AutoZine 20
1997 vs 2017: The Changing Trends

20 years is a long time for a competitive industry. Let's look back what have been changed through the years:

1. Style comes as standard

Beautiful cars like Alfa GTV or Peugeot 406 Coupe were rare in the late 1990s. Most Japanese and Korean manufacturers did not take styling seriously. Even in Western countries, styling usually lived under the shadow of engineering. Many of them had the design projects subcontracted to independent styling houses like Italdesign or Pininfarina. Today, every car maker should have a sizeable design department playing a key role in the development process. It usually recruits design talents from all over the world, promotes multi-culture and even cross-industry visions (such as furniture industry for interior design). No wonder all cars today are stylish - not necessarily beautiful, but at least you can feel the philosophies behind their designs.

2. Detroit reborn and globalized

Back in 1997, we used to describe the cars from the Detroit Big 3 as dinosaurs or craps as they were huge, outdated and poorly made, thus they usually scored one or two stars in AutoZine rating. Things started changing when Bob Lutz and Alan Mullaly joined GM and Ford respectively and reformed their product development strategy. Then came the credit crunch in 2008 which caused two of them to bankrupt. Surprisingly, when Detroit emerged from broke, they lost a lot of weight and became a lot more agile. Their rationalized plants and globalized product portfolio allow them to concentrate resources to make their cars and trucks better and more competitive. Who could have imagined Cadillac now beats BMW for driver appeal? or Ford Mustang appeals to German motorists? Detroit even takes lead in some technology fields, such as Ecoboost direct injection turbo and Voltec PHEV system. Benefited further by the recovery of US economy, they set profit records in recent years. Detroit once looked dim, but now it is positive again.

3. China grows from zero to hero

I had my first business trip to China in the mid-1990s. The cars on streets were outdated clones of Volkswagen Jetta Mk2 or Audi 100, plus some old Citroens or Hyundais. Over the years, the streets got more and more congested, and China becomes the largest car market in the world, eclipsing the USA and Japan combined. The same goes for production. In 1997, China produced 1.6 million cars and trucks. In 2016, the number surged to 28.1 million! No wonder many global players are willing to design dedicated models for the China market, just like what they did for the USA decades ago.

4. Italian design houses fall

In 1997, famed Italian design houses, i.e. Pininfarina, Italdesign (Giugiaro) and Bertone were still responsible for the styling of many Italian and French cars, plus some Asian cars. However, their prosperity faded as fast as the popularity of Donald Trump as car makers took design activities in-house. Pininfarina and Bertone once survived on contract manufacturing, but even that did not last too long. By the late 2000s, they got into financial problems. Eventually, Pininfarina was sold to Mahindra, Italdesign sold to Volkswagen and Bertone bankrupted.

5. Bigger is supposed to be better, but not always.

In the late 1990s, big car makers started acquiring and merging with smaller rivals to form superpowers. For example, Renault merged with Nissan, Daimler merged with Chrysler, GM tried to bond with Fiat, Volkswagen acquired Bentley, Lamborghini, Bugatti and eventually Porsche... It was believed that the larger the group, the more cost savings can be achieved and the more competitive it is. Today, this might be still true, but marriage is always troublesome, and it takes a lot of factors to succeed. Some smaller players prove that size is not everything. For example, Volvo uses clever modular platform and standardized engine strategy to make possible growth and profitability at a production volume of only half a million units. Mazda and Subaru also look fine at 1 million level.

6. No more bad cars

The world was full of bad cars 20 years ago. Understeer and numb steering were the norms of Japanese cars. Poor build quality and refinement were American and Korean. Italian and French cars were usually criticized for lack of reliability. Today, most car makers master the know-how to make decent engines and chassis, and many of them have well-designed proving grounds (or Nurburgring) to tune the ride and handling. The use of standardized components from suppliers like Bosch, ZF etc. also played an important role to narrowing the gaps between different car makers. As a result, 1-star rating becomes extremely rare these days.

7. SUV-crossovers dominate

Pickups and real SUVs like Ford F-150 and Explorer already dominated the US market in the late 1990s, but we could not imagine Europe and Asia would buy into the idea until someone invented crossovers. Crossovers are derived from car-based monocoque chassis, powertrain and suspensions but completed with a taller and tougher-looking body. In recent years, crossovers also expanded into B and C-segment, while there are plenty of striking and imaginative designs that lure buyers from conventional cars. Customers and car makers win. Planet Earth loses.

8. Revs up and down

20 years ago, high-revving engines are common sight on streets. Most Honda VTEC did at least 8000 rpm (S2000 even managed 9000 rpm), Ferrari 360 Modena did 8500 rpm, while BMW M3 E46 did 8000 rpm. High-revving engines produce high output without adding weight, thus it was the first choice for performance cars. However, following the maturity of turbocharging, especially in combination with direct injection, in addition to low-carbon legislations, most performance engines switched to turbocharging. Today, only Porsche 911 GT3 and Lamborghini remain hardcore believers of the high-revving philosophy.

9. Variable everything

In 2003, I wrote an editorial called "An era of variable", by then it was already obvious that more and more cars offer variable settings in various systems. Today, you can find variable driving modes in most executive or performance cars, which alter suspension stiffness, steering weighting (sometimes also ratio and active correction), transmission response, throttle response, exhaust noise, stability control intervention etc. Only the cheapest cars have none of these features.

