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"Wouldn't you really rather have a ... Maserati???"

There was an interesting comment the other day at the website of Professor Glenn Reynolds, who is better known on the Internet as "the Instapundit":

"Today, coming out from lunch, the Insta-Daughter and I saw a Maserati Quattroporte parked next to my Mazda. I thought it looked very nice, especially the interior, but the Insta-Daughter pronounced it 'ugly' and added 'I thought it was a Buick until you pointed it out.' "

Could this possibly be true? Let's look at the evidence.

Exhibit A is a current-production Buick LaCrosse in an official Buick advertising image:


It's a four-door sedan in the low-drag aerodynamic style that's all the rage these days. Note the rounded "landscape" grille faired in to the bumper, with a Buick badge in the center, and the "exhaust port" trim on the front fenders. The LaCrosse is 198 inches long, seats five, and can be had with a 300-horsepower V-8.

Now, on to Exhibit B--the Maserati Quattroporte's official photo:


Like the Buick, it's a low-drag, aerodynamic-style four-door sedan that seats five. Note the rounded "landscape" grille faired in to the bumper, with the Maserati badge in the center and the "exhaust port" trim on the front fenders--very similar to the Buick. The Quattroporte's overall length is 190.98 inches--less than an inch different than the LaCrosse. The Maser comes with a 400-horsepower V-8.

From ten yards away, there's not a whole lot of difference. "Ugly" is a subjective judgment on which reasonable people can disagree, but young Miss Reynolds is absolutely right about one thing: the Maserati looks like a Buick.

That's not to say that the two are Interchangeable. Far from it:

  • The Maserati's interior is a lot plusher.
  • The Maserati will go way faster, and is probably a lot more fun to drive.
  • The Buick gets better gas mileage.
  • Saying "I just got a new Maserati" to cocktail party guests is more impressive than saying "I just got a new Buick."
  • You're unlikely to see a Maserati in the parking lot at Target.
  • Ted Nugent doesn't mention Buicks in "Wango Tango."
  • You can get parts for the Buick from your local auto parts store and from the fine folks who sponsor Car Lust. Parts for the Maserati ... not so available.

Most important:

  • You can actually afford the Buick. 

In fact, for the sticker price of a single Maserati Quattroporte, you could get three top-of-the-line Buick LaCrosses and have enough left over to widen the driveway so you can park them all off-street.

For the people in the Maserati's target demographic, price is not a major consideration. Still, if you were a Maserati customer, would it not bother you a bit to pull into the parking deck and find that the rare and distinctive Italian supercar you just put down six figures for is only barely distinguishable from your office manager's Buick?

--Cookie the Dog's Owner


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Cookie I think you are on to something. There have always been times of fashion and stylistic trends in automotive design - as in all forms of design. It's not hard to see the "space age" in tail fins and tail lights of cars from the 50's and 60's. The wedge was obviously in during parts of the 70s and 80's. But these times also saw a lot of differentiation in design. The fold and the crease was part of 70s Italian design. Globalism was only a utopian concept during these eras. You could see unique visions formed by separated cultures and national borders. In a time that was pre-desktop-computer, pre-CAD/CAM, pre-internet, and pre-Globalism there was adventure and failure. Nothing was guaranteed by the simulations and calculations of microchips. There was vast differentiation. In 1979 an excursion from the US to Europe was an experience in something that was completely foreign - you would never have seen any recognizable English signage - this is not the case today. The world really has gotten smaller. The differences between the US and the EU are relatively small today by comparison to a couple of decades ago.

What we are seeing - and I think you have located a prime example - is something that relates to globalism. But it also relates to tools. I used to work for a company that made CAD/CAM Solids&Surfaces modeling systems. We used to talk about how you could tell when a product had been designed using a CAD system. It had a CAD look to it. It was different than something that was sculpted from clay or drawn with a pencil and a french curve. Today ( just a few years later) most all products we encounter are designed with computers and software. These tools shape the products they are used to design. There are things one can and cannot do with a pencil, and these limitations require more imagination and more understanding on the part of those interpreting the drawings. The advancement of representational and simulation tools has in many ways robbed us of a level of creativity that the limitation of the pencil, the drafting board, and the clay model once afforded. What they have given us is reliability and assurance... and sameness.

