Be honest: the very sight of the names “Forte” and “Jetta” made your eyes roll. If you were asked about the reason for such reaction, the answer would probably be “those cars are boring”. And if you had to say only one reason why you have such opinion, it would probably be their “uninspired” design. Judging by the new sedans presented on this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Kia and Volkswagen did their best to address that issue — and delivered it.
These sedans, which are considered compact in North America and midsize elsewhere, sit comfortably above the market’s entry level, but still way below luxury categories. This means they have to cater to the needs of the lower-middle-class consumer, who usually has spouse and/or children and lives on a controlled budget. On the other hand, it’s also true that this group is constantly renewed: its current consumers are not the same of ten, twenty years ago.
At that time, car categories had specific purposes. Station wagons were focused on families, sedans had to be elegant and discreet, and most truly good sporty models were either coupés or convertibles. People accepted such segregation mostly because there was no other option. The most important effect of the appearance of minivans, SUVs and crossovers was letting people know there are other ways to design cars, and they deserve attention just as much.
The recent decrease of non-luxury sedans can be credited to that change of thoughts, at least in part: everyone who wanted more of a particular characteristic has been able to find it in another body style. Over time, manufacturers realized that the only way they could keep their sedans competitive was to embrace those changes as much as possible. And that explains a lot of what has happened to the category lately, especially in the midsize niche.
In general, practicality is no longer the center of attention. Sedans have received individual design as to stop being considered hatchback with extra trunk. Besides that, some models have invested more than ever in emotional traits such as luxury and sportiness, and received convenience and safety items which used to be restricted to the upper categories. But none of that would be enough to dismiss the need for a design change. A big one, despite how subtle it might look.
Years ago, companies would solve that by attempting to make the cars fancier and/or sportier. While the idea was good in theory, its execution had to face the cost barrier. It would be impossible to offer luxury trim and/or top-spec powertrain without making the models too expensive for their public. On the other hand, the mere addition of visual accessories has always drawn heavy criticism. The aforementioned change becomes interesting because it shifted the entire focus of these cars’ design.
Take a look at the Forte and the Jetta. The first one carries large air vents and the other some chrome trim, but your first impression isn’t of sportiness or luxury; they remind you of other models. And which would be those? Stinger and Arteon, respectively. Models which are more expensive and stylish but less practical, which people buy out of passion, rather than necessity. In a way, the new sedans want to be seen as versions of those which are cheaper and suitable for everyday use.
The Forte presents elements with angular shapes, headlights extended over half the hood, and large lower side creases which move upwards. Those are typical design resources of sporty cars, which convey feelings of intensity, passion and lightness. The upper half of the sides, in turn, is made with horizontal shapes and the windows have a thick chrome frame. Kia wanted to increase its size impression, certainly to take it away from the image of “compact, therefore cheap” car.
When it comes to the Jetta, the discreet shapes aim at elegance, as well as the subtle inserts of chrome trim. On the other hand, the presence of third side windows, right behind the rear doors, indicates a smoother roofline, closer to that of four-door coupés. Finally, the short rear sports sleek tail lights which resemble those of Audis. After the rather conservative design of the current generation, the Jetta intends to be as modern and stylish as four-door coupés, but also somewhat more practical.
Now that crossovers, pick-ups and SUVs are dominating the car market, the companies which still want to make profit with other categories must invest in making them interesting to the modern consumer. The new Forte and Jetta strive to accomplish that through projects which aren’t all-new only when it comes to technical parts: their entire concept was renewed as well. If the makers do a good job regarding powertrain and trim level options, they’ll play a major role in keeping their category alive.