Reason vs. Emotion

Commercial Cars are Finally Embracing Style

Automakers around the world have finally realized that attractive design is helpful even to the least emotional market category

Cutting costs is an essential task for the industry. Companies continuously research customer demands and new technologies to make their products not only more attractive but also more affordable. Pursuing both goals usually forces the company to make hard decisions when designing the characteristics of their upcoming products.

When it comes to cars, that means focusing on certain qualities at the expense of others. City cars have no off-road gear, performance models are impractical on everyday use, SUVs are usually slow and heavy… Automakers are forced to keep several models in line because each one can only perfectly suit a limited number of customer profiles.

The strong suit of commercial automobiles appears on their very name: they are designed to provide transportation of cargo and people with high capacity and low cost. While making some sacrifices towards that is understandable, automakers have neglected their design for a long time. Fortunately, that has finally begun to change.

Versatility above all

Commercial cars are available as pickup and panel van and with some options of roof height and wheelbase length. That is executed by developing a project whose body is fixed up to the front seats and adapting all the rest according to the purpose. However, putting that to practice implies quite complex changes on both chassis and sheetmetal.

1972 Renault Estafette

For a long time, the only way the industry could offer that keeping cost to a minimum was by going simple: directly cutting the body and welding new parts as much as needed. Corrosion and safety standards were low enough not to be issues, so aesthetics simply had no place in the commercial segment. Models such as the Fiat Talento and the Volkswagen T2 were popular merely for giving consumers what they wanted.

By the turn of the century, all makers had to update their commercial lineups at some point and that made the passage of time hit them. Consumers started to expect more from companies, especially when it comes to their image, and that made companies rethink their priorities: the product itself was no longer the center of attention.

The multivan effect

While that update had to happen mostly because of technical reasons, such as emission and safety regulations, vans only had their design improved because of the success of yet another body style: multivans like Fiat Doblò and Renault Kangoo, which had commercial purpose but borrowed city-car platforms so as to have lower development cost.

1995 Volkswagen Caddy

Those models represent halfway between full-size vans and urban cars, so they ended up attracting professionals seeking something smaller and a little bit concerned with style. Their success inspired makers to try and develop visual identities which considered their commercial lineup as well and it founded a new trend: the 2000s had vans like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, whose external design is adaptable to many variations.

While stating that vans have become stylish is a bit of a stretch, it is possible to say that they are looking better than ever. Citroën, Fiat and Peugeot stood out in this matter by creating compact vans with flat sheetmetal and midsize ones with wedge-shaped front: those elements were the biggest visual innovations ever made in this segment.

Modular platforms for the win

Like many other car segments, commercial vans had their latest improvement brought by rethinking their design process. The rise of modular platforms like Volkswagen’s MQB enabled automakers to share more parts across the lineup, make them cheaper, and spare more money to spend on other issues such as — you guessed it — design.

2016 Toyota ProAce

The fleet of any company speaks a lot about its image: it would be impossible to build an image of elegance, ecology, or modernity while transporting products and people in ugly, outdated vans or pickups. Now that automakers have finally realized it, many are investing more in making their commercial line more desirable.

Note that the selected word was “desirable”: we are not talking about making these models fast, sophisticated, or gorgeous because we still have to respect their utilitarian purposes. It is simply a matter of making them attract buyers for more than the cold figures of cargo capacity, fuel efficiency, and purchase and maintenance prices.

Interesting prospects

After analyzing the latest releases, we can conclude that commercial vehicles are on the verge of experiencing another design evolution: electrification has encouraged automakers to reinterpret their entire lineups around the world, so it was only natural to take the opportunity and make their vans somewhat more competitive using design.

2021 Hyundai Staria

Replacing internal-combustion engines with electric motors has many visual implications: one of them is no longer needing to use a conventional front grille. The all-new EQV has a strong visual connection with the other fully electric models recently unveiled by Mercedes-Benz; the Staria is not electric yet but uses external looks that represents Hyundai’s current bold phase just as much as its sedans and crossovers.

As you can imagine, making any car desirable always comes at a cost: most of those vans have become more sophisticated and expensive, which means that costs are no longer the single priority of this market category. However, that is hardly a bad thing once we remember that societies have also evolved beyond wanting only that from a car.

The release of the all-new Volkswagen Multivan, now using the MQB platform and grown independent from the work-oriented sibling Transporter, has shed light on how useful attractive design can be even for such a utilitarian market segment. Do you believe this is the right path for them? Share your comments using the button below!

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.