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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Das (schönste) Auto

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Last Friday I completed another photo shoot and of my three subjects, VWs Polo and Scirocco and Mercedes E-Class, it was, as it was in Geneva, the Polo that really took my breath away.

Here was a €12,000 car that made the object of every German middle-manager’s affections, the E-Class, look more than a little underdone.

The Polo is so good that two days later, reviewing the shoot, I’m still struggling to comprehend how VW has got their detailing so fine, their tolerances so tight yet still make money on the thing. Here is a “peoples” VW, as opposed to the superlative, but somewhat more haute bourgeoise Phaeton, that at long last takes over the flame of surprise and delight that was lit by the Mk IV Golf.

You may think it’s more than a trifle geeky that I get so turned on by these tiny details – or turned off, as was the case with the Aston Martin One-77-, but it’s these small things that can build brands up or let them down entirely when it comes to customer perception.

A good friend of mine, who works for Apple, once remarked that their products were the mass-produced equivalents of Bang & Olufsen products. Noting my slight incredulity, he reasoned that objects like the iPhone or a MacBook Pro were as close to the perceived quality of a Beosound 9000 as you could get while still churning items out by the million on a high-speed line, rather than the low thousands, or indeed hundreds, with a great deal of hand finishing. Turning my still-flawless, glossy black iPod in my hands, I have to agree.

And for sure, the miniscule panel gaps, thoughtful detailing and sense of integrity, let’s call it craftsmanship, are among the things that pull in buyers of Polo and iPod alike.

One only need to look at the level of detailing in the headlamps, something hithertofore seen only in Audis and… well, I can’t think of another brand that does lamps so well. At the rear, the gap betwixt lamp and quarter panel was so tight I couldn’t get a finger nail in. Really.

Just as a Skoda Octavia gives you a bit of VW Golf niceness at a lower price in a unique body, so the Polo packs a deft touch of Audi in the B Segment, at least until the A1 comes along.

Craftsmanship, be it industrial or imparted by loving, skilled hands, sends subtle messages about the depth of thought and engineering ingenuity that imbue these products. The Polo has it in spades.

[Images: Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

Unslick Sticks: Aston's been raiding the parts bin again

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The first pictures of the interior of the one point seven five million dollar (US) Aston Martin One-77 were published today after the car’s official reveal at the illustrious Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza.

Whatever you may think of the overall design theme, allow me to draw you to one tiny yet, for me, crucial detail: the indicator/wiper stalks.

Just in case you hadn’t got it in the opening line, this car costs ONE POINT SEVEN FIVE MILLION DOLLARS yet possesses black plastic sticks that would be right at home in something costing a hundred times less.

Lest we forget, the Bugatti Veyron, the hallowed company of which the One-77 would like to keep, possesses milled stalks with tolerances that would make a Swiss watchmaker weep. They’re also reputed to cost $4000 a pop.

For this wannabe sybarite (me, not the Aston), something ripped out of Grannie’s hatchback just doesn’t cut it.

More befuddling is that pretty much everything else in the cabin has been lovingly hewn from crystal, stainless steel, carbon fiber and Bang & Olufsen, materials that send a serious message about the craftsmanship of the car. Against this background, the presence of black plastic is somewhat of a shock.

To be fair, this car is number 1 of 77 and may be pre-production, but Aston’s got a history of bin raiding: the Vanquish was lambasted in the press for having Volvo S80 vents and Ford Fiesta stalks.

I would have thought, now that Aston is charging almost six times as much for this new beast as they did for the Vanquish, that they could have lashed out on something a bit more special. When you see the care an attention that has gone into detailing other parts of the car (the rear suspension block is my personal highlight), it really does seem a shame.

P.S Bonus points for anyone who can tell me where these parts have come from. They *could* be old Fiesta, but I’m not certain…

[Images: Drew Smith, Aston Martin and OmniAuto]

BMW Project-i: Paradigm shifting for rich folk

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Car magazine is carrying a story regarding the development of the Project-i vehicles, BMW’s oft talked about but as yet unseen foray into the future of urban transportation.

