Designs that stood out (of the past 2 decades)

Is it really design, or just styling? Leave that to industrial design experts, here it is discussed through automotive glasses.

1y ago

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This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. This time I review the most memorable designs that emerged from the pens of automotive designers, which for many is a dream job. Don't be fooled - it's actually a terrible job, but sometimes they indeed create miracles. Let's see them!

10) Dodge Challenger

Although this is a 2018 Hellcat, the core looks of the Dodge Challenger didn't change much over the years.

Although this is a 2018 Hellcat, the core looks of the Dodge Challenger didn't change much over the years.

Retro has been an ever-recurring trend in the automotive world and it has been best done by the Dodge Challenger in the past two decades. Some say retro cars are lazy in terms of design, because all they have to do is copy their forefathers. While there’s some truth in this statement, it’s also very easy to do it wrong without any sense of innovation. Dodge got the recipe right: they mixed the blood of a 21st century DNA-modified hyper-agressive bull (or rather ram) with the style of the old Challenger. I personally am not a fan of American muscle cars, but this example deserves a spot in the design hall of fame.

Conclusion: It's just killer.

9) Volvo S60

Those massive rear lights and wide body arches became too symbolic to ignore.

Those massive rear lights and wide body arches became too symbolic to ignore.

Previously Volvo wasn’t known for complex car designs. Even a joke emerged that the first car children learn to draw is a Volvo, because you only need to sketch 3 boxes. If it’s an estate version, then only 2. And although their new design line introduced with the S60 in 2000 wasn’t that hard to process either, they were able to differentiate themselves with design elements that became iconic to Volvo. The 1998 Volvo S80 already had a few of those marks, but the 1st generation of the S60 took it to a new level that then spread out through their line-up. The tail lights, the centre console, the grille, the wide body arches, the headlight washer: when you see them, you just know it’s an early-2000 Volvo.

Conclusion: Small details can make good design too.

8) Toyota Prius

We have to discuss this elephant in the room.

We have to discuss this elephant in the room.

It’s OK not to like the Prius, but it has to be acknowledged that they are easy to recognize. Unlike the aforementioned Volvo, the Prius has no particularly interesting features – rather, it’s the whole shape that gives its character. By the book the shape is called a Kammback – though I like to refer to it simply as cockroach-shape. Cockroaches are unpopular insects, because they quickly spread out through the globe (much like the Prius). They are resilient, aerodynamic and loved by environmentalists (much like the Prius). But even if some petrol heads put them in the crosshair of unjustified attacks, looking at what they can achieve, the cockroaches are a wonder of nature (much like the Prius).

Conclusion: Like it or not, the Prius has a very attractive shape. If it weren’t an eco-car, it would make a superb grand tourer.

7) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

Without the rear spoiler it would prove difficult to differentiate the EVO from ordinary Lancers.

Without the rear spoiler it would prove difficult to differentiate the EVO from ordinary Lancers.

This is kind of an oddball, since the Lancer EVO is not an independent model. Moreover, the base is a rather common four-door sedan. But it had one particular feature that caught the eye of every automotive enthusiast: the giant rear spoiler. One could argue that the EVO wasn’t the first car to use such a big ironing desk on its back, but it was the one to fetishize it in the eye of the tuners and fans, especially starting with Evolution VII. Unfortunately it also led to a misunderstanding that everyone can put a massive rear wing on their four-door sedan to make it look fast. It didn’t work, in most cases it just looked ridiculous, but the Lancer EVO can still pull it off.

Conclusion: Glorified the use of giant rear wings

6) Ferrari Enzo

A German Ferrari employee while giving a sales pitch of the Enzo.

A German Ferrari employee while giving a sales pitch of the Enzo.

It would be difficult to assess the past 20 years without mentioning Ferrari. They are still important when it comes to automotive design, but it’s challenging to pick their most influential car. The reason the Enzo is listed here is because it makes the perfect link between 20th and 21st century Ferraris. Interesting thing is, that it wasn’t designed by an Italian, but by a Japanese gentleman called Ken Okuyama working at Pininfarina at the time. He was also responsible for the 599 and the 612, two other masterpieces that may fall in completely different categories, but are easily recognizable as part of the Enzo-era. The Maserati MC12 and the Ferrari FXX were also Enzo-derivatives.

If the aim would be to solely rate the Enzo on its own, it’s not actually the prettiest car. It was too much focused on setting speed records instead of creating beautiful shapes, but other Ferrari models took a lot of inspiration from it up until the 488 Pista.

Conclusion: It became somewhat of a cliché over the years, but it’s a fitting monument for Enzo Ferrari.

5) Toyota FJ Cruiser

Toyota paid hommage to the FJ40 with the front grille, but otherwise the FJ Cruiser isn't truly retro.

Toyota paid hommage to the FJ40 with the front grille, but otherwise the FJ Cruiser isn't truly retro.

Most SUVs try to build on selling points such as military bloodline, luxury and robustness. Toyota took a twist on that and made the FJ Cruiser look like a toy car. It’s still robust and can still off-road like a Land Cruiser (because it is actually a Land Cruiser in disguise), but managed to become a design icon. What they did is fairly simple: they took all the impractical features a car can have and put it on this one. It has suicide doors, giant blind spots, bunch of plastic body parts, 3 windscreen wipers and the list could go on.

To put it short: the FJ Cruiser is just a worse Land Cruiser. If you actually want to have a good SUV, do not buy this one. But unlike most SUVs, it’s happy and cheerful – so if you believe that seeing such a colourful monster is a good way to start your day, keep one close to you. Maybe recommend it to your neighbour who you don’t like, but you know wants to buy an SUV. Every morning you see the FJ Cruiser in his/her parkway will make you realize the world is a wonderful place ready to be explored. Then you can climb into your boring Land Cruiser and do the actual exploring in a decent SUV.