The recent challenge for most boring car was an eye opener. All the most boring cars actually were truly hard to tell apart from each other. In large part this was due to a formula for success and efficiency. All the cars were space efficient, reliable, aerodynamic, and portable across international markets. They were designed with the same tools for representing the designs, simulating, and testing them. And they were all the same and very boring.

The range of solutions that are afforded in this globalist micro-computer CAD modeled world start to become ever smaller if global success is to be assured. It makes me think of how much time we all spend avoiding making mistakes - I see this with my clients on a daily basis. They are terrified of a slip or a misstep. If that attitude had pervaded in the late 60's and early 70's we never would have seen any of the great achievements of that time. Formula 1 would have been dead. The Porsche 908 and 917 never would have run at Le Mans. Lancia would have scrapped the Monte Carlo. Jaguar would have closed its doors long before it sold out.

Computer modeling is a necessary reality of our time as is globalism and transnationalism. But it has come at a high cost. No wonder we all seem to be drawn to vehicles that were products of different times or different cultures, when these factors were not so pervasive. These older cars, these cars from different cultures not so beholding to a world market represent a level of bravery and imagination that is not tolerated today. When you see a car today that is remarkably different and is actually new thank your lucky stars that the company that built it took a big chance in creating that odd or unusual form.

That's quite eloquent there, Mochi, and CTDO. What's really ironic about this, is that now I want to go out and buy a Buick. Eh?

You'd have a point except the Maserati is stunnningly beautiful and the Buick isn't. That Buick photo (with its unnaturally low vantage point) is rather flattering. Looking at others it's more like an distorted X type Jaguar front grafted on a Hyundai/Camry body.

I just followed one (in rush hour traffic so my Fiat could keep up!) along the motorway and the question I'd ask is why the heck would you buy an ugly 7 Series/Merc instead of the Maserati.

Correction; When I said "I just followed one" I meant a Quattroporte* not a Buick. Even the name kinda shows the gap;

"Maserati Quattroporte" would be "Buick Four Door"

Jeez, the same thing happened to me a few months back on I-80. I thought "gee, that's a great-looking Buick, even if the ventiports are a little goofy." I didn't discover the truth until it passed me, and I saw the logo splayed across the trunk lid.

As to why I'd buy a BMW or Merc before the Maserati... well, I might not want to keep it forever, and would like to get more than lunch money in trade.

Mochi, you bring up an interesting but flawed point. I'm a senior industrial design student, and unlike most schools, ours still teaches the ways of yesterday. We learn to draft by hand, render by hand, and make models in real life, out of clay, out of wood, out of fiberglass. We also learn solid modeling and surface modeling, but this comes only afterwards. Now, CAD is a tool, just like drafting, just like scraping clay, just like anything else, and it has certain abilities and certain limitations. Do all things designed in it look similar? Not really. I mean, yeah, it's really easy to do certain functions, which may affect how the final product looks, but any designer worth his salt will know how to overcome or design around those limitations, so it doesn't look boring/predictable. I do feel like a lot of designers these days completely ignore physical models and spend way too much time in CAD and not enough time refining their ideas/concepts, but that's an entirely different subject. But designers, and their tools, are not the problem.

