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Posts filed under ‘Aesthetics’

I Hate In-Dash Navigation Screens

September 11, 2014 by Matt

Infiniti M45 2006 Interior Inside Console Cockpit

It’s a question of focus.

Since the dawn of the automobile in the late 1800s, the focus of every car’s cockpit area has been the steering wheel, and by extension, the activity that should occupy the majority of the driver’s attention while behind said wheel; namely, actually driving the car.

In the past few years, though, with the emergence of large in-dash navigation screens on even basic commuter cars like the Ford Focus and VW Golf, the steering wheel’s visual preeminence in the average car’s interior has been steadily watered down. Whenever I consider a photograph of a new car’s inside, my eyes are pulled in two different directions, alternately drawn by the steering wheel and then by the massive screen squatting in the center console. As an enthusiast, it creates a kind of uncomfortable tension in my brain where I’m subconsciously unsure of the car’s emphasis simply by glancing at the interior. There’s a visual competition going on in the cockpit, a conflict where before there was certainty, simplicity.

Mercedes Benz CLA Interior Inside Console Cockpit

So is this design shift just a personal preference, a nit-pick without larger implications? No—I don’t think it overstates the case to say that the uneasy power-sharing arrangement going on in the modern car’s interior is a bellwether of a changing societal relationship with the automobile.

Since their inception, cars have been made steadily easier to drive. Engineering ingenuity has progressively done away with the need to manage things like spark advance, choke setting or even gear changes. The tedious chore of driving now approaches the convenience of taking a stroll down the street or cooking a meal in a microwave oven. Start the car, alternately press the “go” and “stop” pedals, occasionally turn the large circular thing positioned in front of you while enduring a period of isolation in your transportation appliance, and arrive at your destination. Why not give the car’s occupants a little television to play with during the trip? It’s not like anything else of note is making a demand on their time.

I’ll admit I’m being a bit obtuse; I know full well that not everyone is a driving enthusiast, and nowhere is it written that every car owner shall read the entire owner’s manual from cover to cover and make every effort to bond with their automobile. And yes, I multitask while driving; I fiddle with the stereo and talk on my cell phone, among other things. The tipping point for me hinges on the design statement, the visual prominence given to the in-dash screen and the emphasis it usurps from the steering wheel. Aesthetically, the stereo is just one of many secondary controls, and I can put my cell phone away, but a built-in touchscreen is always there, always demanding my attention. And even if I choose to ignore it, the design decision to place it on equal footing with the steering wheel comes from someplace; it wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t a demand for it. As drivers, we have a finite amount of attention to devote to the range of tasks available behind the wheel. I’m just saddened to witness a symbol of the shrinking slice of our “attention pie” devoted to the act of driving.

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A Styling Comparison:
New BMW 2-Series Vs. Old 1-Series

August 12, 2014 by Matt

BMW 2-Series Red

BMW 1-Series 135i Orange Maroon Bronze E82 Coupe

Call it the anti-Peter Pan treatment.

With the replacement of the outgoing BMW 1-Series by the new, more upscale 2-Series, the Bavarian automaker “grows up” the styling, with less-than-successful results.

The differences between the generations are somewhat subtle, but impossible to dismiss once discovered. The most obvious 2-Series upgrade comes at the front end, where the headlights squint amid more surface detailing. At the rear, the 1-Series’ C-pillar makes a more pronounced break with the trunklid in comparison to that of the 2-Series, which flows and tapers together. And proportionally, the new car sits lower and looks larger, having lost the older BMW’s somewhat controversial “dipped” rocker panel.

The effect of the aesthetic changes reinforces a styling and character similarity between the 2-Series and its big brother, the 4-Series. And while that may be desirable from a marketing standpoint, where a salesman can more easily sell a 2-Series to a customer aspiring to “upgrade” to a 4 at some point, the changes have robbed the baby BMW of much of what made the 1 so distinctive.

