Blog King Instapundit has already written about our joint, ill-fated attempt to comparison drive a new Nissan 350Z against its much-ballyhooed sister vehicle, the Infiniti G35 Coupe. He's even got a highly embarrassing photo. Suffice it to say that the Nissan salespeople in Knoxville, Tenn., wouldn't let us move the "Z" -- they wanted to deliver a virginal car to the buyer who'd ordered it. The neighboring Infiniti dealer was far friendlier, letting us drive off in a G35 Coupe by ourselves. (The Infiniti, while gorgeous, seemed a bit insubstantial for a $30,000 car.) But the telling moment came at the end of our visit, when someone pulled up to the dealership in a 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible. Suddenly, all the expensive modern cars in the showroom -- and this dealer also sold Porsches and Audis -- seemed like so much overpriced dross. As we left, we looked back and noticed that about seven or eight of the salesmen whose job it was to tout new $40,000-$100,000 luxury vehicles had gathered around the 38-year-old Goat to ogle and comment. I wish Instapundit had taken a photo of that. ... Moral: If you want to get maximum style and sex appeal for your money, you're much better off buying a 60s-era American classic than even a stylish new car. By far the best car I've ever driven, in terms of impressing people, was a $1,500 1965 Buick Skylark convertible. ... And what does it say about contemporary car design that when the producers of last summer's Vin Diesel thriller XXX were looking for a cool vehicle to have their hero drive, they couldn't do any better than ... another 1960s-era GTO. ... (The Diesel character actually deals in modern black market Ferraris, which are treated as disposable.) ...
Bangle Update: It's worth looking at some of the comments made by those who have signed the "Stop Chris Bangle" petition. I'm not sure exactly what
"Jagt Chris Bangle endlich zum Teufel!"
means, but it doesn't sound good. ... Meanwhile, the LAT delivers a positive Z4 road test that glosses over the big BMW styling story. ... P.S.: I should have made it clearer that I like the controversial styling of the expensive 7 Series sedan, including its menacing battleship trunk. But the 7 Series doesn't feature much of Bangle's contrived "flame surfacing." ...
Monday, December 16, 2002
American Anti-BMWs: A friend of mine once seduced his girlfriend in high school by telling her that what they were doing wasn't actual sex – sex was something much more elaborate and profound that adults did. I had an idea for a road test that was similar. It was this:
All the car magazines -- and hundreds of thousands of highly educated and informed young professionals -- say the BMW 3 Series sedan is the greatest semi-affordable car going. (The November Automobile seems to declare that the new Infiniti G-35 coupe is better, but if you read it closely that's not what it says.) I've never driven a 3 Series -- or the more expensive 5 Series, for that matter -- which must make me uniquely virginal among automotive journalists, or those who play them on the Web. I figured this also made me the perfect man to drive the Detroit-made imitators of the BMW – the Lincoln LS and Cadillac CTS -- without doing the obvious and comparing them to their bogey. Judge them on their own merits! You couldn't give them a fairer shake than that. Can they show a good time to someone who doesn't know what a real good time is?
I know, the sex analogy breaks down if you really think about it. (My friend actually had sex, whereas I … [stop –ed.]) The road test didn't quite work out as planned either. But it wound up teaching a lesson about something else.
Lincoln LS: The first thing I need to tell you about the Lincoln LS is that it drives beautifully. Steers precisely, shifts direction easily, with an easy, disciplined ride that calls for the auto reviewer's #1 adjective, "supple." I drove the V-8 version, which is comfortably powerful. There's a bit too much jounce (or is it rebound?) when you encounter a bump entering a fast corner, but for all practical purposes the Lincoln behaves the way the magazines have been telling Detroit its cars should behave for decades -- it drives like a Jaguar. That's probably because it is a Jaguar. (It shares its chassis with Ford's Jaguar S-Type, which costs about $10,000 more.)
The second thing to tell you about the Lincoln is that I would never, ever buy it.
Cadillac CTS: The CTS feels too heavy. Compared with the Lincoln, it has slightly leaden steering, a jiggly ride, un-smooth power delivery, and it plows enough in corners that it almost feels like a front-wheel drive car (which it isn't). The interior features one of those "modern" CRT screens that look cool at auto shows and are clumsy and annoying in real life. Bizarrely, this GM attempt to appeal to BMW-lovers has an old-ladyish step-on emergency brake instead of the Lincoln's sporty pull-up handle.
But I could imagine myself buying the CTS.
Why? Not reliability. You don't buy either of these cars for their reliability, though they both worked fine during my weeklong tests. (The Cadillac's too new to be rated by Consumer Reports, but the Lincoln has achieved a rating. A really bad rating.)
