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Configurator Contest!

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On: Fri, Oct 18, 2013 at 3:49PM | By: Nick Bakewell

Configurator Contest!

As part of a bid to entice new buyers, car companies these days offer a series of “configurators” on their websites. These are essentially graphic tools that allow people to “build” and spec any car that the company currently offers. They range from basic cosmetic options, like paint color and wheel type, to incredibly granular tweaks, such as the color of the stitching on the seats, and whether you want the suspension to have one, three, or five modes. What I’ve decided to do is go through (more or less) all of the configurators that are available, pick the best and the worst, and explain how pithy little applets can tell you a lot about an automaker. So, without further ado, the awards:

Outstanding Achievement in Consumer-class Web-based Vehicle Configuration Simulators—
At the lower end of the price spectrum sit companies such as Ford, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and Nissan. Owing to the fact that the cheaper a vehicle is, the fewer options there are on it, it’s natural that these configurators would be a bit less robust than those offered by higher-end companies. Having the stitching on the seats of your Ford Focus done in the colors of the American flag, for instance, is not an option offered by the factory. Thus, the options lists tend towards things like wheel locks, rubber floor mats, and iPod connectivity, which is fine. These are inexpensive cars, and you shouldn’t be able to make them cost the same as their larger, more luxe brethren just by adding stratum after stratum of glitzy trim and fatuous toys. With that in mind, here are the best and the worst of the small fry:

The least pleasant of the small configurators to use is Toyota’s, because no matter which model you choose, you’re offeredonly one option: color. Toyota, despite being the largest carmaker in the world, seems to have to almost criminally skimped when it comes to their website. It looks like something from the 1990s, and despite being invited to “Build your Toyota!” you get a choice of colors, and that’s it. Not that I would expect much else; their cars are dreary, anonymous hunks of metal for people who just need some car, and despite being able to spec your 2014 Corolla in “Attitude Black Metallic”, their website is just as boring.

On the other hand, the best of the lower end of the grid is a draw; it’s a toss-up between VW and Ford. VW’s configurator, like that of many companies it owns (see: Audi, Bentley) is very slick, with clean, simple graphics that clearly demonstrate the changes you’re making on the car as you build it. I particularly like the section where you choose the colors, as it shows you both an exterior view of the car and a view of one of the seats, so you can easily see how the interior and exterior colors match. Ford’s configurator is a little less transparent, but has lots of cool design elements that move around as you change things on the car, while also packaged in a very neat, uncluttered layout. Both configurators clearly display the price of each option, as well as your running total, and allow for 360-degree views of the interior and exterior. Both also allow you to save your design as a PDF, or share it via social media. You can also send it directly to a dealer to get a quote on what the actual list price of your ideal car would be.

Supreme Success in Business/Executive-class Web-based Vehicle Configuration Simulators—
So now we move on to the midrange, encompassing most cars that run from mid-$30k all the way up to $100k (give or take). This is, I’ll admit, a fairly broad brush with which to paint, but if we look at a company like Mercedes-Benz, their range starts at $30k with the CLA and runs all the way up to $200k for the SLS supercar. With the exception of the monstrous SLS and a few equally insane AMG models, the majority of the range falls between $30k and $100k, the same for BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, etc., etc. All of which can be roughly lumped under the “luxury car” heading. So, concordantly, compared to the first bracket, these cars are just bursting with options. They’ve got the lot: massage seats, heated steering wheels, guidance systems that basically drive the car for you, folding metal hardtops, sumptuous leather, and my personal favorite, Mercedes’s patented “Air Scarf”, which wafts a stream of warm air across your neck so that you don’t freeze while driving around with the roof open. Oh, and one quick addendum: I’m not including Porsche in this category, even though most of their cars can be made to fit into the sub-$100k mold. The reasoning behind this is that Porsche’s defining attribute is the 911, which is a supercar, and so the company belongs in the final category with the rest of the big boys.