10. Electronic driving aids and autonomous driving

Back in 1997, the most popular form of electronic driving aid was ABS. Since then, electronic driving aids increased exponentially - ESP stability control, Brake Assist, active differential, torque vectoring, blindspot warning, adaptive cruise control, self-parking, and more recently semi-autonomous driving. In a couple of years, we should see the first fully autonomous driving vehicle. By then, do we still need to get driver licenses? Will F1 drivers lose their jobs?

11. Electric boom

The electric car of 1997 was GM EV1, an experiment ended up in failure. It was heavy, seated only 2, took overnight to recharge yet travelled only 60-90 miles. Other attempts like Think! (invested by Ford) fell through as well. No one could have imagined that a new Silicone Valley venture called Tesla made a breakthrough. It proved that EVs could be practical, desirable and even affordable (when Model 3 launched this year). Now EVs represent fashion and a statement of taste, and governments are pushing hard to replace petrol and diesel cars with electric ones.

12. Car body evolves

In the first half of the last 20 years, cars, especially compact hatchbacks, grew taller and taller. They added more flexible seating arrangement, more headroom and raised hip points to improve outward visibility. To improve safety, they added longer front overhang, more structural steel, more airbags and active safety equipment. To improve refinement, they got more sound insulation and rubber bushings, thicker windows and firewall. Inevitably, they also got heavier and slower. In the second half of the period, the call for tighter economy/carbon emission standards reversed the trend. Cars became lower and lighter again. NVH suppression still improved, but by means of cleverer use of materials and construction.

13. Diesel rises and falls

Diesel cars once accounted for more than half of the cars sold in many European countries, thanks to their superior economy and much improved performance and refinement over the last 2 decades. It was also tipped to be the most promising technology to meet stringent CO2 emission standards. Unfortunately, NOx emission remains to be its weakness, so difficult to resolve that Volkswagen decided to cheat. The damages done are far more than anticipated. Now many governments simply want to kill diesel, accompanied with gasoline, altogether and replace them with EVs. Even if they are allowed to survive, they will face much stricter testing procedures and emission standards. Only expensive cars could afford the sophisticated fuel injection and aftertreatment systems required. The golden ages of diesel has well passed.

14. From platform to modules

Volkswagen and GM have been using platform strategies since the 1990s. Back then, "platform" meant virtually the same floorpan with the same wheelbase and width. Today, manufacturers use common modules instead of common platforms. This allows varying sizes and even different powertrain and suspension configurations. More flexibility means you can build cars of different segments out of the same set of common modules, vastly reducing production costs and development time.

15. Supercar boom

After the burst in the early 1990s, supercar fever cooled down for a decade, when Pagani and Koenigsegg emerged, Ferrari and Porsche renewed their supercars soon afterwards, then came Bugatti and endless special editions from virtually all sports car brands (even Lexus!). Today, these limited production supercars usually sell for a million dollars or more each, yet they are snapped up well before production starts. The world has too many rich people.

16. From motor show to web debut

Motor shows are no longer the only way to launch new cars and concepts. Increasingly more car makers use web to unveil their new products, and therefore withdraw from motor shows to save money. While Geneva, Frankfurt and Detroit are still safe (for now), Birmingham, London, Paris and even Tokyo are either dead or under threat. Surprisingly, CES electronic show, Goodwood Festival of Speed and classic car shows like Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este become new venues for concept debuts.

17. Car magazines struggle

Just like most paper media, car magazines have been on a downward trend in the past 2 decades following the popularity of web and social media. Sadly, some good writers left, some good magazines downgraded, and most write about the same cars in much the same way now. Some try to catch the new trend with video car reviews, but advertisement alone can hardly sustain high-quality production and keep a strong team. Some writers turn to produce video review by themselves and release on youtube, becoming real independent motoring journalists. It might be the way to earn a living, but if you want a comprehensive reading, including information about technology, manufacturers and classics, there is still no replacement for conventional magazines, paper or online ones.

18. Premium is the new norm

Premium brands used to be niche compared with mainstream brands. This is no longer true. In the past 20 years, sales of BMW, Mercedes and Audi tripled, while Opel/Vauxhall, Fiat, Peugeot/Citroen, Renault and European Ford were either reduced or flat. As a result, the German premium brands now sell more cars than many mainstream brands. Motorists would rather buy a BMW 1 or 3-Series at the same cash of a large Mondeo, and no one buy big Citroens or Peugeots anymore. Admittedly, not all premium brands are as successful as the German's, but it is clear to see why everybody rushes to build premium cars.

19. Affordable sports cars dying

The mid-1990s was the second peak of affordable sports cars and roadsters, with new comers like Lotus Elise, Porsche Boxster, MGF, BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Audi TT, Fiat Barchetta etc. flooding the market. However, the fever was shortlived. Sales declined gradually as people turned to more practical alternatives like hot hatches or crossovers. Today, new entrants like Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ are extremely rare and take their bosses a brave heart to approve.

20. Something never changes, surprisingly.

Frankly, changes are to be expected. What we did not expect is some old stuffs still soldier on, such as steel monocoque body and torsion-beam axle. Morgan is still building the same cars as it always did - oh, and it relaunched the 3-wheeler! Lotus is still losing money. 911 still looks like a 911. Something never changes.

Copyright© 1997-2017 by Mark Wan @ AutoZine