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I grew up thinking that every make of car had its own identity. This was back in the days when people only used the word brand for things like Oreos. But in today’s terminology, we would say that cars then had strong brand identity. A Ford looked like a Ford, a Chevy like a Chevy. Though they changed from year to year, there was a continuity that tied each year’s models together and distinguished them from the competition. Buicks had those funny little portholes on the side. Fords generally had round taillights. Cadillacs had spectacular tailfins. Pontiacs were wide and leaned toward sporty. In the 1950s and ’60s, the greatest challenge facing, say, a Chrysler designer was in coming up with something that would feel completely Chrysler-like at the same time that it projected a sense of being new. For a few years both Chryslers and Cadillacs had tailfins, but no one ever confused one with the other. A Cadillac tailfin was thinner, more sculptural—a punctuation mark on a big, voluptuous car. A Chrysler tailfin seemed to emerge out of the body of the vehicle.

We haven’t lost all interest in the notion that cars have their own DNA. A Volvo still looks like a Volvo, and certainly Jaguars are Jaguars (indeed the new models look too self-consciously like the old ones, but that is another story). At least one major brand, Cadillac, has powerfully reasserted the potential of brand identity in the last few years, with angular, aggressive-looking cars that may not be the unambiguous symbols of elegance GM thinks they are but are clearly identifiable as Cadillacs. And of course the whole retro movement in car design is based on little else but the idea of brand identity fused with nostalgia.

But as the markedly poor sales of Ford’s neo-Thunderbird make clear, the trend is fading. Today Cadillac’s effort at a coherent brand identity isn’t shared by many car manufacturers. The very idea of it is getting weaker and being replaced by the opposite attitude. Call it “Take Whatever Works for Someone Else and Make It Yours.” In new designs, brand identity seems to have taken a clear second place to plain old-fashioned copying.

This year the most intriguing things at the North American International Auto Show, the annual winter showcase of new designs in Detroit, were not the exotic concept cars that so often dominate the show, or even spectacular new high-end models. The real surprise was in several ordinary, middle-of-the-road production models that looked like they had been produced by designers who…well, let’s just say that nobody could accuse them of failing to pay attention to what’s already out there on the road.

Take the Kia Amanti, a brand-new sedan that represents an attempt by the Korean automaker to go upscale. What better way to make that point than to have a front end that looks from half a block away like the front end of the Mercedes E-Class? Since 1996 the E-Class has had a distinctive front, including a large oval headlight paired with a small oval parking light, a design that last year was altered slightly but is still quite striking and, until the Kia Amanti came along, unique.

Kia Amanti’s crudely detailed grille is of course different from that of the Mercedes—and there’s no three-pointed star either. This is not a matter of Kia trying to trick buyers. It’s more a case of prestige swiping, of using a design element that has been developed elsewhere and appropriating its associations for the benefit of a new product that doesn’t have anywhere near the status of the original source.

The rest of the Kia Amanti doesn’t resemble the Mercedes E-Class, which might be just as well since the rear of the E-Class—before last year’s redesign softened its lines—looked like an old Ford Taurus. Maybe there is some connection there since the overall shape of the Kia Amanti sedan, and particularly the design of its back end, calls to mind the last models of the Lincoln Continental, which in its final years was a much larger, more elaborately equipped version of the Taurus. If the Kia Amanti could be mistaken for an E-Class from half a block away, you could take it for a Continental from a lot closer. Oddly Kia’s E-Class front and Continental side and rear fit together to make a reasonably coherent whole. The designers may not be the most original form-makers around, but at least they managed to craft the pieces they lifted from elsewhere into a decent-looking car (even if you’re sure you’ve seen it before).

There is a similar sense of déjà vu in the new Ford Five Hundred, the sedan the company has billed as its new primary passenger vehicle, replacing the aging Taurus. It turns out to be a kind of synthesis of existing high-end sedans, which is something of a surprise given that this car was produced under the supervision of Ford’s celebrated design chief, J Mays, who I thought would have been eager to shake off his reputation as the presiding guru of retro design and show his ability to create something new. There’s nothing new and different about the Five Hundred except the combination of sources that Ford has plundered. The car basically has the details of a Lexus LS430 contorted into the body of an Audi A6. The rear end is almost a dead ringer for the Lexus, and the front pretty much replicates the Lexus headlight configuration, but with a cheaper-looking grille accented with the Ford logo. (Why is the grille always the giveaway detail?) Once again, as with the Kia, the saving grace of this car is that the disparate parts fit together better than you might think. All these Lexus and Ford parts don’t seem at odds with the long graceful arc of an Audi sedan. And while they’re certainly not as natural a fit as the front and rear Audi chose for the A6, they’re not at war with each other either, although it’s the faux Audi profile that gives this design what modest degree of lyricism it has.

J Mays’s design troops did better in one of the few exciting concept cars shown this year, the Mark X, a lovely homage to the classic slab-sided Lincoln Continental convertibles from the early 1960s. This design has a whiff of the great Lincoln Continental coupes from the 1950s—like the Mark II, which may be my favorite American car of all time—and it mixes the elements together into a beautiful and exhilarating whole that manages not to feel weighed down by the past but lifted up by it. The presence of the past is subtle, not overbearing, and when you look at this car, you don’t feel that you have seen it already. Like all the best designs, it does not copy its precedents but builds on them to create something that has the right to be called new

Categories: Arts + Culture, Transportation

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