Why does cars of the same brand look similar these days?

Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said “The only thing that is constant is change”. More than anything else, automobiles have always stayed true to this adage. Over the course of time, they have evolved significantly to become what they are today. While the industry has grown leaps and bounds since the invention of automobile more than a century ago and the automobiles themselves have become sleeker, faster and incredibly safer, their design and styling doesn't seem to be heading where it should be.

No, we aren't treading to the big debate that all cars look the same these days. Apart from some standout exceptions that were few and far in between, cars of the same era have always looked similar to our eyes. The thing that’s troubling us though is the so-called ‘family design language’ that automotive manufacturers seem to have adopted en masse. What’s driving this change? Is it a rapid change in consumers' tastes or a deliberate attempt by manufacturers or, worse, a complete shortage of ideas from designers? We might never know the real reason but all we can say is this is getting difficult to digest. Why does all cars of a particular brand have to look the same? Can't the individual models be given identities of their own?

Take Volkswagen, for instance. From Polo to Passat, there is hardly a differentiating factor when it comes to their looks. There might be an additional chrome strip here, a slat there and the profile of the DRLs might look different, but that’s about it. Sadly, Audi and Porsche mimic this trend higher up the group’s hierarchy too. Unless you possess a keen eye for detail, identifying an A3 or A4 from an A6 or a Cayenne from a Macan might prove to be difficult. Volkswagen Automotive Group isn't alone in this fast-spreading stigma. The situation elsewhere is no different either.

Ever since ‘flame surfacing’ was ditched, all BMWs look like mirror images of each other when parked side by side. Ultimate driving machines they may be, but unique looking machines they aren't. Not far away in Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz is joining the fray too. Differentiating between the C-Class and S-Class has never been this challenging. Even Jaguar and Land Rover, with just a handful of models in their portfolio, are no longer finding it worthwhile to bring out individual styling cues for their models. Fords slapped with the Aston Martin-inspired grille, Kias penned by Peter Schreyer, the strikingly-similar rear ends of the Maruti-Suzuki Alto 800 and Celerio – the list would go on.

While these family styling cues are often painstakingly-designed to impart oodles of class and grace to the brand, they lack the all-important uniqueness. If you think that’s an impossible combination to achieve, Jeep shows us it's not. Despite a very strong family lineage and a legacy to live up to with every new launch, Jeep designs models that are instantly recognizable as one but still unique in their own ways. Be it the Renegade, Cherokee or Grand Cherokee, there is no mistaking them for anything else. Hyundai’s much-hyped ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ is a case in point too. It shares the same design elements with the entire lineup and yet manages to dish out models that look similar yet convincingly unique.

Agreed, adopting a common design language brings with it a host of benefits. Brand awareness goes up significantly, the chances of success are higher and the company’s designers need not toil for long as all they have to do is take an existing design, tweak it a bit, give it a nip here and a tuck there and, voila, a new model is born. But, don’t the customers, the actual car-buying public who part with their money to own one, deserve variety? They aren't out shopping for apparel to be greeted by the same designs in different sizes when they enter the showrooms. Please, get us back to those days when individual models had identities of their own and didn't have to piggyback with one carried over from the brand.


Mahindra's all-new Compact SUV (S101) caught testing near Chennai

With space, practicality and added ground clearance as their trump cards, Utility Vehicles are increasingly getting popular in India. Mirroring this trend, compact crossovers and sports utility vehicles are widely believed to be the next big thing in the Indian automotive industry. It's not surprising then that every manufacturer wants to grab a share of this pie before it gets too crowded.

This camouflaged vehicle, caught testing in the outskirts of Chennai, is Mahindra's first proper attempt at cracking the compact SUV space. Of course, we have discounted the Quanto when we made that statement as it was nothing but a chopped-off Xylo. Codenamed S101, this compact SUV from Mahindra will be positioned below Scorpio in the company's line-up and compete heads-on with the Ford Ecosport that's a hot property in the market.

As evident from the pictures, this is an early prototype with a lot of unfinished parts and panels which makes it tough for us to debate on its looks and styling. The unique mesh pattern in the radiator grille seems to be a fresh take on the historic seven-slat grille that adorns all Mahindras. The headlights and taillights, with three individual circular elements each, will most probably not make it to the production model. The vehicle looks reasonably wide and it's overall stance isn't disproportionate like the Quanto. The arched roof, visible in one of the pictures, looks weird though. We will reserve our final judgement until we see the production model.

