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March 06, 2006

Ugly Box(-like) Cars

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe there's such a thing as too much functionality ... in car styling, anyhow.

I know, I know. If "form follows function" a designer would have to be a knucklehead if he tried to express function and not end up with a Platonic Ideal of beauty. Well, that's what I used to read in books about Industrial Design and Architecture when I was in high school and college.

And then there was a saying back in those days to the effect that "a car stylist can do good Industrial Design, but an industrial designer is hopeless at car styling."

How true.

One of the projects the Industrial Design class worked on when I was an undergraduate (I had switched from ID to commercial art by that time) was to design a taxicab. After completion, some of the plans and renderings ended up on hallway display boards.

What was revealed was a tall, stubby, ugly thing lacking any of the grace of even a London taxi. But boy, was it functional: space-efficient, short turning radius, chair-high seating and whatever else was in the design spec handed down by Frank Del Giudice (or maybe dreamed up by the students themselves).

I can't show you that taxicab design, but vehicles in the same spirit are probably cruising a street near you right now. I wouldn't be surprised if ID-school grads didn't sneak into car styling studios under a flag of convenience to wreak aesthetic damage and play strange mind-games to induce good citizens to spend actual money for the results of their functionality-mongering.

One such car (for lack of a better term -- my examples are more van-like station wagons) is the Honda Element.

Honda Element - 2004 - better.jpg
Honda Element.

As you can see, the Element is, er, pretty vertical. And it's covered with lots of matte-finish panels that, if nothing else, minimize scratches and other damage from flying rocks and other cars: not a bad thing. The overall impression is that this vehicle isn't comfortable moving at any but the slowest speeds. But maybe that's the way they're actually driven.

Another gift to NPR listeners from the land of the rising sun is the Scion xB from Toyota (Scion is a brand Toyota introduced to appeal to a younger clientele than aging buyers of Toyotas).

Scion-xB-2005 2nd.jpg
Scion xB.

The xB is cut from pretty much the same cloth as the Element. Only it's smaller and perhaps even less aerodynamic. Since aerodynamic efficiency is a factor in increasing fuel efficiency, does this bother enviro-friendly potential buyers?

Unless you've been to Europe in recent years you have been spared from seeing what might be the ugliest of the lot -- the Fiat Multipla. Here are some examples.

Gallery: Fiat Multipla

Fiat Multipla - 1956.jpg
Multipla 600.
This came out in the late 50s. It had a rear-mounted engine and the front seat positioned well to the front. If there was any justice in this world Ralph Nader would have begun his anti-car jihad with this one instead of the Corvair.

Fiat Multipla - 2000 - better.jpg
Multipla from 2000.
Here is the Multipla I was just talking about. Note the low hood topped by that curious transitional bulge below the nearly-flat windshield. What were people saying about the Italians' innate sense of style?

Fiat Multipla 400 - current.jpg
Multipla from 2004.
Increased competition from Europe and Asia due to loss of government protection (i.e. tariffs) sent Fiat sales into a tailspin and it's too soon to tell if the company will survive. Part of the recovery effort has focused on styling. As you can see, the Multipla has been face-lifted so that it looks more mainstream.

I will now kneel and confess that I'm what they call in Detroit a Car Guy. Unlike Consumer Reports readers, I don't place automobiles on the same plane as refrigerators and toasters -- which is about where the above examples fall.

Indeed, Elements, xBs and Multiplas may be the epitome of functionality (though I have nagging thoughts about those near-vertical windshields on the Multipla and xB getting rock chips). They certainly give every impression of having space-efficient interiors and might be perfect vehicles for certain kinds of buyers with specialized needs. Perhaps they might even be fun to drive. But in terms of automobile style, I think they -- hmm ... what's a polite synonym for "suck"?



posted by Donald at March 6, 2006


How do you like the Smart car? It seems to fit into your sucky category - boxy, square, truncated-looking - yet, because of its size and paint, has a more stylish look. On the plus side, it gets great mileage, is very maneuverable and easy to park, and seats a 6'6", 210 lb man (me) comfortably and upright.