BMW 2-Series White

BMW 1-Series 135i E82 White Coupe Rear

Sure, the older car may look a bit more awkward on first glance, but at least it’s confident in its awkwardness; it’s not striving to be something it’s not. The 2-Series seems like it’s trying too hard to emulate the larger 4-Series, while the 1 is simply happy to be a small car. Furthermore, the superficial ungainliness of the older car recalls the great upright BMWs of the ’70s and ’80s like the 2002, E21 and E30. Those cars look aggressive and distinctive precisely because their lack of aerodynamic, flowing lines. They look agile, eager and above all, confident—appealing qualities projected by the 1-Series and lost, or at least muted, in its successor.

I suppose, in the end, it all boils down to a matter of taste: How would you like your small BMW served? Mature and swoopy or playful and pugnacious?

Full disclosure: The 1-Series is one of my all-time favorite BMWs, and one of the few post-E46 BMWs I would consider. A 6-speed manual, Blue Water Metallic 128i with the Sport package is very high on my bucket list of cars to own.

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Is Audi’s Design in a Rut?

March 20, 2014 by Matt

2012 Audi A5 White

“Awfully familiar” is how a recent Car and Driver article described the evergreen A5/S5’s looks, now its 7th model year. And yet in the final tally, the Audi ended up with only a 1-point deficit in the “Exterior Styling” category to the brand-new, sultry BMW 435i. Audi’s designs have staying power; that much is certain. But in spite of their objective attractiveness, is it time to move on to a different, or at least more significantly updated set of visual themes?

Audi S3 Red

The conservative looks of the new A3/S3 sedan could be construed as evidence the automaker is out of ideas. Aside from various detail updates, the car looks like an 75% facsimile of Audi’s current-generation (and rather long in the tooth) A4. It looks buttoned-down, tasteful, taut and sporty, but isn’t it time to push the styling envelope a bit?

It’s risky to introduce new themes to such an established brand, and the industry is replete with failed examples of automakers attempting to roll out a fresh new look for their lineup, most recently Lexus with their hideous “hourglass” grille shape.

Success stories do exist, however; recall Mercedes’ transition to oval headlights in the ’90s and more recently Jaguar’s jettisoning of basically their entire classic design vocabulary with the XF and XJ. In both cases, the automakers’ efforts were well-received and unlocked new styling possibilities across their respective model ranges.

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue Rear

As far as Audi is concerned, small indications exist that they’re trying to move beyond the current design playbook. With its revamped fascia, the new 3rd-generation TT gives glimpses of what a new styling direction could be like, even if the rest of the car actually takes a stylistic step backward in apeing the 1st generation car more than its immediate predecessor; the rear fenders and overall profile look like they haven’t shifted a millimeter in the past 10 years. Granted, it’s difficult to improve on a shape that was acclaimed as a design icon when it was released, but still, coupes are most brands’ styling vanguards; Audi could stand to be a little more radical without “endangering” sales of their bread-and-butter models.

Rumors are flying of a new Sport Quattro coupe; here’s hoping that serves to introduce a positive new design direction.

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Supercar + Herbie = Porsche 918?

August 7, 2013 by Matt

Porsche 918 and Herbie Love Bug VW Beetle

So…I’m a little confused.

You’re Porsche. You have a brand-spanking-new supercar stuffed to the gills with the very latest electronic trickery and a bleeding-edge hybrid powertrain. You’re charging the few lucky buyers somewhere north of $800K to drive one home. And…you tart up the unpainted exterior with flame decals and plain round number stickers that look like they belong on your neighbor’s 16-year-old son’s dented Accord?

I don’t get it.

Furthermore: The panel gaps. They’re huge. I could insert my finger in the space between the fender and bumper. I understand your fancy new range-topper is made of carbon fiber and Inconel and other difficult-to-work-with materials, but you’re such a famously exacting, perfectionist automaker and the price of admission is so outrageous that the fact that parts of it look worse than a rebodied Fiero is, well, shocking.

Here’s what your new supercar should have looked like:

Porsche 918 RSR Concept

You drew that, remember? It’s your 918 RSR concept. You penned that tidy, aggressive, cohesive shape, complete with nods to your extensive racing pedigree and a few details that hint at the technological sophistication under the sultry contours of the bodywork. It’s racy, it’s beautiful, it’s…not tacky. It’s one of the best-looking cars you’ve ever envisioned. I wish I could say the same about what actually rolled through the factory doors.

