12th September 2016

The pros and cons of Russian doll car design

Moseying through the continuous stream of images from the Paris Motor Show 2016, a torn feeling I sometimes wrestle with reared its head again, especially after clapping eyes on Audi’s RS3 saloon. What troubles me is that many car manufacturers’ model line-ups have become considerably homogenised in recent years. To put it candidly, they’re starting to look very samey, which feels like a negative thing at face value, but may have its advantages, particularly in the company car fleet market.

Even the keenest ‘petrol-heads’ have to occasionally put our hands up, having mistaken a certain model from a distance. Since 2008, for example, Audi’s A4, A5, A8 from 2010, A6 from 2012 and third generation A3 saloon from 2013 have unarguably looked like peas from the same pod to the extreme, especially from the front. Granted, a lot of this is understandably to do with brand identity and all cars from Ingolstadt are nothing short of exquisitely crafted, but it could be perceived as a trifle boring. This design strategy hasn’t affected sales, though, last year heralding Audi’s fifth record-breaking year on the trot, and other brands are very much at it, too.

The 2016 Mercedes-Benz E Class looks incredibly similar to its smaller sibling, the C Class, and its bigger brother, the S Class, the three of them almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye at a quick glance. The new ‘E’ is an incredible car in so many ways, having driven one recently, and from speaking to contacts in the contract hire and leasing industry, it’s clear that Mercedes still dominates, the design ethos that some consider to be lazy obviously proving to be rather effective.

At least Korean and Japanese manufacturers, while understandably giving their cars a recognisable family face, haven’t succumbed to literal Russian doll design.

User-choosers and other company fleet car drivers from all rungs of the corporate ladder typically gravitate towards the most prestigious vehicles accessible to them via their organisations’ various schemes and policies. It’s human nature.

Just shy of two-thirds of company car drivers surveyed in Lex Autolease’s Report on Company Motoring 2015 cited the provision of a car as a hugely important factor in influencing whether they would accept a new role or not, and almost half of the respondents said they perceive a company car as a mark of achievement.

Car design homogenisation works both ways in relation to these findings, some CEOs perhaps ruing the fact that the flagship limousine they drive or get chauffeured around in looks so similar to lesser cars driven by other staff. On the other hand, employees who used to envy, for example, the S Class that their chief executive enjoys are now able to drive an E Class or even C Class that is visually incredibly similar. Employees who long for an Audi A8 can likewise feel somewhat appeased if their fleet manager allows them to choose an A6, A4 or even an A3 saloon, whilst fleet drivers who prefer a slice of British luxury and prowess will no doubt be pretty chuffed with a Jaguar XE, which is little more than a slightly smaller XF. In this respect, homogenised design may be contributing toward staff attraction and retention.

The styling and brand of cars seems to be reducing in importance for fleet managers and user-choosers anyway, if a white paper published by the BVRLA at the recent Fleet Technology Congress is anything to go by. In it, they estimate that vehicle brand will slip from being the 5th most important choice influencer in 2016 to the 9th most important by 2021, infotainment systems shooting up to 3rd in the list, which is predicted as being topped by fuel efficiency/cost.

At a time in automotive history when almost every conceivable manufacturer has been scrambling to launch at least one crossover SUV, the days are probably gone when much individual design flair will be evident in the future. Still, while we’re unlikely to see anything as radical as a Citroen C6 added to the corporate car parc again, we’ve got an immensely exciting future of driverless, IoT-connected vehicles to look forward to.