Rearview Mirror: Design or Engineering- What Makes a German Car German?

Our exalted German car manufacturers have wreaked havoc on their loyal subjects lately. From Wolfsburg to Munich, a new generation of stylists has challenged the established ideas of German design. The latest round of new models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Volkswagen are leaving evolution at the door in favor of bold, sometimes radical new statements, intended to establish unique brand identities for their respective brands. Problem is, this new “design language” isn’t spoken by most long-time enthusiasts. In fact, it’s the brand-loyalists who are the most outspoken over the styling of any of these new models.

You need look no further than the recently released pictures of the next-generation Jetta as an example. Within a day of its unveiling on this site, it had been cursed as the twin of nearly every compact to mid-size Japanese sedan available today, with Corolla, Accord, and Camry topping the list. While most of the online “critics” offered no deeper analysis of the styling, the general sentiment was that for some reason, it just doesn’t look German, let alone like a proper Jetta, whatever that may be. However, the select few here who have actually seen the new Jetta in person, and the even more select who have driven it, proclaim it to be every bit a German car. This dichotomy raises the question of what make a German car truly German in character. Is it the look of the car, or the way it works?

On the one hand, we are visual creatures, relying primarily on our sense of sight to make major decisions in our daily lives; critical decisions such as whether or not to cross the street, and less critical but important decisions like what car to buy. For years many carmakers have used dramatic lines and flashy chrome to attract buyers. But not all of us are so easily lured by shiny objects, so German cars have been valued for their no-nonsense styling, which has been heavily dictated by functional needs over design whimsy.

On the other hand, we ask our cars to do a lot for us, from hauling our material possessions to protecting us in a collision. Some of us even expect them to be fun to drive. In all of these areas the Germans have generally come through for us. Cars like the GTI and BMW’s 3 Series have proven that practicality and fun can co-exist in daily transportation.

We all have our own reasons for choosing what we drive. Aside from a Saab 900, I have always owned German cars. More accurately, I’ve always owned Volkswagens: a string of Golfs and GTIs encompassing each and every generation to date. I can’t honestly remember what intangible trait lured me into my first Rabbit some seventeen years ago, but I know what keeps me coming back. For me, it has always been primarily about the driving experience. Beyond that, it comes down to the attention to engineering detail and the functionality of their designs. My suspicion is that most of us choose German cars for the same reasons.

So now we’re faced with dramatically different looking cars than what we’re used to. Some of the designs are accused of being to bland and generic (the Jetta V for instance), while others are just a little too bizarre to be considered German (any new BMW for example). As car enthusiasts, we are experiencing what business gurus call a “paradigm shift,” or a change in the established norm. But I would argue that this shift is primarily superficial, meaning that under that new sheet metal still lie the core values of each manufacturer. In other words, the visual changes on the surface have not affected the qualities underneath that make these cars so desirable.

I have yet to see either the new Passat or Jetta in person; the same goes for the BMW 1 Series and new 3 Series. So far these cars have met with general opposition from enthusiasts based on a handful of press photos that have been released. Without ever setting foot inside, touching the interior surfaces, or closing the door to the sound of that distinctive “thud”, they have determined that these new cars are somehow sub-standard.

But what I have learned recently is not to judge these new models based entirely on two-dimensional images. The nose of the new A6, for instance, looked large, almost grotesque in the first pictures. However, when I saw it in the flesh, right in front of me, my mind quickly changed. I recently drove the new A6 at a press event and came away thoroughly impressed with the driving dynamics and attention to details. In other words, I found the new A6 to be a genuine German car. Had I turned my head, looked the other way and simply declared it homely and ugly, I may have never discovered the true beauty of this car.

Despite a wave of new styling, I believe that the Germans still know what makes their cars so great, and they are still committed to delivering what we expect. The funky-looking new BMWs are still great driving machines, the new generation of VWs are still practical and affordable, and the overstyled new Mercedes are still as solid as ever.

There’s an old saying about judging a book by its cover, and as enthusiasts, I think we owe our favorite carmakers a little credit.

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