Facelifted car models are getting better

Why a car facelift is often just window dressing

New BMW 3 Series, new Mercedes A-Class or new Seat Ibiza. And then just a little bit of LED graphics here, or a slightly different tail light shape there. Why do you hardly see any changes to the previous model with so many "facelifts"? Move the slider in the photos to see the visual changes on the vehicles.

  • With the new A-Class (green), even experts have to look very carefully to recognize changes.

  • The Fiat 500 before (mint green) and after (white) the facelift.

  • Even with the revised Seat Ibiza (white), the visual differences are almost invisible.

Facelift: the music is playing under the bonnet

"Lifecycle impulse", "Great product upgrade", "Mopf" - model maintenance: When it comes to updating current models, marketing managers like to use technical terms. And all of this just to avoid the word "facelift". As the term suggests, it's all about visual changes. Lines are drawn, the make-up is refreshed. Adjusted the design.

So much for the past. The term has now become obsolete. Today, engineers dig so deeply into the technology that there is hardly enough financially for optical retouching: whether 6 Series BMW, VW Sharan, Seat Ibiza, Toyota Auris or Mercedes A-Class - new LED signatures in the headlights, a few new paint mixes and possibly a few additional wheel tire combinations must be enough to make a difference at first glance.

Automakers are also making use of connectivity

Whereas in the past it was mainly about the appearance, the manufacturers are now concentrating on the inner values: With increasing networking and digitization of cars, manufacturers are getting closer to the world of so-called consumer electronics (CE), says Stefan Bratzel. The professor of automotive economics at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach sees a growing need for software updates and new electronic systems.

Today, manufacturers are interested in the latest smartphone integration or a few self-programmed apps.

The efforts are now in the massive introduction of networked systems such as Apple Carplay, Mirror-Link or Android Auto. These are techniques that are used to connect the smartphone to the car. "While such software adjustments have long since become a must-have, design retouching is becoming a nice-to-have at a time when customers are increasingly comparing the topicality of their car with the connectivity features of their smartphones." says Bratzel.

One has to be, the other can / may be.

CO2 targets must be achieved

In addition to the electronics, what further energy the vehicle developers require are emissions. Not only that manufacturers have to update or replace many engines with a view to the EU6 regulation that will apply from September. You all have the fleet target of 95 grams per kilometer in mind for 2020. Every gram of CO2 saved means a tremendous amount of effort. It is an expensive undertaking, says VW boss Martin Winterkorn: "Every gram of CO2 that we save in Europe in the fleet costs our group almost 100 million euros."

Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche invests around half of the six billion euros that his company puts into research and development every year, in CO2 reduction and green technologies. Often there is not much money left to make a few new creases in the sheet metal.

Dieter Fess from the residual value analyst Bähr und Fess from Völklingen says that in view of the ever shorter production intervals, not much needs to be refreshed because a successor is already on the way. "With more and more series and model variants in less and less time, customers run the risk of losing track of everything," says Fess.

A car cannot look completely different

According to Fess, the manufacturers only have to work on the body during the runtime if the designers are wrong at first. The best example of polarizing design was the BMW 7 Series (E65) by designer Chris Bangle from 2001 to 2008.

And of course the extent of the facelift also depends on the age of a vehicle. "Those who are young enough can often make themselves pretty with new clothes and a little lipstick. Those who have significantly more years under their belt, on the other hand, often have to resort to more drastic measures," says Fess.

However, the deeper the car makers dig into the sheet metal, the less the current used cars are worth. "This is one of the reasons why a cautious approach is advisable if you don't want to alienate your customers afterwards," says Fess.

"The audience needs the faster incentives"

The hesitant visual refreshment, however, contradicts the greed for new stimuli, which it obviously needs for buying impulses. At least that is what VW experienced painfully on the US market. The Wolfsburg-based manufacturer had moderate success there due to long model cycles and too few external changes. But: "The public needs faster incentives, faster product life cycles, the faster beats when it comes to emissions in the car factories, in order to be stimulated to buy anew," says Fess.