Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Nope, Bangle just sucks -- Rich Ceppos does an admirable job attempting a flying-in-the-face-of-conventional-wisdom rehabilitation of Chris Bangle and his hatchet job on the BMW marque. But, he comes up a little short.

The automotive world is a little better place because the current generation of the Mercedes S-Class abandoned the gunship slab sides of its predecessor and introduced curves and sinew that led to the terrific CLS. Our roads are a little nicer to travel because Mazda and Acura can't seem to build a car without character and solid good looks. And, there may be no finer rolling sculpture than the Bentley Continental.

But, to credit Bangle with leading the way to the current design renaissance is confusing coincidence with cause. As we approach car commodification, there are going to be fewer and fewer ways to distinguish offerings, and a strong design is a good start. This was obvious to anyone with half a brain.

This may be particularly problematic at BMW, because not only were they facing increased competition from other brands, but they also had to deal with the generally feeling, not quite dispelled, as driving machines BMW's sedans were already as good as they can get. So, the new 3- and 5-series have the added burden of competing with the previous generation. The big changes in this generation are a little more power, more weight, the idiotic iDrive, a computer-controlled replacement for the finest steering ever, and way-out-there styling. Only one meaningful improvement in the lot, the rest amount to a marketers answer to why you need to trade the old one in.

So, Bangle had fewer options than his counterparts. He had to go long.

The problem with Bangle is not his ambitions, it's his designs. They just suck. And, they suck in a particularly rational, tricky way. If you describe the designs with words, there's nothing objectionable. The curves make intellectual sense. There are the flame-surfacing gimmicks that should be interesting. Every crease on every model is thoroughly thought through and carried exquisitely through every panel and light housing. Etc. It's just that none of the hyper-rational effects add up to a coherent, attractive design. (With the exception of the 7-series, which we've always found unduly criticized.) Do a Robert Cumberford break down of a Mazda 3, the Acura TL, or the CLS, and the individual features aren't as rational or worked-through as those on a Bangle BMW. The cars just look good.

That's not to say that there isn't a defense of Bangle to be made. At least he isn't J Mays. Whatever offense against good taste Bangle has inflicted, he hasn't hobbled BMW with backward-looking designs that invoke the Retro Roadblock.

BMW will have a nice opportunity for some nifty clean-sheet designs with the next generation.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Relax -- According to the New York Times, greenies are aghast that manufacturers are using hybrid technology to deliver better performance, not better fuel economy. Exhibit A is the Honda Accord hybrid that boasts more power than the regular V6 at mileage that rivals the base four.

While it may seem an epic feat of managing cognitive dissonance, the performance-loving Downshift considers itself very green, after a fashion. But, we are not at all worried about impure uses of hybrid technology.

First, every Accord customer who wants the performance of a V6 and buys a hybrid has contributed to better fuel economy. At $2000 more than the V6, the hybrid version is not cannabilizing sales of stripper four-pots.

Second, the quest for every greater power has an end. See the Downshift Limit of Power Theory. The Accord weighs 3501 pounds, so the power-to-weight ratio is 13.7 lbs/bhp, approaching the LPT magic 13.0 lbs/bhp. The LPT posits that Honda will not be rewarded in the market for delivering power beyond about 285 horsepower (allowing for the Accord to put on another 200 lbs). At that point, it will make more business sense for Honda to focus engine development on fuel efficiency gains rather than power gains.

Third, Honda's spreading the love. Every model line that gets a hybrid is a model line that is more fuel efficient. Soon enough, there will be a base-model, four-cylinder hybrid Accord that gets the same performance out of fewer gallons of gas. And, it will have a smaller price differential than today's hybrids. We just gotta get there.

Doe it make sense to give a tax credit to a 255-horsepower Accord? (We remember driving our college friend's Accord in 1984. A 255-horsepower Accord would have seemed a laughable fantasy. But, we digress.) Sure, because the hybrid Accord is a direct alternative to a more fuel-thirsty model. That's the immediate benefit. Looking down the road, it improves the market for Honda (and others) to build more hybrids, driving the price of the technology down, and making it more likely that hybrid versions of mainstream, volume sellers will show up sooner.

And, that's a good thing.