x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

It was a good idea at the time

Daniel Bardsley unearths the motoring world's biggest design disasters and strives to find out why they failed.

The Pontiac Aztek was quickly killed off by its manufacturer.
The Pontiac Aztek was quickly killed off by its manufacturer.

While some cars like the Toyota Corolla or the Volkswagen Golf have become household names through their sheer volume of sales, other models have proved much less popular than expected. Names such as the Renault Vel Satis, the Peugeot 1007 and the Pontiac Aztek will only be remembered for their disappointing sales figures - and, in some cases, their unappealing looks - rather than their popularity.

In fact, the history of motoring is littered with vehicles that seemed like a good idea on paper but that never struck a chord with motorists in the metal, sometimes to the severe financial detriment of their manufacturers. With the 1007, Peugeot attempted the unique feat of producing a city car with sliding doors which, according to Julian Rendell, the industrial editor of Britain's Autocar magazine, is "a very clever idea". Imagine how much easier it makes getting out of the vehicle in a tight parking spot.

Unfortunately, practicality came at the expense of weight - the car was heavy for its size - and, in particular, aesthetics. "The car ended up looking like a box," says Rendell. "The styling was compromised, and [looks] are still a vital reason for people buying a car. They put functionality ahead of looks and it flopped." If the 1007 was a brave but ultimately less-than-successful attempt to create the perfect city car, there is a vehicle from another French manufacturer that is much harder to understand.

The Renault Avantime, says Rendell, was "the answer to a question nobody asked". The question being, in this case, whether anyone was interested in a two-door MPV. So few people answered in the affirmative that production ended after just two years, killing off the factory of the Renault affiliate Matra that designed and made the Avantime. Nonetheless, despite only a few hundred Avantimes finding owners in the United Kingdom, for example, the vehicle - which looked the part, even if the concept was a strange one - has developed a popular following among enthusiasts and even has a British owners' club.

Another Renault sales disappointment - again perhaps a result of the company trying to push the boundaries a little too far - was the Vel Satis. While the Vel Satis lasted much longer than the Avantime - production ended recently after eight years - it was little more successful in the marketplace. This executive car was an attempt by Renault to tap into the premium brand segment dominated by the likes of BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.

Knowing that it lacked the profile of the Germans and Japanese in this sector, Renault reasoned it would fail if it just came up with a run-of-the-mill large saloon. So the company decided to do something different, producing an upright design that looked more like a hatchback. Well-heeled buyers were unimpressed. "It was quite a pricey car and trying to persuade people to spend lots of money on a French car is difficult in the first place, and then you have a wacky concept," says Rendell.

"You could say the Avantime was a niche [vehicle] and it sold as a niche, but the Vel Satis was a real flop for Renault." So poor were sales in right-hand-drive markets that Renault quickly dropped the car in right-hand drive markets, something Fiat also did with its 2005 Croma, which, like the Vel Satis, was somewhere in between a saloon, an MPV and an estate. There are countless other examples of cars that have struggled to find their way out of the showrooms.

Ford in Europe had trouble selling its large 1994 Scorpio model, which car magazines were predicting would be a disaster the moment they first caught sight of official pictures of the car. "It had ... large bulbous panels, rear tail lamps as one big strip and bug eyes," says Jonathan Sandys of the UK design consultancy Design Q. "These were prevalent in US styling, but the UK and Europe were still the biggest markets for that car and we just didn't like American styling."

After four years, the Scorpio was dropped and was not replaced. But the Scorpio, with its slightly offbeat looks, had nothing on the Pontiac Aztek. This SUV was little short of hideous, with ungainly proportions and awkward front and rear ends. The sales figures were equally shocking, with General Motors shifting little more than a third of the number expected. Like the final version of the Scorpio, the Aztek only survived for four years.

"There are a lot of ugly cars out there," says Sandys. "Just about every car that Pontiac has made is pretty ugly. That's recognised in the industry. I am sure as a result that their sales suffered." Perhaps that's one of the reasons GM decided to close the Pontiac brand earlier this year. For all the lack of success these models may have had, at least the manufacturers were trying. They pushed the boundaries and attempted something different.

Given the costs of developing a model, and the financial headaches that can result from failure, it is easy to understand when manufacturers play things safe. After all, as Rendell put it, no matter how much market research a company does, "there's still the unknown". "You're spending hundreds of millions tooling up and you're still not sure whether it's going to sell," he said. "That's partly why the car industry has historically had a reputation for being conservative."

The trouble is, playing it safe can prove just as costly as being too daring. Just ask Jaguar. Their current X-Type and their recently discontinued S-Type both had retro styling cues that might have struck a chord, but instead put off motorists who preferred more daring designs offered by Mercedes and BMW. The X-Type has never been the serious rival to the BMW 3 Series or the Mercedes C-Class that Jaguar hoped it would be.

"It's coming out of production this year," says Rendell. "It used [the chassis of the] Ford Mondeo, which is a very good car, but they covered it with pipe-and-slippers styling and interior. Yet the car was aimed at young people, so they misjudged what they should be offering." So how can manufacturers, with their vast experience and in-depth market research, often involving customer clinics, get it so wrong?

"Maybe the people market testing the cars aren't representative of potential buyers," says Sandys. "Or it could be that the car has got so far down a particular development route before it's tested, that it's too late to make wholesale changes. "They say they have to launch this car, so can we improve what's here. And I have heard of cases where cars haven't been market tested at all." Just as half-hearted efforts in customer clinics to fix an unappealing car can lead to failure, so can too much fiddling with a clever original design.

The ill-fated Aztek is thought to have suffered from this, with cost-cutting measures having compromised an original concept car design that had been greeted much more favourably than the final product. "Designers can come up with something a bit off the wall and that can be communicated in the concept cars where there are no constraints," says Sandys. "Where those [designs] are pushed through to production, they become diluted. For example, a panel might be too expensive because it's got too much curvature."

Manufacturers can also come unstuck as a result of the time lag of several years between the design stage and production. This was "a really big part" of what handicapped to the X-Type, according to Rendell. "The market and the tastes and fashions can move massively in that time," he said. "When it was created, it was probably a good idea." dbardsley@thenational.ae