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Posts filed under ‘Styling Misfires’

Styling Misfires:
The 1989-1997 Ford Thunderbird

October 29, 2014 by Matt

Ford Thunderbird Beige

They never could figure it out.

The nose, I mean. They tried four times—four—over the course of the tenth-generation T-bird’s eight-year model run and still couldn’t get it right.

Sure, the various noses were representative of certain engine options and trim packages, and it’s common for automakers to tweak a car’s appearance based on the extras the buyer specifies, but still—it’s noteworthy that none of Ford’s fascia treatments of the ’89-’97 car is successful.

Ford Thunderbird Red

The design of the rest of the car isn’t much to write home about either. It clearly apes the proportions of the BMW E24 6-Series in profile—not a bad car to copy styling-wise—though with far less panache and character. That said, the lines are relatively straightforward, so it shouldn’t be that hard to pen a fascia that coheres with the rest of the car, right?

Ford Thunderbird Blue

What’s the issue? Simply put, the bumper is too big relative to the headlight-grille area. The bumper-to-grille ratio of the ’89-’97 T-bird’s inspiration, the BMW E24, is much more balanced and thus, successful. Compounding the problem is the fact that in two iterations of the car’s nose, prominent bumper intakes draw far too much attention to the ill-proportioned area, like a pimple on an oversized nose. Furthermore, the later “refresh” cars’ bumpers and headlights (shown above and at top) have a curvy, organic quality completely at odds with the boxiness of the rest of the car. There’s a huge disconnect.

Ford Thunderbird Blue

Arguably the most successful nose is that of the pre-refresh non-Super Coupe car, shown above. The area around the emblem is closed, and the visually-overpowering bumper intakes are absent. It’s more understated—but very bland, and still a long way from attractive.

Underneath the skin, the tenth-gen T-bird was a nice car, if a couple hundred pounds overweight. It was technically interesting, featuring independent rear suspension and the option of a supercharged V6 and 5-speed manual transmission. Later cars could be spec’d with the 4.6l SOHC version of Ford’s very competent Modular V8 engine, albeit only with an automatic attached to the back. It’s a shame the styling didn’t live up to the chassis and powertrain’s promise, contributing to the ’89-’97 car’s demise, and ultimately, except for the last-gasp, retro-themed ’00-’05 car, the end of Ford’s storied line of personal coupes.

Image credits: binatani.com, auctionsamerica.com, autoevolution.com

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:

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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.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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:

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Styling Misfires: The ’04-’06 Pontiac GTO

March 18, 2013 by Matt

2004 Pontiac GTO Red

It could have been great. Really.

Arriving in showrooms a year before Ford’s acclaimed Mustang reboot in 2005, the 2004-2006 Pontiac GTO had a real chance to vault past its eventual competitors, including the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, as the first of a new generation of muscle cars. Pontiac’s “GTO” nameplate has volumes of automotive history and lore to draw from, aesthetically and philosophically, and the platform chosen for the new car was GM Australian subsidiary Holden’s excellent Monaro sports GT.

2004 Pontiac GTO Red

Such potential…such failure. The GTO never even approached GM’s sales expectations and lingered in showrooms for a few lonely years before being quietly euthanized. What happened?

To put it mildly, the enthusiast community was underwhelmed. I pin the vast majority of the blame on the looks. It really is hard to fault the combination of a GM pushrod V8, RWD chassis, 6-speed manual transmission and competent suspension tuning. All reviews of the day noted that although the dynamics of the car lacked the ultimate polish of the GTO’s European rivals, they were exemplary for an American car, and for Pontiac especially, who, as noted in the recent post on the equally ill-fated G8 sports sedan, had been forced for years to convince the buying public that warmed-over, badge-engineered FWD family sedans were the last word in “performance.” Finally, finally, they received a platform with all the mechanical organs in the right places, and…the styling deep-sixed the car’s chances before the enthusiast community even entered the showroom.

It’s not that the GTO is an ugly car—it’s not—it’s just… Utterly anonymous-looking. Plastic. Jellybean-like. It could have been the 2-door version of a contemporary FWD Pontiac family sedan and no one would have been the wiser. It did not mine any classic GTO design themes or cues, and its innocuous aesthetics were completely at odds with any kind of rip-snorting “bad boy” muscle car feel its chassis tried to convey.

