Matt Prior

Pre­dict­ing the fu­ture of cars isn’t easy

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

If no car ex­ists for peo­ple to buy, how do you know that’s what they’re go­ing to want?

The most suc­cess­ful car firms are those that can spot trends far into the fu­ture and start mak­ing cars ready to catch them. See: Nis­san.

There are those who raised eye­brows to­wards Nis­san when it aban­doned mak­ing cars like the Almera and Primera – smooth-riding, re­li­able, trust­wor­thy, bor­ing fam­ily cars like ev­ery­body else was mak­ing, and car­ried on mak­ing – and de­cided its large pas­sen­ger car fo­cus was go­ing to be en­tirely about weird 4x4s and SUVS and ‘what-is-a-cross­over-any­way?’ in­stead. I know. Ridicu­lous.

Only now, guess what? It’s not so ridicu­lous at all. The Qashqai and Juke rou­tinely ap­pear in best­selling car lists right across Europe and it took a decade or more for some car mak­ers to catch on. I could well un­der­stand why other man­u­fac­tur­ers didn’t im­me­di­ately fol­low Nis­san, but the ab­sence of an SUV or cross­over from sev­eral big com­pa­nies’ line-ups un­til the past four or five years has re­mained some­thing of a mys­tery.

But I’m also won­der­ing how of­ten far-sighted man­u­fac­tur­ers ac­tu­ally spot trends emerg­ing, and how much they cre­ate trends in the first in­stance. Af­ter all, if no car ex­ists for peo­ple to buy, how do you know that’s what they’re go­ing to want?

I’m not sure you just ask them. The old ‘faster horses’ quote rightly or wrongly at­trib­uted to Henry Ford about ask­ing 20th-cen­tury trav­ellers what they wanted ap­plies. What do I want from a fridge? Some­where to keep the veg cold and a lit­tle light that comes on when the door opens. But what if a fridge could be more than that? Some­times it takes a vi­sion­ary to show you.

If you’d asked driv­ers 15 years ago what they wanted from a car, would they re­ally have said “a bet­ter­look­ing car, but one that’s heav­ier, thirstier, worse-han­dling and worse riding”? Great: have a cross­over.

The Suv/cross­over/4x4 thing shows no signs of let­ting up, but what comes af­ter that? Peu­geot, Mercedes and Kia won­der if it’ll be lower, more sleek-look­ing tour­ers; lush es­tates and fast­backs.

So far only the Mercedes CLA Shoot­ing Brake ex­ists in small-car­size, but Kia thinks its sim­i­larly de­signed Pro­ceed, to be un­veiled im­mi­nently, will soon be tak­ing 20% of all Ceed sales. If it is a trend, there’s good rea­son with it: lower and lighter than crossovers, they’re eas­ier to meet ef­fi­ciency targets with. Thus primed, in a decade I won­der how es­tab­lished this body shape might be. And if it is, which man­u­fac­tur­ers will still be catch­ing up. If you’re not go­ing to start the band tour­ing, at least jump on the wagon be­fore it passes.

Rachel John­son reck­oned her brother Boris’s ‘burka’ col­umn, which got him into bother re­cently, was the kind of thing writ­ten while on hol­i­day in Italy, lunchtime wine chill­ing in the fridge.

Things are con­sid­er­ably less con­tro­ver­sial at Au­to­car, but it’s an ex­cuse I’ll draft for a lack of clar­ity: Knock­hill has fairly pointed out that mak­ing a suc­cess of a cir­cuit doesn’t al­ways re­quire an old air­field, as I might have im­plied in my col­umn last week. I should have been clear that I meant it seems to help new cir­cuits. As the Scot­tish track, plus lo­ca­tions like Brands Hatch, Cad­well Park and Oulton Park, will tes­tify, an air­field is, in it­self, not a pre­req­ui­site to hav­ing a race track.

It’s also, I sus­pect, not a co­in­ci­dence that if you drafted a list of the best race tracks in the land, the un­du­la­tions of Knock­hill, Oulton, Cad­well and Brands would put them right among the best of them.

Merc CLA Shoot­ing Brake: the shape of things to come?

Knock­hill: lots of twists but no run­way

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