Here’s a message for any global car maker wanting to disclose bad news about a defeat device or some dodgy corporate governance, in a place where the majority of working motoring journalists might miss it: stick it somewhere near the front of the press kit for the next new model you launch, in the section entitled ‘exterior design’.
Though it speaks ill of me to admit it, very few of us bother to read that section. Designers speak their own language, and the quality of their output is often so subjectively judged that we hardly need to touch on it; you either like the way something looks or you don’t.
Often, but not always. This week has acquainted me with two cars that vouch for the effect that good design, or its opposite, can have on a new car – and I’m keen, before going much further, to find out if it’s just me that thinks as much, or something more widely felt.
Neither the Renault Grand Scenic nor the Mini Countryman has any right, you might think, to look like a particularly stylish car – but, to me, one of them smashes the odds into a thousand pieces, and the other one sinks out of trace beneath their weight.
The Renault’s the doozy: a seven-seat MPV made to shine like a beacon among some very strange and plain-looking rivals by Renault design boss Laurens van den Acker’s talent and commitment. 20in rims on a car of this profile make an enormous difference to its visual appeal, and the way the tapered bodyside and smartly defined surfaces combine is very clever, to my eye.
I spent last weekend in a Grand Scenic. Such was the transformative effect of the car’s styling that my better half, who detests MPVs, didn’t even realise what she was travelling in. Almost every time we see a Citroen Picasso or Vauxhall Zafira on the road, she scowls: wouldn’t be seen dead in one. Of the Renault, she just said, “we could do with one of these.” Job done.
But where brave design makes all the difference for the Renault, it’s the timid, conservative approach that does for the Mini. The philosophy behind the Countryman is borderline arrogant, in my view. “Such is the length of the queue of people who want a Mini but can’t find room for one in their lives,” the thinking goes, “that all we need to do is make a slightly bigger one.” Never mind paying attention to what customers of other brands have been buying into as they’ve been moving into crossover hatchbacks in their tens of thousands these last few years. Never mind adding any true variety to the Mini showroom range, or giving the Countryman the blank-sheet start in life that it deserves. “In every facet, from the exterior to the cabin, to the driving experience, it’ll be as if we’d taken a foot pump to a five-door Mini Cooper. ‘Cos that’s all we need to do.”
Design is an expression of wider corporate culture and atmosphere, I reckon, and while Renault has been invested in a wholesale reinvention of itself these last few years born of balance-sheet-related necessity, Mini’s consolidating; eking out, tweaking and refining a winning theme.
Daring design is a big risk when you’re in the latter camp – and Mini will point out how well the last Countryman sold, so I don’t doubt the new one may be a similar success. But fifteen years ago, BMW wasn’t afraid to risk its market dominance with Chris Bangle’s generation of ‘flame-surfaced’ models. In my view, Mini needs its own Bangle-style revolution now – before the flame of popularity that it has now enjoyed for the better part of twenty years starts to fizzle out.