2006 Pontiac GTO Silver

For its last two model years in 2005 and 2006, Pontiac attempted to “beef up” the car’s visual flair with a pair of hood scoops and true dual exhaust tips, among a handful of other detail changes, but it was too little, too late, and anyway the changes didn’t alter the GTO’s fundamental styling shortcomings. Pity; there was so much goodness under the skin.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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:

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Styling Misfires: The Chevy SSR

November 9, 2012 by Matt

Chevy Chevrolet SSR Hardtop Pickup Yellow

Nope. Nope nope nope.

If there ever was an instance where an automaker should have ignored the “auto show buzz” surrounding a concept and not put it into production, this is it.

Manufactured between 2003 and 2006, the SSR was Chevy’s attempt to capitalize on the retro trend pioneered by the 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird and 1998-2010 VW New Beetle. Only, in the Chevy’s case, its direct design influences weren’t that obvious. Was it reminiscent of a stepside pickup truck? Was it supposed to recall a hot rod? An El Camino? The SSR’s murky visual lineage dampened its appeal considerably.

Chevy Chevrolet SSR Hardtop Pickup Yellow

Automotive publications, for their part, were gentle in their criticism of its looks. A two-seat convertible pickup with a 300+ hp Corvette V8 under the hood, it was in a niche by itself, and the journalistic world seemed to let the lack of available comparisons spare them the delicate task of reviewing the car without gagging.

The SSR’s few buyers during its 4-year model run, however, remained utterly convinced they had bought one of the coolest cars on the road. That being absolutely not the case, what we have in the SSR is the physical manifestation of “body dysmorphic disorder;” in other words, the inability to conceptualize how one is perceived by others. It might be a bit much to say the SSR is the Michael Jackson of cars, appearance-wise, but it’s close. Again, every owner seems to think driving the SSR elevates them to a new plane of cool, but I can’t imagine a single true car person who would drive the car without a paper bag over his or her head.

Chevy Chevrolet SSR Hardtop Pickup Red Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

It’s not difficult to appreciate where I’m coming from. Try this: Whatever your thoughts about the SSR as a static piece of automotive sculpture, whatever its underhood prowess, imagine yourself ensconced behind the wheel, cruising down the main drag of your hometown. Yes, picture yourself at the helm of that tacky, cartoonish, bulky, eye magnet of a misshapen piece of quasi-retro schtick and I’ll wager you shudder a bit at the thought. Good riddance.

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

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Styling Misfires: The Chrysler Cirrus

August 27, 2012 by Matt

Chrysler Cirrus Green

I have a feeling Chrysler vehicles will appear as parts of the “Styling Misfires” series with distressing regularity. It’s unfortunate, really, given the automaker’s penchant for engineering creativity (when sufficiently funded) compared to its rivals, that its designs should be so enduringly bad.

The car spotlighted in this post, the ’95-’00 Cirrus, was kind of a big deal for Chrysler. Coming on the heels of the unlamented, epically frumpy LeBaron, it was expected to spearhead a surge of popularity for its manufacturer in the lucrative midsize segment. Designed to compete against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry as well as the newly-introduced Ford Contour, the Cirrus had its work cut out for it.

Chrysler Cirrus Brown Auburn Maroon

And while the basic chassis dynamics were good, the car certainly wasn’t as polished and refined as its Japanese rivals. Not only that, the fascia was just hideous to behold. If it had any appeal within the current styling climate, that trend evaporated before its wheels hit the showroom floors. To state the obvious, the Cirrus looks like its bumper got clobbered and was cursed to forever carry a bloated lower lip as a reminder of the altercation. The cause must have been an all-too familiar scene from the design world: Stylists get too engrossed in their creation without pausing and taking a few steps back to examine the context of their work and ask themselves the hard questions like “What would this look like to the average passerby? What bodily feature would they immediately compare it to?” Nope—the designers must have simply put their heads down and carried on.

For what it’s worth, I tried very hard to like the Cirrus. I really did. Most automotive publications actually praised the styling direction, complimenting its “daring” and “distinctive” lines in contrast to its competitors’ more conservative shapes—and I took them at their word. Rather than trusting my intuition that what I beheld in the Cirrus was a ghastly, bloated-looking design, I distinctly remember concluding that I just must not have been able to appreciate it; that the fault lay with me; that I needed to recalibrate my taste. Contributing to this mindset was the fact that Chrysler was, and still is, the “underdog” compared to the other two, more robust members of the Big Three: GM and Ford. I liked the underdog; the idea of taking chances both mechanically and stylistically appealed to me, so I was even more predisposed to approve of the Cirrus’ design.

