Best and Worst of 2017 in Automotive Design
What we really liked or disliked
Each year we get a selection of wondrous new vehicles that their proposers tell us are world-beating creations, the fastest, the most expensive, the most economical, the most beautiful, the most innovative, ad nauseam. And each year we see most of them are more of the same, truly of little interest to the automotive enthusiast or to the general public. Here are our brief takes on some of the things we really liked or disliked during the course of the past year.
The Tesla semi truck introduced in late November 2017 is by far the best-formed single vehicle the visionary electric-propulsion car company has announced. The truck's cab, with its central driving position like the 1947 Wimille prototype and the McLaren F1, really does look like the future is finally here, and we hope it becomes reality in a couple years. There have been quite a few futuristic-looking trucks over time, especially some by the rigorously self-promoting designer Luigi Colani a couple decades back, but those were all show business and almost no practicality. BMW designer Albrecht Graf Goertz remarked that the front overhang of Colani's semi tractor was enough to exclude it from city streets—it swept too much surface and intruded on other people's lanes. The Tesla truck, however, actually makes sense.
One of the most annoying things about car styling is the tendency toward mindless appropriation of (usually nonfunctional) decorative features, whether it does anything for the aesthetics of the car to which it is applied or not. Case in point: the proliferation of little trapezoidal fins—sometimes pointing up, sometimes down—stuck to the lower body sides of many sedans and coupes. The inspiration comes from Formula 1 cars, where the devices serve as airflow deflectors. On most road cars, let alone SUVs, they are meaningless embellishment. Another feature that has shown up widely this past year is the split-level roof, in which there is a physical or color break partway up the C- or D-pillar on sedans, wagons, and—again—SUVs. It can be a cool detail but not when it's applied for the nth time.
We've always championed purity and simplicity in car design. The simple shapes seen in John Cobb's land-speed record car or in the SoCal Special, the first hot rod to achieve 200 mph, are seductive but do not really relate to usable road cars. Still, smooth and simple shapes such as the Jaguar E-type, traditional rear-engine Porsches, or even the VW Golf—which creator Giorgetto Giugiaro insists was a simple transformation of his De Tomaso Mangusta GT—are agreeable and essentially timeless. But when we see cars with surfaces so faceted and complex that they look like they were assembled from small pieces of flat stock in a kindergarten class, we aren't impressed. And there are a great many such cars available now. Toyota/Lexus, in its admirable desire to acquire some style, has done well in some models, far less so in others. Simple panels assembled in a harmonious way can be extremely satisfying. Consider the beauty in arrangements of scales on fish. Then imagine a drunken fool trying to reconstruct a disassembled fish. There are cars that look like that today.
"Vision" has been used in the names of a great many models in the past year, suggesting the creators have a perception of the future. But when we see the word, we conjure an image of two airline pilots sitting in a cockpit with hundreds of dials, switches, levers, and buttons, and one says to the other, "If we didn't have so many instruments, we wouldn't need instruments. We could see out." This comes to mind whenever we get in a car with terrible rearward visibility, and in the past year there have been entirely too many of them, from the superb Tesla Model X to a number of European economy hatchbacks. If we dislike something about the absolutely extraordinary performance car that is the Chevrolet Camaro, it's simply that you can't see out—not just behind but also to the sides and even straight ahead.