Posted by: robert on March 6, 2006 9:01 PM

Cars have been ugly industry-wide for over twenty years now. If GM and Ford just pulled out two of almost any of their old designs, and then (lightly) retouched them, their market share and financial problems would disappear.

They make-believe, of course. If you keep writing about cars, I suggest a post comparing old and new designs of the same brand name.

For example, compare this fruitmobile,

With the GTO.

Posted by: onetwothree on March 6, 2006 9:18 PM

Not that I own one, mind you, so there's no need to be diplomatic. I'm a subway and bus man most of the time, and rent a giant tank of a thing that can accommodate a family when we leave town.

Posted by: robert on March 6, 2006 9:20 PM

Honda pitched the Element almost exclusively at younger people when it introduced the vehicle a few years ago. It was touted as the perfect vehicle for twentysomething Generation Y'ers to tote around all their outdoor recreation equipment and the other forms of gear that young trendoids accumulate.
Imagine Honda's surprise when the Generation Y'ers proved NOT to be the Element's main buyers; indeed, what with student loans and escalating rents and such, twentysomethings aren't big new-car buyers, period. Instead, the Element proved quite popular among the precise opposite demographic, namely senior citizens. Its wide doors and just-right seating height makes it easy for people with limited mobility to get in and out of the vehicle. The cargo room that Honda designed to accommodate mountain bikes and sleeping bags is also useful for carrying walkers and folded wheelchairs. Honda may have been surprised at the Element's appeal among seniors, but probably not really disappointed; after all, a senior's money is as good as anyone else's.
In bringing out the Scion line, Toyota had a motive in addition to capturing more of the youth market. Scions have Saturn-like no-haggle pricing and the dealership experience is designed to be as low-stress as possible. This is quite unlike Toyota dealerships, which tend to be anything but user-friendly and can be scary places for people without strong negotiating skills. Scions are also made to order, to a certain extent, which reduces the number of vehicles which dealers carry in inventory and allow a much higher degree of customization than almost any other new cars.

Posted by: Peter on March 6, 2006 11:20 PM

Classy cars and Detroit iron rule, or course. Still, you've got me thinking that it might be worth making a separate style-category for dorky cars. Maybe there are better ones and worse ones, even in design terms. That old Saab, for instance, was about as dorky as could be yet was kind of a great-looking thing anyway. Or the old clamshell Citroen. Or classic Jeeps. Maybe the VW Beetle. I'm semi-fond of some boxy cars. They can be amazingly comfortable. I like sitting up pretty straight, and the boxiness of the interiors is a nice free-feeling contrast to the custom-fitted aerodynamic standard interior. I wonder if any of these new boxy cars would qualify as "good" dorky designs. Hmm.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 7, 2006 3:54 AM

Some of us think beauty is practical.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 7, 2006 11:26 AM

I think nothing looks worse than a Hummer.

Which statement almost drove my son to matricide.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 7, 2006 12:07 PM

The Scion is aimed at the youth market?

Bless me, I'm old enough to remember when the main thing young people well, guys, anyway wanted in a car was chrome wheels, a knob on the steering wheel for palming it, and an extra-wide back seat.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 7, 2006 1:40 PM

Scion definitely is aimed at the youth market - take a look at and in about 10 seconds you'll know what I mean.
Most of the Scions I see on the road are being driven by relatively young people. At least that's true of the xA and, to a slightly lesser extent, the tC; the xB seems to trend somewhat older. The average age of Scion buyers is in the early to middle 40's, though almost certainly that's skewed upward by parents buying cars for their children. Incidentially, there are only two car brands with the average buyer age in the United States under 40, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi, and both are around 38 - 39.

Posted by: Peter on March 7, 2006 2:43 PM

One of my pet peeves is the way Audis, BMWs and Mercedes's look more and more like Batmobiles, hot rods and Japanese cars, via California. This is because, I would imagine, so many of the designers are trained in Southern California.

