The 2017 Volkswagen Golf was revealed online earlier today, and has already drawn criticism from some for being too similar to the previous model.
Admittedly, there’s a lot of DNA shared between the cars as it's a facelift, but enough differentiation that an uninformed onlooker could pick out the 2017 model as the newer of the two.
All three cars are absolutely crucial to their brands, core products in their ranges, and their similarity to their predecessors is one of two quite similar, but crucially different things: 1 - the manufacturers’ confidence in the quality of the new model, so much that they know they’ll sell well, or 2 - the manufacturers’ terror that a core model won’t live up to its forebear, so an evolutionary design is essential to not scare away droves of customers.
Alll three - the Golf, the Q5 and the 5 Series will sell by the absolute bucket-load, there’s no doubt about that. But, then again, so did the 5 Series from 10 years ago, designed by the infamous Chris Bangle. To some, it was the most inspiringly daring design that BMW had ever created. With others, it was less well-received. The archetypal automotive example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
So an evolutionary design rather than a revolutionary one may not be as exciting or outrageous as an overhauled best-seller, but it’s at least testament to the car’s success. It’s never done the Porsche 911 or Volkswagen Golf any harm, let’s face it. Despite being dismissed by many as a decades-old design, or a refresh rather than a replacement in the Golf’s case, those in the know recognise them as two of the most ferociously capable cars the world over.
So while overhauling a car is always exciting, it’s not always necessary, and at best is a risky strategy. Look no further than Mercedes-Benz’s so-called ‘Russian doll’ styling approach, then at its place atop the best-sellers list in the premium segment (having overtaken BMW), then tell me that cars ‘need’ to look different from their forefathers and siblings to be successful.
What's more, is that rather than making new cars look like the old ones, the strategy works in reverse; if a 2012 5 Series looks similar to a 2017 model, the long-term value of the brand is maintained. Owners won't complain either; it means that the residual value of their car is maintained.
Feel free to disagree with me, (I know one of my colleagues already does) but reaching a position in which it is comfortable to more subtly restyle cars from one generation to the next is arguably where every car maker endeavours to be. Finding the sweet spot where a design can withstand being subtly refreshed for years to come is the hard part.
Design is important, there’s no doubt about that, but when it boils down to it, content is king.