Axon's Automotive Anorak: Spot the difference - a word on design evolution

01st March 2019
Gary Axon

If you’ll kindly excuse the appalling use of the English language (after all, this is Goodwood!); if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This seems to be a philosophy often adhered to by the motor industry when replacing one (successful) model with another.


Over the decades we’ve seen plenty of cars that have sold like hot cakes in their original incarnation, being superseded by overly-cautious second or third generation model that slavishly follows the spirit and style of their predecessor too closely. This sometimes makes it all-too difficult to spot the difference from one model to the next; the manufactures not wanting to alienate existing customers or risk losing valuable sales by being too radical with a new model’s design. 

The Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Mustang, Renault 5, Range Rover and Toyota Century all followed this pattern, for instance, with the Porsche 911 being the prime example of ‘playing it safe’ and not moving too far away from the concept and style of the original model. Just a quick glance at Porsche’s latest ‘992’ clearly reveals that the 2019 model is directly descended from the 1963 original, even if the latest 911 has gained some mid-age spread!


When Jaguar replaced its popular second-generation ‘XJ40-series’ XJ prestige saloons with the all-new aluminium-bodied X350 XJ8 models, the Coventry marque received much (slightly) undeserved criticism for this fine car resembling the previous XK40-X308 models far too closely; the overly cautious and conservative styling in particular coming in for many unfair remarks. Jaguar listened to these comments and went to the other extreme in 2009 when it replaced the X350/358 with its daring and avantgarde X351-series XJ saloons; this current range-topping Jaguar saloon bearing little resemblance to any of its forefathers, thus taking some time to be accepted by the marque’s more traditionally-minded clientele. Pah, whatever you do, sometimes it seems you just can’t please everyone.

At present it seems that evolution, rather than revolution, is currently much in vogue when it comes to styling a brand-new model. Last year saw the launch of the latest G20 BMW 3 Series (plus the latest ‘spot-the-difference’ X5) and Audi A6 (C8), for example. To my eyes (and many others it seems) I genuinely struggled to spot the difference between these all-new-for-2018 German models and their predecessors.

Sure, if the new and previous BMW or Audi models were parked side-by-side, the styling differences would become more apparent, but seeing these new cars in isolation (as displayed at a motor show, for example), it really is quite a challenge to see what’s new and spot the difference between the new and old.


I was reminded of this overly-safe styling trend upon seeing the latest fifth-generation Renault Clio in the metal for the first time in Paris a little while ago. Renault has done a very neat job with the design of the new Clio (just as it had done with the outgoing 2012-19 fourth-generation model), but I had to look incredibly hard to see if the shiny new Clio I was inspecting really was the all-new 2019 model; the similarity to the older version being so close. 

Look at a photograph of the latest Clio alongside the previous model and a handful (but only a handful) of differences become apparent. The new Clio’s headlamps, for example, now ape Renault’s current ‘family look’ with distinctive illuminated ‘tears’ running down the flanks of the front wings from the main light units, as also found on Renault’s Megane and Talisman. 

The rubbing stripe brightwork at the base of the doors has now been simplified (possibly for cost reasons, as the previous Clio’s ‘hump’ indentation is still there), with a superfluous ‘feature line’ added just below the window line; a pointless design flourish that’s not quite as incongruous as the latest VW Polo’s absurd feature crease, but rather inconsequential all the same. Look very hard and other design changes such as a more angled A-pillar/door mirror surround and reworked rear door handle area might be spotted, although these are very subtle, to say the least!


Now please don’t get me wrong here, I quite like the look of the new Clio, just as I do the latest BMW 3 Series (but less so the X5 and Audi), but I fear this trio of manufacturers have played it much too safe and cautious with the design of their crucial new models. 

I understand the importance of a Brand’s DNA being instantly recognisable from one model to the next, and that being too radical with a new model’s styling can be a real risk and cost sales in the short term. As if proof of this was needed to help illustrate the point, when Ford replaced its conservative Cortina/Taunus with the ultra-modern Sierra in 1982; this ‘radical’ new model took a while to gain widespread market acceptance with traditional mid-market saloon car buyers; many opting for the less ‘extreme’ Vauxhall Cavalier. Today, however, for an early 1980s car the globular Sierra still looks surprisingly contemporary and less dated than GM’s straight-edged J-Car Cavalier.   

Perhaps launching bold, future-focused and far-sighted cars such as the Ford Sierra, as well as the game-changing Citroen DS, Renault Avantime, NSU Ro80 and original Mercedes-Benz A-Class, might be too great a financial gamble to take these days, but I for one sincerely hope that the evolution of passenger car design gets a move on, so that we don’t get stuck in a long, slow jam of successive ‘déjà vu’ models that make it difficult to distinguish the new from the old.   

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • BMW

  • Renault

  • Jaguar

  • Porsche

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