The answer has more to do with aesthetics, symbolism, and serotonin. Take a look at the Lincoln, and use your hands to block the view of the very front and the very rear. You see a clean, good-looking car. Drop your hands and you see the clumsy, cynical attempts at "branding" that someone at Ford – the marketers, presumably – have slapped on to each end. (The rear, with its gratuitous cuff-shooting chrome, is uglier than the front, which features Lincoln's silly "waterfall grill" but which actually looks OK about one in every five times you see it.) The symbolism? This car says, "I'm a comfort-seeking conformist who won't spend more than $25,000 on a vehicle unless it has some sort of pretentious hood and trunk. But hey, I'm easily gulled."
The feeling that the LS thinks you're a sucker increases exponentially when you get inside. Consumer Reports, echoing the other car magazines, says tactfully, "The cabin is less luxurious than those of most competitors in this price bracket." Someone less tactful might say that the cabin is pathetically dreary, a depressive combination of mediocre materials and tired shapes that could symbolize everything that went wrong with Ford in the mid-'90s, when it seemed poised to take over the world and then blew it! Maybe if you bought an Escort with this dashboard you'd think you'd gotten your money's worth. (I say Escort because the interior on Ford's budget-priced Focus is actually cheerier than the LS's.) Add inflatable, air-cushioned seats that make you feel like you're bobbing down the road in an inner tube, and you have a sensory experience calculated to break any yuppie's spirits. I tried using the LS to impress a garret-dwelling artist babe who was in town from New York. I might as well have pulled up in a used Chevy Lumina. You give Lincoln $40,000, they tell you you're a loser. I don't get it.
Have I mentioned that inside the LS is not a happy place to be?
The Cadillac is at least trying. It's a sharp-creased, slightly overweight road thug, which might be obnoxious if it weren't a come-from-behind effort from previously ridiculed General Motors. It drives more like a plane than a car, but that's kind of appropriate since the CTS intentionally looks a lot like a plane, especially in Stealth-bomber black. (In lighter colors the car looks less nasty than goofy.)
My own car, a 1991 Nissan 300ZX two-seater, drives much like the CTS – stiff ride, slightly disconnected, airplane-like steering, excessive width, big power. That may be one reason I liked the Cadillac. It would be great to fly coast-to-coast.
I've also always wanted a car with a dashboard that looks like a Bang & Olufson stereo, and the CTS comes close enough to make me find a new ideal. There's at least one useful innovation, a classy-feeling little knobbed thumb-dial on the steering wheel that lets you adjust the radio volume while keeping your hands on the rim. The front seats are comfortable, upholstered in a subtle leather-like material that may in fact be leather. (The rear seat has plenty of room but is sadistically contoured.) If the heavy hatchet shape, and all the gratuitous straight lines and isosceles triangles are a bit much – if you suspect the car will look quaint in a couple of years – that doesn't detract from the basic message: The Lincoln LS may think you're a chump, but the CTS thinks you're hot s--t.
Neither of these cars is a bargain. But with the CTS you get a plausibly serotonin-enhancing experience for your money. At least if you've never driven a BMW.
P.S.: It's true that Lincoln is improving – the interior of the new Navigator, for example, is simple and classy. Too bad that not only did Ford designers fail to redo the LS's dashboard -- they stuck it, unchanged, into the new $37,000 Thunderbird. Are menopausal boomers so pathetically hooked on T-Bird nostalgia they won't notice?
Bilbao on Wheels
Cadillac's hard-edged "Art & Science" styling may or may not wear well, but it looks good now. The same can't be said for BMW's competing attempt to be radical, which the company's design chief Chris Bangle calls "flame surfacing" – a styling jag so distressing to modernist import-buyers that it recently made the front page of the New York Times. (Does editor Howell Raines know his demographic or what?) When I first dissed Bangle's new Z4 roadster, several readers e-mailed to suggest that I would soon get used to its forced collision of shifting planes and curves, recognizing it as the pathbreaking masterpiece that Bangle -- who says it is "as big a jump in terms of aesthetic value systems as there was between an Eve before the fall … and an Eve after the fall." -- clearly thinks it is. They laughed at Frank Gehry too, etc.
Sorry! The path isn't breaking for me. The Z4 seems less like Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, than Mather House, a high-rise Harvard dorm situated on a spectacular bend of the Charles River. Mather House's architect reasoned that anyone could design a nice building that looked out on the river. It took a true genius to design a building that completely ignored the river! So the only river views in Mather are from the small windows in the bathrooms, while the building faces instead toward the shabby neighborhoods of central Cambridge.
Likewise, it's easy to design a sexy, beautiful two-seat, rear-drive roadster. Stick a halfway decent body on a chassis as good as BMW's, and you'll sell hundreds of thousands of units. It took a true genius like Bangle to produce a two-seat design so visually jarring that BMW executives actually have to worry about whether it will sell.
Anyway, they didn't laugh at Gehry. Bilbao was instantly recognized as a triumph. Bangle's car looks Gehryesque, with its undulating planes and surprising cuts – e.g., the so-called "Bungle line" extending down from the windshield angle to the running board. But it's a car, not a building, and functionality has greater claims on it -- for one thing, it has to be aerodynamic in a way the Guggenheim museum needn't be. (Why didn't Bangle's designers make the wheels an irregular quadrangle while they were at it?) Some car shapes -- like the shapes of beautiful women, or men, or rivers -- may innately more appealing than other shapes that clever, well-educated designers might invent.
