COMMENT: Rest in peace, German auto design
A styling benchmark, simple and restrained, has been squandered
A study of virtually all of the recent offerings of carmakers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen reveals that there is little if anything that identifies them as the offspring of a specifically German school of design.
German design is characterized by restraint, simplicity and functionality. There is a certain solidity, and every detail serves a purpose. You still find it in the furniture of Rolf Benz and the architecture of Oswald Mathias Ungers. But you don't find it in German cars anymore.
For decades, one knew that German cars were technological marvels, of infallible quality and capable of the highest speeds. Thus, with all their simplicity and restraint of styling, they exhibited an air of cool superiority.
The Mercedes W-126 S class, sold from 1979 to 1990, still will be regarded as a classic when the current, Lexi-fied model has long been forgotten. And the Bauhaus tradition has never been reflected better in the automotive world than in the aerodynamic and cleanly styled Audis of the 1980s and 1990s.
It must please competitors no end that this trademark of a specifically German design, which they had never quite been able to copy in a convincing manner, has been squandered in just a few years.
If you're looking today for tasteful restraint, you will certainly walk right past the Porsche Cayenne, which sports one of the biggest grilles in the industry, ironically coming from a company with a rear-engine heritage.
Indeed, one used to be able to identify a Porsche by its proportions. Even a 911 with a flat nose and pop-up headlights, a factory option in the 1980s, was immediately recognizable as a 911. By contrast, plastering current 911-look-alike headlights on a generic SUV doesn't create a true Porsche.
If you admire purposeful Bauhaus architecture, you may wonder about the exact purpose of Volkswagen's glitzy new chrome face, which showed up first on the new Passat. While it looks flashy to some, the style may wear quickly. Certainly the previous Passat - before its chrome-laden facelift - was a timeless design.
Much has been written about BMW's new styling direction. The distorted "flame surfacing," particularly obnoxious on the Z4, is a prime example of nonfunctional styling.
And the voluptuous lines of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, arguably a pretty car, suggest that space is as abundant on European roads as on American interstates. But it isn't. Previously, German design has never been wasteful.
Tears and shark fins
In the drive to come up with shiny new bells and whistles, designers have even moved the gear selector up to the steering column in the BMW 7 series and the upcoming Mercedes-Benz M, R and S classes. It must have evaded Stuttgart and Munich that the column stalk, which was banned from German cars decades ago as decidedly uncool, has carried on faithfully in vehicles as forward-looking as the Buick LeSabre and Lincoln Town Car. Perhaps Buick and Lincoln were right after all?
A former Audi designer tells me that just a few years ago he would have been "ripped apart" for proposing the type of glitzy details that now characterize the appearance of almost all German concept cars and production vehicles: Think of the tear-shaped instrumentation in the Audi A6, the glittering eyes of the Mercedes SL and that antenna on the roof of any BMW, which was embarrassingly styled to resemble a shark fin.
Some of the new designs have been applauded; others haven't. In the long run, I believe none of them will pay off. The ideology that new is always good is plainly wrong - especially when you used to be the benchmark.
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