So, without further ado, the best and worst of the middle of the pack:
Deciding on a “worst” in this category was actually really hard, but not for the reason I bet you’re thinking. Honestly, almost all of their configurators are… crap. It really looks like hardly anyone’s actually tried. Take Lexus for instance. I know they sell well; I see them everywhere. Lexi are some of the most ubiquitous luxury cars around, but if I walked into the dealership and was offered this tool to customize my brand new Lexus, I’d be so offended that I’d probably go somewhere else. It looks like it came out of a continuing education “Web Design for People Who Hope It’s Not Too Late to Change Careers” class. Even just trying to breeze through and just pick the most expensive one of everything sends it spiraling into panic as it hurls window after window of incompatibility alerts at you, shrieking that you can’t possibly combine “Black and Saddle Tan Leather Matte Dark Brown Ash Burl” with the “Four-zone Climate Concierge” package. I recognize that this is something all car companies do, and I hate it; if I’m paying a large amount of money for my car (and buying new, there is no such thing as a small amount of money, just relatively less), then I should be able to have it in whatever colors I want. I understand that not every car comes in every color, but looking at the range available for, say, an Audi is just depressing. Their color palette is taken straight out of 1920s Hollywood, which is to say, grey, white, black, blacker, blackest, and deep grey. But even more irritating is restrictions being placed against certain combinations that do exist within the manufacturer’s range. If all I get are varying shades of grey for the exterior and maybe, if I’m really lucky, brown for the interior, then why can I have only brown leather with a white or black exterior, but not a grey one? Who decided that? What’s the point? If you make it, and sell it, then I should be able to buy it in combination with whatever I please. There’s no arguing taste, but your customers will argue that they’re always right.

Pardon my frankness, but as I stated earlier, these things do matter. It’s like personal grooming; if you don’t even make an effort to make your face presentable, who’s going to want to talk to you? The point I was attempting to make was that save for a few companies, it seems like the makers of “luxury” vehicles simply haven’t bothered to come up with a configuration tool to match the pedigree of their products. So, with the exceptions of Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover, and possibly BMW, they all lose. Lincoln’s configurator is exactly the same as Ford’s, literally identical, except they’ve dropped the fun, funky colors for shades of— you guessed it—grey. Sigh.

Now, the winner. It was close, right down to the wire, but ultimately, the gong goes to Jaguar Land Rover. The way their configurator is presented gives you exactly the same kind of… handcrafted luxury that you’d expect from a dealership experience, or you know, one of their products. It’s elegant, very easy to navigate and understand, with exceptional graphics and a great sense of having (pardon the pun) a wealth of options at your fingertips. There are no stupid incompatibilities or self-righteous nagging about trim choices, and the tool walks you through the construction of the car, from the big stuff, like exterior color, smoothly through interior options and coming to rest on a big pile of soft, pillowy amenities. It’s a pleasant thing to use because it presents the cars in the manner they deserve, as things to be pored over and admired, rather than a series of boxes to be ticked. Even if you could never afford one, it’s still a fun way to lose an hour or so (trust me, I checked). Thank you, Jaguar Land Rover, and congratulations, for upholding the standards of your brand on something as pithy as an applet on your website. It makes me think you care about your customers.

The One You All Care About in Fantasy-class Web-based Vehicle Configuration Simulators—
Thus, finally, we arrive at the peak, the gates to automotive heaven, where 100 octane flows in rivers and the world is nothing but a series of twisting mountain roads and coastal highways. Here, the air is full of sound, a symphony of induction and combustion, from the deep basso rumble of V8s to the searing howls of V12s.

I may have taken that metaphor a bit too far; bear with me.

Here we find the big names, the dream machines, the posters we had as kids, and the cars that make us feel young again. Did you know that, as a brand, Ferrari is more widely recognized than Apple, Microsoft, or Google? On a completely unrelated note, did you know that Lamborghini started out making farm equipment?

Nothing here is out of bounds; though the range of contenders is limited, their vehicles are far more diverse than their more benign brethren. The cars at this end of the price spectrum are limited only by imagination and (usually) the laws of physics. Besides, how often does Bentley get compared to Koenigsegg?

Choosing the best and worst of this category was tricky because, frankly, all of the configurators are pretty nicely finished. Unlike their much more common, mid-executive brethren, pretty much every company provided a configurator that met the minimum standards of polish, style, and individuality; the only conspicuous absence was Pagani, who don’t offer such a feature. After much deliberation, though, I finally reached a verdict: two automakers share the bottom rung, and though they’re both ultimately German-owned, they couldn’t be more different.

First, Rolls-Royce. Their configurator seemingly features every single option offered on the car, and that’s a problem. If presented in what I imagine to be a thick, leatherbound volume kept behind the counter at the dealership, this would be a great way to see the myriad of ways you can outfit your yacht-on-wheels. Showcased in the miniscule applet window, however, the hundreds and thousands of potential combinations quickly become overwhelming. It’s one thing to have luxury presented at your leisure, but entirely another to have a giant bucket of posh dumped all over you at once. Opening up the paint color window, for instance, obscures the car, so you can’t see what you’re actually choosing. Other configurators (wisely) pare back the actual number of options available on the car so that they can be packaged neatly into a browser window, whereas Rolls-Royce offers you the entire array of options. Before you can even choose a paint color, you have to choose one of two types of paint, then one of three subtypes, and then a further two sub-subtypes. In colloquial English, it’s “a bit of a faff”. Anal attention to detail isn’t your thing, RR. Leave that to Porsche.

