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Design Essay: Why don’t people like ‘clever’ cars?

15 November 2018 | by Aidan Walsh

It’s an odd thought that extraordinary intelligence, while perhaps the defining quality of the human species, isn’t always conducive to mainstream popularity. From that old cliché of the school nerd’s head being dunked in the toilet bowl to the dearth of ‘deep and meaningful’ in the pop charts and on prime-time TV, being ‘too clever for your own good’ often seems a sure way to remain forever in the shadows – or an acquired taste at best.

“Ah, but,” you might say, “in the adult world, especially that of design, intelligence and ingenuity will always get you ahead!” While this is undoubtedly true up to a point – otherwise technological advancement simply ‘wouldn’t be a thing’ – a look back at recent automotive history reveals myriad cleverly-thought-out vehicles whose avant-garde nature appeared only to alienate consumers, ultimately leading to commercial failure.


Audi’s forward-thinking A2 managed six short years on sale (during which time the company reportedly lost £4000 on each example sold) before shuffling off without a true successor. Honda’s slippery little Insight hybrid, years ahead of its time, fared no better and barely caused a blip on the public radar back in the early ‘noughties’. Then there was the ultra-practical Fiat Multipla (an object of ridicule in many quarters), pragmatic Citroën C4 Cactus (dumbed down at facelift time) and the aptly named Toyota iQ (not deemed worthy of replacement).

Even the ostensibly successful Mercedes-Benz A-Class of 1997, a masterpiece of space efficiency, proved unable to truly stand the test of time. Despite racking up well over one million sales in its first two generations, the car’s defining ‘sandwich floor’ layout was unceremoniously ditched in 2012 as the third-generation model reverted to a conventional layout without so much as a backward glance.


Perhaps these cars, if one is being cruel (or kind, depending on your perspective), might be best viewed as the nerds the of the road, a rag-tag bunch of misfits whom, despite garnering great praise from their ‘teachers’ (designers, journalists, etc.), found few friends amongst their ‘peers’ (the public).

Like many a nerd, they were often misunderstood or dismissed out-of-hand, with consumers often failing to get past more superficial factors to discover the talent hidden underneath. Since we tend to anthropomorphise our cars, it perhaps follows that we, at least instinctually, prioritise conventional good looks, athleticism and high-status markers over intelligence in them, just as we often do in prospective partners, business associates and heroes (film stars, musicians and athletes).


The A-Class may well have offered big car space in a small car package, but it wasn’t physically imposing like Mercedes’ traditional offerings, nor could it attack a B-road in the manner of a BMW 1-Series – factors which one suspects were of far greater consequence to the thrusting, image-conscious buyers its maker wished to court.

The curious Toyota iQ may have been optimal urban transport in many ways, nonetheless an unfortunate whiff of the household appliance (it was nicknamed ‘Indesit’ by a well-known motoring programme) meant few would ever give it time of day. Moreover, aluminium construction may have helped Audi’s A2 minimise weight, but the trade-off was a hefty price tag throwing it into contention with larger and purportedly more prestigious metal, leaving it very much a niche choice.


In other words, these cars were, for the most part, products of logical and sensible thinking thrust into a world which rarely seems to value either. The issues they attempted to confront (overcrowded roads, fuel efficiency and environmental damage), though clearly important, are not ones which truly excite the general public – at least not yet.

Conversely, one gets the sense that the notion of private transportation is still inextricably tied to romantic (and hugely appealing) ideas of speed, power and the open road – or else those of social climbing and impressing the opposite sex. Thus, the vehicles which spark public imagination en masseare those which continue to play to these desires.


It would however be wrong to cast our collective aversion to the truly novel and paradigm-shifting as simply a matter of fashion or passing fancy, for it in fact appears to run far deeper. In politics for instance, the concept of the Overton window (or the window of acceptable discourse) is a well-known one – theorising that ideas falling too far outside current policies and norms will invariably be considered unpalatable by the public.

As it happens, a somewhat similar principle was also proposed by industrial designer extraordinaire Raymond Loewy. Loewy’s ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’ (MAYA) rule articulates that “(the public) is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”


Thus, the instant and overwhelming success of some clever cars, such as the Vauxhall/Opel Zafira of 2000 (which pushed the envelope but not by too much) and the failure of rivals like the aforementioned Fiat Multipla. In a market which had already accepted large MPVs, the Zafira offered seven-seat practicality within a smaller footprint, tempered with ultra-conventional Astra styling. The Multipla, though equally useful, repelled risk-averse buyers with oddball looks which might as well have been penned on planet Zarg.

Perhaps today’s shortened product life-cycles aren’t helping here, with manufacturers more liable to pull the plug on a boundary-pushing product before allowing time for widespread acceptance. It’s no secret that many past trailblazers, like Renault’s Espace and even Alec Issigonis’ Mini, took time to find their feet in the market, while one suspects the likes of the Citroën 2CV (an exceptionally clever car) caught on quicker than they might otherwise have, but for the lack of conventional alternatives at the time.


It’s not always easy being clever then, but there is a silver lining to the cloud: as any keen observer of politics will be aware, the Overton window can shift significantly over time, sometimes in a remarkably short period. Subjects once considered radical can often make their way into the mainstream in the wake of even more outlandish proposals – which act as ‘lightning rods’ in effect.

Just as the Espace (of which just nine were sold in the initial month) paved the way for the later Zafira and its ilk, the A-Class and A2 have arguably made BMW’s similarly gangly i3 more acceptable to our eyes, whilst the radical Honda Insight helped opened the door for a smorgasbord of other hybrid vehicles, including the Toyota Prius – and perhaps latterly for EVs too.


Accordingly, it seems these ‘pioneers’ are often viewed more positively with hindsight, once their true impact can be assessed. Just as computing was once just an obscure hobby for nerds, today’s four-wheeled geeks might well clear the way for tomorrow’s mainstream. After all, where would the present-day ‘in crowd’ be without their iPhones and social media platforms?

It’s a tough and risky job, but someone’s got to do it. Here’s to the pioneers!

design essay