Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hey purists: if vehicles don't evolve, they die

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AS new versions of the Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang and Jeep Cherokee draw near, I've got a request for the vehicles' purists: Stop complaining that they're different from the old cars you revere. Close your eyes, count to 10 and get back to me after they've been on the road for six months.

Your whining makes my head hurt, and it's not helping the cars you claim to love. Honestly.

"If you're passionate about a car, you tend to see anything that's different as a retrograde step," said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics. "Owners of the previous model will always prefer the one they know."

That explains why many 'Vette fans recoiled in horror when they saw the 2014 Corvette Stingray has -- wait for it -- square tail lights! Never mind the new 'Vette is faster, more fuel-efficient and more advanced -- their Corvette has round tail lights, the way God intended. Anything else is an abomination.

The same goes for the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. The mechanical specs suggest it could drive up the side of a building, using about half as much fuel as the old one and keeping its passengers safe when it fell off the other side of the building. All some fans can see is that it's sleek while the old one was boxy. They think that makes it a traitor to the brand.

I have no idea what the all-new 2015 Mustang will look like, but I am certain lots of people will despise it. The fact it'll probably be lighter, nimbler and more technically sophisticated and fuel-efficient than any Mustang before it is irrelevant. It'll be different. That guarantees some folks will hate it.

People can't tell you they want something they've never seen. It's a truism designers bemoan as they drink alone, late at night, in bars decorated in white leather, chrome and black wood.

Nobody knew the world wanted 250 different paintings of water lilies until Claude Monet did it and changed art forever. That's why artists drink alone, in cheaper and less fashionable dives.

Cars, like art, must evolve or die. The alternative is the Model T. Ford barely changed the world's best-selling car from 1908 to 1927. Other vehicles evolved and surpassed it. Ford lost the No. 1 spot and never regained it.

Porsche is the other side of that coin, Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. "The purists loudly objected to the idea of Porsche building an SUV and a sedan, but Porsche wouldn't be around today if it hadn't built the Cayenne," the SUV that's its top seller, she said. The combination of the Cayenne and Panamera sedan -- another departure that was anathema to brand purists -- led Porsche to record sales.

The idea people can't ask for what they can't imagine collides with the salesman's maxim of "Give the customer what he wants" at the intersection of art and commerce.

"The most important thing is to create a car that people see and immediately recognize as the new Corvette or Mustang or Jeep," Hall said.

That requires an understanding of the vehicle's core appeal and identity. Too often, the self-appointed guardians of brand heritage obsess over minutiae such as round versus square tail lights.

I'm looking at you, Corvette purists.

It's the automotive equivalent of medieval theological debates about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. The correct answer, then and now, is: Drop dead, I have a life.

The new models may be great. They may stink. We'll know soon enough. I'll guarantee one thing, though. The deciding factor won't be the shape of a tail light lens.

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2013 E8

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