provides lounge-like space inside, and touchscreens that run the width or length of the interior and that can even connect to virtual-reality glasses for holographic control or gaming on the move. The possibilities seem endless, but carmakers are cautious of going too far too quickly.
“It’s not where we are going. It’s the signpost,” says Klaus Bischoff, design chief at Volkswagen. “We could have gone further. It’s not good to take a design to the moon and turn around and there’s nobody there.”
Ironically, some of the designs coming out now are exactly what science fiction predicted we would be driving on the moon. We are not quite there yet, but with designers being given even more room to be creative, we can expect to see more diversity in design on our roads in the years and decades to come.
SPORTSCAR RIVALS BEWARE
Talking about design: damn, what has happened at Aston Martin? First the new DB11 came along with a cleaner, meaner look and then this: the new Vantage. The famous British marque has taken a radical turn when it comes to design; so far, this is most evident in the latest Vantage.
Wanted drove the new-generation model in Portugal. Where once the Vantage was a sports gran tourer, now it is an out and out sportscar, capable of both inspiring confidence and smashing it at the same time. The Mercedes-AMG-sourced V8 delivers 375kW and 685Nm to the rear wheels in a way that is less tourer and more Porsche 911-chaser; in fact, Aston even refers to the Vantage as a 911-hunter.
It still has GT appeal though, dispensing with some of the bumpy Portugese roads with ease, but even then it is more involved than previous generations. It comes into its own on the track though, where it demands your attention constantly in a way that has not been such a true characteristic since the famous Vantage of the late 1980s.
The driving position is excellent, and the ergonomics superb, save perhaps for the rather fussy centre console. And if the most you are ever going to want to carry is a couple of weekend bags, then the luggage space is fine.
The new Vantage is definitely a 911-hunter, but whether it is a 911-beater remains to be seen.