Conclusion: There’s nothing wrong with using plastic if you don’t take it too serious.

4) Ariel Atom

Naked engineering is beautiful.

Naked engineering is beautiful.

Naked bikes were a thing before, but naked cars… not so much. Ariel didn’t design much to be fair – they just thought polished frame is pretty on its own. And they were absolutely right. They use a somewhat different mind-set to develop their cars and they aren’t shy to show it to the world. The look of their cars is a powerful statement, no further commentary necessary.

Conclusion: Less is sometimes more.

3) Audi R8

Changes between the first and second generation will surely fuel heated debates amongst fans

Changes between the first and second generation will surely fuel heated debates amongst fans

While compiling this list, I tried to minimize the appearance of luxury sports cars, because it’s easy to make a sport car look appealing. Speed looks sexy, but the real design challenge is to make a cargo van look sexy. Yet, credit should be given if a sports car design stands out from that crowd while feeling fresh out of the oven. Audi did just that with the R8. If you look close enough you can see some Audi TT-heritage in it, but the R8 brought totally new air into the sports car world with its design. It was so succesful, that in 2015 Audi introduced a second generation. The car kept most of it's main feautres, but the front was changed to better harmonize with Audi's current brand design. Many dislike the new face of the R8, but to be fair, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it.

This existed in 2003 already!

This existed in 2003 already!

An interesting story behind the R8 is that it had several concept car predecessors, the Audi Rosemeyer (which later became the Bugatti Veyron), the Audi RSQ (as seen in the Will Smith movie „I, Robot”) and the Audi Le Mans quattro, compared to which basically nothing was changed on the final design. So there you go – concept cars sometimes make it into production, the Audi R8 is a great example of that.

Conclusion: It dared to be different without being an outsider.

2) KIA Soul

Not for nothing is the Soul winner of numerous design awards.

Not for nothing is the Soul winner of numerous design awards.

There are two funny things about the KIA Soul. First, it came from a manufacturer that had a vast experience in boring cars, so it was totally unexpected to make an actually interesting design. Second – nobody is sure about which category it fits into. It has been referenced as an MPV, a crossover, a city car, a hatchback and even an SUV. Let’s just call it a compact – maybe that’s what describes it best. And while there have always been some funky looking vehicles from manufacturers such as Fiat, Citroën or Nissan, as the consumers got older and older (the new-car buyer is an aging populous), the mainstream car design got duller and duller. So the KIA Soul tries to appeal to the younger generations, which seems like a kamikaze strategy on today’s car market. I’m young and I won’t be shy to confess that I like the Soul.

The message was pretty straightforward: you either drive a Soul or a toaster.

The message was pretty straightforward: you either drive a Soul or a toaster.

Some may think I’m blinded by the futuristic look of this car, but I concur. I don’t think the Soul looks futuristic at all – that’s what a normal 21st century car should look like. It doesn’t challenges design principle’s, it’s simply just an evolution drawn by the great Peter Schreyer, but buyers are too afraid to switch to an up-to-date form. They are afraid that people will stare at them if they don’t drive a boring Corolla, Astra or Golf. They are afraid what the neighbour says if they arrive home with a car that has contrasting rooftop and was advertised with rapping hamsters. Don’t be – because under the hood the Soul is really just a KIA Rio, one of the simplest vehicles available. But if you wear modern clothing, use modern telecommunication devices and live in a modern house, I don’t see why you shouldn’t vouch for a car in modern form factor.

Conclusion: Just because your family members driven boring sedans throughout their lives, it doesn’t means you have to as well. Get yourself something cool instead.

1) Alfa Romeo 8C

Seamless design, nothing to criticize here.

Seamless design, nothing to criticize here.

If the KIA Soul is the king of contemporary industrial design, we should also check up on classic industrial design and see if it came up with anything better. Oh my, it did! This is quite a neglected design school that manufacturers haven’t really practiced for a while, but – for some reason - Alfa Romeo suddenly thought they have to make the 8C. It’s no overestimation to put the 8C in the same league as the Lamborghini Miura, the Ferrari 250 GTO or even the Jaguar E-Type. That’s why unfortunately it’s almost impossible to come by any in real life. 500 examples were manufactured (and also 500 Spiders), but most of those cars rest in collector’s garages who aren’t willing to risk a crash on public roads. About a dozen also came out in the Disco Volante form (manufactured by Carozzeria Touring), which is the top of the iceberg design-wise. Then there's also a Zagato-built breadvan variant, if that's your cup of tea.

A Disco Volante Spyder, photographed by the excellent Martyn Goddard for the Royal Automobile Club.

A Disco Volante Spyder, photographed by the excellent Martyn Goddard for the Royal Automobile Club.

Make no mistake though – according to car journalist reports, the 8C isn’t a great car to drive compared to alternatives. It’s not bad, but it’s not a track car, despite bearing the „Competizione” tagline. It’s the perfectly crafted arches, the smooth window lines and careful use of the golden ratio that makes it such a wonderful car. Although the name is derived from an older Alfa model, the 8C is not retro at all. It builds on its heritage, but it wasn’t crafted for the moment, rather for the ages.

Conclusion: The Alfa 8C is not the car you should have a poster of on your wall. You should have an oil painting of it with golden frame.

Honorable mentions:

Saab 9-5, Ford Fiesta Mk7, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, Mazda RX-8, Renault Mégane III, Fiat 500L, Lexus LFA, Suzuki Jimny 4th generation, Alfa Romeo Brera

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Comments (2)

  • Awesome article, Professor!!

      1 year ago
    • Thank you - I would like to publish a few more of these list-essays before the end of the year, hope it can make a good series :)

        1 year ago

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