As anyone with even a fleeting interest in car design is no doubt aware, the development of an all-new model is an incredibly complex, time-consuming and astronomically expensive process. The rewards are there of course, there’s nothing quite like shiny new metal to attract would-be customers to a brand’s show stands, social media channels and dealerships.
However, thanks to the competitiveness and pace of change of today’s car industry, ‘newness’ is often fleeting. No sooner does a car hit the streets than a flurry of challengers are lining up knock it from its perch – not ideal when its manufacturer still has multi-billion-pound development costs to amortise.
This, of course, is where the trusty mid-life facelift comes in. A tried and tested way to freshen up pre-existing product for relatively little investment, the mid-life nip/tuck is an important milestone in the lifecycle of most cars, with few models managing to make it from show-star to scrapheap without recourse to the surgeon’s (or designer’s) knife.
This notwithstanding, the term ‘facelift’ can, in an automotive context, encompass a wide variety of approaches. There’s the ‘spot-the-difference’ type makeover, exemplified by the 2017 SEAT León, where features such as tweaked lighting signatures, subtly-altered grilles and new colour/wheel choices may be lost on all but the most hardcore aficionados of a model or brand.
Some choose to make more obvious alterations, such as those undergone by the 2017 Skoda Octavia, including not only reprofiled bumpers, but all-new headlamps, a larger grille and more aggressively sculpted bonnet (hood). The recent facelift of the DS3 is also notable here, with the addition of the ‘winged’ grille signifying the split of DS from Citroën itself.
Others push the envelope even further, like Vauxhall/Opel with its 2015 Corsa update which, whilst retaining its predecessor’s basic underpinnings, received not only a fresh face, but an entirely new set of exterior panels, along with substantial interior upgrades; a major overhaul which could almost pass for a generational change.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to all this, since, as is often the case with misjudged plastic-surgery in humans, car facelifts have a habit of inflicting aesthetic carnage onto a previously well balanced, if ageing, canvas.
Over-ambition, wherein designers attempt to radically modernise archaic products, seems to be a leading cause of this – as Peugeot demonstrated in 2009 when it inflicted grievous bodily harm upon the pretty 206 by grafting on the gormless, bloated face of the 207, thus creating the laughable 206 Plus for developing markets.
This over-ambition can even descend into desperation, often in the case of ailing firms lacking resources to modernise their output. Take Rover, whose once handsome offerings were subjected to a string of ham-fisted makeovers in their later years, culminating in the addition of a ghastly faux-Audi grille to the otherwise quaint 75. Then there was SAAB, whose venerable 9-5 took on a near-comical demeanour following a disastrous second facelift in 2006 with chrome-edged, blacked-out headlights.
Snap changes in corporate design language can also necessitate unconscionable quantities of automotive botox. Volvo’s decision to abandon Scandinavian minimalism in the late 2000s resulted in its C30 receiving an ‘expressive’ new face, which only served to create discord where once there was harmony.
Likewise, Volkswagen’s uncharacteristic foray into ‘emotional’ design a decade ago resulted in the addition of a U-shaped ‘mouth’, complete with tacky chrome lipstick, to several models including the Touran, Golf ‘GT’ and R32 variants, and the Touareg (pictured), although thankfully this didn’t last long.
Even exotics like McLaren’s 12C haven’t been immune, that car having been re-nosed 206 Plus-style in 2014 to create the arguably less cohesive, P1-faced 650S.
Furthermore, whilst some manufacturers overreach themselves with facelifts, other lose their bottle, often crushing the spirit and charm of unique cars – perhaps most infamously, Maserati’s 3200GT was stripped of its delicious ‘boomerang’ tail lights upon becoming the USA-friendly Maserati Coupé (4200GT) in 2002.
Fiat’s Multipla (top image) was another victim; its bizarre but endearing appearance was steamrollered by heavy-handed alterations in 2004 to try broadening its appeal – so too was the same company’s second-generation Punto, whose sharp-suited individuality was binned in favour of a half-hearted attempt to ape rival Volkswagen’s form language at the nose with taller headlights and a conventional grille between them.