My real pet peeve is Chris Bangle, American head stylist for BMW. Listen to him talk, and he spouts every cliche of Modernism: we must be innovative, creative, different, etc.

What he means is the he doesn't like the understated, classic looks of the old BMWs. He wants chrome rather than body-colored trim, bulges rather than elegant curves, Batmobile-like tiny windows instead of the big glass "superstructures" BMWs used to have, "organic" headlights rather than round ones (show me any shape in nature that looks like the BMW headlights), and so on and so forth.

Result? The new 5 series looks like its assembled from Oldsmobile and Hyundai parts.

Why is this a problem? Two reasons:

1) BMWs used to be among the most classic and restrained cars, respecting the rules of the best industrial design.

2) BMWs work so well that if you like cars you like driving BMWs. But they're now offensive to the eye, inside and out, imho.


Posted by: john massengale on March 7, 2006 3:59 PM

Robert -- The Smart strikes me as yet another case of a Theory-driven product. Last I heard, DaimlerChrysler is still losing money on the brand. Some of the loss might be due to recent development of a line of larger Smarts that can hold four people instead of the original two. Talk about backing failure ...

I do see a fair number of Smarts when I'm in Europe -- Paris, especially. The Smart makes sense in Paree because curbside parking there is scarce and chaotic. (You often see luxury cars wedged in, just waiting to get dinged. Must be pretty rich owners who don't give that big a fig about their Iron.) A Smart can wedge itself into a really short length of curb. But that's about all they're good for from my not-very-eco-friendly perspective.

To me, a Smart makes sense as either (1) a second, urban-based car or (2) the sole car for someone who never leaves town. However, I have seen Smarts on Autoroutes (French toll-freeways) zipping along at 100+ kilometers per hour. And this is a scary sight. A classic two-person Smart has essentially zero crush-space; any halfway serious accident at highway speeds should be fatal, near as I can guess from the car's appearance. It would be interesting to see some solid statistics on this.

OneTwoThree -- Yeah, the Aussie-based Goat is a zilch in the style department. One reason it's a zilch is that it looks too similar to other small GM cars -- no distinction when driving one. And look for a post on styling evolution (and its end) in the next month or two. Something closer to your request might also turn up as well.

Peter -- Interesting. Because of their styling, these cars seem to be off my market radar. Thanks for the info.

Michael -- Uh, "'good' dorky designs"?? Sounds like "outstanding mediocrity." Or "gorgeous ugliness." I'll need some time to wrap my mind around this, but you might have a point.

Rich -- What was that old rule-of-thumb? ... The first car a kid buys is as old as he is.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 7, 2006 4:00 PM

John -- I ought to do a BMW post sometime. I think Bangle has a point when he insists that the styling had to be "freshened" (my term, not his). But I agree with you that it led to some quirky cars that sell well despite their appearance. The bustle-trunks on the 5 and 7 Series are infamous, and the "eyebrow" running lights above the headlamps are questionable. Do note that the really important 3-Series restyle is more conventional than that for the bigger cars (though the side detailing is too fussy, among other defects).

I can't afford any new BMW, but one thing that would likely put me off, styling aside, is the I-Drive computer-control thingy -- a piece of German over-engineering that seems to be driving many drivers nuts.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 7, 2006 4:10 PM

Re affording BMWs: If God didn't want us to drive German luxury cars He wouldn't have invented the lease.

Posted by: john on March 7, 2006 7:53 PM

I drive a Scion xA, and I love the thing. It's a perfect city car - it will fit into just about any parking space, and is about the best handling car I've ever driven. Plus, it gets damn near 40 MPG on the highway. It's kind of like a Mini, except cheaper, more reliable and less stylish...

Posted by: jimbo on March 8, 2006 10:45 AM

Fiat Multipla is the one of most terrible car in the world history

Posted by: Yansen on March 8, 2006 3:52 PM

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