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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Petroleum-powered Peccadilloes for Plutocrats

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If austerity is all the rage, someone forgot to tell the manufacturers of city runabouts. Aston Martin’s much-maligned £35k Cygnet -based on the humble £10k Toyota iQ- is just starting to hit the streets. It’s also available in an even more exclusive Colette edition.

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The amusingly named Fiat Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari has been terrorising residents of Belgravia since late last year at an unamusingly steep £30k.

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And the £11k Fiat 500 on which the Tributo is based is now available in a Gucci edition for a £5k premium.

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Even Citroen is in on the act with the Orla Kiely-fettled edition of their quasi-premium DS3.

It doesn’t stop there, however.

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Having the last laugh -as is so often the case in the Automotive world- are the Germans.

BMW Group brands Rolls Royce and Mini recently had a pash behind the bike shed and produced the Mini Inspired by Goodwood.

What do you get for your £25k premium over a standard £16k Mini? Leather, leather (everywhere), walnut veneers made at the Rolls Royce plant in Goodwood, “deep-shag” carpets and the smug satisfaction that, if you hadn’t worked it out already, you’re one of 1000 willing to pay £41,000 for a Mini.

Downsized luxury is everywhere these days; nary a day goes by when a report crosses my desk telling me that, despite the economic uncertainty, people are still enjoying luxuries, just in smaller portions. Now consumers can do it with their cars. Just don’t expect it to come cheap.

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Imitation, flattery, Peugeot


T’was pointed in the vague direction of this yesterday and I thought it so… cute, so right that I couldn’t not pass it on.

The Peugeot RCZ is the French manufacturer’s first entry into the small sports coupe market since Pompidou was building edifices to himself. Sadly, unlike many of Pompidou’s delectations, the RCZ has been ribbed for lacking in design originality (delightful double-bubble glass roof notwithstanding).

Portrayed alternatively as the hairdresser’s hairdresser’s Audi TT or the pleb’s Porsche Cayman, one could easily expect Peugeot – a brand not known for marketing brilliance – to storm off in a fit of French pique at the reactions of the motoring press.

Happily, Peugeot’s Swiss agency, Euuro RSCG Switzerland, decided to turn the problem on its head, putting a smile on my dial in the process.

Can’t fix the problem? Change the conversation. Well done Peugeot!

(hat tip to @joesimpson)

Quick Thoughts: The Bertone Pandion “Why Bother?” Edition

Never have two great automotive names been so resolutely underserved by their colaboration.

When I was a kid I was given a book packed to the rafters with images and descriptions of the output of the Italian styling houses up to the mid-80s. Apart from a couple of Pininfarina jobbies like the Ferrari Modulo and Pinin (don’t ask, I love barges hmmmkay?) it was always the sheer audacity and other-worldlieness of the Bertone cars that made me keep turning those pages until the book fell apart.

From BAT to Marzal (stylishly accessorised above) to Carabo to Camargue to Sibilo… the list goes on and on… Bertone was largely responsible for me wanting to become a car designer.

It’s only natural, therefore, that I expect a great deal of Bertone, and while they’ve wavered in the last couple of years, the news that they would be teaming up with Alfa Romeo for Geneva had my heart a-flutter.

Consider that heart shot out of the sky and in the mouth of a rabid dog. I’m hurt and I’m mad. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: Death of the Plunging Shoulder

About 7 years ago, if my recollection is correct, we saw the beginnings of a design trend that would take the automotive industry by storm. The progenitor was the Mercedes Vision CLS Concept and the feature was a dramatic, plunging shoulder line that caused some to comment, unfairly in my opinion, that the car looked like a pressed steel banana.

Despite the common name that would be ascribed to the feature, it was actually an ascending shoulder that whipped from the from wheel arch and arced gracefully rearwards. Did it have it’s genesis in the Triumph TR-7? Thankfully, we’ll probably never know and in any case only the most ardent – and odd – automotive design watchers would ever try to make the link…

Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: Watch Out, the Koreans are Coming Edition

Third time’s clearly the charm with Kia’s baby SUV, the Sportage.

