returned from France a few days ago to find Robb and Mark discussing the last 12 months of
cars and car design, because they were thinking about which ones ought to be
entered into the upcoming Spark design Awards.
While the auto industry’s been in the doldrums for some time now, Spark Awards provides an opportune moment to take a look at some of the more interesting cars, concepts and automotive details of recent times. So without further ado, here’s a scratch list of some Simpson favourites…
Designed years ago, but then dumped in a secret hanger until such time when BMW needed an on-demand concept to unveil (the opening of BMW-Welt proved to be just such an occasion), BMW’s Gina is arguably the single most innovative thing to have happened in auto design for years. As its mastermind Chris Bangle remarked at unveiling “what do we need the skin of a car for anyway? What is it made out of? Does it have to be made of metal?” Too few ‘what if’ questions are asked in the auto world, and the moments that they do happen are typically hidden from public view – as this one was for so long. But we’re glad it finally saw the light of day, and that like all the best concepts it asks more questions than it answers.
In a world where even family hatchbacks are competing to set the fastest time in the class around the Nurburgring, Nissan offers a leftfield approach. The Cube has been around in Japan for years, but now Europe and the US are getting the second generation. Why? Nissan realise that most drivers aren’t interested in the minutae of cornering finesse, or top speed; they’re interested in something that manages to provide huge utility, but have personality at the same time. The Cube has both in spades. Essentially a box-on-wheels, it features a ‘sun and moon’ set of dials, ‘curvy wave’ seating, and asymmetric styling in the shape of one side rear window turning around the corner into the rear windshield. When he had one on test recently, Michael Banovsky noted “I feel awful leaving the cube downstairs at night. He looks so sad”. It’s the kind of car that elicits such feelings. Jean Jennings, Automobile Magazine and long-time Spark friend, raved about it to us recently, too.
They’re by no means universally loved, nor were Audi first to introduce LED headlight technology, but through smart design strategy and brilliant detailed execution, Audi have taken ownership of the LED headlight. Subtly different on the R8, A6, A5 and A4, the wavy bands of bright white lights, piercing through the daylight when in DRL mode, are now as much an Audi identification hallmark as the shield grille and four rings - leaving you in no doubt as to just which type of car is behind you, and would like you to move over, thank you very much…
Electric and hybrid cars need to look apologetic and dumpy don’t they? Ergo, all cars of tomorrow will look like the Prius, right? Wrong! Pininfarina, the Italian design house better known for styling Ferraris, took the unusual step of developing their own-brand car, in conjunction with French battery maker Bollore, to showcase a small, electric city car. At its unveil at last autumn’s Paris auto show, words like ‘cute’ and ‘funky’ were the order of the day. Pininfarina even put solar panels where the radiator grille would have been (because it doesn’t need one), and showcased an interior whose design picks up where their brilliant Sintesi concept left off. All in all, this ought to be the car that moves the game on beyond Prius.
Just under a year ago, Ford was smarting from being (wrongly) lumped in with GM and Chrysler over auto bailout shenanigans in the US. The perception was that the US auto industry didn’t do green, because it didn’t make a Prius competitor. Step forward the Fusion Hybrid, a car which drives just like a regular car, looks like one, but gets better gas mileage than any other hybrid in its sector. But all of this wasn’t really the reason for excitement. No, it was the Fusion Hybrid’s Smartgauge cluster – a four-way configurable digital instrument panel, which helps drivers to get the best economy from the vehicle. Using ethnographic research done with IDEO, Ford have come up with a system that adds layers of complexity and information as drivers learn and want to know more about how their activity affects economy. Ultimately, it just makes the car more engaging and fun to drive… and I never thought I’d write those words about a hybrid.
as innovative as the Gina, the iQ is a sub-3m long city car, which (at a
squeeze) seats four, can turn on a six-pence, and yet will let you walk away
from a 40mph crash alive. The Prius is often lauded as Toyota’s greatest
engineering achievement – but this car trumps it. Among other things, Toyota
completely rethought and redesigned the air conditioning and HVAC system to
take up less space, remodeled how the steering rack / differential / front axle
arrangement worked allowing the distance from front wheel to driver to be
reduced, and built a fuel tank to fill the (tiny) few spare spaces they had left under the passenger
compartment. It out-smarts the Smart car in one move. Shame Aston Martin want
to do crazy things to the whole concept...
A lot of people criticise Honda’s new Insight, but it can be applauded for an approach which – rather than adding complexity, which is inherent to most hybrid cars – seeks to simplify. So the electric motor and hybrid system is smaller, simpler, sitting like a ‘pancake’ behind the engine. And rather than the all-singing, all-dancing driver displays found in some hybrids, the Insight keeps you driving economically with a really simple piece of design. The digital speed display, sitting at the base of the windscreen and in the driver’s line of sight, simply glows green when you’re driving economically, and goes purpley-blue when you’re being lead-footed.
are afoot at Volvo. Ford is keen to sell its Swedish subsiduary. Steve Mattin - the chief designer - left suddenly, and now one of the blue
oval’s top designers, Peter Horbury – who made his name at the Swedish firm, is returning to
head up the design team. If he gets the next S60 into production looking
anything like the concept car unveiled at January’s Detroit auto show,
there’ll be lots of happy people in Gothenberg. Not only did the S60 concept
look sleek and fast, but it had an interior of such jaw-dropping beauty and
detail design attention, that it was many people’s star of the show.
Criticised for deserting its Swedish roots under the stewardship of Ford, the
S60 emphatically hit back, featuring a huge chunk of glass dashboard that flowed
between the seats and into the back of the car. Done in conjunction with
Swedish glass firm Orrefors, the end result was an interior that embodied
everything great about Scandinavian interior design values, and felt as Swedish
as Abba, but a damn site classier.
What do you think? Lists tend to create disagreement, so let the debate begin! What blindingly obvious thing have I omitted? Ultimately, there’s nothing too out of the ordinary here. No Tesla. No Aptera. No Jetsons-esque flying cars that start to creep into the kind of ‘reality’ one expects to see South Park satirizing. The auto industry doesn’t do ‘innovation’ in a way that’s highly visible, or that changes the world, very often. In fact, it’s largely still doing things the way Henry Ford did 100 years ago, which many argue is why it’s in the state it finds itself today. Yet for some (and I include myself here), it’s possible to take delight in the new models, and the little details which showcase the behind-the-scene hours spent by engineers and designers, who’ve dedicated their lives to shaving off a kilogramme of weight here, or an inch of unnecessary flab there.
It’s the little things, those moments where you’re made to feel ‘someone in the development team thought about me’, that still ultimately make cars the special, coveted objects that they are today.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 19th August 2009
Disclosure - Ford is sponsoring The Movement Design Bureau's design and research work in 2009, Honda provided an Insight test car free of charge for review purposes.
Images: BMW Gina - Steve.Jackson, Nissan Cube - winni3, Audi A5 - philippluecke, Pininfarina Bluecar, Ford Smartgauge, Honda Insight - all Joseph Simpson, Toyota iQ - Mark Charmer, Volvo S60 - potatowedge