That BMW is putting it’s weight behind such a programme is laudable. As I’ve often remarked on these pages, a radical shift in thinking regarding how we move about our urban centres will be vital to the return to good health of the automotive industry. It’s just a little galling that BMW is sticking to the notion that these vehicles must be “premium”.

Dr. Ulrich Kranz, the leader of Project-i, even goes so far as to say “They will not be Tata Nano rivals – no way! We can and will only build premium cars”. Wanting to distance his project from any associations with the tiny tot from India is understandable, having seen just how rudimentary it is (Euro facelift notwithstanding), but to stick to the concept that BMW will “…only build premium cars” seems a little short sighted.

Car also cites Shanghai and Mexico City, among others, as targets for the vehicles. Last time I checked Mexico City and Shanghai were flush with the cheapest wheels available, Beetles and bicycles respectively. These are not markets ripe for the introduction of premium urban mobility. They just need urban mobility full stop.

It’s been regularly discussed in the motoring press over the past year or two, and I see fit to bring it up again here: BMW is sitting on the perfect brand for reaching down out of their ivory tower and providing intelligent mobility for the masses. It’s called Isetta.

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Sure, it may not be terribly well known by name outside of Europe and groupings of predominantly old men who worship at the alter of slow, smelly and insane microcars of the mid-20th century. But nobody knew of Lexus when it launched, and it has done a passable job of establishing a presence for itself, answering a question nobody asked.

Crucially, Isetta has the all-important story behind it: it produced highly efficient, intelligent cars that intended to mobilise the masses. And as I’ve mentioned previously, having a great story is half the battle in getting people to fall in love with a new product.

Story aside, if BMW managed to nail a suite of solutions to urban mobility, no body would give a damn what it was called and whether it was “premium” or not. Our predicament is far more serious than that.

You can counter that the big changes in technology always start at the top of the market and work their way down (I remember when my first iPod cost €400 and held 500 more songs than the Shuffle that launched this week for €75. The thought of using it as a tie-clip was also a non-starter…). I honestly feel, however, that should we not work towards far-ranging, cross-market changes to the car industry, our recovery is going to be even more painful and protracted than we’re currently predicting.

According to Kranz it will be 2015 before we see the first fruit of his Project-i labour. From where I stand, we have until 2015 to convince him to spread the love.

[Source: Car Magazine][Images: Wiki Commons]

Citroen launches DS Inside… inside.

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The image you see above is the most revealing that I, a fully accredited member of the press, could manage to take of the CItroen DS Inside concept.

Is Citroen ashamed of the DS Inside? Or more specifically, are they ashamed of using the DS name on such an underwhelming product?

As I traipsed the show floor on Monday searching for inspiration, I kept passing the Citroen stand. I was keeping my eye out for the the inheritor of one of motoring history’s great names. After about the 5th fly-by, I realised that something was up.

I noticed an opening at the back of the stand, guarded by a velvet rope and a heavy-set Frenchman. There was a small gathering of people and the bloke was letting them in one by one.

I strutted over, flashed my pass and was admitted to the tiniest night club I’ve ever experienced. Electronica, mirrors and strobe lights saw me immediately dazed and confused. Then, for a split second, a single source of illumination hit the hitherto dark object in the centre of the room: It was the DS Inside.

Camera at the ready, I started snapping away, only for the lights to go spasmodic again, rendering any meaningful observation impossible. I skulked out, feeling somewhat queasy and totally cheated.

I’ve recently questioned whether it’s wise for Citroen to use such an evocative, powerful piece of their history as the namesake for their new mainpremium products. I lived in hope that their marketing chutzpah and the initial product, the DS Inside, would be ballsy enough to give some hope for the future of the DS brand.

That the car, from what I could see, is cute but totally average was a forgone conclusion. The press images released two weeks ago showed that and it gains and loses nothing in the flesh.

What was really mortifying was just how ashamed Citroen seemed to be in showing the car. It did not come across as cool, hip or nonchalant to show the DS Inside in a black box. It came across as weak, as if they regretted bringing the car here at all, much less slapping a DS badge on the nose.

