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Why Do Automakers Think Plastic Cladding Signifies Utility?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2017

It recently hit me that automakers believe adding plastic cladding to the lower half of the car turns it into some sort of all-terrain vehicle.

Have you ever noticed this? If you look at the "active lifestyle" version of any modern car, it's loaded with plastic cladding on the bottom in some apparent attempt to make it look more capable. This isn't limited to one automaker. It's not even really limited to a couple of automakers. Many car companies do this, and it makes no sense.

I realized this a few weeks ago, when I was following behind a Volvo V70 Cross Country, which I'll call exhibit one (pictured above). This thing is almost hilarious in its plastic cladding; In reality, it's just a standard V70 with all-wheel drive, lifted up about two inches. But Volvo has added such an enormous amount of plastic cladding to the bottom of this car that it appears they think people will be attempting to take it over massive geological formations, such as Mt. Kilimanjaro, and they may encounter some scrapes.

It's the same story over at Audi. The most obvious example of this is the allroad, which is just a standard A4 station wagon, except it's jacked up maybe an inch and it has a bunch of plastic on the bottom -- apparently designed to give it some sort of fierce, go-anywhere stance. There's also a Q5 like this now: It's just a normal Q5, and it isn't even jacked up, but it has the plastic cladding for more of an "off-roady" look -- even though nobody will ever take any of these cars off-road. Consider these exhibits two and three.

And then there's exhibit four, maybe the best example of this ... the Pontiac Aztek. Remember the Pontiac Aztek? Of course you do, because it's permanently seared into your brain. In 2001, the "lifestyle vehicle" Aztek was covered with plastic cladding all down the bottom to show it was ready for serious business. SERIOUS business. Such as only reaching one-quarter of its annual sales target.

I could name a few more of these vehicles, but instead I'll stop here and add my own opinion on this. That opinion is: Even though I'm currently making fun of automakers for equating "cladding" with "capabilities," I actually equate them, too. When I see the allroad -- even though I know, in my mind, it's just an A4 Avant -- I think it's more capable. I think it can tackle the trails. I think it would be a great vehicle for the active lifestyle I don't have. AND I THINK THAT'S BECAUSE OF THE CLADDING!

So, in other words, this idiot philosophy of "more cladding means more capability" has actually succeeded. I'm making fun of it, and yet I agree it's true. That's when you know you have a really good idea on your hands.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Why Do Automakers Think Plastic Cladding Signifies Utility? - Autotrader