In the ensuing years I came to appreciate the fact (obvious to most) that even the so-called “experts” among the journalism world can be guilty of bandwagoning just as much as the rest of us, and with a more confident aesthetic sense, I realized my gut reaction to the Cirrus styling had been spot-on. Lesson learned.

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

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Styling Misfires: The Chrysler 300M

July 29, 2012 by Matt

Chrysler 300M Silver Gray Grey

This truly is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Astonishingly, the Chrysler 300M was Motor Trend‘s 1999 Car of the Year and placed in the coveted Car and Driver 10 Best for both 1999 and 2000.

I have one question: Did they look at it? If they did, what other explanation could there be for the accolades it earned? Were the editors paid off by the automaker’s marketing department? Or was there some other reason for the peer pressure that seems to have prevented them from calling Chrysler on their styling disaster?

Chrysler 300M Black

Mercifully, the car was only with us for 6 years, from 1999 to 2004. An example of Chrysler’s “cab forward” platform architecture, the 300M’s front wheels were powered by a 255-hp V6. Billed as a sports sedan and formulated in large part for the European market, its handling, power and interior space were by all accounts respectable.

But for heaven’s sake, just look at it. The 300M’s length was reduced for more size-conscious European sensibilities by simply lopping the end off the trunk, creating a massive disconnect with the rounded lines everywhere else on the car. The overall proportions are blobby and distended, and the nose, oh the nose. The car’s fascia seems more like a random collection of shapes sprayed onto the front bumper with no relationship whatsoever to each other. It’s just a disaster.

So the question remains: Why on earth did no automotive journalist pipe up and topple Chrysler’s stylistic house of cards? I suppose we’ll never know.

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

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Styling Misfires:
The Nissan Murano Redesign

April 17, 2012 by Matt

Nissan Murano

Nissan Murano

Nissan’s refresh of the Murano between its 1st and 2nd generation is the design equivalent of taking away with your right hand what you add with your left.

Granted, the Murano hasn’t exactly been a flop, sales-wise. I do see a fair number of them on the road, and the car remains a stable part of Nissan’s lineup. But it still represents a classic case of how to improve styling in one area while ruining it in another.

What am I referring to? The front and rear of the car. Examine the pictures above. The top two depict the newer, 2nd generation, ’09+ car, and the bottom two show the original, ’02-’07 vehicle. What Nissan did, essentially, is vastly improve the look of the car’s nose while designing away all the personality of the rear. Lest you think I’m splitting hairs, keep an eye out for examples of each car on the road; the impression is even stronger in person than in pictures.

The 1st generation Murano’s front end cleaved to Nissan’s corporate styling philosophy of the time—it’s sharp, angular, geometric and altogether awkward. The ’09+ car’s fascia, by contrast, is much more cohesive and handsome, as if they had taken the original, given it a shave and a facelift and managed to make it more striking at the same time. Well done there.

But…Nissan went the opposite direction with the Murano’s rear. The ’02-’07 car’s taillights and rump were arguably the most successful area of the car, styling-wise. Significantly, they were distinctive—you could pick them out in a badge-less lineup of mid-size crossovers—and they integrated with the car’s overall lines in the way they flowed up and over the rear wheel arches. But with the 2nd generation Murano, all that character and context is gone; the taillights look arbitrarily placed, and like they could pull double-duty on any econobox further down in Nissan’s lineup.

One step forward, one step back for the Murano. It’s a shame when designers don’t recognize where they’ve gone right and preserve, or at least minimally update, those styling elements.

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

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Styling Misfires:
The Mercedes-Benz R-Class

February 1, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Merc Benz R-Class RClass V251 Silver

Here’s yet another case of an automaker anticipating a trend that failed to materialize.

In the wake of the ’90s and early ’00s SUV boom, a raft of concept cars emerged of the “crossover” type, ostensible missing links between the car and the SUV, neither here nor there. Inevitably, some of these trickled into production, like the Chrysler Pacifica, Lincoln MKT and today’s subject, the Mercedes R-Class.

Arriving on our shores for the ’06 model year, the R-Class was among the first generation of crossovers, attempting to combine the interior space of a minivan with the cachet and more rugged image of an SUV. It was RWD and available with a number of engines, from a 3.0l, 190 hp V6 in the base model all the way up to the 6.2l, 500 hp V8 fitted to the AMG-tuned variant.

