Road & Track columnist Peter Egan once wrote, “Cars are considered to be an art form, yet the Mona Lisa, I’ve noticed, never needs a cooling system flush or new brake pads.” Automotive design has been an integral part of the car industry since the 1920s, when GM began to develop the first year-over-year changes to their cars’ visual appearance. As makes and models have evolved, so have the varying design languages associated with them—with varying degrees of success.
To the casual observer, most cars on the road may appear more or less the same. But every manufacturer strives to make an especially beautiful car, and in those efforts, we’ve been blessed (and cursed) with some outliers. As they attempt to design the next car capable of making a fistful of dollars, automakers have delivered the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Cars like the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Toyota MR2 Spyder are praised for the way they evoke the joy of driving, both in how they handle and in how they look. But if one car properly represents the unbounded joy of carving up back roads, it’s Austin Healey’s 1960 Bugeye Sprite. With wide eyes and a smiling grill, there’s never been a car that looked more like its driver when she gets back on the gas after a hairpin turn.
For 30 years, the VW GTI has been one of the best looking hatchbacks on the market. Its design language has evolved seamlessly, without a single misstep. For good reason, it is often described as a hot hatchback…for grownups. The 2015 Volkswagen GTI manages to look serious without being overly aggressive, but also fun without being juvenile.
A car’s desirability over time provides one of the best indicators of good design, and from Fiat to GM and almost everything in between, Pininfarina has a pretty good track record. In our opinion, the Ferrari 275 GTB may be its best work. The long hood, glass headlights, and coyly smiling grill come together in one of the most beautiful designs ever. Auction prices support that claim, too; in 2014, a 1968 275 GTB/4 Berlinetta sold for just over $3 million.
The original Ford Mustang was more than simply “good.” It gave birth to a whole new category of “pony cars” that includes some of the world’s fastest, most admired, and most collectible vehicles, and it has been in uninterrupted production for more than 50 years. It looks stellar, and based on some very unscientific polling, we believe it to be one of relatively few performance cars that appeals men and women almost equally.
The Maserati GranTurismo could almost make our “good list.” It’s certainly smiling. But factor in the slanting headlights and the smile becomes more of a smirk. The grille is reminiscent of a snout, making the overall effect a predatory one. It’s fortunate that the sleek beauty of the overall design lends a kind of panache to the mischievous attitude.
Somehow just looking at the Porsche 911 Slant Nose makes you feel like you’re going to slip and fall off the hood. It’s as if Porsche took an iconic design and let a bunch of the air out. And the front end vaguely resembles an evil robot—Battlestar Galactica fans might see a Cylon. Popping up the headlights alleviates some of the terror, but then you’re stuck wondering how those headlights stay balanced on that floppy hood.
The Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro has an evil slant to its headlights similar to the GranTurismo, but manages to look even meaner. Perhaps it’s the size of the front end, or maybe it’s the angular lines running all over the place. And check out those fog light/ventilator gashes to either side of the front grille. They’re sort of like scars.
As noted above, the first Mustangs were beautiful in more ways than one. But the horsepower wars with other pony cars like the Chevy Camaro and Plymouth Barracuda at the end of the ’60s turned the ‘Stang into a bloated monster, and the Clean Air Act and the energy crisis of the early ’70s forced each automaker to rethink its product lines. Ford turned the Mustang into the Mustang II, which shared a platform with Ford’s Pinto and was called inferior to the AMC Gremlin by Consumer Reports. The Mustang II actually succeeded from a sales perspective, but it definitely wasn’t a looker, and its 88-hp base engine didn’t offer much driving enjoyment.
The Nissan Leaf’s features are comparable to a menagerie of animals. Sharing a design palette with Nissan’s Juke, the Leaf has had many an outspoken critic. Whereas the Juke’s size helps fill out its eccentricities, the Leaf’s insectoid looks are only accentuated by its smallness. The look may have worked when the friendly all-electric was introduced on 2011, but now as automakers are announcing ever more stylish electric vehicles, the Leaf’s strange reptilian look seems a bit dated.
Easily the homeliest of Subaru’s lineup, the Subaru B9 Tribeca was a stark departure from Subaru’s typical straightforward and rugged look. Instead, the B9’s design cues were self-consciously aerodynamic, with its ungainly “nose” looking particularly out of place. It’s like Subaru took the front grill of a Bugatti Veyron and pasted it onto an affordable midsize crossover. Subaru came to its senses two years later and introduced the Subaru Tribeca, a crossover that actually looks like a Subaru.
The Merkur XR4TI (eXperimental Racing, 4 series, Turbo, advanced Injection system) was an awesome car in its short-lived 4-year production. But it suffers from design decisions that were questionable even in the ‘80s. It’s “facial” features are too narrow, and the eyebrow-vents on the hood fill the XR4Ti’s face with shock. Shock that the Merkur Automobiles brand had only 5 years of production before being discontinued. At least the XR4Ti lived longer than the Merkur Scorpio.
We know some of you will disagree with us, but we don’t like the looks of Fox-body Mustangs. Fox-body versions were at least better cars than the Mustang II and offered lots more power and better performance. But we love the original Mustang and don’t understand why Ford chucked that fantastic design to go with a less-distinctive look and a front end that leaned back, rather than forward. Another problem? The human face we think of when we see the first-generation Mustang is Steve McQueen’s, but when we see the Fox-body Mustang, we think of Robert Matthew Van Winkle.
Happily, the history of the Ford Mustang is more Disney than spaghetti western and has a happy ending, at least for the time being. In 2005, the fifth-generation Mustang returned to its roots, looks-wise, and the current sixth-generation Mustang, which debuted for the 2015 model year with its first-ever fully independent rear suspension, has earned glowing reviews and strong sales worldwide.
What cars do you think have human-ish faces?
–Chase Hammond, John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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