March 14, 2006

Design Regression

The parents of a friend of mine recently had the good fortune of aquiring a brand-spanking new Ford Focus, a mkII. Much of what my friend has to say about it concurs with the popular opinions of the mkII in the specialist press (which bodes well for journalistic integrity). Technically it is a better car, but, look at it.

Focus ST

Nice, yes? It's alright. This is the ST version with a few extra body mods on it to make it look better (and a few unseen mods to make it quicker, but that's beside the point). However, compare it to its mkI equivalent, the Focus RS.

Focus RS

I would contest that this is a much nicer looking car; the detailing is better, the design is fresher and the face is much more, uhh, purposeful. When the mkI Focus was launched, it was a direct replacement for the Escort, which was one of the most tedious-looking cars Ford, if not the industry, has ever produced. As a consequence, with its radical, edgy styling (representing a new design direction for Ford, which they used in other models), the mkI Focus was revolutionary.

Happily this change of direction was a massive success for Ford, and now you can barely go outside without seeing a mkI Focus. The public loves them, and not without reason. The styling (both inside and out…the interior was almost as radical as the exterior), combined with the class-leading dynamics and reasonable pricing, makes it a clear leader in the mid-size hatchback segment. Perhaps the ultimate endorsement of this is the amount of people in the Motorsport club with a Focus ;-), the 1.8 is a great engine and the handling characteristics are nice and predictable…and it's comfortable too. If any Ford advertising executives are reading then you can happily use our recommendation in future advertising campaigns, in exchange for a small fee/fleet of STs :-p. Ahem…

(On a less tongue-in-cheek side note, the dynamics of the mkI Focus are so impressive that I believe Aston Martin used the Focus as one of many benchmark cars in the development of the recent V8 Vantage.)

Apparantly the mkII Focus also improves on the dynamics of the mkI, which is nice. Why though, has Ford decided to tone down the styling? Was that a conscious decision, or did the Ford top brass geniunely think that the mkII is, visually, an improvement? It's hard to tell; for example consider the recent Chris Bangle-designed BMWs, the styling of which has provoked miles of column inches themselves. Did BMW deliberately seek to attract attention to their model range with such controversial styling, or did they misguidedly think that they'd designed some impressive-looking cars? However, there are sound reasons why Ford would decide to tone down the styling, with the success of the mkI the mkII does not need to make such an impact on the marketplace; the Focus brand is already well-established.

So, perhaps toning down of the styling is an attempt to widen the demographic appeal of the mkII. Perhaps they decided to take the mkII along a different design direction in order to reinvigorate sales, theory being that the mere 'newness' of the mkII will attract more sales (and encourage old Focus customers to trade-in their mkIs for a mkII, which coincidently is excatly what my friend's parents have done). Incidently Jaguar has come under critisism for doing the opposite with the new XJ. Despite being technically a vast improvement over the previous-generation XJ, it looks the same as the old one, and so the majority of people aren't even aware that a new model XJ has even been released.

However, the old XJ was facing severe competition from the likes of BMW's 7-series and Mercedes' S- and E-Class cars. The Focus, on the other hand, has remained at the top of the sales charts pretty much since the day it was launched in the late nineties until it was withdrawn from sale with the introduction of the mkII. Hence, there is little need for Ford to go with a significant design change, for the better or the worse. However, once again, I could be wrong. Perhaps Ford felt that the market for the Focus was about to reach saturation point, and by releasing a new version of the car, they would be able to keep Focus sales strong without seeing any drop-off. In which case, good move, but it's a shame that Ford elected to make this move with a car that is considerably less-striking than the mkI.

- 3 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Steven Carpenter

    Ford has a history of this, cycling from brave designs to fairly bland ones. Forgetting the saloon version for a moment, the old Focus was one of their best efforts. The new one is clearly a 'play-safe' option and suffers from poor detailing. I hate those silver corner things on the ST - they look superfluous and fussy. I don't think they could argue demographic appeal as the reason for the change – as you say the old one is pretty much everywhere.

    15 Mar 2006, 13:42

  2. I don't mind the styling of the new Focus, but at the same time I agree the mark 1 is much better. And don't diss Escorts so much ;-)

    As regards the XJ - I don't think they could really create a different look, nor should they. It's a fantastic looking car and they've no reason to change it, indeed their customer base (present and future – hint, me) would react very badly to a significant change in shape. It took me a while to accept the new XJ from the old one; I still maintain the X300 and X308 are better looking than the new X350. Likewise with the new XK, the front end is too contemporary and just looks ever so slightly vulgar for a classic sports car look. If Jag want to appeal to new customers fair enough, but they should launch new cars as well as do revisions of the old ones.

    18 Mar 2006, 21:58

  3. You're right about the XJ customer base though, I think the XJ is perhaps one of the few models where the look of the car is totally intrinsic to the car's appeal, in the eyes of the (current) customer base. For example I think the 7-series is outselling the previous model, which was visually a stunning, excellently-proportioned car, so evidently the 7 customer base don't really care what it looks like. Unfortunately though, as you're well aware the whole business is about making money, not keeping the petrolheads and aficionados happy (unless there are plenty of rich petrolheads and aficionados around ;-)), so the XJ could well survive in a more radical form. It would be a loss though.

    On that note, imagine a world where car manufacturers existed soley to make cars, and not money…it would be wonderful….it would a world where the Z3 M Coupe never went out of production, and Aston Martin would still be churning out V8 Vantages, and the Ford Escort would never have been built…ahhh….:-P

    19 Mar 2006, 23:08

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