In Search of the Ultimate Product Differentiator
From this week's autoextremist.com:
In Search of the Ultimate Product Differentiator.
Detroit. We've reached "halftime" of another tumultuous automotive year, and I was just thinking out loud the other day about what we've learned - if anything - about this crazy business. Then, one of our more astute regular readers weighed in with his assessment about the success of the new Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum (he shall remain nameless since he's deeply embedded in the upper echelons of a major car company on the West Coast). And his email spurred my thinking even more. On the surface, we've learned a lot, but then again, the more you really analyze things, not much has changed...
With the mainstream media falling all over themselves canonizing the new Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum as this year's "it" cars, once again we're reminded that there's no substitute for great product. And as I said a while back, with car companies churning out excellent offerings in every segment, and with competitive quality levels and impressive strides in reliability being the norm rather than the exception, it's getting harder and harder for these automobile manufacturers to distinguish themselves from the pack.
But there's still one elusive ingredient that matters: Leading, visionary design language will be the one crucial differentiating factor that will separate merely competent entries from the real road stars. And make no mistake about it - the 300 and Magnum are outstanding examples of that fact. What's amazing to me is how the car companies have to be continuously reminded of the importance of design, even though it really doesn't cost any more to do great-looking cars and trucks than it does to do bland offerings.
But year in and year out, some car companies get it - and some clearly struggle with the idea.
Take the DaimlerChrysler Maybach, for instance. The Maybach looks like a mildly customized Mercedes-Benz S-Class - not the uber luxury, $325,000 sedan that it's supposed to be. It simply doesn't look special enough to justify its rarefied price tag. And the company wonders why the automotive world doesn't salivate at the thought of owning one? It's a perfect example of a car company settling for the ordinary instead of reaching to achieve something truly heroic.
In stark juxtaposition to the largely forgettable Maybach, the new Bentley Continental GT revels in its brilliantly executed lines, and it makes a scintillating, memorable design statement. From any angle, it's simply what great design should be all about.
The luxury class naturally boasts the most design statements, like the refined elegance of the upcoming Mercedes-Benz CLS, the stunning new Audi A6 due in the fall, and, of course, the sheer audacity of cars like the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, the Aston Martin DB9 and the Lamborghini Gallardo.
But great design isn't just the private calling card of the ultra-luxury class. There are plenty of other examples of outstanding design accessible in all price classes. Beyond the aforementioned Chryslers, you have the Chrysler Crossfire, provocative entries from Nissan/Infiniti with the Murano, the FX35/45, and the elegant G35 Coupe, the new Mazda line has an emerging point of view, the Mini Cooper, the upcoming Pontiac G6 and Solstice, the new '05 Corvette, the new Cadillac STS, some interesting new executions from Volvo, and you could even argue that the Italian designed, Korean-built Chevy Aveo has a design presence worth noting.
These manufacturers seem to understand more so than the others that great design matters, and that if they want to survive, let alone thrive, they will have to carve out a design language that is distinctive, memorable and unequivocally theirs - and theirs alone.
With this in mind then, what about Ford? The Ford GT is a no-brainer. Yes, it may be derivative and nostalgic, but the classic proportions are so right, who wants to argue about it? Would you turn one down for your garage? The same goes for the upcoming Mustang. The car is so right it almost seems capable of reaffirming your belief in the American Dream.
But what are we to possibly make of the new Ford 500 sedan? After all, this is the car Ford is counting on to be a hit in the sweet spot of the market - the mid-size sedan class where Ford absolutely needs a substantial presence. I saw a new Ford 500 driving down the street the other day, and it was only because I realized what it was that I even bothered to give it a second look. The common knock on the car is that its J Mays' nostalgic nod to his days at Audi. I'm beginning to think that's an overly kind assessment. In the flesh and out on the road, where you get real perspective and see how the ebb and flow of natural light crawls across its flanks - the 500 conjures up nothing less than the Ghost of Fairmonts past.
The Ford 500 may be the least memorable new car to come along in the last 25 years. And after a generation of pabulum from the Vanilla Meisters at Toyota - that's saying something. What the hell was the Ford design brain trust thinking? After all, Ford desperately needs the 500 to be a hit. Not just a mild, happy success mind you, but a balls to the wall, grand-slam home run. But you really have to wonder how Ford is going to fare with a sedan that looks like yesterday's news before it even hits the streets. The 500 is a perfect example of a car company (Ford) making the assumption that ordinary, bread-and-butter, workhorse sedans don't have to benefit from beautifully executed design to succeed. That assumption will prove to be a disastrous error in this, the most competitive market in automotive history.
Mark my words on this one, folks, the Ford 500 will be the rental car of choice in 2005.
I could go on forever pointing out good and bad designs in the industry, but suffice to say, design matters.
And design will be the ultimate product differentiator from here on out.
The companies that understand this will make the right kind of headlines going forward.
The companies that think they can "get by" with merely competent designs will fall by the wayside.
Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.