The second of the losers is, sadly, Lamborghini. Their low score is down to two things: a complete absence of half of their model range from the configurator function (you can play with only a Gallardo, no joy for the Aventador), and the sparseness of the options available on said car. It’s a $220,000 car; I know that I have more than three choices of interior color. More to the point, it’s a Lambo, so why can’t I paint it orange with chartreuse seats and fuschia carpets? You get black, white, red, blue, and grey. It’s the same story with the interior, a choice of just a few colors and the option to either add or subtract the Lamborghini logo from the dash. Come on, Lambo! The last word that should ever be associated with your brand is “boring”. I had fun messing around with almost every other one of the tools I checked out, but Lambo’s was so sparse that I didn’t give it a second thought.

Of the two, I’m honestly more disappointed by Lamborghini. Their website is so devoid of life or content that it seems almost an afterthought, which, given the brand’s cachet worldwide seems like a missed opportunity. Lamborghinis are some of the most historically exciting cars ever made; it’s a shame to see their web presence swept into such a dark little corner of the internet.

And now, finally, the crown, the cup, the gong, and the golden ring. We have our winner. The company that impressed me the most did so because they were exemplary not only in representing their brand, but going, as a supercar maker should, beyond the bounds of reasonable expectation and unselfconsciously delighting in a bit of tasteful excess. So, without further ado, congratulations... Ferrari!

Okay, so I know what you're thinking. Bit of a cop out, right? Easy answer? There's a reason Ferrari has the gravitas it does today: because they are the Rolling Stones of the automotive world. They're the origin of the species, and their legacy coupled with their longevity gives them the divine right to rule. Ferraris are passion, romance, style, the ultimate example of what supercars can be. A Ferrari is more than just a car, it's an athlete, a supermodel, a status symbol, and a masterful blend of fine art and high technology. Sure, there have been a few duds over the years, but when you've been making records for as long as the Rolling Stones have, not every track is going to turn out like "Wild Horses".

So with that in mind, the design of their configurator is just so perfect, so emblematic of the spirit of the brand, that no one else came close. Where other configurators suspend the car in some imaginary non-space where exists only a concrete floor and a few choice spotlights, Ferrari has created a virtual garage, adorned with racing paraphernalia and bits of Ferrari heritage. My favorite touch, though, is a sequence of colored scarves hung along the far wall. I imagine that instead of simple color swatches, when the time comes to choose the color of your new car, you're handed a selection of exquisite Italian silk—the same scarves worn by all Italian test drivers—as a set of options. Placing the virtual car in this space gives it a context that's missing from all the other brands. Ferrari are proud of who they are, and so the cars are shown in their space, as if you were looking into a room of the Maranello factory, eagerly watching your very own Cavallino Rampante being assembled. Within the applet's interface, the options are transparent and presented along a bar that runs the length of the screen, leading you through the options. The one thing this configurator doesn't do that almost all others do is show you a price, which is kind of how it should be, y'know? Assigning a dollar value to a fantasy is missing the point a bit. So take your time, admire the 458 from every angle and in every color; it's perhaps the most beautiful thing on four wheels right now. Ferrari didn't need to make this tool as cool as they did, but it shows just how utterly cogent their identity is. Even the smallest thing, if it's a Ferrari thing, is just a little bit more special.

So there you have it, in all its glorious excess and overwrought self-indulgence. This started out as a small exercise but rapidly became something much bigger. It stands to reason that one’s online presence is every bit as important as one’s corporeal attributes, these days. Everything happens online. Thus, what I’m really evaluating here is not the dollar amount that a given brand decided to invest in its web design, but rather the quality of their investment in themselves (if that’s not too pompous). Brand identity is everything for automakers; just look at how well Cadillac is doing post-makeover. Those companies that took the time and care to make sure that their every façade was spotless are those that I have faith in; I can leave the rest. The results speak for themselves: I bet you more people than not have at some point entertained the notion of someday owning a Ferrari, whereas I challenge you to find me someone who wants nothing more in life than to own a Toyota. I rest my case.

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