What Were They Thinking?

If Mercedes and VW have missed the mark with their latest concepts, it is not a matter of immediate concern; both companies are doing a roaring trade with their current model line-ups in North America.

 Amid all the excitement of the recent Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows, three vehicles stood out for me. But not, I’m afraid, in the positive sense. It seems that after years of solid but uninspiring work, German car company designers are starting to let their hair down. The problem is in some cases, they are going too far, or not paying enough attention to current trends.

Take Mercedes-Benz, for example. Does this company really need yet another roadster? It seems that almost every other model in the MB line-up is a two-seat convertible or a sporty car of some kind. At Detroit, Mercedes presented us with one more; the Vision SLA. Not that I am against fun roadsters or sporty cars—far from it—but they need to display a sense of class and style, especially when they carry the three-pointed star. And the SLA, like last year’s overwrought Vision SLR luxury coupe and convertible, is lacking in the taste department.

To be fair, let’s look at the good points of the SLA. Based on the Benz A Class hatchback, the new roadster is extremely compact, at 3.77 meters in length. It uses the A Class’s suspension and its economical 1.9-liter four-cylinder powertrain, producing 125 bhp. Bodywork is made of an interesting combination of aluminum structural components, sheet aluminum and composite materials. Load bearing sections of the vehicle structure at the front, rear and sides are made of aluminum designed to absorb impact forces. In fact, Mercedes claims the SLA is capable of meeting the same crash safety standards as larger sedans despite its diminutive size. The central floor area uses a newly designed multi-cavity aluminum structure that is both strong and lightweight. Composite panels are used for most of outer bodyshell except the doors. The construction technique means the SLA weighs in at just 950 kg.

So far so good: the SLA is a compact, lightweight convertible with excellent safety characteristics. But why did the designers feel the need to make this interesting car look so toy-like? The front end of this car is overrun with styling features, the most awkward being the integrated wing. One can admire Mercedes for being more adventurous with its design concepts, but both the SLA and the exotic SLR are almost like caricatures.

If Mercedes designers appear to be trying a little too hard to make an impact, their counterparts at Volkswagen are not doing enough. The two concepts VW presented this year, the Dune in Los Angeles and the Advanced Activity Concept (AAC) in Detroit, were decidedly under-whelming. The Dune is an attempt to create a modern version of the original Beetle-based Beach Buggy of the ‘60s. As such, it is necessarily an exercise in frivolity. So it should be fun and outrageous. Instead, VW’s German design office created a tame-looking concept, which while packed with interesting features, looks little changed from the standard Beetle. One wonders if it would not have made more sense to give the Dune project to the VW studio in California, surely a more appropriate setting to design a buggy.

In Detroit, VW caused a stir by unveiling the AAC, essentially a luxury pick-up truck. While such an idea might have been innovative five years ago, it is old news today. Lincoln and Cadillac both have luxury trucks for toting furniture home from Neiman Marcus coming soon. If VW is to get back into the pick-up market (remember it did have a small pick-up years ago), then this oddball creation—with its turbo-charged V10 diesel engine— is not the way to do it. Nor does the AAC offer the versatility of some new hybrid pick-up/sport utility vehicles like the forthcoming Chevrolet Avalanche.

If Mercedes and VW have missed the mark with their latest concepts, it is not a matter of immediate concern; both companies are doing a roaring trade with their current model line-ups in North America. But in the longer term, the question marks over concept design may be a more serious matter. --John McCormick