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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Design Evolution and Copying

As SUVs go these days, there’s a lot of similarity going around. Back in 2002 to 2003—in the relatively early days of the animal—there was a lot more difference among manufacturers and models as far as styling goes. But now the differences are much narrower.

For me, the pinnacle of SUV styling was the 2003 Nissan Murano, a model I wrote about back in 2015. That model had the best cohesive styling, about which I remember saying that it looked like one person had designed it.

Well, I’ve since changed my mind. It appears the one to emulate now is the Range Rover Evoque. That styling (pictured in the two far left photos above) has set the standard. And it seemed as soon as it arrived in 2012, it brought a lot of emulation from its competitors. At least it did at first.

A little history: the Rover group was purchased in 1994 by BMW as an investment. Then they sold the Land Rover brand to Ford in 2000. Then Ford bought the remained brand—Range Rover—in 2006. As of now, Ford has sold the Rovers and Jaguar to Tata Motors of India (crazy how this global economy works anymore). Tata kept Ford’s engines in the SUVs until 2015. This association with Ford has not gone unnoticed in the styling of Ford’s SUVs, most notably in its Explorer models.

The Range Rover’s Evoque is actually what’s referred to in the industry as a small SUV, sometimes noted as a “sport” model. Its unique profile—that of the back-slanted roofline and high-nosed front end—make for a stylish trend-setting design, especially when accompanied with those 22″ wheel rims. This design has not changed very much in the seven-year span of this vehicle.

Ford’s copying of the front end styling was most notable in the 2012 Explorer, and the Edge took on similar styling, especially with regard to the headlamp assembly shape and location. Of course, what made headlamp assembly evolution possible in recent years are the two incarnations of HID lamps (high-intensity discharge) and the LED headlights. BMW brought about the HID lamps in 1992 and Lexus was first with the LEDs in 2006. Both of those designs made it possible to contour the entire headlamp assembly into a much smaller area, and then made it possible for automotive designers to blend that contouring into slimmer, more svelte front-end styling.

Notice the front-end styling of the vehicles above. The top row photos are from the 2012 model year, while the bottom row’s shots are from 2018. The shots are of course Range Rover Evoques (left), Ford Edges (middle), and Toyota Highlanders (right).

Notice also, like I just stated, how little the Evoque has changed. Then look at the other marques and how much they have changed.

Range Rover knows where its success lies in sound automotive styling. No need to change a beautiful design.

Ford and Toyota feel they need to keep changing. Maybe they both feel they haven’t yet achieved design success. But another thing is clear about their designs: Ford’s styling appears to have taken on a taller front-end profile, with its headlamp assembly becoming larger, not slimmer; and Toyota’s styling overall has become taller and and more cluttered. The styling for both the Ford Edge and Toyota Highlander has actually regressed: the vehicles have become uglier, not better looking.

Maybe Ford had the right idea back in 2012. Maybe copying the Evoque was the better strategy. And Toyota’s fleet styling is perplexing anyway. While the Camry has taken on elements from the Lexus line, its SUV is just the ugly dog in the yard.

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