The release of a new car model is always exciting. Whether they’re focused on performance, luxury, off-road, or fuel efficiency, features such as style, equipment, technology and powertrain are often prepared to take our breath away. Low-cost models can be just as interesting when we consider that each time they bring a little more of all that to millions of people around the world.
Nevertheless, there’s a cost to develop all that. The more features a car brings, the more time and money the automaker must invest and the more expensive it becomes. Since price must be under control at all times, automakers around the world have found out it’s possible to create something new and affordable at the same time by, to keep in a few words, playing with the concept of new.
What is usually changed?
Every change in a car demands several re-evaluations to make sure everything still works appropriately. However, one thing is to replace a bumper, to give an example, for another one with different looks but the same attachments to the body, and another is to redesign any pillar, which affects doors, roof, windows and the whole structural resistance. Each change has its degree of complexity.
Those differences make it possible to execute updates of multiple levels; that’s the aforementioned play on the concept of new. Most companies work with all of them all the time, but make clever uses of marketing to prevent people from instantly dismissing anything short of an entirely new product. That variety of levels for car updates is what the following paragraphs distinguish and define.
This is the “entirely new product”. Dimensions, equipment, style, powertrain, even the materials applied may change. We’re talking about a different project which uses the same name as before because it has built a strong reputation in the market. The Lexus IS went through that fifteen years ago, when it reached a second generation. The station wagon body was replaced with a cabriolet.
Automakers usually spend a couple years and a lot of money to develop a new generation, so they’ll always try to make it more viable. One way is to offer the car in many countries, but that’s only successful in some cases. Another one is to tone the concept down a bit by carrying over powertrain options and doing one or two partial updates over the years to extend the generation’s life cycle.
No official division of the partial updates was established so far; this Car Design Chronicle uses one with the sole purpose of making the topic easier to understand.
Since people and press want to see change and changing everything is just too expensive, how about changing only what is visible? Lexus’ sporty sedan went to 2021 preserving its platform, which implies parts like engine, transmission, suspension and brakes and most external dimensions were largely untouched. We can say this is the most complex form of partial update automakers apply.
When it comes to design, almost everything is new. Lights, grilles, sheetmetal, wheels… even the door frames are new. In short, only the car’s silhouette was left the same; we can say Lexus heavily redesigned the same project. Because of that, models updated this way frequently stay in line for around eight years, especially if they get yet another change of the following types along the way.
That’s the quintessential partial update. Some parts of the project are changed while others remain the same — once again, choosing which ones to touch can greatly affect the operation’s cost. The Lexus IS provided us a good example in 2016, as the photos show: the front fascia keeps the well-known spindle grille but all the other styling components feature either new shape or new position.
This operation usually has a good cost/benefit ratio, but it’s also quite likely to look weird. Some cars receive too many visual elements, others get new parts that don’t really connect with the old ones… Automakers must achieve a good understanding of the project’s original design components and goals before it tries to perform a drastic change with the main objective being reducing costs.
Over the years, companies found it interesting to apply even fewer changes in some cases. A retouch affects details such as grille mesh, wheel design, paint, trim and the addition of accessories. It’s useful for the first update of a new generation because it helps the same car go back under the spotlights without spending much on a car model that had only started to return its investment.
The Lexus IS was born as a retouch: parent automaker Toyota sold it under its own brand as the Altezza in Japan as sedan and station wagon. Both migrated to the rest of the world with a new name and nothing but a nip and tuck: new wheels and different front grilles. In this case, the decision was clever because no country would have both on sale: it was impossible to make them compete.
Appropriate for every moment
Even though people love to see all-new cars being released, the truth is, using that strategy too often would harm them. Basically, production would become more expensive, so the final price would increase, and the cars would become obsolete in the market earlier. People would lose more money every time they bought and sold a car, so that purchase would become less and less attractive.
By making good use of those four options every time a car needs updates, the automaker can regulate its image to some extent. Speaking of which, the new Lexus IS is already sparking mixed reviews because, according to Carscoops, it brings a bolder style and a promise to be more enjoyable to drive, but failed to offer larger rear-seat room and the latest driving and safety aid technologies.