Scratching my head here, Porsche.

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Styling Misfires:
The BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo

August 5, 2013 by Matt

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

What on earth, BMW?

So the Mercedes CLS had already established the “4-door coupe” niche in massive fashion a few years before, and BMW’s response was…this? Either the Bavarian automaker’s market research had somehow shown car shoppers were hungry for a quasi-backpack-toting, deformed version of their handsome 5-series sedan, or the “attractive” part of the 4-door coupe equation was totally lost. It seems BMW thought the awkward grafting of a hatchback onto a typically well-proportioned shape would exploit an unexplored corner of the market, but it’s difficult to imagine who would gravitate toward such a stunted shape.

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

In a way, the 5-Series GT represents the most cynical demonstration yet of its manufacturer trying to coast on brand capital alone. Sure, it might drive well enough, and with the 400-hp, 4.4l twin-turbo V8, the 550i specification can certainly move along at a decent clip, but what about the 5-Series GT, above all else, communicates “Ultimate Driving Machine?” Precious little, and it’s that slogan and mindset that established the BMW brand in the public eye as the premier choice of driving enthusiasts, and by extension those who wanted to convey an impression (real or no) that they appreciate sharp-driving cars. Sadly, with experiments like the 5-Series GT (among others), the focus that made BMW’s reputation is slowly being chipped away. The open question is how long the brand’s luster can remain untarnished with the general buying public after the enthusiast community has moved on to greener pastures.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein we discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:


3 Examples of Aesthetic Corner-Cutting

July 20, 2013 by Matt

Oldsmobile Aurora

No metal between the door and rear wheel arch. On the vast majority of cars, there’s a strip of bodywork between the rear edge of the door and the wheel well. It represents the outer lip of the inner fender and makes that area of the car looked tucked-in and finished. However, on some cars like the mid-’90s Olds Aurora shown above, the automaker decided to forgo the strip and bring the rear edge of the door all the way back to the wheel arch. While the result may have fewer bodywork edges, it also looks incredibly cheap.

Buick Riviera

Chrome wheels. Regrettably, GM seemed to be the worst offender when it came to cheap-looking styling in the ’90s. Rather than invest the resources to either make the wheel design more inherently appealing or complex or simply larger, GM’s idea of a “high-end” wheel was to take a very basic design and simply slap chrome on it. They apparently reasoned that the shiny stuff would provide the required showroom “flash” in lieu of, you know, actually styling the wheels.

Chrysler 200

Artificial window area enlargement. Shameless. Either properly enlarge the window area, or figure out how to make the C-pillar and greenhouse merge harmoniously, but for heaven’s sake, don’t cake on a kind of fakey-do artificial window mascara to camouflage the fact that you couldn’t crack the oh-so difficult puzzle of a sedan’s rear window treatment. Disgusting.

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Wrong Direction, Porsche:
New Cayman Takes Styling Cues from Panamera

July 9, 2013 by Matt

2014 Porsche Cayman Yellow

The 2014 Cayman

2014 Porsche Panamera

The 2014 Panamera

It’s no secret I consider the Porsche Panamera one of the ugliest vehicles available today. In a recent post on Porsche’s much-missed 928, I pointed out Porsche’s reputation for taking what some would consider a less-than-ideal design and persisting with it, improving to the point of excellence:

It’s this resolve that gives me hope that the automaker will refine the technically peerless but aesthetically hideous Panamera to the point where I can actually stand to look at it.

However, when placed side-by-side with a rear view of the Panamera, the brand-new 2nd-generation Cayman’s design seems to take some visual cues from the supersedan. Rather than backing away from the Panamera’s much-maligned squatting, hunchbacked proportions, Porsche actually seems to be doubling down, expanding that visual feature to include at least one more model in its range.

Porsche Cayman R Green

The 2011 Cayman R

At this point, I would normally just throw up my hands and move on…except that the 1st-generation Cayman is a stunning vehicle. Shown above, with the graceful, non-concave integration of the rear deck and fenders, the 1st-gen Cayman becomes more than just “a Boxster with a roof,” achieving a level of visual cohesiveness and purity rare for a hardtop derived from a convertible. The 1st gen looks lean, muscular and lithe where its successor appears slab-sided, bathtub-ish and awkward.

