Monday, March 10, 2014

Editorial: What makes a car beautiful?

As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So when it comes to cars, it is no surprise that different people find different design elements attractive while others may find those same design elements repulsive. And yet, there are some design elements universally considered to be attractive on their own, but once all of these elements are combined into a single vehicle, the end result may not be found attractive by any. Some of this is simply a matter of finding that balance point where too many design elements cause a vehicle to start to appear too busy while too few elements can make the vehicle feel too plain. But is there a formula out there that automakers can follow in order to find the right balance and create a vehicle that nearly all will find attractive? Is it even possible to create a vehicle that is universally seen through the same lens?

Let's dissect some of the recent trends in automotive design and see if we can determine what are desirable elements and how they factor into the overall sense of a vehicle's beauty.


The Four-Door Coupe


This trend was launched by Mercedes Benz with the introduction of the first generation CLS-class. The sleek sedan sacrificed rear seat head room in the name of style and the end result was a new automotive harbinger that continues to influence nearly every manufacturer. In fact, nearly every automaker is falling all over themselves trying to find a way to put out a car with a sleek roofline. While it initially started with the luxury brands, even mainstream automakers have made a concerted effort to introduce models that could be classified under the four-door coupe styling. Take Hyundai's Sonata, Mazda6, and Ford Fusion, each with a sacrifice in rear seat headroom to offer a lower roofline and the coupe-inspired look.

But what is it exactly that makes this design language work so well and captures the attention of the car buying public? Some of it is purely in the fact that the car gives the appearance of being a two door, even when there are actually four, offering buyers with lingering desires for the freedom that a coupe signifies the opportunity to hang-on to that fleeting thought for just a moment longer. To others, it is purely a style thing, with the low roofline offering a much wider stance and thus sportier appearance. Whatever the motivation, the trend has proven itself to have some serious staying power and continues to proliferate with abandon.

The LED Daytime Running Light (DRL)


For this trend, we can thank our friends at Audi, who originated the look. DRLs originally started as a way to provide greater visibility in all non-nighttime conditions, making cars on the road easier to spot and hopefully reducing accident rates. BMW took it one step further by creating the angel-eye halo that came on with the primary headlights, but Audi took it one step further and decided that instead of just using the high-beams for DRLs, they would take it one step further and add a strip of LEDs that would serve to both act as DRLs, but also create a unique brand identity. Of course, the result has been a design trend that has spread to just about every automaker across the globe, with nearly every manufacturer looking to add its own take on the original concept.

Of course, now that everyone has it too, the LED DRL has lost its luster as being a unique concept and some manufacturers have started looking for ways to push the concept further. Mercedes Benz started by adding Swarovski crystals to the mix and Acura has gone an entirely different direction by using LED headlights that do double duty as the DRLs. Whatever the case, it seems that LED DRLs are here to stay and they are going to be a part of the automotive landscape for a very long time. What continues to make them appealing is that manufacturers have started to get creative with their use of the LEDs and finding different ways to distinguish themselves from the competition. It has become a key part of many manufacturer's brand identity, although Audi still leads the pack in making theirs stand out.

Massive Wheels


Huge wheels had been a thing of the tuner crowd, looking for ways to fill the wheel wells of their rides with "rims" of every increasingly larger diameters and running ever thinner rubber-band tires. Nowadays, these massive wheels slathered in thin strips of rubber are available right from the factory with no aftermarket modification required. Now, this is one trend that I can actually buy into because cars have become increasingly large in their exterior dimensions over time. If you take an early 90's Honda Accord and set it next to a modern one, the older Accord will be completely dwarfed by its humongous offspring. With the larger exterior dimensions, the wheels had to follow suit in order not to look too tiny. The ever increasingly larger brake discs to haul the increasingly heavy cars down from speed are likely also contributing to the need for larger wheels. However, we have also reached a point where some cars wear wheels that are cartoonishly large, and I am not talking about donks either. Still, while wheel diameters and width have gotten larger, the designs have not gotten all that much more creative, despite modern production techniques allowing for much more complex shapes.

Flared Fenders

In an effort to give modern cars a meaner stance, and also to cover the absolutely massive wheels that many modern cars are sporting, many designers have taken to incorporating flared fenders as a part of their design. Certain sportier models use it as a way to distinguish themselves from their more pedestrian variants, while some other cars have made it a big part of their design language. Cars like the Subaru WRX are known for their fender flares, but are hardly a paragon of style. But then you see cars like the W221 generation of the Mercedes-Benz S-class that uses it to great effect while the look has continued to spread to many much more affordable cars, including the most recent iteration of the Mazda6. Whether or not these fender flares are necessary or even a good design choice may not matter as this is one trend that looks like it has some staying power.

Enormous Gaping Grilles


The final trend I want to take a look at is the sudden prevalence of enormous grilles. This is another trend that we can thank Audi for propagating. Audi's single-frame grille, which draws from the company's Auto Union racing car history, is used to great effect and offers a distinctive appearance that is hard to miss. However, not every automaker who has decided to try to copy this trend has managed to do so successfully. Lexus, for instance, has introduced its own spindle-shaped grille, which sort of takes Audi's single-frame grille and pinches it in the middle to form spindle shape. Unfortunately, the end result is a series of vehicles that bears a rather uncanny resemblance to the alien hunters from the movie Predator. While there are likely some benefits to using this style of grille for cooling purposes, one has to imagine that the massive open space at the front has to have some negative impact on aerodynamics if not properly managed.

Image courtesy of FastestLaps.com
So at the end of the day, these are the latest design trends that are ever growing in popularity among designers in the automotive marketplace. Every manufacturer seems to be looking to find ways to incorporate these cues into their cars as a way to attract more buyers into dealerships, with some demonstrating more restraint than others. Now, beauty is a matter of individual taste, but when you take all of these elements and merge them into a single vehicle, what you end up with might look a little like the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. This little hot hatch takes every element discussed above and slaps them together into what has got to be one of the most intriguing automotive designs on the market right now. But does it qualify as beautiful?

You be the judge.

Tags: Audi, automotive, beauty, design, Hyundai, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Subaru