Mercedes Merc Benz R-Class RClass V251 Black

The R-Class’s sales never met Mercedes’ expectations, selling only around half of the automaker’s yearly goal here in the US. The company offered a number of excuses for the poor reception, such a perceived lack of fuel economy, market saturation and lackluster promotion.

The truth, I think, is a bit more simple: The R-Class is just an ugly car. Between the oddly upright headlights, jutting grille and bloated profile, it’s anything but a looker.

But not only is it unattractive, it’s ambiguous as well, a flaw traceable to its attempted all-things-to-all-people crossover nature. The anticipated market segment never really took hold; as it turns out, people seem to want cars that “know what they are,” so to speak, with a stronger sense of identity than the a stylistic and functional mashup like a crossover.

It’s ironic that the need for conviction in a design was lost on Mercedes when they developed the R-Class, since the very same automaker single-handedly created the “4-door coupe” niche with the bold, distinctive and confident first-generation CLS. You’d think they would have internalized the lessons from the CLS’s breakout, but the R-Class soldiers on into its very own second generation. With any luck, there will be a mercy killing before too long.

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

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Styling Misfires: The 1996 Ford Taurus

August 8, 2011 by Matt

1997 Ford Taurus Sedan

Today we begin a series on cars that may not have become industry bywords for ugliness, like the Edsel or Pontiac Aztek, but whose still off-putting styling played a role in their fall from grace, or their lack of initial success. Before we dive in, I should point out that these are all observations based on anecdotal evidence, and simply advance a theory; nothing more. Besides, aesthetic taste is so subjective that any attempt to tether impressions of a car’s looks to a hard number like vehicle sales is risky at best. Still, I believe a correlation can be made, even if we can’t prove actual causality.

The first example is the much-ballyhooed full redesign of the Ford Taurus for the ’96 model year. Entering that year, the Taurus was coming off a four-year streak as the best-selling car in the US. Ford was eager to recreate the enthusiastic reception the then-radical first-generation Taurus received in ’86. And after the hype and the rollout, the car did keep its best-seller title for ’96, mainly due to fleet sales. However, in ’97, the Taurus was displaced by the Toyota Camry, and hasn’t come close to the top spot since. With that kind of a hard-and-fast break, it’s difficult not to wonder what happened. Automotive history reveals that as much as buyers are interested in the fresh and new, lack of change tends to lead to a more gradual decline in a model’s sales over a number of years, whereas sudden change in the wrong direction produces a much more abrupt reaction. With that in mind, if the Taurus sales dropped off a cliff, what might have been the sudden change that repulsed buyers? The engine, drivetrain and chassis were broadly similar between ’95, the last year of the previous generation and ’96, the first year of the next. The only major change was…the styling. And major it was.

1997 Ford Taurus Sedan

In retrospect, it’s easy to pick out the flaws in the styling: An odd, alien look to the fascia, weirdly blended taillights, ubiquitous blob-like shapes and curves everywhere without a hint of tension to hold them together.

1997 Ford Taurus Interior

The interior had pretenses of being radical, but the interior volume was sacrificed in order to achieve the desired look on the outside, and the placement of the controls—although they looked superficially different—was profoundly conventional.

1997 Ford Taurus Wagon

The wagon deserves special mention. With the understanding that 1996 fell smack in the middle of the great SUV boom of the mid-late ’90s, when waves of buyers were abandoning station wagons in favor of trendy new SUVs, it’s difficult to size up the ’96 Taurus wagon and conclude it didn’t accelerate the exodus from the body style. It didn’t help, of course, that the previous-generation Taurus wagon was one of the most handsome, integrated-looking examples of the type, but the ’96 version seemed to go out of its way to estrange its buying public, with its weird flying-buttress C-pillars designed so that the wagon could use the sedan’s doors as a cost-cutting measure. Whatever cachet a wagon had—and it never had much—completely evaporated with the introduction of the seemingly backpack-laden vehicle shown above.

Overall, the ’96 Taurus was intended to be the vanguard of Ford’s new “bio-mechanical” styling direction. But it had the opposite effect: Its icy reception accelerated the automaker’s plans to introduce their much better-received New Edge aesthetic, a look which basically disavowed everything the ’96 Taurus stood for, visually.

It’s not that the car wasn’t considered ugly in its day—it was—but its looks weren’t always identified as the primary catalyst for its decline, which I believe they definitely were. Buyers frequently don’t know what they want, but they almost always know what they don’t want, and the looks of the mid-’90s Taurus certainly fell into that category for many.

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

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