What should be exciting times for VW Group and its new product development programme has made Iain Robertson reflect on what he calls ‘Large Player Syndrome’ (or LPS), a disease that afflicted Toyota for the best part of forty years.
Manufacturing for a mass market should not be a problem, as long as a stance is taken on flexibility, accountability and broadening appeal. My ‘old stager’ reference point invariably reverts to Mars, the manufacturer of some of the world’s most popular confectionery countlines. The company was intelligent enough to recognise that combining refined sugar and chocolate is a recipe for sublime acceptability. Triggering anandamide reserves in the human brain, with small quantities of the endogenous cannabinoid contained in chocolate, will excite and open synapses in it that allow ‘feel-good’ factors to be released.
Yet, away from the science, Mars replicates its countline signature bar, with a delicious equivalent in the choc-ice sector. Its platform-sharing strategy extends to the Milky Way (the nougat element) line, with more conventional peanut-based (Snickers) and hazelnut-based (Topic) nougat, where the chocolate coating and caramel layers are also in lipsmacking evidence. Meanwhile, Galaxy takes chocolate creaminess directly to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk front door.
Although Toyota does appear to be slightly cured of its ‘blue rinse’ design and engineering anonymity that was much in evidence throughout the latter quarter of the 20th Century, its nanny-relevant Yaris of today, despite its rorty-snorty rally-based offshoot GR version, still holds a standard aloft for gentlefolks of a certain age. Fortunately, the Japanese firm’s current boss is a motoring enthusiast, as well as pragmatist. Toyota would not hold its world leading status, were it not for blandness but even being the John Major, or Mike Pence of the automotive scene does have its limits. Humans get bored with grey-hued tedium and Toyota recognised the fact. As a result, its latest Corolla is lovely and, even though its Supra is just a Kabuki dragged-up Beemer, Toyota’s SUV line-up is presently on the money and improving with each subsequent model.
While Germany has always adhered to grey suits, albeit quite crisply tailored, the balance of power that the ‘Greens’ hold in Teutonic territories has been the only real spice in the mix. It took engineering innovators, like Dr Ferdinand Piech, to apply kidology like a chocolate manufacturer. His platform sharing strategy across four of the Volkswagen Group’s brands (VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda) meant that motivationally identical cars could assume their important national identities and carry off brand integrity, where very little had existed before. The caramel, nougat and coating were amazingly common but the wrapping was markedly different.
VW has lost that independent thinking with the passing of Piech. While I am vehemently anti-demigods and glad that the likes of Jac Nasser (ex-Ford) and Carlos Ghosn (ex-Nissan-Renault) arrived at their points of denouement, Piech presented a different kettle of fish. He was smart but he also knew where his engineering strengths lay and would devolve rightly other powers to other departments. VW has behaved a bit like a headless chicken, resorting to ‘management by committee’ in the intervening period, evidenced by a commonality of design and price parity, as one company is always going to be easier to manage than several separate entities. Besides, it pleases the shareholders and financiers and is less likely to encourage corruption, something that VW is desperate to shake off in several operational areas.
I mention all of this, because my first sight of the new VW ID.4 model is so darned uninspiring. In profile, it could come from anywhere in Europe and even be Sino-related, so neutral and uninvolving is its design. It is clearly an exercise in ‘normalisation’…just because it’s electric does not mean it needs to look like a Prius and its ‘ugly tree’ analogy…as plain as plain can be, a style statement also applying to both front and rear aspects. While nowhere near as ghastly as a new Peugeot 3008, it does share some elements of the Gallic car’s style.
An exercise in auto-minimalism, the interior is equally unappealing and the materials (possibly because VW is trying to use renewable non-petroleum ‘plastics’ and fabrics) lack the tactility and quality for which the company has been long renowned. Much like the smaller ID.3, a First Edition variant arrives in VW’s UK dealer network next month. It is pitched at a hefty £37,800 (including the EV grant of £3,000) and, while benefiting from a decent specification, factor in a few personalising elements and you have a £40k family car, the equivalent ICE version of which weighs in for around £6,000 less.
Naturally, it is packed to the gunwales with electronic ‘sophistication’, which is fast becoming the VW byword for advanced complexity. It is said to offer 310 miles of range from its 77kWh battery pack, although 250 and a wee squeak of the bottom are likely to be nearer the mark. Its on-board fast-charging facility enables around 200 miles to be added within a 30-minute lunch-stop, if you need it. Mind you, its power rating of 201bhp is slightly more realistic and allows the 0-60mph dash to be completed in 8.2s, although its rear-driven (only) top whack is limited to 99mph, mostly to restrict sudden drainage of the battery.
Needless to say, VW claims that the car’s production at its Zwickau plant is ‘carbon-neutral’. I shall leave you to question the other polluting aspects of its existence. Possessing similar dimensions to the VW Tiguan but benefiting from the MEB space-saving electric platform, the ID.4 is roomier and more practical than its in-house alternative and complies with large hatchback designation, rather than VW’s insistence on SUV categorisation. Mind you, it is one of the few EVs that is rated at one tonne for towing capacity: a notional feather in its grey cap.
Conclusion: VW is falling foul of LPS and losing its much-admired character in the process. It is bad enough that EVs are largely devoid of individualism (well, you won’t get it from an identical spinning electric motor to each of its rivals!) but losing it on the style front too makes it less appealing in the shopfront.