How's It Lookin'? The Best and Worst Automotive Design Trends of 2019

Our design editor on the stylistic hallmarks of today's new cars.

Grilles
Grilles serve as a car's face, so it is important to use them as marks of identity, and they should be big enough to be recognizable. But there's a limit that necessarily comes into the single most important element in car design: proportions. In the past, European critics considered American cars to sport "the dollar grin," and in the case of early 1950s Buicks with their chrome-tooth "bumper-grilles," that was a fair comment. Then people criticized some Asian cars for the little pursed-mouth grilles that their company executives believed to be "modest"—which they were, to excess. But now the glittering acreage of gigantic, shiny grilles has gone past—far past—reasonable equilibrium to wretched excess; that is, to wonderfully well-made ugliness. And ugly cars are an insult to the design profession and to customers asked to buy them. Car design right now is, seemingly, driven too much by fear, with too little imagination being exercised. Simple beauty is sacrificed to being "different"—but not too different. It's time to revert to the mean.

Glass
We are delighted to see more concept and sports vehicles with great expanses of glass in their upper structures, as present in the McLaren Speedtail or our Concept of the Year—the Genesis Essentia. Hopefully they are harbingers of more transparency (and thus better visibility for drivers) in less exotic cars. Indeed, it very well might not be coincidental that slow, dangerous Volkswagen minivans from the '50s and '60s with 21 windows are being bid up to $100,000 while the bluish-gray "strippers" have all pretty much gone to junkyards. As another example, a large part of the charm of the classic BMW 2002 lies in its tall, encompassing windows. Those cars are the direct opposite of, say, today's Camaro, in the pleasure you take in being inside their cabins. Not too long ago there were cars on sale in which less than half of the installed glass surface was transparent. That was nonsensical because glass is heavy and its principal virtue is that you can see through it. It is long past time designers (not stylists, who love chopped tops) get busy and make cars we can see out of available to all.

Paint
Two- and three-tone paint schemes were common and considered desirable on American cars of the 1950s. That trend passed, thankfully, but not without going through a period when one or both panels in a scheme could change color depending on the direction you looked at them from. Then came a time when monochrome paint jobs, including all the parts that once were chromed—or at least shiny and reflective—were the same color, first shiny, later matte. Lately we have noticed a lot of extremely high-intensity colors never seen before on cars in any era. In some countries we visit, most of the cars are white. In the U.S. in recent years, silver seems to have predominated, making the streetscape a lot less interesting than it once was. These new color variations are truly promising. We still have reservations about things like a Rolls-Royce in iridescent baby blue, as just one illustration—certain august marques should keep their cars in simple, subdued colors. But for our daily drivers? Bring on the visual excitement.

Wheels
"If a little is good, more is better, and too much is . . . just right." We've all heard this bit of barstool philosophy applied to many things: food, drink, power, speed, money. But it doesn't apply in one critical automotive design term: wheel diameter. As in all matters of design, there are trade-offs that simply cannot be ignored, and in the case of cars, tire diameter is the overriding consideration. As it goes up, the tire-wheel assembly begins to intrude on wheelbase, turning circle, spare wheel and tire storage, entrance conditions, and so on. So an obvious solution, once you can't raise the tire diameter anymore, is to increase the wheel size within the pushed-to-maximum tire.

Engineers love this because it gives them more room for brakes and suspension pieces. Designers love it, too, because they get to create bigger sculptures: 380 square inches for a 22-inch wheel and only 133 square inches for a 13-inch wheel means 2.86 times the playground. All that's to the good, but it frequently has disastrous consequences for vehicle dynamics and passenger comfort. So, a longer-lived and much more profound philosophical statement need apply: "moderation in all things."