We all know that a car’s styling is crucial to its appeal. Image sells, and how a car looks - and by extension, how it makes you feel when you’re in it - is integral to why most people pick the cars they do. And I include the more everyday, mundane cars in that.
I was thinking about this recently as I stood admiring the Volvo V90 R-Design. I am oddly besotted with this car, entirely because of the way it looks. Even in a less style-oriented trim than R-Design, the V90 is striking and brazenly different from its rivals. Okay, so maybe the rear lights are a tiny bit awkward. But ultimately, I’d buy one over the alternatives, despite knowing full well that the Volvo doesn’t handle as well and isn’t even the best estate for sheer size and practicality. Provided it’s on air or non R-Design suspension, the V90 drives with satisfying fluidity, and the load space is more than big enough to cope with my oversized dog and buggy combo. I’m happy to accept objective shortfalls beyond that, because I just love the way it looks – inside and out.
But there is a line where looks alone aren’t enough. This, for me, was most starkly drawn by the Alfa Romeo 4C. Here is another car that I was hopelessly in lust with from the moment I saw it. To be honest, I have always failed to suppress stalkerish behaviour towards the Alfa 8C, too – even now - so the 4C obsession was quite predictable.
Then I drove it. Maybe I had a bad drive. I know that my colleagues rated it very highly and they spent much more time in it. But when I drove the 4C, it was raining and dark, and I hated it. I thought the power delivery was dreadful, the handling basically frightening, the ride uncomfortable, the interior cheap-feeling. My husband, who also adored the looks of the 4C, spent 30 seconds in the passenger seat before declaring that he wouldn’t buy it just because the passenger seat back was fixed at a cripplingly uncomfortable angle. So there you go. I rarely disagree with our road test verdicts, but on this one I did.
I wanted to love that Alfa. I would have accepted the lack of storage space, the (rightfully) moaning passenger, the annoyingly fiddly infotainment system. If I’m honest, I don’t think I even expected it to be as brilliantly cohesive and delightful to drive as a Porsche Cayman or Lotus Exige. It just needed to be fun, even if that included some rough edges dynamically. I’d write it off as Italian flair and be happy. But even for those looks, I just couldn’t come to terms with how disappointing I found the rest of it.
So, where the 4C is the most drastic case of ‘style alone doesn’t cut it’ for me, the V90 perfectly demonstrates the compromises I would cheerfully make in the name of style. An Aston Martin Vantage also springs to mind as a car that I would happily buy over its objectively better rivals. I mean, just look at it. Who cares if it has been around for years, or if a Porsche 911 is cheaper, more practical and better to drive? Not me. The Aston is a brutish delight to drive, sounds wonderful and looks like that. Sign me up.
I suspect I’m more invested in the design of a car than some, particularly among the more hardcore enthusiast audience, but it’s interesting how this ‘style versus the rest of it’ equation plays out in every car purchase. It’s the essence of why our transport is much more than just that, and why cars remain such subjective, often divisive things. Here’s hoping that the diversity of design that we enjoy now continues for a very long time. And I’ll try to have another go in the 4C. Surely, I must have got it wrong the first time.