I realise that I’ve been going on about this DS thing for a while now, and this will probably be the last post on the topic until the next travesty is launched (if I can summon up the passion at that time). Sadly, the damage has now been done and I’ll be surprised if Citroen can turn the DS brand around from its anti-launch without a complete re-think of their product.

A word of advice to Citroen and any other brand considering a challenging product concept launch (Lagonda, I’m looking at you), give a design strategist a call. We live and breath your brands, marketing and design. We’ll be more than happy set you right.

Same sausage, different length

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There was a time when BMW was accused of reproducing the same design theme while only varying the length, thus giving rise to the phrase used in the title. Don’t get me wrong, having owned an E36 3 series coupe and allowing myself unsavoury thoughts about the E38 7 series and an E34 M5 (which were the groß-wurst and uber mittel-wurst to my 3 series würstchen), the Ercole Spada/Claus Luthe BMWs were beautifully resolved vehicles that I still look longingly at. The strong visual link between the cars was always part of the appeal.

Chris Bangle changed that, with the 3, 5 and 7 all adopting distinct design themes. The concept of a highly unified family look seemed to have disappeared with the other proponent of the sausage concept, Mercedes, also pursuing inconsistent design themes across it’s ever-expanding range.

BMW stablemate, Rolls Royce, has done us proud however and fans of  strictly evolutionary design can rejoice. The image you see above is not of the gargantuan Phantom but of the slightly less enormous 200EX concept that’s to be revealed in Geneva. Looking at the rear 3/4 view, even I had to do a double take. Perhaps, once appreciated in real life, the relative scales of the cars will be a signifier but as far as the photos are concerned, the 200EX is the Lincolnshire Chippolata to the Phantom’s whopping Cumberland.  

We know that people associate a strong family identity with feelings of longevity, stability and depth of experience (both of those producing the vehicle, and the experience one has with the vehicle), all qualities that are highly valued in the premium market. From a strategic design perspective, Ian Cameron and his team have made a safe bet that, market conditions notwithstanding, will attract customers by enabling them to attain the Rolls mystique in a Phantom-lite package. Those A8600 iLs are starting to look even more boring…

(Images courtesy of Rolls Royce Motor Cars Ltd)

Renault Laguna Coupe: Satisfyingly Simple

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I intend to write a longer piece about this car over the coming week but I wanted to share some of my pics of the car with you.

As I’ve gone back over the shoot and my memories of driving it, one word kept coming back to me: Simplicity. And it’s not simplicity in a cheap, cut-price version of something else kind of way. This is satisfyingly simple.

To be continued…

Is it about China?

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I’ve spent most of the day thinking about my earlier post on the BMW 5 GT concept that broke cover overnight.

It’s occurred to me that, somewhat foolishly, I’ve been looking at the market positioning from an extremely Euro-centric position.

What if BMW is taking a similar tack that they took, perhaps inadvertently, with the previous generation 7 series?

A car that initially tanked in Europe on the basis of it’s looks , the old 7 went gangbusters in the Chinese market. It also signalled a shift in BMW’s understanding of it’s future market. This shift was confirmed by the launch of the Concept CS as the Shanghai motor show (as opposed to a show in their traditional European heartland) and the somewhat lesser known introduction of a LWB (long wheel base) 5 Series sedan exclusively for the Chinese market.

In 2006 I completed my Masters thesis in automotive design and although the main thrust of my research was something else, I spent a good deal of my time coming to understand Chinese taste in the premium car market. One of the characteristics of the emerging haute-bourgoisie is the desire to be driven (having seen traffic in Hong Kong, I can understand why). And with the desire to be driven, less focus is placed on BMWs old maxim of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” and instead we start looking at the Ultimate Driven Machine.

And in this respect, as the new press images from BMW show, the GT will indeed be ultimate in the traffic choked streets of Asia’s cities. Masses of rear leg-room and stupendous head room within a package that won’t be unwieldy in traffic (unlike a LWB 7 series). Indeed, looking at the pictures, I imagine you probably would have to go to that size vehicle to get similar rear-cabin room.