The first generation of the Sportage impressed with it’s cheapness, off-road prowess and… well that’s about it*.  The second one, if we’re honest, had even less to recommend it: in a nod to changing market expectations of small SUVs, it dropped any semblance of off-roadability and was simply cheap.

1st and 2nd Generation Kia Sportage (click to enlarge)

Yet given the strides Kia’s been making in the design department of late (the conservative but nicely resolved Koup, Soul and Sorento all come to mind), the new Sportage was always going to represent a significant stylistic departure from its dowdy predecessors. In fact, having looked over the press shots, I’d go do far as to say that the new Sportage is the best resolved Kia to date and another indicator of just how serious the brand is about conquering the middle of the market. Read the rest of this entry »

Toyota sees the light (and it’s on the front of your PS3)

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I’m not doubting that Chris Bangle was right when, in his speech at TED in 2002, he referred to the car as an avatar, or a representation of the self. I’m certainly aware of the efficacy with which my personality was reflected and communicated through the various vehicles I’ve owned over the years.

For a while now, however, the thought that cars no longer connect to a new generation of consumers on the visceral level that they once did has fascinated me. There’s even a video of me somewhere talking about the difficulties of designing cars for people who now see more value in networks and the devices that plug us in to them than they do in the objects that were the symbols of success of generations past.

On the few occasions I’ve dared broach this issue with the old-school of my industry, I’ve been looked upon with suspicion. Because wrapped up in all this is the notion that cars will cease to pull at the emotional heart strings that make us want to consume more cars (for the record, my heart strings are pulled daily. At the moment, Ferrari 400is are playing a sweet rendition of a Haydn cello concerto).  The thing is, when you analyse trends you may not like what you see on a personal level but you’re duty bound to report them. As a design strategist you then need to try and find a way to work them.

Anyway, on to todays bombshell. It seems that someone at Toyota is thinking along the same lines, albeit in a rather fatalistic manner. In an article from the Mainichi Newspaper, quoted on Kotaku, an unnamed Toyota exec came right out and said

“Home game machines are no good. Playing something that realistic makes the need for cars disappear.”

Putting my 2 cents in, I don’t think he’s referring to disappearance of the need for basic mobility per se as we still need to get around. It’s more likely he’s talking about the impending inability of brands to sell on the basis of high performance, noise, luxury, pedigree or any other emotionally based attribute that has previously been used to get someone out of their Toyota Corolla and into a Lexus IS250.

Not only are these aspirational attributes-made-real, otherwise known as cars, increasingly irrelevant in a nation as ill-suited to the car as Japan, but you can enjoy them for the price of a PS3/Gran Turismo bundle in the luxury of your lounge room. Do I long for a day when I strap on my driving gloves, sit down with a cup of tea and bang around a London street circuit in suburban Sydney? No, but anecdotally at the very least, I’m a member of a club whose membership is shrinking. And returning to the notion of car-as-avatar, we have at our disposal devices like the iPhone and services like Facebook that allow us to communicate our personalities in a much more media-rich, not to mention cheaper, way than a car ever could in it’s current form.

The challenge is there for all to see and there are murmurings of recognition within the broader industry, as the Toyota exec demonstrates. An automotive future where I can satisfy my inner geek and petrol head? Yes please.

P.S. That photo 135i above? It’s a screen shot from Gran Turismo 5…

First Impressions: Lexus gets it’s guppy on

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In what seems to be a growing down-road-graphic trend (you’ve seen the Nissan Leaf, right?), the new £325, 000 Lexus LFA has splashed onto the intertubes wearing a face that would be right at home on the Great Barrier Reef.

First previewed as a concept a scarcely believable 4 years ago (that’s a long time from concept to production these days), the LFA represents the first foray into the supercar market for Toyota’s luxury brand. And to say that the collective reaction has been lukewarm would be an understatement of oceanic proportions.

From the ever-humourous @BreakingAuto‘s tweet that “CEO Akio Toyoda confirmed that the Lexus LFA’s ’45”-high-shoulder-line, 4″-tall-side-windows’ design theme won’t expand to other Toyotas.” to old aunty CAR coming right out and saying

“…this is not a £325k car. It doesn’t look like one, doesn’t accelerate like one and, whether Lexus likes it or not, it doesn’t have the badge or motorsport/supercar pedigree that many image-conscious supercar buyers demand.”

