It’s hard when you’re called out on faults you hadn’t even realised you had. The other day Matt R and I were talking about car design when an uncomfortable truth came up. No, it wasn’t about our secret bromance, and it wasn’t even about my dubious taste in late-1990s dance music. It was that we’re both massive hypocrites and we didn’t even realise it until now.
Right here I can only speak for myself, and it’s time to make a confession. In the past I, like many other motoring hacks, have been vocal when it comes to car makers building a whole range of cars like Russian dolls; near-exact copies of one another but in sizes from tiny pupper to big dog. Audi and BMW have been there before, churning out products that, from most angles and at a glance, could be any one of three or four different cars.
It has always been a German trait. Porsche has a habit of building sports cars that look pretty similar from the front, but at least the Stuttgart brand’s excuse is that if they changed the face they copy and paste onto multiple models, they’d ruin it.
And yet this criticism of the likes of BMW has brought about two sets of consequences. Firstly, changes have been rung. New models from Munich are no longer identikit replicas of existing cars, but a size smaller or larger. In turn, that means some models are pretty and others are… well, a dog’s dinner.
But closer to the heart of this confession is that we’re letting one manufacturer off. The public and media alike have given the Germans a kicking over the years for their lack of styling imagination, and yet we’ve not said a word about Volvo, which this week launched the new S60 (below), which looks like a shrunken S90. Then there’s the V60 which looks like a miniature V90 and the XC60… you can see where I’m going with this.
It was some years ago that the company management said to journalists that it wanted to create ‘iconic’ styling. Love it (like us) or loathe it, Volvo’s new era of penmanship sure is distinctive. Or, rather, it’s distinct from other brands. When it comes to distinguishing between in-house designs, especially from the front, it’s like playing spot the difference between the trimmed bushes either side of a stately home’s front door. There are differences, but you have to stare in order to see them.
Why aren’t we moaning about this? Maybe it’s just that we’re so pleased that Volvo has finally struck the kind of long-deserved success it has craved for decades. Maybe it’s that, if we’re honest, the latest Volvos are some of the nicest and most effective everyday cars you can buy. That kind of showing earns goodwill among car journos.
Let’s not forget that all this blossoming good press is still nice and new. The Russian doll effect hasn’t yet had time to fog the glass of Volvo’s rapidly expanding trophy cabinet, but, if things carry on the way they are, it will. People get bored; the look becomes showroom white noise.
Volvo’s mission to create styling that becomes famous, if not iconic, seems to involve building an entire generation of new models with more or less exactly the same face. If it doesn’t shake things up in different directions when facelift time comes around, copy-and-paste will come back to bite the brand – just as it did for the Germans.