Recently, I was offended by the Nissan Qashquai, for the simple crime of being unimaginative. To be totally fair to the Nissan it didn't actually disgust me any more than the rest of the recent crop of small crossovers; from a design perspective there really isn't a great deal to choose between them all. The trouble is, the world car market happened to stray across this particular recipe and are loathe to abandon a flavour that seems to sell itself, the roads will be crammed with the damn things for years to come.
It's at this point that I thought I'd try to at least consider what could be done, rather than just complain incessantly and vocally. Bored earlier today, I drew a quick sketch of the first design idea that came into my head. I know it's rough and ready, and not very pretty, but if you're willing to read on I'll explain just what the thinking behind it was.
From observation it seems that style and image are the two main factors that influence a buying decision, despite the customer telling you otherwise. They'll argue that cost or performance or environmental responsibility presses their buttons, and it might. But ultimately they won't drive anything they don't like the look of, or from a brand they can't brag about. Sad but true.
What can you do? Well, I'll venture that, with the right brand behind it, the first thing you need to do is stand out from the crowd. Create something a little different; no more broad-shouldered faux-muscles, no more Bangle style complex curvatures. We're talking going cold turkey on all the trends the industry holds so dearly.
The look that I envisage could be dubbed “retro”, but that's only a coincidence. The look that I'm keen to reference it mindful of the time before fashion got a stranglehold and individuality took a back seat. Look at the sketch above, just quickly, and then look away. Aside from being “bloody horrible” (I know it's borderline hideous; please have your “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” sensibilities on their most optimistic setting), I'd like people to tell me it looks robust, purposeful, practical, rugged, any of those words that associate with substance and useability.
At this point I ask you to consider the small utility vehicles of 20 years ago. Think of the Suzuki Samurai and, more usably sized; the Daihatsu Fourtrak. These were crude, utilitarian devices, more utility than sport, certainly. But they were well up to the job of what was expected of them. The Qashqai and its ilk are the opposite; they wear the clothes of a dynamic, capable machine but in reality are anchored firmly in drab family car territory.
Now take the mid-80s Fourtrak into mind. Look at one now and it seems hideously old fashioned. The dashboard was gimcrack and nothing felt, well, desirable. It didn't need to be; its station in life demanded only that it be able to perform those tasks assigned to it. Now imagine that vehicle, designed with the same consideration for practicality and worthiness, but imbued with the same feelings of tactility and expensiveness that people pine for these days?
Imagine a car, to compete directly with the Qashquai, devoid of all the me-too fripperies of that market segment. Give it a purposeful, pared down exterior and make it practical. Square styling makes for greater space efficiency. Smaller wheelarches make for more easily balanced proportions, better ride and lower emissions. A lower waistline makes for better all-round visibility. These were all features enjoyed in the 1980's, where there was actually far more choice in the marketplace than we have thrown at us today and the Crossover was an absurd concept that hadn't really arrived yet.
I keep mentioning the Fourtrak, and that car was great if you lived on a farm or had to cross the Somme on the way to work, but what of the typical family car buyer who, these days, is drawn to that crossover promise of butch looks allied to a familiar, friendly driving experience? Well, there's no reason that a genuinely purpose-led concept like the above shouldn't be offered in a de-mechanised 2WD version for those who, secretly, don't actually want to go off-road at all. The bonus to them is that of the extra practicality brought about by the omission of all those feel-good excesses.
But would people buy it? Well, at considerable risk of a cop-out, my answer would be that it would all depend on how well it was marketed. Can people be convinced that they like the look of traditional, utilitarian off-road cars more than they like the curvaceous, H&M confidence currently prevalent in the marketplace?
Well, the one car that came to mind when the drawing was half complete, was the Nissan Pao of 1987, one of the legendary Pike series of “boutique” cars. It was redolent of an earlier time, and was designed to appear more utilitarian than it actually was. Underneath was pure Nissan Micra, but the bodywork, with its ribbed panel reinforcements, exposed door-hinges and lo-fashion steel wheels, created the image of a heavy-duty, no-nonsense car that can cope with whatever life throws at it. Somehow a more honest proposition than a sleek, bulky crossover can offer. Well preserved Pao today change hands for considerable sums, so beloved are they by their home nation.
Huh. It's funny; as you travel further in a particular thought process, sometimes you realise that somebody else has already had the same idea as you. Well, that's just happened to me. Before I was born, somebody came up with the idea of creating a sturdy, adventurous looking car, based on ancient Simca mechanicals which, with hindsight, proved to be decades ahead of its time. The Matra Rancho. If you squint, that stepped roofline is reminiscent of the early Land Rover Discovery. The scattered spotlamps, roof rails and black plastic mouldings give the impression of utter battle-worthiness and go-anywhere credentials, yet it only served up 80hp of front-wheel-drive go.
Yet, for all this betrayal and off-road hopelessness, the Rancho still worked well as a do-anything vehicle and was infinitely more adaptable to the supposed lifestyle imaginings of the car industry than the Qashquai or any of its rivals. In fact, damn it, let's just bring the Rancho back and we'll forget I even did that drawing at the top of this feature. Bring it back as a well equipped, comfortable, well made car, keep the practicality and give it modern day drivability and economy. The Matra Rancho is a more honest car, a worthier and more justifiable car than any of the jacked-up hatchbacks of today will ever be.
All images have been stolen from various bits of the internet, except the drawing at the top, which I'll own up to having done myself.