Love the square, hate the "flair"


  • Mercedes-Benz S-Class

    Mercedes-Benz S-Class

    What happens when the latest BMW 7 Series mates with a Chevrolet HHR? | July 01, 2010

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If you saw the movie Office Space you might well remember a recurring theme that Jennifer Aniston's character had to deal with — "flair." Flair referred to the many baubles and trinkets that waiters and waitresses were expected to wear on their uniforms to help "liven up" the eating experience (I believe the required minimum was 15 pieces of flair, but if you really wanted to express yourself you would, of course, wear more).

Both the word, and its representation as a pathetic gimmick in the movie Office Space, serves to illustrate a troubling styling trend in today's automobiles. Or to put it another way, in 2006 automakers are showing too much flair, both literally and figuratively.

Let's take the all-new 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class as an example. This model has long represented the pinnacle of the Mercedes brand. It's supposed to exude refinement and elegance because that's what S-Class buyers exude (or at least that's what these buyers tell themselves they exude…). Regardless, the newest model is neither refined nor elegant. Its formally clean shape is broken up by exaggerated fender flares, not to mention a busy trunk that looks to be inspired by — believe it or not — the current 7 Series. In this case both the actual fender flares (that go so far as to break up the headlight design), and the general sense of "flair" swirling about the entire vehicle distort any sense of world-class luxury car. Some have suggested the S-Class took its styling cues from Mercedes' ultrahigh-end brand, Maybach. Well, there are two models that have garnered styling accolades in recent years and should serve as inspiration — the 7 Series and the Maybach.

But this is not a model-, or even brand-, specific problem. Sure, the new M-Class and R-Class also show signs of "displaying their flair," but only at the "required 15 pieces" level. The new Audi Q7, Mazda CX-7 and Subaru B9 Tribeca are way up at the "pretty boy Bryan" level of 37 pieces (you really must see Office Space if you haven't already).

Here are some general guidelines to help automakers know when "flair" is OK, and when it isn't:

  1. If it's a performance car, a certain amount of flair is allowed. The idea is that performance cars utilize wider wheels and tires, and thus they need fender flares to contain these more aggressive tire/wheel packages. General design "flair" (swooping curves, extra chrome and brightwork, etc.) is also allowed because, again, with performance cars the idea of flamboyant styling goes along with these cars' general purpose. The new Miata is pushing the "acceptable flair" limit for me, but because it is a sports car I'm giving it a pass.
  2. Sport-utility vehicles can also have flair — if they are truly capable of serious off-road work. Hummers and Jeep Commanders have earned their flair (specific fender flares and flair in general), R-Classes, CX-7s and B9 Tribecas have not — and probably never will.
  3. Premium cars, like premium people, are secure in the knowledge that they are of premium quality. They don't have to hit people over the head with it. If an Audi SUV, Mercedes luxury sedan or any other high-end model looks like it's trying too hard, that's because it is.

Thankfully, the news on the styling front isn't all bad. Another trend I've noticed is the preponderance of "square" models coming to market. It started with the Hummer H2, Honda Element and Scion xB, and continues with the Hummer H3, Jeep Commander, Land Rover LR3 and upcoming FJ Cruiser. All of these cars have met or exceeded sales (the FJ will, too, trust me…), and while aerodynamics aren't their strong suit, maximum interior space-efficiency certainly is.

And while it's taken all my strength to avoid any references to old Huey Lewis songs, let's just say that after a decade of increasingly jelly beanlike shapes, it's cool to be square, again.

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