Plastic surgery for cars

Another year, another motor show, another array of skin-baring models, either four-wheeled or two-legged. (Plus hoards of virgin—male—paparazzis following them along the globe). The Geneva motor show, which takes place at the heart of Europe’s sophistication, boasts the most attractive, bold, ambitious from each car company’s design room, turning the event into a fashion show compared to an auction market (US) or a scene from The Matrix (Tokyo—“Misteeeer Andersooooon”…)

I was browsing a collection of new concept cars introduced in and I noticed something strange: I could always tell if a car is from an Asian company or a European company. In the aforementioned slideshow, this, this, and this are from Asia and the rest is from Europe.

Is it that Asian companies present only family-oriented cars? No—there are SUVs from Audi and Aston-Martin. Or maybe Asians are too “moderate” and “humble”? Again no—certainly this Subaru looks more aggressive than that Volkswagen. But definitely there is a pattern in Asian companies’ cars.

Then I realized the reason of my strange feeling: Asian cars were, literally, “strange.” Sometimes my brain makes the matter more complicated than things look. The three Asian cars had either too much of something or too little of it, abundant in one area but lacking in others…they were all out of balance. Browse the slideshow, and whenever I felt “WTF,” bingo, that car was from Asia.

Let’s compare Mitsubishi CA-MIEV and Alpha Romeo 4C for example. Both cars are aggressive in their design. But while Mitsubishi looks like a sumo wrestler trying to become a Kabuki actor (without any synergy effect), Alpha Romeo is a fashion model enhanced by steroids (or Photoshop).  I am no car designer but it is painfully obvious that the former is applying too many layers of makeup to hide its natural face (and fails), while the latter is…born that way.

Why do Asian companies need to “try too hard” to gain attention? Where did the amazingly subtle beauty found in small objects go? I blame the emblem, or lack thereof. If I am an Audi, I do not need to assert myself more than list four overlapping rings horizontally and slap them on the radiator grill. If I am an Alpha Romeo, that triangle attracts a week’s worth of attention in five seconds. If I am a Rolls-Royce, my mere presence tells everybody to shut up and back off.

Asian companies, without an established identity, need to do something “extravaganza” to gain attention. It is a sad truth, but that itself is fair. Everybody needs to start somewhere. They even have an advantage compared to their European counterparts. Because almost nobody knows their “identity,” they can freely experiment, not bound by their own legacy.

They certainly worked hard, but just when they became ready to get out of wallflower status, they seem to hushing themselves away into something worse: a clown. As a result, they are giving even more attention to their naturally beautiful European siblings. How come this happen all the time?

I see two issues with the Asian companies’ car design.  (1) They never grew their own identity. They have relied too much on following the ever-changing cosmetic “trends” for years and now they don’t know what their original face looks like. (2) They do not have real “taste” which can only be acquired through accessing real beauties and art constantly.

We certainly cannot blame the designers in Asian companies. What can they do, who are always pressured and have no time to acquire “tastes” and whose brilliantly incompetent boss has the power to add an extra (and ugly) line to a perfect drawing, thanks to the seniority corporate culture?

There was a time I expected Asian companies to grow their design identity, or their identities themselves, sooner. But more than a decade has passed in the new millennium and we are still at this stage. Will it change, ever?