Every generation of automotive design has its Mona Lisa – and its Dogs Playing Poker.
We had tail fins (time for a comeback?) And the replica convertible tops of Landau vinyl roofs (I judge my parents cruelly – but rightly – after this difficult decision of the 1980s). Do you remember the sharp-edged rear ends of the Cadillac Seville, Lincoln Continental, and Chrysler Imperial? No? Lucky you.
We can look back on 2020 when automakers reached their peak. Of course there is this pandemic and political chaos. But more than ever there are bars inside. Grids are big. Grids are bold. Grilles are a little unnecessary on some cars, but there they are. Some might qualify for their own zip code if they weren’t on wheels.
To understand why, it is helpful to understand the difficulties automakers face in creating great designs. Cars and trucks are global products that must meet what appears to be a myriad of global government safety and fuel efficiency standards. Imagine if a new law student has to pass the American, German, Japanese, Korean, and Swedish bar exams to be able to work. I rest my case, Your Honor.
Automakers are spending billions of dollars to face the regulatory blizzard and sculpting silhouettes to cheat the wind. We only see the styling that surrounds the technology. Design is the hiss, the emotion, at least a tiebreaker when choosing a vehicle.
When Akio Toyoda took over the presidency of the company with his family name on the building in 2009, he famously declared: “No more boring cars.” Now look at the list. My God, what a big face you have, Camry.
“Years ago Lexus had no identity,” said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty Design Research Studio. “The attempt was made to be a brand for everyone, which neutralized our position and identity.”
This is how the spindle lattice was born. The exaggerated hourglass shape is now the distinctive face of Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand. Originally compared to Predator or Darth Vader’s mask, it quickly shared different camps. And that’s fine with Mr. Hunter.
“We call the identity our own, very different from our competitors,” he said. “It’s very big and polarizing, that’s true, but we like the fact that we’re polarizing now. It means we’re pushing the envelope and taking more risks. Consumers are realizing it – the radiator grille connects our cars as a coherent unit. “
Since aerodynamics dictate car design, the front is the best place to add character to vehicles. People don’t buy the cars they forget. You may not like Picasso’s Cubism era, but you will know when you see it.
It might come as a surprise, but automakers aren’t necessarily trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Ask Domagoj Dukec, Head of BMW Design, what the brand stands for and he says: “Be stunning and make a difference.” Mission accomplished with the BMW 4 Series Coupé 2021. The current “it” car for maximum face, it takes the classic double kidney grille of the brand and turns the optics to 11. Maybe 12.
The design has drawn attention that money can’t buy – exactly what Mr. Dukec and his team were aiming for.
“Design is the emotional approach to every product experience,” he said. “It is of course very subjective. Not everyone will like it, but it has to have a personal and individual meaning to the customer. This can vary from product to product. A businessman would not want this bold face of the 4 Series in his 5 Series. “
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BMW is no stranger to the styling controversy. In a 10-year run that began in 1999, Chris Bangle highlighted designs that were so polarizing that there were backends commonly known as “Bangle Butts”. Now many see Mr. Bangles’ designs as groundbreaking.
Mr. Dukec understands that not everyone will like the 4’s large nostrils. But they convey the message.
“It’s very characteristic in our portfolio and clearly BMW,” he said. “Polarize, yes, but that’s very welcome because people want to show off.”
Another grill of the year contender can be found throughout the Genesis lineup. The so-called Crest Grille is an elongated version of the emblem between the wings of the brand badge. And it’s as big as Seoul.
Bold? Certainly. However, the scarcity of the brand’s new GV80 SUV suggests that the designers did something right.
“You could absolutely hate the grille,” said Jarred Pellat of Hyundai’s luxury brand, “and that’s what I love about the Genesis design. The designers aren’t afraid to make strong statements while building a brand from scratch. We don’t have the history of some of our German competitors – we can be innovative with design. The Crest Grille tells people this is a Genesis, like a second logo. “
Jeeps Wrangler’s round headlights and seven-slit grille are a real trademark of the brand (though the lights were square for a spell from the late ’80s). Jeep is defending it like a Rubicon scratching rough terrain suing General Motors’ Hummer division and most recently Indian automaker Mahindra.
Fun Fact: All Jeeps have a seven-slot grille, but “not all of them actually work,” said Mark Allen, Jeep Design Director. “It’s completely blocked on the compass, but it’s far from useless: they say this is a jeep.”
This robust American image helped the mark grow from 350,000 at the beginning of Mr. Allen’s tenure in 2009 to 1.5 million in sales. Jeep is the most successful American brand in what is known to be the closed Japanese market. It can’t hurt that the Wrangler is the most iconic vehicle in the world. Oh, and its grille is bloody big.
Andrew Smith, Executive Director of Cadillac Design, said, “Ultimately, design is about making the customer feel special so that they stand out from the crowd.” While the brand’s front signature is large vertical LED Chases are, few models, like the Escalade, have an acre face area.
“We don’t do a Russian doll design that has a small, medium, and large version of an SUV,” said Smith. “They’re all Cadillacs, but they’re different, and the grille wants to be proportional to the face of the vehicle.”
He added, “In the case of Escalade, the Giant Maw is functional. People haul it, it hauls a lot of people and cargo, so there needs to be an airflow to cool the engine. “The same goes for pickups.
Cadillac has announced it will accelerate the transition to electrification, starting with the Lyriq SUV in late 2021. Electric vehicles will challenge designers. Without a motor to cool down, the fronts still play a big role.
“Lyriq’s face will have complex lighting to make it look like a really luxurious vehicle,” said Smith. “We also have Super Cruise and new autonomous technologies with sensors that have to be in the front of the vehicle. We design surfaces that are flush and clean to place these sensors in such a way that they are invisible to the customer.
“The front will continue to give identity, like a kind of belt buckle,” he added.
BMW Mr. Dukec agrees. “Our upcoming iX electric vehicle has almost no openings in front of it,” he said. “The characteristic twin kidneys that announce that it is a BMW are closed because it is an electric vehicle. However, there are cameras and sensors in the kidneys that cannot see through color.”
And these kidneys? You guessed it, they are huge.