Musings on the Motoring World

How environmental determinism will give us a four-door Mustang

What a year 2018 was for car enthusiasts especially. It will definitely be remembered as a vintage year that gave us a whole host of tantalising new supercars, mind-bending electric performance cars, and glorious restomod classics, but don’t pour the champagne just yet, because the world is now poised on the brink of collapse with the one vague rumour of a four-door Mustang.

It was reported that a post on a Mustang forum alleged that Ford had told dealers at a dealer conference in October that they will be bringing four-door Mustang to the market. Some reports even speculate that the four-door model will be aimed at the high-end metal of Europe such as the Mercedes-Benz CLS and the Porsche Panamera. Other also hint at the possibility it would be a crossover.

As one would expect, this news didn’t go down well with the Mustang faithful who decried Ford’s move to create a four-door variant as muddying the purity of America’s pony car. Some even accuse them of selling out its blue-collar appeal for a shot at executive-tie prestige. Though, amidst the media ruckus, it turned out that Ford wasn’t the only one mulling the idea of creating a four-door spin-off of their iconic sports cars.

There were reports that Audi is also planning to turn their iconic TT into a four-door only model line; though the news of which was met with apathy because really, who gives a sh*t?

If this sounds all too familiar, you aren’t wrong. We have been here time and time again as any sports car manufacturer so much as hints at a vague plan of expanding their model line-up with non-traditional models – particularly crossovers or SUVs – a whole outrage cycle begins anew.

The displeasure of fans is understandable as crossover versions of their favourite cars often result in a diluted product that was built to appease a broader range of consumers with little or none of the original’s endearing qualities. As any devotee of an artist, capitulation to the crossover trend is seen as nothing more than selling out, even if the fundamental tenet of any capitalist enterprise is the pursuit of profits.

It isn’t just short-term profits that make the crossover option so tempting, but the genre’s broad appeal serves as a vital lifeline to any car maker’s long-term survival, and nobody explains this need more succinctly than the original revolutionary, Porsche.

Back in the early-2000s, Porsche’s then CEO Wendelin Wiedeking justified the company’s move towards development of the first-generation Cayenne by saying: “For Porsche to remain independent, it can’t be dependent on the most fickle segment in the market.” Wiedeking, who knows a thing or two of impending corporate collapse and salvation, rescued Porsche from bankruptcy in the 1990s by greenlighting the affordable Boxster and modernising the company’s production line. Even with putting Porsche back in the black, he knew that betting on traditional sports cars wasn’t enough to ensure its long-term viability. And when Porsche found out that around two-fifths of their customers had an SUV in their garage, they knew which waters they had to steer their ship towards.

But just how did the crossover catch on and rise to dominate our popular conscience? The straightforward answer is simply customer preference. However, the more complex overarching answer to this seemingly sudden change in preferences around the world can be best explained by environmental determinism.

Photo by Slava Bowman

Environmental determinism argues that physical environments, instead of human agency, are what predisposes societies towards a certain development path. This school of thought presents viable explanations for key events in mankind from how the domestication of animals in the Eurasian landmass ensured the advancement of early civilisations, to the Balkanisation of medieval Europe that played a vital part in its imperial expansion, and the guaranteed global hegemony of the United States is made possible by its homogeneous society that spans across a continent that connects two oceans.

Likewise, environmental determinism offers an answer to the popularity of crossovers, and why car makers are seriously considering converting their traditional two-door models into four-door offerings, especially now.

To summarise environmental determinism, we are a product of our surroundings, and for a great and increasing percentage of us around the world today, that surrounding is likely to be an urban one. Today, there are more people living in cities than ever before, and trends from around the world seem to suggest that this isn’t exclusive to developed nations or reversible anytime soon. As more and more economic power becomes concentrated in cities due to global trade and the rise of the intellectual-driven industries, the global urban population is likely to continue to surge as rural populations are set to decline from 2025.

This reality raises a few issues that Mustangs and its traditional sports car counterparts of the past never had to contend with. For starters, as parking spaces become more limited in urban areas as population density rises, multi-car ownership becomes a luxury many households can ill-afford, or even want.

Photo by Ryan Searle

This concentration of people also brings on other knock-on effects. Insurance costs, for example, are markedly higher than their rural counterparts due to the increased risk from traffic and crime, especially for highly desirable specialty vehicles like a two-door sports car. Not to mention the frequency of congestion in urban areas, which would not only force local municipalities to levy penalties on drivers and owners such as London’s congestion charge, but also tempt anyone to trade the confines of a sports car for the elevated superiority of a crossover.

Paradoxically, even though urban constrictions limit car ownership, the urban populace’s higher purchasing power and majority gives their demographic a higher position of importance in a carmakers’ product development process. This, in turn, causes a self-fulling prophecy as more cars are built to appeal to them, snapped up by them, and further exacerbating the situation.

Photo by Alexander Popov

As services and wealth become ever more concentrated in cities, the needs and demands of its population change as well. With travelling distances in urban areas being shorter and commute times lengthened, priorities are shifting away from choices that specialise in exhilarating driving experiences to one that offers convenience and connectivity. Not to mention, the average urban dweller today is open to far more experiences and conveniences like online shopping and ride-hailing that doesn’t involve owning your own car, as compared to their counterparts from past decades.

In light of such considerations, it is little wonder why car ownership is facing a tenuous future. And if you have to live with the reality of single-car ownership in such an environment, you would be hard pressed to justify the purchase of a two-door car over the practical and accessible proposition of a four-door variant, even if such advantages in practice are oftentimes marginal. Better to opt for a trusty Clydesdale than a one-trick pony after all, and carmakers are aware of that.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata

Fans will dismiss the concerns of the market as a whole for the very concept of a four-door Mustang still flies in the face of its muscle car’s definition of individuality and exceptionalism. However, as it was with Porsche, the Mustang has grown far beyond its home market and traditional customer base. With the current sixth-generation iteration being built for the global market, the Mustang proved to be a surprise hit in new markets like Germany and Australia.

As it turns out, like their movies, fast food, and made-in-China Apple products, everybody wants a piece of Americana, and Ford knows that they are in a prime position to capitalise on the Mustang name.

Considering the limited – and collapsing – appeal of the two-door sports car in the midst of a growing appetite for crossovers and SUVs that is spurred on by the circumstances the majority of the world’s population are living in, Ford cannot continue to hedge their bet on the traditional two-door sports car for much longer. They need a product that can paint as broad of a stroke across huge swathes of potential customers rather than one that is laser-focused on the myopia of past glories.

As Herr Wiedeking wisely cautioned of being dependent on “the most fickle segment in the market”, if the traditional Mustang were to survive well into the 21st-century, it has to do what it takes to leverage on its name, on its legacy, on its all-American image, otherwise the Mustang would be a victim of its own hubris.

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