So what is causing this sameness? From my experience in the industry, it's one thing, and one thing alone: MARKETING. Marketing is the most vile, awful, worthless forms of life. Think focus groups. Think people who are so hell bent on climbing the corporate ladder that they will do ANYTHING to avoid taking a risk, and having a problem be their fault. They want the safest, easiest, dumbest, most boring solution to almost any problem. These "people", if you can call them that, have such horribly unfulfilling lives their only consolation is that of making a lot of money, and being a player in the company. They kiss ass, pass blame, and try to make the most conservative decisions possible, at all times. So let's say you design a passenger car for a major company, like GM. The bigger the company, the more 'generic' the car, purely because of the marketing dept. There's simply more of them. They'll use focus groups to dilute any sense of personality in a design until it offends no one, yet it doesn't excite anyone either. That is what they want. To blend in, and have a series of marginally successful products under their belt, so they can move upwards within a company. The best part is, these idiots who have zero training in design, color, materials, methods, etc like to tell the designers how something should look. See, we never tell them how to use excel spreadsheets, or how to schmooze and avoid actual work, yet they feel that they have the right to tell us their opinion on how a product should look. It's utterly ridiculous, yet how things work in most corporate settings. Some companies are design driven, and give their industrial designers more power, and do NOT allow marketing to tell designers what to do. They're often wildly successful (read: Apple), and they DO take risks. GM? Toyota? They want as little risk as possible, because that's how they play the game.

Rob: Very much appreciate your perspective as a designer.

I don't know that "marketing" is the problem per se. There's good marketing and bad marketing, just like there's good products designed with CAD and bad ones. Some companies, like Apple, make very distinctive and innovative products that aren't necessarily for everybody. It's not that they don't do "marketing"--it's that making distinctive and innovative products targeted at a particular segment IS their marketing strategy.

The issue, it seems to me, is "risk aversion." The bigger an organization is, and the more it becomes a "negative power structure" (lots of people have the power to say "no," and no one person has the power to say "yes") the more risk-averse it becomes. Risk-averse organizations produce low-risk products: beige T-shirts, gray sweatpants, corn flakes, notebook paper, three-bedroom ranch houses, three-minute singles by '90s boy bands, formula-plotted summer action movies, de-contented four-door sedans with no distinct styling cues.

The world needs a certain amount of that stuff, so it's not entirely a bad thing that it's made--but organizations that are risk averse are organizations that fail to adapt and innovate and correct their own errors internally. In other words, General Motors.

Cookie: Yep. Marketing has the ability to say no, and in a bigger company, there are tons of them. It's harder and harder to push something through that's actually innovative.

This may all be true, but it avoids a point here - it's the Maserati that looks like a Buick, not the other way around. What's Maserati's excuse? Did they learn nothing from their adventures with the Chrysler TC? I mean, the entire point of buying an Italian car is that it is, in fact, different - you know you're getting lousy build quality, but at least you're getting something with performance, image, and a certain off-beat version of class. Selling a souped up Buick is certainly off-beat, but I'm not sure that's the kind of "image" a small Italian automaker really wants to get known for.

The sad and honest truth, as far as marketing goes, is that they're right - most people are risk-averse, and don't WANT to buy anything interesting or risky. Of course, they'll tell you otherwise and lament how everything looks and acts the same, but, the instant their pocketbooks come out, you know what happens? They buy safe almost each and every time. Why is Toyota #1 in the world now? Because they were better at making "safe" than any other auto company in the world. The sad and honest truth is that companies that try to produce genuinely interesting products end up getting shot down. Remember the Pontiac Aztek? How about the Isuzu Axiom? The Subaru Baja? Heck, remember Studebaker and AMC? They made more interesting cars in their time periods than any other manufacturers in the US... and now they're both historical footnotes in automotive history, never to be heard from again. Dodge will probably be joining them soon.

Safe sells. Interesting doesn't. Sucks, doesn't it?

Okay, you lost me at "Aztek", but everything else you said made sense.

...although, I bet someone could do a pretty dang good Car Lust on it. "It's a fugly car!" "No, it's a fugly camper-trailer!" "Stop, you're *both* right: it's FUGLY!"

Yeah, odd how companies have to, you know, sell products instead of just making cool stuff for us to talk about.

I kinda like the Aztek. It's a true example of utility trumping aesthetics. I have respect for that.

Obviously not all products that are made using computer rendering and simulation software look the same. But every tool leaves its mark. "CAD" has a mark and a look, in the same way that a pencil or clay has a look. Rob, I'm glad to hear your school believes in teaching a range of representational and modeling skills and giving experience in a variety of media. I think we agree on the positive effects of such an approach. That breadth of experience improves the scope and scale of options. But industry is now entrenched in tools that are focused on success. And you are right "CAD" is not the devil. I don't think anyone in the industry wants to turn back the clock to graphite and ink - no matter how wonderfully romantic it might seem - it was slow and messy. Editing a drawing on velum or mylar is not really efficient in comparison to a computer rendering system - at least not from a business perspective. But just as a chisel makes its mark so does a Surfaces Modeling tool.

