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Design falls short in today’s cars


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There’s something about modern cars that makes it harder and harder to fall in love with them.

Design plays second fiddle, with looks that sometimes seem to have succumbed to geeky CGI rather than carefully crafted.

I remember being enthralled many years ago by the renowned car designer Walter da Silva at Auto Africa, where he began drawing for us on an overhead projector, what would later become the Alfa Romeo 156. He was passionate about aesthetics, with the Cuore Sportivo. or the motif takes center stage on the grill and the rest of the design flows from there.

Arbitrary but mandatory things like a license plate were placed to the side, of course, so as not to disturb the purity of the design.

Not make mistakes; the 156 was not a perfect car. In fact, it had several flaws, including that it was not as well built as its German contemporaries. Performance also left a lot to be desired. But it was hard to argue that it wasn’t one of the most beautiful cars of a generation.

Time is the great leveler. It was in 1998 that the French automaker Renault stunned the world with two very different designs for luxury car travel.

The first was the Avantime, whose name was an acronym meaning “ahead of its time.” It was the beloved son of a practical minivan (multi-purpose vehicle) and a strange two-door coupe. He was clearly ahead of his time.

The second, the Vel Satis, was a much more interesting proposition. He suggested that clients opt for a large luxury hatch as an alternative to the traditional executive saloon. Again, a bit of an exaggeration. It was the second car to earn a five-star rating in the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), after stablemate Laguna II. However, Vel Satis may have inadvertently inspired the future design, or rather the packaging.

The next weirdos were from BMW: the X6 and the 5 Series GT. The SUV and traditional sedans could complement each other, it seems, rather than replace each other. I can remember the movement of the tongues, most of them not positive.

Fast forward nearly two decades, there are a plethora of fastbacks out there, and just about everyone and their dog owns one, even though they seem to appeal to the coupe description. Now they receive enthusiastic praise. If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, leading the charge seems to be fleets of electric vehicles, many with unimaginative front-end styling that we can talk about another time.

Could the current crop of modern-style coupes and fastbacks signal the tolling of the bell for the humble hatchback and notchback? I hope not. The world as we know it would never be the same again. Both have resulted in some of the most legendary cars of our time. But then again, so were the wagons and look where they ended up.


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