By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I knew it would eventually come to this. The lead story from the L.A. Auto Show – newly dubbed “Automobility L.A.” - is the onslaught of new crossovers by the dozens (a show that was allegedly supposed to be all about the future of mobility, ironically enough). Tiny ones, big ones, electric ones, expensive ones. The automotive world has gone crazy for crossovers. The auto companies blame this, of course, on the consumer public’s insatiable desire for crossovers, because of their convenience, utility and the notion that “sitting up” and seeing the road has become the new mantra for drivers.
But automakers would say that. The reality is that it has always been a chicken-and-egg thing in the car business throughout automotive history, with automakers claiming that this – whatever the new, hottest thing over the years was - is what the public wants while shoving “new” down consumers’ throats. Then, voila! Customers all of a sudden started coming around to their thinking. As in, “I do want a giant crossover that gets 15 mpg in the city – on a good day. In fact I need it. I just didn’t realize it!”
Yeah, I get it, fighting the onslaught and unbridled “popularity” of crossovers is not a value-added activity because that ship sailed years ago. And the profits generated by them are mind numbing, to say the least, so ask the average car executive about it and they’ll say there’s no turning back now.
But another High-Octane Truth about the car business (see Peter’s column from last week –WG) is that it has always been ruled by fads. After all, the car business is a fashion business, in case you forgot. Spare me the blather about mobility and transportation and all of that other grandiose blah-blah-blah, because this business is all about crafting a compelling image, imparting an emotional feeling and creating desire, like a Kiton suit or an Hermès bag. And these cars, trucks and SUVs are calculated to such a degree that in ideal personifications they become conduits of individual expression and the rolling embodiment of our hopes and dreams (at least at the higher elevations of the business, anyway), even if we didn’t know that’s what we were looking for.
Yes, fads have dominated this business. The “jet age”-influenced styling of the 50s. The Muscle Car Era of the 60s. The disco and faux luxury stylings of the 70s and 80s (the Italian designers went crazy in a good way, the Americans, not so much). The sober and for the most part dismal 90s, and then the skies parted and auto design began a renaissance in the early 2000s, with milestone concepts like the Cadillac Ciel and Elmiraj, and handsome production cars from Audi, Aston Martin, BMW, Ford (Mustang and Fusion), GM (Corvette and Camaro), Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche being the culmination of this reinvigorated era of design.
Now? Yes, there are still some smokin’ hot designs from the usual automotive suspects, but now two things are dominating this business: Crossovers and the move to advanced electrification.
As for the former, I believe we’ve reached the stage where manufacturers are slapping crossover bodies on to their various architectures and calling it good. Whether or not they make sense or look worth a damn isn’t the issue, unfortunately. It’s how many variations of an angry box can we spread across as many segments as possible, because after all, the consumer public has an insatiable need for them, right? (I would like to add that the unfinished part that goes with that statement is they won’t know the difference anyway. Yeah, it’s the ugly High-Octane Truth, but there you have it.)
The Porsche Mission E Concept.
And as for the coming wave of electrification, the beauty of creating battery-powered vehicles is that designers will have a free hand because the packaging issues of a traditional gas engine and the associated hardware go away. Sounds promising, no? Except that other than Porsche, which is working on turning its stunning Mission E concept into production reality, what are the designers for these manufacturers working on for the most part?
Yes, you guessed it, crossovers.
Audi is set to debut an all-electric crossover in 2018 that will get well over 300 miles per charge. And VW will bring its I.D. Concept to market in 2020 with a range of 372 miles, and its BUDD-E all-electric van is also due in this market by 2020 with the same range.
The Volkswagen I.D. Concept.
The Volkswagen BUDD-E Concept.
And the big news out of the L.A. show (so far) was Jaguar’s I-PACE Concept – which was revealed to the media Monday night - the brand’s first official foray into all-electric motoring. As crossover designs go, it is beautifully rendered, but then again in a sea of mediocre designs that’s not saying much. I refuse to accept the idea of a “beautiful crossover.” It is not a hot thing. In fact it’s an oxymoron. And the promised “late 2018” delivery date is fiction; I don’t care how excruciating the bleating gets from Jaguar operatives - we’ll be lucky to see this Jaguar by the second quarter of 2019, if that. And its 220-mile range? Please. By then a 220-mile range will be nothing to brag about in the all-electric arena, in fact it won’t even be in the game.
The Jaguar I-PACE Concept.
It’s sad, but the inexorable march to the eradication of cars is upon us. It’s crossovers, SUVs or trucks, and there’s not much that can be done about it. There is a huge segment of the consumer buying public that still wants a car, fortunately, which is why the automakers will continue offering them. But I’m afraid when the electrification thing arrives in full force, the number of car choices offered will dwindle.
Count me as someone who still likes driving a car, high-performance or otherwise. Step out of driving a crossover after a while and into a car, and it’s a revelation. It’s lighter, more agile, more responsive and this just in: more fun to drive. And that still counts for everything in my book. In fact, it’s what driving is supposed to be all about.
I may have to put up with the automotive world’s continued descent into crossover Hell, but I don’t have to like it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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