It has been a busy year for automotive design. With the final curtain drawn on the Age of Combustion (to use a phrase from friend and colleague Stephen Bailey), makers are fighting to define their place in the new era. It’s a pivotal moment for heritage brands to prove their relevance, to show that they are progressive and not frozen in the past. It is also the privileged moment for newcomers to make their presence known.
With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, I used much of 2021 to sample new cars and speak with the creatives involved. One thing is certain: manufacturers are playing it safe with this first wave of electric cars. They test the water, gauging the reaction of consumers. Speaking with the designers involved, I am optimistic that the next generation of products will be more of a radical departure from the conventional car in terms of appearance and, thanks to artificial intelligence, in terms of experience.
For the highlights, Volkswagen’s latest ID.3 and ID.4 are commendable electric cars, just like Audi’s current e-tron SUV family, although collectively they lack a lot of emotion. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to experience the sleek and sexy e-tron GT, a car that defines Audi in the age to come and which I hope will make your heart beat faster when it will be tested.
Meanwhile, the Volvo XC40 Recharge and Polestar 2 are safe and tough electric cars you can trust. Much like Mercedes-Benz’s EQ lineup, which takes the anxiety out of navigating new electric drive technology. Elsewhere, the Honda e is an impressive little city car with a host of innovative ideas for a product that looks more like a mobile gadget, an iPhone, than a conventional car.
After experiencing and fully enjoying the MINI Electric ride just days before the pandemic shut the world off, I was happy to see the quintessential urban commuter undergo an eco-fashion cut by British designer Paul Smith. Its anti-ornament MINI Strip literally strips the car and re-imagines its construction with materials that are fully recyclable and can find their way back into the production process.
Even more inventive is the BMW i Vision Circular, a research project designed to explore a web of ideas around circularity. The car design process is therefore anchored on resource efficiency, which means thinking about each material and part and their construction so that they can be easily taken apart at the end of the product’s life cycle and reused elsewhere. .
Some of these ideas found their way to the BMW iX. The brand’s flagship electric car might not look radical at first glance, but when experienced it reveals how far it has come in terms of personal transportation. Maybe cars like the iX are proof that we don’t necessarily need a big revolution with the new era of transportation, but rather a web of subtle evolutions that together are changing the driving experience – for the best.
2021 also saw inventive solutions from a large number of independent manufacturers. Swiss brand Micro’s electric Microlino, for example, is a contemporary take on classic bubble cars with its single-seat bench seat design and an entry door that allows driver and passenger to walk directly onto the curb. It is also worth mentioning Lunaz. The UK-based company that started its life electrifying classic cars, has expanded to include garbage trucks and fire trucks and all those big, bulky machinery that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley have also unveiled plans for electric cars, while spending time in the face of new competition to consolidate their status as leading luxury transport manufacturers. They don’t need to worry though. These are heritage brands immersed in the kind of evocative stories that time can only nourish.
The grandest expression of it all has to be the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail, a meticulously designed and hand-built $ 28 million motor car so lavish and beautiful it transports you to a golden age. imaginary of the automobile. Bentley’s Continental GT Speed is a bit more accessible. The brand’s fastest production car – and its latest petrol GT Speed - is a sleek grand tourer that makes you dream of exotic road trips.
At the end of the year, I started an interesting chat with Chris Bangle. Former BMW Group Creative Designer calls for a complete reinvention of design for the new era of transport. His argument is that it is irrational to participate in current discussions about sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when real change requires a fundamental overhaul of design and its human creators. “Design, as it is now,” he says, “rejects humanity, preferring in all respects to shape and form the cold idea of machine-made. We must reject even the look of the era. of the machine.
As a discipline, design continues to live in the machine world; it is trapped at its peak at the height of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for having created to perfection like a machine. But in the age of artificial intelligence, the thinking human no longer needs to imitate the machine. It is only by releasing this outdated concept, the argument goes, that design can help shape a more interesting future.
Bangle concludes by saying that reinventing design doesn’t have to be a negative thing. In a speech he gave last month on reinventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York City, he wrote: “This will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever answered. I am convinced that the design will succeed in redeeming itself; it will be exciting and it will happen when we stop worrying about what we can create and move forward on the “why” of what we should be creating. And I’m happy to end 2021 on that optimistic note.