The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Friday, June 02, 2006

Car Talk

I had no intention of writing a post at midnight on a Friday, but just before going to bed, I checked the Times one last time, and came across a What's Wrong With GM article hung on the hook of the Impala. Basically your standard "50 years ago, GM sold half the cars in America, now it's a pathetic 25%" story, describing how, even though the current Impala is a good car, it doesn't matter, because the Camnry and Accord are better.

Fine. I wouldn't own or even drive any of them, so I have no dog in this fight. But I'm a designer, and I simply cannot allow this to stand:
On the outside, Impala looks conservative — a criticism that used to be leveled at Camry before its latest redesign, which created a curvy car with a light, nimble feel.

Unlike Toyota, which was aiming this time out for a more eye-catching car, Chevrolet deliberately tried not to make a style statement with Impala, Mr. Clawson said.

"We weren't looking for a vehicle that would turn heads, but we weren't looking for one that would turn heads away either," Mr. Clawson said. "We were looking for a balance," a car that was "nicely styled but not ostentatious."

That approach, Mr. Moody of Edmunds.com said, seemed reasonable given the relatively bland appearance of the previous Camry and Accord models. But it now seems unwise given what Toyota has done with the latest Camry, which "so far exceeds the previous car that it almost seems like it's not a Camry," he said, but rather a Lexus luxury car. The Accord, already more eye-catching, gets another face-lift this fall.
Just yesterday I was discussing the Camry with a colleague, and I had almost the same response. Well, similar, anyway:
The good news is that it's the best-looking Camry ever. The bad news is that that's like having your best STD ever.
These guys' cluelessness is neatly embodied in their citing Lexus as some sort of design leader. That would be the brand whose flagship has only just now, 15 years after its debut, stopped looking like a poorly-rendered copy of a 1986 Mercedes. My favorite example of the plug-ignorance of car writers talking about aesthetics - in particular regarding Lexus - is the obsequious praise they slathered on the SC400 when it came out (setting aside for now that they refused to criticise the identical sheet metal on the SC300, a cross-price level sin that they normally decry in full throat). These guys, who probably couldn't tell Monticello from a McMansion, couldn't say enough good things about the SC400 - 'looks like a bullet,' 'screams fast!' and a lot more nonsense. Basically, the second coming of the 911.

I haven't posted a picture of the SC400 as evidence of my point - 10 years later, do you even recall this car? It was another milestone in Toyota's seemingly endless quest to create an invisible car. I saw one a few months ago and marvelled at how poorly it had aged: kind of bulbous, kind of bloated, and utterly characterless. Which brings us back to the Camry. As late as 1992, the Camry still looked like the boxy, utterly unattractive kind of thing that justified so much of Middle America's distaste for Japanese cars (obviously, economic insecurity, jingoism, and xenophobia did the heavy lifting). The great quantum leap in design at the time was to make a bulbous, dull car that somehow looked about 15% bigger than it actually was. Five years later, someone finally noticed that the "fat car" look hadn't really taken off, so they gave it a tail- and facelift, incongruously tacking on some corners.

So yes, compared to this, the newest Camry is good looking. In other words, it is no longer the ugliest car you can drop $25 grand on (you may hate the Chrysler 300, but it's ugly like retro fashion, not like a grandmother in appliqued track suit). It's not clear to me what the writer means by "light, nimble feel" - that hardly seems like a visual comment, but that's the only logical meaning in the context. So I'll say that the curves are pleasing, some of the detailing nice, and the overall effect is still of a big honking hunk of metal. Most significantly, it grows in three dimensions - front or rear view, it's reasonably crisp, but as soon as you get that 3/4 view, it starts to look... bloated. Again.

But hey, 400,000 Camry fans can't be wrong, right? So therefore, we must praise its appearance. The Impala, I'll readily admit, is nothing special, but its lines are clean, the profile is sleek, and it actually works in three dimensions. I'll be surprised if, 20 years hence, anyone recalls either car's aesthetics fondly, but I'll be truly shocked if this Camry survives the test of time.

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