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Posts filed under ‘Sophomore Slumps’

Sophomore Slumps: The Mustang II

December 15, 2011 by Matt

1975 75 Ford Mustang II Ghia Blue White Vinyl Roof

Here’s a dilemma: How do I defend my characterization of the ’74-’78 Mustang II as a Sophomore Slump when 4 of the Mustang’s 10 best-selling model years were recorded on its watch? In other words, can a car so popular really be considered a slump?

As with most things in life, it all depends on the context. When taken in isolation, as many automotive pundits have pointed out both in its day and later on, the Mustang II was just right for its economic climate. Arriving in ’74, just as the market was clamoring for smaller, more economical cars in the wake of the ’73 oil crisis, the Mustang II was a perfect fit. Lee Iacocca, the creator of the original Mustang in ’64 and the force behind the development of its second generation, must’ve looked positively visionary when he anticipated the market shift and greenlit the car’s development several years before consumers began altering their buying habits.

Ford Mustang II Interior Red

So when considered with respect to its environment, the Mustang II was a winner. But as a Mustang? Compared to the original? Sadly, that’s where things start to go a bit pear-shaped for the II. Part of the appeal of the original car was its size; however, that aspect wasn’t the most important one. It was the first of the pony cars: Fun, youthful, customizable vehicles built using their more mundane stablemates’ running gear, but in the case of the Mustang, an essential ingredient of its appeal was its performance—it was a muscle car as well. And that was the critical side of the Mustang’s personality that was lost with the update. In fairness, nothing except certain Ferraris had any semblance of performance at all in the early-mid ’70s, especially compared to the ground-thumping muscle car heyday of just a few years earlier, but that doesn’t change the fact that whatever the cause, with the II, a huge part of the original Mustang’s raison d’etre was missing, gone. The general buying public may not have minded, given the circumstances, but enthusiasts certainly took note. So in spite of its success in the marketplace, for being half the car it was in the late ’60s, both literally and figuratively, the Mustang II deserves to be called a Sophomore Slump.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting cars whose second generation failed to live up to the promise of the first. Read the other installments here:

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Sophomore Slumps: The ’03-’10 BMW 6-Series

November 3, 2011 by Matt

BMW 640i 650i 645i E63 6-series

Yep, I’m taking it on. After months of putting it off, I’m finally going to unload both pent-up barrels in the direction of one of Chris Bangle‘s notorious creations: The ’03-’10 BMW 6-series, or E63.

I include this in my Sophomore Slumps series in spite of the 14-year gap between the departure of the original E24 6-series and the arrival of the E63 because in spite of minor refreshes, the first-generation car remained basically the same throughout its ’76-’89 model run. So although the E63 didn’t carry over a single part from the E24 except for the 6-series name, the consistency of the earlier car and their broadly similar target markets means the more recent car is properly the second generation.

The E63 bears the unfortunate distinction of being one of five BMWs closely associated with Chris Bangle’s early-’00s tenure as the automaker’s design director. Whether or not he’s directly responsible for the production car’s shape, it embodies his design philosophy, and he vigorously defended it when it encountered the inevitable criticism. So he owns it. It will be said the derision from the automotive community wasn’t nearly as harsh as was heaped on its immediate predecessor, the breathtakingly ugly E65 7-series, but I suspect most of the comments the E63 received could have been filed in the “damning with faint praise” category; in other words, automotive design pundits were simply relieved it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

BMW 640i 650i 645i E63 6-series Bangle Butt Chris Styling

But is it a beautiful car? Is it a classic shape, a style icon the way the E24 6-series was? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but allow me to note a few observations about the two generations, individually and in contrast to each other:

  • The proportions are totally wrong. In contrast to the earlier car, with its near-perfect visual mass distribution in profile, the E63 looks like a blob, a jellybean. There’s no tension in the shape, and certainly nothing to distinguish it from the throngs of egg-shaped Accords and Camrys on the freeway. And isn’t the point of owning a luxury coupe to distinguish yourself from the crowd?
  • The nose is a disaster. The trademark BMW kidneys are nothing more than holes punched in a rounded fascia surmounted by chrome milk mustaches, and the blocky, oddly-shaped headlights do nothing to help the cause. The original 6-series featured a beautiful-sculpted, distinctive shark nose.
  • The rear is a catastrophe. A prime example of the notorious “Bangle Butt,” the visual-separated trunklid surface fusses up what should be a sleek, clean going-away view.
  • The whole car looks cheap. Chunky, geometric, computer-generated—these are the adjectives that apply to the E63’s details. Where the E24’s styling looks hand-drawn (as it was) and is a feast of jewel-like minutia, the second-generation car looks positively cartoon-like—a wholly inappropriate feel for a prestige model.

The E63 6-series was a mess, and its model run lasted far, far too long. It may have had the moves, especially in fire-breathing, 500-hp M6 guise, but it was always a car automotive journalists and car buffs alike seemed to have to talk themselves into liking visually, if they even bothered to attempt praise at all. It was an unworthy torch-bearer of the 6-series legacy, and has thankfully been replaced by a far more aesthetically-pleasing—though not perfect—shape in the 2011+ 6-series, the F13.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting cars whose second generation failed to live up to the promise of the first. Read the other installments here:

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Sophomore Slumps: The Series 2 Jaguar E-Type

October 18, 2011 by Matt

1970 Jaguar E-Type XKE Series 2 Mark 2 II

This one defines the automotive sophomore slump. Following the home run ’61-’68 Series 1 Jaguar E-Type, the ’69-’71 Series 2 was a complete whiff, and a cautionary tale for other manufacturers about how not to mess with a successful formula.