Britain's Car magazine calls the Z4 "demanding to look at," a nice way of putting it, and Automobile's estimable design critic, Robert Cumberford, goes a step further, proclaiming it "largely successful." Cumberford, like my e-mailers, predicts that soon we "all will have become so well used to the new look(s) of the various [BMW models] that ugly is the last word we'll want to use to describe BMW's in the twenty-first century." OK. I won't use "ugly." I'll say the Z4 is a joyless, fish-mouthed jumble and (my prediction) a commercial misstep. Like the Z3 before it, it manages to be simultaneously too effete and too macho. Unlike the Z3, it's cleverly done – various unnecessary lines flow into various other unnecessary lines in a seamless, laboriously thought-out fashion. But the extra lines add nothing – any attraction the car has comes from the basic shape, not the grim riffs Bangle and his crew have added to its surface. (Another objection to the Z4 is that its weirdness is only superficial, applied like make-up; for a profoundly weird car, take a look at the Fiat Multipla.)
Even if you like the riffing, the Z4 has a fatal flaw that Cumberford notes -- the "relative weakness of the rear fender form." Basically, the bulge over the rear wheels is too small relative to the curve over the front wheels, giving the car a wimpy, declining profile (especially evident in the photos here). The Z3 had the same problem, leading one to suspect it's a congenital Bangle defect. For all the Z4's convolutions, if you squint it looks like a fat little tub (though, admittedly, not as fat a little tub as the Lexus SC 430).
When I first got a longish look at the Z4 in the flesh – a black version, heading away from me, at night -- I thought I'd have to rethink this assessment. And BMW's print ads also manage somehow (Photoshop?) to make the haunches look more powerful. But now I've looked at a dozen Z4s, in various colors, in bright sunlight, and I can say I've never been less excited by the sight of a new two-seat sports car. Erase 50 percent of Bangle's brainstorms and you might have something – I felt like grabbing a tub of Bondo and smoothing it out right there in the dealer's lot. It didn't help that the Z4's paint job, which is supposed to reflect light from its complex surfaces in interesting ways, was not as good as you'd want for $34,000-45,000.
I suspect the main reason we won't get used to Bangle's "flame-surfacing" -- the reason the prediction of Cumberford and my e-mailers is wrong – is that BMW itself will chicken out and pull back from faux-Gehryism. Take a look at the pictures of the forthcoming BMW 6 Series convertible, or the new 5 Series sedan. They have Bangle's high, Dodge Stratus-like rear deck, but none of the draughtsman's-compass-run-amok "flame surfaced" planes. They look less like "moving works of art" than a 3-year-old Pontiac Grand Prix (with, in the case of the sedan, the greenhouse of a Chevy Malibu). Not that there's anything wrong with it!
It's true that Bangle has said that his radicalism would be applied to lower volume niche vehicles rather than high-volume sedans. And the New York Times' Phil Patton recently suggested that "flame surfacing" will live on, as BMW pursues not one but two radical styling directions, one for luxury cars and one for the company's "sportier, more dynamic models." Patton notes that the expensive new BMW 7 Series, also controversial, was actually based on a design by BMW's Adrian van Hooydonk, while the "flame surfacing" of the Z4 came out of a 1996 brainstorming session and two concept cars by Chris Chapman of BMW's California studio. Under this two-style theory, which seems to emanate from company headquarters, the Bilbao-on-Wheels look will continue in the company's forthcoming small "1 Series" cars, as well as the Z4.
I don't buy it. Is the idea really that wealthier BMW buyers will get Hooydonk's smooth, powerful designs, while less well-heeled BMW customers get sent in Chapman's uglier (sorry -- that just popped out) direction. What kind of "branding" strategy would countenance this split? Usually it's the style of the more expensive cars that's part of what sells the cheaper cars. "Flame surfacing" made its first appearance, after all, in the silly Gaudiesque details stuck onto the front of the current 3 Series sedan, BMW's core, non-niche, bread-and-butter model. Now the expressionist outbursts are to be confined to the niches and lower ranks. I suspect BMWs different-styles-for-different-models spiel will turn out to be mainly a useful theoretical cover while the company quietly snuffs out "flame surfacing."
Spiel is the operative word here. Bangle is clearly some kind of talker -- "during an hourlong interview," reports the NYT's Danny Hakim, "he mentioned Archimedes, Vermeer, Pythagoras, Euclid and the British art historian Kenneth Clark." In this, Bangle's not unlike those modern artists who seem to care less about what they draw or paint than the accompanying text, a process effectively ridiculed in Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word.
If words were cars, Bangle would be in great shape. If cars were "art" – or even architecture -- he'd be in great shape. But cars aren't art, and words aren't cars, and cars aren't buildings, and he's not.
To view or sign the "Stop Chris Bangle" petition, click here.