I like to bash marketing as much as any designer. But the problem that goes well beyond marketing. Sometimes it is about business goals. Sometimes it is about audiences. Think of it this way. In the 1970's Renault really did not have to satisfy a customer base too far beyond the French boarder. In the late 80s and early 90s Honda was making world cars, but they were still very close to a time when they were making cars for Japan. One can see this in the difference between an 87 and an 88 civic. Because the French market and the Japanese market are quite different than the US market or the Global market, the cars produced were themselves Different by comparison than other cars on the road. But these times are now in the past. Markets have changed. Players in the global market have adapted their products to meet global demands and tastes. You are either global or not. To be global you need standardization - and you have to put goals of space use, reliability, aerodynamics, distribution, portability, and acceptance across international markets in the forefront of your business plan. If you do your design solutions will reflect that - and a sameness will invariably arise. That's to a great degree why we have so much similarity in today's automotive design products.

Business seeks to serve an audience and make a profit doing so. Design and marketing are professions that are in the service of business. The goals of business affect and inform design and marketing. A company's prime directive is to appeal to their customers interests and establish a competitive advantage. Marketing and Design are really there to facilitate that process. Design for designers is really a dead-end because designers are a relatively small portion of the buying public. Unlike art design must ultimately serve a purpose and an end user. While designers tastes sometimes set and inspire buying patterns - success is really measured by the what the customer does. I wont get into the differences in taste of US, Asian, and European cultures, tastes and buying habits, but we can safely say they are quite different. So Globalist Transnationalist design is really an oddity of contemporary economics and infrastructure. Making a single car appealing to wildly different cultures is something that does not always work - and that's one of the reasons we have cars that are built for the domestic market only - and why certain cars will never reach these shores. But today business is Global and from a business perspective products must conform to the broadest possible audience. Which means that safety of investment is a primary concern and because of that and the need to reduce costs of production, auto manufacturers are reluctant to take risks.

I think what Maserati is doing is taking the approach of being like a glitzy version of an Audi. Mundane enough to be not too noticeable and potentially offensive but focused on luxury that will get noticed on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Its a perfect match for something from Versace. A luxo Buick that shows just the right amount of bling and a most importantly a price tag that distinguishes it from the Buick.

As to Apple... once you are on the inside or connected to the community on the inside, the appeal of Apple quickly vanishes. Many think of Apple as a visionary company for industrial, user interface, and software design - a place where "design" must be held in high esteem. A "design driven" company. Apple is driven but it is not design driven. There is a force a work at Apple that trumps marketing - but it's not design. The best thing one can say about being a designer at Apple is that once you've worked there and gotten completely fed up with the place and its complete lack of any design process, you'll have an easy time getting a job in another company that actually respects designers.

In regards to Focus Groups. There are correct and incorrect ways to do human factors testing and focus group sessions. I'm actually in favor of the use of both these tools as long as they are correctly used in an exploratory manner BEFORE any design work is done - to inform the design process. FGs can be highly informative about customer and audience preferences and needs. Unfortunately too often FGs are misused after design work has been done to act as a selection service - to make decisions that corporate management is too afraid or too inexperienced to make. A perfect example of the result of Focus Group and Demographic Statistics abuse is the Aztek. Not only is its name culturally offensive, its a frankenstein design that mates proportions of perceived functionality or program according to demographic buying statics. While I'm all in favor of allowing function to drive design over aesthetics, the function in this case is really not there. And I know from experience that aesthetics don't have to suffer as a result. If ever there was a marketing driven design, the Aztek would be poster child.

The Aztek (or as I like to call Asstek) really is a Frankenstein-mobile. I've seen this monster up close and there's nothing utilitarian about it. It's the car for people who can't make up their mind. "I want a car, no I want a van, no I want an SUV"

A minor quibble: 198.00" - 190.98" = 7.02" Other than that, you and the young Miss Reynolds are quite right.

