How to Screw Up a Car’s Design

I see this happen over and over again. A manufacturer brings out a brand new model automobile, its first ever edition. Looks great, design feels uniform, everything flows from one contour to the next.

Then in succeeding model years, the design department decides to tinker with it, make it more this or that. Maybe more hungry-looking, or more “competitive”, more mean.

And then, by the time a few years go by—what was originally almost a classic automobile—what is sitting in the latest showrooms is an ugly, ordinary car.

This happened to the 2003 Nissan Murano (see my column from January of 2015). And now Hyundai is taking its Veloster and trashing the design. I’m going to guess that by 2023 that this car will be discontinued. I’m saying that because this car has now been morphed into an homogenized vehicle, one that is already on its way to become indecipherable among Hyundai automobiles.

The Veloster appeared for the first time in the 2012 model year. Some car critics (I believe one was Car & Driver magazine) called the front-end “bucktoothed”, referring to the sheet metal “tooth” hanging over the grille opening. Maybe so. But the overall shape was unique, along with the three-door configuration (two on the passenger side), its hatchback, and its wide panoramic sunroof. Almost the entire top was glass.

What made the car attractive beyond that were the contours and how the tail reflectors, the front fog lamps, and the twin tailpipe extensions fit those contours. Like I stated in that Murano article, this car looked like it was designed by one person.

Not only was the exterior different from anything else out there, so was the interior. The top row of photos above show that 2012 design. That interior was rakish in its angularity. Everything about it was unique. The car sported the latest designs in electronics and touchscreen technology. You could get the car in a six-speed manual or automatic with paddle shifters.

A year later, Hyundai introduced the Turbo model of this car. And in so doing, the designers felt they needed to distinguish the Turbo from its more sedate brother, and switched out the contoured reflectors and fog lamps for round fixtures and tailpipes. Immediately, the classic flows were altered and the design already took on flaws.

Nothing changing drastically in the next five years after that, except for the open-throated grille, a feature of many Japanese automobiles of late, including those of Toyota and its higher-priced Lexus.

Now we have in the Hyundai showrooms the car pictured in the bottom row. The front end now looks like every other Hyundai on the lot with that honeycomb grille. The windows that before came to a vertex alongside the rear seats are now more squared off, and the taillights are now part of the hatch, which now has an indent (?), and the rear reflectors have taken on an angular shape that is not echoed anywhere else. And it appears the panoramic sunroof is now an option, without which makes for a tunneled vision out the back. Of course we still have the wonky round tail pipes, which just stick there, again without any echoed shape near them.

What was once a curvilinear, flowing design, is now a chopped up amalgam of other cars—making this an ordinary nothingness, no longer acquiring inquisitive looks from prospective buyers.

Which makes me wonder about the future of this car. In putting that honeycomb grille on the front, Hyundai has brought the Veloster into the family fold, the rest of its fleet of vehicles. It’s taken its differentness away. Look at the 2019 interior and how almost Ford-like it now is with those horizontal inline appointments, those mundane-shaped vents.

Hyundai originally designed the Veloster for the youth market. But sales figures would show, from the first model year onward, that most buyers were over the age of 35.

But Hyundai wouldn’t let go of it, couldn’t stop fiddling with it. And now we have this . . . thing.

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2 thoughts on “How to Screw Up a Car’s Design

  1. Dan,

    One more interesting, informed, provocative column.

    I saw the Velostar before I heard it. Meaning, it got my attention before I had any idea what it was, who made it, what the specs were.

    It was, in a word, cool.

    And you’ve used its ‘evolution’ well to make your general point about carmakers mucking up a winner and turning it into a loser with the same name.

    The history of automobile manufacturing is replete with examples.

    Thunderbird. Jaguar. Camaro.

    To name a few.

    That so many mistakes have been made by so many companies begs the question: Why?

  2. You tell me. Everyone, I’m sure, has seen this same “mucking up”—as you call it—happen with a lot of things, but most notably cars. Cars are so visible in everyday living, they’re so much a part of everyday life and usage. We see them on the road and in parking lots. We can’t miss them. So if their appearance is so much a part of their appeal, you’d think the designers would go for outside-in design rather than the opposite.

    One of the most appealing designs ever was the Jaguar XKE, a sleek aerodynamic car that caught anyone’s eye. The interior was just as appealing with all the toggle switches and comfort of being in a bullet-like envelope.

    Somewhere along the line, we lost that design thinking. Aerodynamic design is practically a thing of the past. And with almost every auto maker churning out SUVs, there isn’t one that has a sleek contour to it. Maybe in a few years we’ll see some designs with lower entry points like what’s now called “crossover” vehicles make a bigger splash in the market, and which might look more aerodynamic.

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