While big SUVs continue to assert their dominance in the US market, it's an electric microcar designed by a favorite son that has everyone talking.
The art of design
Is it a car or is it art? Is it meant to reach production, or simply nudge fellow designers into thinking outside their comfort zone? Chris Bangle's provocative REDS microcar is making us ask the questions and have the conversation, and that may be the point. The "living room that decided to be a car" is full of solid design thinking, real-world solutions to existing and upcoming problems, and more controversial aesthetic decisions than any concept in years — but its influence isn't yet clear.
Car design can often be like the unusual cycling discipline of Team Pursuit, where everyone waits, teetering on the edge of falling, for someone else to take a risk, with everyone sprinting manically behind to catch up. If that risk pays off, a brand can rocket ahead and win on the back of that "next big thing", but when it doesn't, the others gleefully stand back and offer up "I told you so" explanations for why it was never going to work. With the REDS, designed for a Chinese company that currently produces busses, Bangle and his team have stepped out in front of the pack — as he so often has before — with fresh ideas and no compromises. Whether the new ideas will be appreciated or mocked by the mainstream may not matter though. As art — designed deliberately to provoke and encourage introspection — it's already a success. As a car — a product to be bought and driven — the jury is still out.
What's in a name?
With Lincoln officially abandoning its MK[?] model naming scheme in favor of more evocative "word-based" nameplates, it seems that the brand has officially changed its strategy away from chasing the Europeans back towards a more America-First mentality. With only the US and Chinese markets to compete in, this makes a lot of sense to separate themselves from the pack of upper-mainstream SUVs and sedans. But the announcement shouldn't come as a surprise. In fact, Lincoln's refusal to completely abandon the Continental and Navigator nameplates showed that as a brand, the alphabet soup naming convention never really made sense.
Ford's upmarket brand has struggled to find its place in the modern market, but rediscovering the names is a good first step. The next step for Lincoln will be to create cars with similarly evocative designs and experiences in a way that recalls the golden age of the brand, but without draping it in nostalgia and tailfins.
7 seats to compete
While the 7-seat crossover has been gaining prominence for years now, the 2017 LA Auto Show has demonstrated that any brand looking to compete in the lucrative US market must have a 7-seat mid-size crossover in its lineup. Lexus and Subaru both unveiled competitors into this packed segment, looking to hold on to every potential niche possible.
Americans still want space, but they don't necessarily want the behemoth full-size SUVs and their often lumbering truck-based underpinnings. While just a few years ago crossovers were derided as "soft SUVs", it's clear that the car-based format offers a better compromise between performance, fuel efficiency, space and perception of safety that families are looking for.
Don't call it a comeback
Station wagons have been out of style in the US since even before the SUV boom really took off in the 90s, but one look at the new crossovers on offer in LA indicates that the form factor was never really the problem. The arrival of European sport wagons in the 80s such as Audi's 100 Avant and BMW's 3 Series Touring simultaneously lifted and condemned wagons for an entire generation. They quickly became the embodiment of upper-class elitism and eventually came to lose the utility that they initially had embraced. Subaru's Ascent and Lexus's RX L models show that while Americans continue to hate traditional station wagons, they can't get enough of their higher-riding siblings. So will the current generation of crossovers suffer a similar fate, or do they really have staying power? There are a few reasons to think they will.
Shouting into the void
An extremely crowded crossover market has resulted in shoutier and busier designs than ever before. In LA we're seeing both the introduction of in-your-face new designs such as the Hyundai Kona (unveiled already in Frankfurt) and the Toyota FT-AC to the US market, but also the appearance of some rather subdued new models in the Nissan Kick, Infiniti QX50, and Subaru Ascent. Are we seeing a backlash, or simply a course correction for the worst offenders?
Mad to the Max
While Chris Bangle's REDS concept offered a car packed with ideas, wrapped in explicitly non-automotive design language, the Corvette ZR-1 convertible seemed to offer the polar opposite. While the idea of massive horsepower is obviously the key to this model, the design itself seemed to simply throw every hyper-aggressive tuner cliché on top of Chevrolet's ageing halo car. While performance will surely be mind-bending, the design serves to reinforce the traditional stereotypes of Corvette buyers, resulting in something that is a step forward on paper, but sets the image of the car back by quite a big step.