The decline of design
Hands up any of you who think the new Porsche Panamera is gorgeous. Now keep your hands up, go outside and apologize out loud to the gods of good taste. For you are obviously in serious need of help.
What has happened at Porsche? Why, oh why, hasn't the company produced a car that's simply beautiful to behold? I saw one of these rumbling around Weissach last summer and, for the few seconds before I was moved on by a burly security guard, I was reeling from what I'd seen. Surely this must have been a test mule, a grotesque prototype that bore little relation to what would end up in the world's Porsche showrooms.
My overriding impression was "Cayenne squashed by elevator." Considering the waters of competition the Panamera is wading into, I felt sure there was more refining to be done in the looks department. I was wrong. When the first official photographs were recently released my disappointment was palpable. I mean, this car is set to take on Maserati's sublime Quattroporte and Aston Martin's upcoming Rapide-a car so beautiful I couldn't tear my eyes from it.
It's bound to be a brilliant driving machine, the Panamera. That much is certain because, well, it's a Porsche. But bloody hell, why couldn't they have built something that's visually stimulating too? You might well be thinking that looks are subjective and therefore can't be commented on with any degree of scientific integrity, but that's nonsense.
Consider the following. George Clooney is a good-looking man; Philip Seymour-Hoffman is not. The crumbling buildings in Rome and Venice are beautiful; the vast, endless grey tenements of East Berlin are not. The 246 GT is possibly the most gorgeous Ferrari ever produced; the 1980s Testarossa is not. See? It's pretty simple to establish what is and what is not aesthetically pleasing.
Earlier, I sat down with Porsche head of design, Michael Maurer. I expressed my concerns that Porsche needed to build a truly beautiful car in light of the aforementioned competition. "The Panamera will be a stunningly beautiful car to behold," he reassured me. "You will not be disappointed."
To my mind, the problem is laziness and, to be fair, Porsche isn't the only guilty manufacturer. But the rot set in shortly after the original Boxster was launched. For when the brilliant-to-drive, mid-engine Boxster first appeared, the contemporary 911 was the gorgeous 993. When the next-gen watercooled 911 broke cover (the 996) it was identical to the Boxster right up to the A pillars. Which might have meant cost savings, but it also meant confusion for anyone seeing either car in the rearview mirror. The Porsche brand took a battering as a result.
The Cayenne, though, really took things too far. This colossus of an SUV was never, ever going to look like a 911 but that's what Porsche tried to achieve up front. Result? The world's ugliest car. What really sticks in my throat, though, is how successful that model has been because it's meant continued laziness in styling. And the whole "family look" is really getting on my nerves at the moment, throughout the industry.
Consider the new VW Scirocco. When I first saw this car I thought it was cool, funky, individual. I thought that right up until the latest Golf was unveiled. Surprise, it looks exactly like the Scirocco, meaning the new coupe just looks like a Golf, and no doubt every new model VW will unveil over the coming couple of years.
Audi is just as guilty. When the flawless R8 blew us all into the weeds a couple years ago, we all remarked how unique it looked, with its daytime running lights adding an air of mystique and menace. Now every A3, A4, A5 and A6 in the land looks the same. Fine for the lesser models, but where's the benefit to R8 owners? The image of the company's flagship has been tarnished because it no longer looks jaw-dropping-it's just another Audi. And that is a terrible shame.
When I was a boy with Stuttgart's finest on my bedroom walls, the cars all looked different. There was the ineffective but undeniably pretty 924, the space-age 928 and the iconic 911. Three models, all of which looked totally different from each other, yet each one obviously a Porsche. Evidently the stylists had to work for a living back then and times were far more interesting.
Surely I'm not alone in my shallow appreciation of good looks. Most of us fell for our significant others, initially at least, because of what they looked like. There's more to it, but it took an initial physical attraction to get the ball rolling. Cars are no different for me. I can forgive a great many flaws if when I park a car for the night the thing is so drop-dead gorgeous that I just have to glance back at it before turning out the lights.
Jaguar's Ian Callum claimed he was thinking a lot about Kate Winslet when the XK was being designed, and it shows in that car's curvaceous sexiness. I don't know who Michael Maurer was thinking about when the Panamera was designed but I can tell you this: I wouldn't fancy her.