In previous articles, I have discussed the automotive industry’s incredible ability to innovate regularly, and produce technologies and designs that we’d have only dreamed of just a decade ago. But in their innovative efforts, designers and engineers sometimes come up a bit short, or just miss the mark altogether. Most of the time this results in a slightly inconvenient button layout, or an awkward line on the bumper or side of the car.
Sometimes these design missteps are even more egregious, and the result is something that almost universally boils the blood of car enthusiasts everywhere. They can be so offensive that I felt compelled to write an article expressing my disapproval of these crimes against good design. If this doesn’t express my distaste for the following trends, I’m not sure that anything will.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the worst recent and current trends in automotive design.
1. Overcrowded steering wheels
While it is the result of a good-intentioned effort to increase button access, the overcrowded steering wheel is a shining example of when convenience becomes inconvenient. Quite simply, a steering wheel with too many buttons is overwhelming. To start, having too many buttons on the steering wheel can make it difficult to memorize which button is located where, forcing the driver to take their eyes off the road, even if only briefly, to locate the button on the wheel—completely defeating the original purpose of locating the button on the wheel in the first place.
Additionally, an overcrowded steering wheel can be visually overwhelming as well. If you’ve ever driven a high-trim modern Porsche (unlikely for most, but pictures will do), you know the satisfaction of seeing a steering wheel with one purpose: steering. A blank but well designed steering wheel is a classy yet subtle way to make a cockpit look and feel more focused, and it’s something that I (perhaps foolishly) hope makes a return to the mainstream.
2. Aggressively styled mundane cars
The minivan: not only a staple of suburbia, but a target of pure, universal disdain from car enthusiasts. This hatred was strong fifteen years ago, when minivans were designed and marketed as child-haulers. But it’s grown even stronger recently, as companies have started marketing minivans as “sporty”, and designing them to reflect that. The result is a large, almost always silver, egg-shaped fortress of ugly.
Modern minivans are styled with same aggressive body lines as the smaller cars that belong to the same brand, and it just looks wrong. Extending beyond just the styling though, modern minivans are often marketed as athletic and sporty too, and as combining the practicality of a minivan with the fun of a sports car. Knowing that a minivan couldn’t possibly be athletic, at least not from the factory, makes these common marketing tactics downright aggravating. Minivans are not the only culprit here though, as sedans that used to be marketed as reliable and comfortable everyday cars are now marketed as sports sedans (not to name names, but I have the latest Camry in mind here.)
This recent trend makes me want to go back to the time when “everyday cars” were comfortable and inoffensively designed, though I think that time may, sadly, be a thing of the past.
3. Oversized Grilles
A car’s grille is a crucial part of its front-end aesthetic, and designing a good-looking one is an exercise in precise proportionality. So, when a grille gets too big (or too small), these proportions are thrown into a spiral, causing the entire front end of the car to look unsightly. It is commonly understood, and exemplified by trend #2, that car makers are interested in making their cars look more aggressive and more imposing in a rear view mirror. Naturally then, designers have turned to making grills that are roughly the same size as an American football field. I have never understood the supposed link between grille size and aggressiveness, but it is a link that designers are leaning more and more heavily on (just look at recent BMW and Lexus models.) We can only hope that designers come to their senses soon, as the enormous grille trend is capable of ruining otherwise very attractive looking cars.
4. Fake Aerodynamics
Visible pieces of bodywork that aid in aerodynamics are tell-tale signs of high-performance cars, or at least they were. Things like spoilers, intake vents, and air-channelling ducts are—when real—used to help the car slice through air better and generate downforce, thus giving the car more grip and less drag; both of which make it faster around a race track.
However, car designers are now creating elements that look like they have an aerodynamic function, when in reality they do not. These most commonly come in the form of fake vents that appear to channel air, but upon closer inspection are simply closed off pieces of black plastic. In my opinion, fake vents are the automotive equivalent of wearing a fake Rolex. They are in place to make the car appear to be able to do something that it does not (go fast), just as a fake Rolex is worn to make a person appear that they do something they do not (own and wear a Rolex.)
There are exceptions however, where cars that actually do go fast still have fake vents. The new Toyota Supra, for example, is a very capable performance car, but the vents that dot its exterior are all fake! Why Toyota would design a legitimate performance car with illegitimate, fake aero is something I’ll never be able to fully understand. Just make the vents work, darn it!
Hopefully designers will get the green light from the suits to spend the few extra bucks to make these vents functional, but for now, we’re stuck with the fake stuff. So, while this list is anything but exhaustive, I hope to have given you just a glimpse into the world of bad automotive design. While it’s easy to cross our fingers and hope that these design trends will fall out of vogue soon, the sad truth is that they are probably here to stay. Because the average consumer is likely to be less bothered by these things than you and me. So, maybe the safer bet is to cross our fingers and hope that we have met our quota for bad automotive designs for the next few years. But even that, sadly, is unlikely. Buying used has never looked so good!