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t the reception Toyota bosses were looking for. Read the rest of this entry »

Citroen turns 90 with nary a Xantia or Xsara in sight (thank god)

I thought I’d get back into the swing of things with something light weight but nonetheless enjoyable.

The ad above, found via Autoblog, is a celebration of the chevroned one’s first 90 years, a small portion of which I’ve taken great delight (and sometimes enormous despair) in sharing. My great aunt had a metallic sky blue DS that enchanted me as a small child while, in a moment of temporary insanity, I purchased a CX2400 Pallas for AU$1. You can perhaps imagine how that story ended…

Hitting it’s stride with the mass-production of front-wheel drive in the 15, Citroen went on to produce some of the most  sensual, seductive (and sometimes ruinous) cars in the form of the DS, CX, XM, C6 and, long may she reign, the seminal SM.

Beyond these hydropneumatically suspended beasts, Citroen also produced some cracking small cars. Think of the iconic 2CV, the plastic-bodied Mehari or the slightly unhinged AX Gti (an example of which nearly prematurely ended my life thanks to the ease with which the car’s 100 Bhp could get it airborn…) and you’ll know what I mean.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some woeful missteps in the company’s storied history.

They’ve produce some of the most challengingly styled cars this side of the Pontiac Aztek (Ami 6, I’m looking at you) and the whole of 90’s and the first few years of the 00’s were, XM aside, unbelievably glum times for Cit lovers. It seemed as though Peugeot, the controlling partner in the PSA conglomerate, wanted to kill off all the remaining fans with sheer boredom while destroying what market credibility they had left with 0% finance deals and discounts that basically wrote brick-off-a-cliff depreciation into the contract of sale.

I owned a car from this era, a Xantia 2.1 TD, whose sole redeeming feature was it’s ability to do one lap of the Nürburgring without expiring. Even the pleasures of the hydropneumatics were subsumed by Peugeot’s efforts to make the car more “Germanic” (read annoyingly stiff and jittery). And don’t even get me started on the wet fart that was the Xsara.

Happily all of this is overlooked in this joyous advertisement. What we get instead is a veritable orgy of what makes Citroen great: floaty suspension, turning headlamps, cyclops eye instruments out of the CX and a feisty woman going nuts on a beach in an SM, all with Eartha Kitt growling in the background. The LHM lover in me really couldn’t ask for anything more.

Post-Frankfurt Daze

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I must appologise for things being a little quiet on the DownsideUpDesign front.

At relatively late notice I was fortuitous enough to gain press accreditation (yes, I’m now a fully accredited journalist with the IFJ) for the Frankfurt Motor Show, known in German as the IAA, or Eeeee Ahhh Ahhh (which always sounds vaguely pornographic).

So while you, dear reader, have been wondering weather I’d left the mortal coil to pilot that great big Espada in the sky, I was wandering hither and thither around what is possibly the worlds largest motor show. Sitting on a site 1.2Km long by .5Km wide, if it weren’t for the press cars and their beautiful drivers, I’d have legs like Arnie.

Three 7 am starts and 2 am finishes later I can safely say I conquered it. What have I got to show for it? Well apart from some fabulous discussions with designers, PR types and general good guys that I hope to elaborate on here and elsewhere, I managed to amass around 4,000 photos and my first ever videos. Rather than bore you with all of them (I do get a little carried away at times…) I’ve put together a small selection of 384 piccies on my Flickr page. It’s a bit of a random bunch and the analysts amongst you will be able to tell far to much about me than I care to know. Nevertheless, take a look and let me know how you found the show through my eyes.

Honda’s missing the Frankfurt Show. Is that all it’s missing?

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2009 will be remembered as the year that car manufacturers started to really reconsider their involvement in international motor shows. Although the effects of mass pull-out won’t become truly evident until Tokyo, where Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Renault, Volkswagen and Volvo will be conspicuous only in their absence, in a case of what may seem to be a little bit of East/West tit-for-tat, Mitsubishi, Nissan/Infiniti and Honda have all decided to skip Frankfurt.

Read the rest of this entry »

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Seren. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I host an event called Rising Minds, at Shoreditch House.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.