So clearly there’s been no-shortage of bad facelifts down the years, but what about good ones? Some began with a base product so unattractive it would be difficult to despoil any further – like BMW’s E65 7-Series or the second-generation Subaru Impreza (all three faces pictured above) – while many are so minor as to have little effect on the cohesiveness of an overall design, like the aforementioned SEAT León.
In any case, significant yet convincing facelifts are fairly rare.
Sure, a mid-life revamp can prove useful for ironing out unwanted flaws or quirks in an otherwise well-resolved composition, the original Jaguar XF became the car it should have been all along post-facelift, so too the current Ford Focus. What’s more, minor detail changes can sometimes act as a cherry atop an already appetising cake – see the addition of ‘angel eye’ headlamps to BMW’s E39 5-Series.
However, it seems the true masters of the facelift are those manufacturers who pursue mostly evolutionary design strategies, since they are rarely required to fuse conflicting design cues and form languages into one car.
Volkswagen has pulled off a few blinders when on form, as did Peugeot in its 1990s glory days. Audi rarely slips up either (witness the way the signature single-frame grille was ‘phased-in’ on the 8P A3), much less Porsche, who’ve repeatedly pulled off the most difficult trick of all: convincingly modernising a decades-old design.
Want proof? Look to the 964 and 993 generation 911s (both of which share basic architecture with the 901 of 1964), the 944 and 968 (which can be traced back to the ‘70s 924) and the 928, which matured like fine wine over its considerable lifespan thanks to expertly applied touches.
Mid-life surgery for cars – as with humans – can be a dangerous game, then. In skilled hands and with reasonable expectations, it can work wonders… but woe-betide those whose ambitions are too great, or those who attempt to defy time entirely, for they stand to unleash a cascade of horrors. Those which have gone before surely bear testament to that.
Past Masters – Five Fantastic Facelifts
- Porsche 993 (1993)
Arguably the most beautiful 911 of all (as Ian Callum assured us on our Instagram, no less), the last air-cooled generation pulled off the near-impossible in harmoniously rejuvenating a thirty-year-old design.
- Peugeot 306 Phase 2 (1997)
Took the 306’s near-perfect proportions and added in perfect detailing (106 Phase 2 likewise).
- Lotus Elise Series 3 (2011)
Another old design successfully keeping up with the times, more visually polished than its forebears.
- Volkswagen Passat B5.5 (2001)
Looked even more ‘right’ than the original, a seamless overhaul
- Volkswagen Golf Mk2 ‘big bumper’ (1989)
Gave the Golf GTI a chiselled jawline, undeniably handsome.
Best Left Alone: five botched procedures:
- Hyundai Coupe (Tiburon) RD2 (1999)
As quad circular headlights became popular, Hyundai tried adding them to their Coupe. It didn't work...
- McLaren 650S (2014)
With those proportions, it should be impossible to go wrong, but somehow they managed it.
- Fiat Punto mk.2 (2003)
Bye bye individuality, hello ‘me too’ Volkswagen pastiche. They weren't much better at facelifting the later Grande Punto either, as the resulting Punto Evo gained an unpleasant plastic moustache...
- Fiat Multipla (2004)
Fiat also attempted to normalise the infamously controversial Multipla, but didn’t even finish the job; the new straight-laced DRG juxtapositioned against the still-wacky glasshouse and IP.
- Volkswagen Polo 9N2 (2005)
‘Four-eyed’ DRG gave the 9N Polo its own identity, but facelift sent it scampering back into big-brother Golf’s shadow from whence it hasn't returned since...
Do you vehemently disagree with these lists? Do you for some reason think the Peugeot 206 Plus actually looks brilliant? Feel free to shout at us on social media, via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – or all three, if you want, just to make sure.