Like the Ecosport, this compact SUV from Mahindra will measure less than 4 meters in length. The company is said to be working on equipping this SUV with petrol and diesel engines of displacements less than 1.2 and 1.5 liters respectively to ensure that it qualifies for the excise duty concession offered by the government. With the Bolero, Scorpio, XUV 500 and Thar doing extremely well in the market, Mahindra is already well-established in the utility vehicle segment. Once launched, this new model is only going to raise their stakes further.


Hindustan Ambassador joins Maruti 800, becomes history

2014 is turning out to be an year of significance in the Indian automotive industry as not one but two of the most iconic automobiles that graced our roads were relegated to history in a span of few weeks from each other. The Hindustan Ambassador and the Maruti-Suzuki 800, two cars that inspired many generations of Indians to take to driving, fulfilled their dreams and aspirations of owning a car and dominated their segments for what seemed like eternity, will no longer roll out of depreciated production lines in Uttarapara and Gurgaon respectively. Will we miss them? Of course, yes. But have they left a void? Quite honestly, apart from few short bursts of emotions running high, we don’t think so.

Both the Amby and the 800 existed too long, oblivious to the advent of newer models from around the globe, with designs that weren’t refreshed for years, mechanicals that weren’t significantly re-engineered for decades and boasting next to nothing in terms of safety features or creature comforts. What they had, and had in spades, were legacies and chequered history. They might have had their origins in Britain and Japan but Indians accepted them as their own, showering the Amby and 800 with loads of love and respect.

Hindustan Motors started manufacturing “The grand old lady of Indian Roads”, as the Ambassador is often fondly referred to, in 1958 and the production continued till May-2014 making it, quite possibly, the longest mass-produced car in the planet. Based on Morris Oxford III of Britain that went out of production in 1959, it is quite startling that HM continued to produce the Ambassador in its original form with no significant styling or mechanical updates this long. To put that in perspective, the Amby has had an incredible run of more than 50 years, a period in which normal cars go under the knife five times at the least. Remember, we are being conservative here. Amby’s tough build that could withstand abuse forever, comfortable ride that could take the non-existent Indian roads in its stride, sofa-like rear seat that enabled sari-clad women in our country to walk in and out in total comfort and incredible ease of repair endeared it to Indians. All that HM had to do was constantly upgrade the car to bring it up to date and they failed spectacularly in it.

With cosmetic changes limited to the grille, parking lamps and taillight lenses, the Amby wasn’t going to go for long. Any last hopes of revival, on the lines of Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle or our very own Royal Enfield Bullet, bit the dust when HM announced suspension of production at its factory outside Kolkata a couple of weeks back owing to weakening demand and growing financial problems. Though not officially disclosed, we believe that this is the final nail in the coffin for the much-loved but equally-outdated Ambassador. The grand lady has aged and, for heaven's sake, let's hope that HM lets her rest in peace!

Gleaming in white with contrasting dark tints, armed with crash-guards front and rear, with a swirling flashlight on top, the Ambassador evoked authority and respect like no other. That it was the vehicle of choice for Indian bureaucrats until a few years back isn't surprising.Maruti 800 did all that the Ambassador did and probably more, just that it took a completely different approach to do so. That the 800 accomplished the feat three decades later probably signals the shift in needs and preferences of the Indian market.

Based on the Suzuki Fronte SS80 of Japan, Maruti 800 came in as a whiff of fresh air when it was launched in 1983. Those were the days when all that a prospective buyer had to do was to zero in on either the Premier Padmini or the Hindustan Ambassador that, by then, had become outdated, bulky and slow. Ah, how times change. Modern, light, frugal and more importantly cheaper, Maruti 800 soon became the best-selling car in India. It held onto the top spot until 2004 when its newer sibling Alto leapfrogged it. Though Maruti-Suzuki kept the 800 going with no major upgrades, it continues to rule the Indian market in one form or the other. In fact, multiple generations of the car existed simultaneously in India for some time and, remarkably, each one of them sold well. What should have been successive generations of the 800 became popular in India as Zen, Alto and now Alto 800. With a production run that lasted more than three decades and cumulative sales that exceeded 2.7 million units, the Maruti 800 literally put India on wheels. On 18-January-2014, the last Maruti 800 rolled off the production line, leaving behind a legacy.

Having survived widespread rumors of getting axed in 2012, Maruti 800 finally drove into sunset this time around. We were quite vocal about our feelings for this little car then and even drove a beautifully-maintained 1984 model to mark its end in our own way.