 The vehicle I designed back in ’06 aimed to recreate a limousine experience within 5 meters, reclining seats and all. The 5 GT is 4998mm long and provides the same rear cabin experience as a LWB 7 which is a full 212mm longer. Maybe I was on to something…

My doubts about the car’s success in the European market still stands, but if China is indeed the target, who cares about fighting the same old scrappy battle the German premiums always fight. BMW just jumped out of the ring and found a new playground.

It’s not a sedan, it’s not an SUV, it’s not an estate…it’s a hatchback!

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It’s out! BMW’s new Progressive Activity Sedan (also known as the 5 Series GT or Gran Turismo) was revealed in a private view last night and the folks over at BMWBlog got the scoop. You might remember this as the car, the launch video of which I lampooned last week for spending three minutes saying the car wasn’t an MPV. And it’s not. It’s something almost as poisonous to the premium buyer: a hatchback.

 To be honest, its mix of Concpet CS, new 7 Series and and an immensely long wheelbase don’t upset me as much as I thought it would. You could certainly never argue that the thing lacks presence and the double opening hatch is an interesting if unoriginal idea. It did strike me that the angle of access, combined with the intrusion of the open lid, makes me think it will be a little awkward to use. At this point it seems that the similar system found on Skoda’s Superb is better resolved and more useful.

And there in lies the problem, this car counts only the Skoda Superb as a typological brother, hardly the company you want to keep if you’re BMW. The PAS is trying to be a premium hatchback and the last “premium” hatch I can remember…oh, hang on, I can’t. “Aha!” you say, “therein lies the secret to BMW’s success! Nobody has done this before!” Well they have.

Opel/Vauxhall used to produce the Signum, a similarly long-wheelbased hatch which was also designed to offer the difference between “economy and first class” (although in their case it was probably the difference between Air Congo and premium economy) and Skoda produces the aforementioned Superb (which is, actually, pretty superb for the money). However, neither of these cars will ever compete with the likes of E-Classes, A6s and A7s and their brands make sure of that. BMW is going in to battle in one of the most conservative market sectors out there and I’m not convinced people will be seduced out of their premium SUVs, sedans and wagons by an expensive rep-mobile.

Just picture this thing on the school run, driven by a yummy mummy who’s propped it on the kerb outside the prep school…

I’m not saying that a product type can’t turn premium overnight. The original Range Rover did it. But it was a able to do so because Land Rover and the types of vehicle they produced had always been associated with a certain class in English society, creating a strong aspirational pull. BMW might have the upper middle class pulling power, but hatchbacks have never been associated with aristocracy or celebrity, only with Ron the sales manager pounding the M25…

Head on over to BMWBlog to see more pics.

[Image and Source: BMWBlog]

No, no, NO! This is not a DS!

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A couple of days ago I wrote about Citroen’s decision to revive the DS moniker as a premium brand.

This is the underwhelming result. The “DS Inside” concept looks like Citroen’s take on a Mini, mashed up with a bit of SUV and MPV for good measure. I don’t actually mind it’s bull-dog stance, bi-color paint and funky B-Pillar/glazing treatment but what kind of a name is “DS Inside”? If there is a Déesse inside, she’d be screaming to be let out of her dowdy purgatory so she can resume her rightful place in automotive heaven.

I don’t have a problem with Citroen trying to shift up market (hey, all the mid market manufacturers are trying it) but I think it’s an epic mistake to sully the DS name with a car that doesn’t come anywhere near the sheer fabulousness of the original. Although images of the interior have not yet been leaked, I’m pretty certain that it won’t turn this particular personal nightmare into a dream come true.

Mazda Kiyora: The start of something big.

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There was a time when Mazda, like Honda, Nissan and Toyota, was a premium manufacturer. Their Eunos, Xedos and stillborn Amati brands were an attempt to crack the burgeoning premium market in the early 90’s. Sadly, unlike their Japanese counterparts (who have gone on to achieve moderate-to-stellar success with Acura, Infiniti and Lexus respectively), Mazda never quite made it work. 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 Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

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.