If Porsche applies the same rear-end treatment to a third model, is it officially a trend? Regardless, let’s hope their better aesthetic angels wave them off before we see another example of this unfortunate design direction.

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Proto-Four-Door Coupe?
The Infiniti J30

July 2, 2013 by Matt

Infiniti J30 Black

The more things change…

At the time it was introduced for the 1993 model year, the major complaint directed at the Infiniti J30 was its puny rear seat volume. One glance at the car reveals its manufacturer obviously prioritized style over function, what with its delicately tapered haunches and miniscule trunk.

Nowadays the “four-door coupe” styling trend, sparked by the introduction of the first-generation Mercedes CLS, is going strong. We’ve seen a whole slew of imitators from the Audi A7 to the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe and even the Volkswagen CC, and although their barely-usable rear seat space is mentioned, it’s hardly a deal-breaker the way it seemed to be for the unloved J30.

Infiniti J30 Black

So why didn’t the J30 catch on? Did luxury car buyers overwhelmingly prioritize interior space over style in the mid-’90s in a way they no longer do? Was the buying public so soured on Infiniti’s awful marketing campaign for the brand flagship Q45 (notoriously not even showing images of the car) that the bad vibes overtook its smaller stablemate as well?

Or perhaps the car wasn’t radical enough? For all its swoopy styling, the J30 retains the overall proportions of a traditional 4-door in the way the later CLS doesn’t, not to mention the fact that the Mercedes car has a great whacking V8 under the hood to prove it’s got the moves to back up its looks. The J30, by contrast, was fitted with a 210-hp variant of Nissan’s VG 3.0l V6 engine—a pleasant enough engine, and routing power to the rear wheels no less, but nothing to write home about.

Infiniti J30 Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

So, combine styling that was just a touch too conservative, merely adequate power and dynamic ability as well as the still-uncertain prestige of a luxury brand still finding its footing in the marketplace, and the reasons behind the J30’s failure to gain a foothold in its target market become clearer.

Still, the fact remains that it is RWD, does have quite a nice engine and is very pretty to behold—those three qualities explain my enduring soft spot for the J30. And I do think Infiniti should receive more credit for creating the first luxury sedan with a styling/function priority tradeoff closely in line with that of the more recent crop of fashion-forward four-doors.

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A Gallery of Attractive Factory Wheels

June 28, 2013 by Matt

Just leave ’em alone.

Many (most?) efforts by a car’s owner to “improve” its styling end in (visual) disaster. Giving credence to the notion that yes, the car’s designers knew what they were doing, here’s an assortment of cars that came from the factory with wheels especially well-designed and matched to the lines of the cars’ sheetmetal.

BMW Style 42 Wheels Rims

E39 BMW 530i Sport. Many bodystyles of BMW of have been fitted with a variety of gorgeous wheels, but the Style 42s (the automaker’s internal designation) that came with the later E39 530i Sport take the top prize. Delicate, detailed, stunning, perfect.

Audi C5 RS6

C5 Audi RS6. Audi gave its range-topping early-2000s siege weapon these lovely shoes. Simple but imposing, the lack of a lip lightens the visual weight of the wheels’ design at the same time the turbine-inspired shape, together with the flared fenders, creates the impression of relentless thrust.

1996 Nissan Maxima

1995-1999 Nissan Maxima. I really like what Nissan did here. The spokes are thick and strong, but angled to reflect rotational movement, and they’re finished in natural brushed aluminum, always a good choice.

Porsche 911 993 Silver

Porsche 993. Porsche equipped its last great air-cooled machine with these steamrollers. They’re awesomely wide, and the twisted-spoke design makes it look like the engine’s torque is about to wrench the hub clean off the rim. Love.

Jaguar Series 1 E-Type Drophead Blue

1961-1974 Jaguar E-Type. And since no list of hot factory wheels is complete without including classic British sports cars’ cleaning nightmares, here’s the most iconic car to wear them. No E-Type, Triumph, Austin-Healey or MG (among others) looks quite right without a set of wire wheels. Don’t touch.

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