For hundreds of Indian families, the Ambassador or the 800 were the first car they had owned. Thousands of those who hold a driving license today probably learnt driving in one of these two cars. With the curtains down on such iconic, cult models, an era in the Indian automotive industry has definitely come to an end.


Google unveils its own 'driverless' car, surprises with a live demo too!

At Anything On Wheels, we always classify people into two types, one that consider cars as mere modes of transport and the other that can’t resist grinning from ear to ear every time an opportunity to sit behind the wheel presents itself. Unfortunately, whichever group you classify yourself into, the reality is that driving in cities has become a chore these days. You might even be piloting a Porsche 911 but what’s the fun in being stuck for hours in a traffic congestion that leaves you scratching your head? That’s why, when Google announced that it is working on driverless cars, we were all ears! Though a handful of mainstream automotive manufacturers have tried their hands at driverless cars before, when it comes from the world’s leading tech giant, we better pay attention.

Weeks, months and years passed and all we heard about Google’s progress in this project were several instances of mainstream cars fitted with weird equipments being tested, often in locations out of sight of the general public. While we just about started shaking this thing off our brains, Google sprung a surprise last week when it unveiled its own ‘driverless’ car. Yup, that’s right. Not content with making all of us hyper-dependent on its search engine, Google built a car on its own albeit without a steering wheel, an accelerator, a brake pedal and the creature comforts. 

Now, stop screaming “What constituted the car then?” and scroll down.

A cute toy-like thing with four wheels, one at each end, is what this car actually is. Visualize our very own Tata Nano, this isn’t far off! It’s just that this Google thing is a whole lot cuter. It has two seats, space to accommodate passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop and a screen that shows the route inside. Of course, Google has loaded it with software, complex integrated circuits, a host of sensors and navigation equipment that ensures that this car can drive all by itself. With a restricted top speed of 25 mph, Google claims that the sensors in the car can remove blind spots and ‘see’ objects in all directions as far as two football fields away.

Doesn't that sound better than a human-being behind the wheel that can only ‘see’ ahead but has to rely on mirrors to know what’s behind?

Check out this cool video that Google has uploaded in YouTube.

Will you or one of us be able to buy one? No. Atleast, not now! About a hundred of these prototypes with purpose-built manual controls would be built to primarily be tested by Google’s safety drivers. If that’s successful, a small pilot program would be run in California, the hotspot of technology. And, if the tech develops and evolves as Google hopes it would, we might see a few of these on road. Now, that’s a lot of ‘if’s before we could see one on road for sure.

Chances are, if you aren’t working for Google and if you weren’t one of the lucky few that were part of the live demo last week, you might not stumble upon this car ever, like us! Sigh!!!


Ford Fiesta facelift spotted testing near Chennai

The Ford Fiesta might be a best-selling car globally but the model, in its latest incarnation, failed to make a mark in India. In fact, the previous-generation Fiesta, that was rebadged and repositioned as Classic to make way for the new Fiesta, still sells more than the new model. High initial pricing and a slightly bulbous rear styling meant that the car's strengths like excellent handling and long list of features never came out, leaving the Hyundai Verna and Honda City to rule the roost in the mid-size segment.

But Ford isn't pulling the plug on the model just yet. A facelifted Fiesta was showcased at the 2014 Auto Expo in New Delhi earlier this year. While we were expecting the launch to happen soon afterwards, Ford seems to be still in the testing phase. Spotted yesterday with test registration plates in the busy NH45 on the outskirts of Chennai, the new Fiesta is getting ready for another shot at mid-size sedan supremacy.

This might be just a simple facelift but we got to say that the Aston Martin-inspired radiator grille at the front brings so much character to the new Fiesta. It comes across as being mature yet stylish. Further accentuating the mature look are the sleeker and longer headlamps. The profile remains unchanged while the rear gets a subtle change in the form of slightly bigger taillights and a redesigned bumper. The bulbous feel is still there but vastly reduced compared to the earlier model. The all new brown color needs special mention too. Hinting at slight revisions in the interior are the circular air-conditioner vents visible in one of the pictures at the left corner of the dashboard.

While the incredible road manners and long list of features that makes the existing Fiesta owners smile behind the wheel are likely to be carried over to the Fiesta Facelift as well, we hope that the pricing strategy isn't. That could single-handedly make or break the Fiesta's prospects in India. Should the City and Verna be worried? Probably not. Should the driving enthusiasts looking for a mid-size sedan take note? Hell yeah!