In essence, for every decision the company made right with the first generation car, they made wrong with its successor. Every subtle styling touch was tampered with and spoiled, and the resulting car lost almost all the delicacy and poise of the original car’s design. Rather than hone and refine the Series 1 E-Type’s look, Jaguar actually went backward, cluttering the shape with ham-fisted, amateurish features.

1970 Jaguar E-Type XKE Series 2 Mark 2 II

There were engineering justifications for many of the decisions. The switch from the earlier car’s beautifully-shaped mouth with a simple bisecting chrome bar to the second-generation’s gaping maw was driven by greater cooling needs. And the wart-like turn signal clusters that appeared on the Series 2’s jowls were probably added to improve lighting visibility. The giant chrome box that took up residence under the newly-connected rear bumper bar was probably unnecessary, though, and its visual weight and angularity clashed with the rest of the car’s sinuous curves. The simple headlight covers disappeared as well, replaced by exposed lights caked with far too much chrome icing.

1970 Jaguar E-Type XKE Series 2 Mark 2 II

Even the engine suffered a styling downgrade. The polished, exposed cam covers gave way to ribbed, matte aluminum pieces surmounted by the carb warming duct. Even when it’s clean, the engine just looks dirty compared to the Series 1’s work of automotive art.

I’ve focused on the styling, but the detuning of the mechanicals also deserves mention. For as much drivability the styling changes added (better cooling, lighting, etc), the dual emissions-strangled Stromberg carburetors took away with vapor lock problems, airflow restrictions, etc. Performance decreased notably compared to the Series 1 E-Type, and reinforced the notion that the Series 2 was actually a step backward from its predecessor.

In fairness, the impetus for many of the changes didn’t arise from the automaker itself, but from the external pressure of US emissions and safety regulations, an important consideration for Jaguar’s biggest export market. That said, I would have hoped the Coventry firm would have dug a little deeper and found a way to accommodate the regulations while still integrating the needed changes more harmoniously with the E-Type’s shape and purpose. The car has eye-popping curb appeal and excellent performance; don’t uglify and neuter the primary reasons 99% of buyers purchase the car. I understand the regulations came out of left field for many automakers and caught many unprepared, but Jaguar wasn’t yet in dire financial straits in the late ’60s; they had the resources to, well, try a little harder. How I wish they would have.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting cars whose second generation failed to live up to the promise of the first. Read the other installments here:

3 Comments on Sophomore Slumps: The Series 2 Jaguar E-Type

Sophomore Slumps: The Lexus SC430

October 7, 2011 by Matt

2003 Lexus SC 430

Movie sequels rarely turn out as well as the original films. Musicians call it the “second album curse.” Automakers fall victim to the same tendency as well—a groundbreaking car can make such a splash that disappointment is inevitable when the second generation rolls around. Finding the balance of maintaining the qualities that enabled the success of the first generation car and updating it for the times can be a very tricky proposition indeed. Today we briefly consider a model which failed to capitalize on the promise of its predecessor: The ’01-’10 Lexus SC430.

There are two main ways a car sequel can fail: First, by mimicking too much of the original car, leaving customers wanting more, wondering why they bothered to update the car at all. And secondly, an automaker can take the original concept in a significantly different direction, discarding key qualities of the first generation in pursuit of a new paradigm. With the SC430, Lexus failed in the second manner, abandoning the classically-beautiful coupe proportions and detailing of the ’91-’00 SC coupe in favor of something more high-fashion. Rather than take inspiration from the car haven of California like the designers of the earlier car had done, the SC430’s stylists drew on the “lifestyle of the French Riviera,” top-down trundling along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, villas perched on the hillside and nights at the Monaco casino. And that was all fine and good, but they forgot to make the car attractive in the process. With its upright, bathtub-ish profile and disconnected, multi-lens headlights, the SC430 had an off-putting, slightly insectoid fascia and misshapen overall look. It was the kind of car a designer would have to tell you is attractive, rather than being able to arrive at that conclusion on your own. It would have been one thing if the original SC coupe had had the kind of “straight off the runway” concept behind its lines like the SC430, but first-generation car’s beauty was much more accessible, classical, comprehensible. There’s a true consensus that the ’91-’00 car (shown below) was one of the loveliest cars to emerge from Japan.

1992 Lexus SC400

The mechanicals are almost incidental, as cars in this market niche are primarily bought for their looks. In any case, the SC430 was powered by a healthy 288 hp V8, sports a capable RWD chassis and was one of the very first (with the Mercedes SLK) to feature a retractable hardtop. I take no issue with those attributes, but as important as it is for a flagship coupe to have actual sporting credentials, they’re not the main sales drivers. In the areas that matter, Lexus missed the mark with the SC coupe sequel.

2 Comments on Sophomore Slumps: The Lexus SC430