Even now, where parts-sharing is commonplace, the dynamic differences between related cars are small. Take the Volkswagen Golf and the Seat Leon, for example, or the Mercedes X-Class and Nissan Navara.
When two cars of similar – or identical – size and mass are fitted with the same engine and a near-facsimile of each other’s suspension, chassis and transmission mechanicals, the differences from the driving seat are minimal. A little more sound-deadening in the more expensive car, maybe, or just a fancier infotainment system to distract yourself with.
I can’t be the only car guy in the universe who thinks this is a bad thing. I want cars to be different; to have character in their drive rather than being photocopies with branded vajazzle. I want cars to drive differently to one another so that I can pick the one that really lights my candle, not just to be faced with four options that drive just the same as one another and for the decision to be down to the badge, or the price, or the standard equipment quota. That’s a soporific nightmare scenario.
When we move to electric power this is going to get much worse. It’s happening in a hurry as we were reminded earlier this week, when Volkswagen confirmed that its last petrol-based platform will be released as soon as 2026. After that, every new car it releases will be electric. When those last petrol cars die out in the early 2030s, that’s going to be it for VW internal combustion.
As car makers try to make all this financially viable, parts-sharing is going to get extreme. The same modular chassis will underpin the vast majority of a mainstream brand’s models. The same battery and motor setup will be slotted in. It’s likely that only states of tune and battery sizes will differ.
Anyone who’s ever driven more than one mainstream electric car will confirm that they all drive pretty much the same. If you were blindfolded you’d struggle to tell the difference between an e-Golf and a new Leaf. Both are pleasantly torquey, responsive and quiet (obviously). Both steer well, stop with that curious regenerative-then-mechanical braking sensation and can slow fairly smartly just with a lift of the throttle pedal. The real differences lie in the tech interfaces, driving positions and suspension tunes. Dynamically, there’s little to choose between them. And, in the future, what’s the point of a funky VW ‘beach buggy’ if it drives just like your neighbour’s Golf?
Are we okay with buying our future cars based on which screen graphics we like best, or which nose styling we find the least odd? Is it wrong to want more substance or something intangible in the experience that separates our car from the one next to it? Future PSA and VW Group compact SUVs (and there will be many) could be separated from the driver’s seat only by tiny differences in comfort, styling or boot size. Are we doomed to a car market where dynamic differences have to be faked with in-cabin noises or range-toasting overboost modes?
It would be a massive shame if that’s where we end up. We can only hope our favourite brands find convincing ways around what will otherwise be an electric charisma whitewash.