The Maserati is 198.9 inches long, not 190.89.

Maserati drivers are all grinning so hard that none of this bothers them. Spend just a bit of time behind the wheel of one and you'll see that driving a Maserati is so much better it's not a difference in degree it's a difference in type. Beauty, elegance, awesome power, sophistication, handles these East TN mountain roads like it was glued to them and blindingly FAST.

I had two reactions to this - one, it explains why I've never found the reborn Maseratis all that enduring. The coupes are okay, I suppose, but the sedans are just meh.

My second reaction is to be seriously interested in the Buick. A 300-horsepower V-8 in a luxurious wrapper that the outside world won't notice? Yes, please.

I humbly propose that if the young Miss Reynolds cannot distinguish a Maserati from a Buick, then by all means buy her a Buick and gently suggest a career which does not require any aesthetic sensibilities.

I humbly propose that people like Ian Fairchild get a nice bottle of wine and their favorite cheese, and then get together with fellow supercilious east and west coast/Euro types who delve deeply into the intricacies of "aesthetic sensibilities" and feel superior because they drive a European car.

A friend of mine recently picked me up in his buick enclave and it was as nice as any lexus crossover/SUV I've ever encountered.

I just bought a loaded Chevy Malibu with the twin cam V-6, and it's as good (and better in some categories) than the similar Accord, Camry and Passat that I test drove.

mf24, it's just a typo in the paragraph below the (breathtakingly beautiful) Maserati picture. I'm sure the proprietor will eventually spot it and fix it.

"GM? Toyota? They want as little risk as possible, because that's how they play the game."

Perhaps with respect to most of the line, but GM's luxury auto group, which consists of Cadillac and Corvette, is pretty avant-garde.

For example, your contempt absolutely does not square at all with the Cadillac "Art & Technology" (or whatever they called it) styling that was heralded with the EVOQ concept (later the XLR coupe), CTS, and STS sedans (although the STS was somewhat watered down from its originally-planned hard-edged styling by Lutz when he took over) and SRX (?) SUV-lite. They took a big chance on that styling, which was radically different from anything else on the streets at the time. Of course, desperate times called for desperate measures, but at least the brass had the balls to gamble on the new look.

Personally, I like the XLR plenty, but the original CTS & CTS-V body styling is about as pure a statement of design as I've ever seen. Every line and edge, followed around the car, appears to go all the way around the car (that oddly-shaped third-brake light on the trunk lid is integral -- find a rear-quarter view picture and follow the front-bumper line up and across the side of the car and around the back, where it's picked up by the 3d brakelight lens and becomes the "fin" of the other side of the car, leading up the other side to the top of the headlight -- it's beautiful in its purity). I would've liked to see the CTS set lower on its suspension with some nicer factory wheels, and I'm not sure i could live with the design (I did have an '02 DTS that was a great car, though), but that doesn't mean the GM/Cadi guys didn't accomplish something substantial, particularly in light of the risk-averse culture that characterizes GM.

Exception that proves the rule? perhaps!

Could it be, just maybe, that the Buick looks like a Maserati? The Buick pic shown is of the facelifted 2008 Lacrosse. The 2004 model was quite a bit less bold, reminiscent of the earlier 2000's Riviera. The Maserati Quattroporte debuted in September of 2003, and has pretty much remained unchanged since its introduction.

The pic on the right sidebar is what originally came out in late '04 as an '05

Debuted in Sept. '03

Owning anything other than a Maserati or a Ferrari is merely owning a car. A Maserati is a treat for the senses and a buick is an old mans car. One will do over 180mph on the open road and the other would be luck to do 80mph.. Everybody and their dog owns a Mercedes or a BMW as well, they are a dime a dozen.. A Maserati is rare, like a good cigar.

Not familiar with Nugent singing about his Maserati. I do know about Joe Walsh of the Eagles saying his Maserati does 185. But he lost his Lic. and now he don't drive.

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