Parking lots can be fascinating spaces for car lovers. On the right day and at the right time, they can give you a great threedimensional overview of the current car scene – from cheap and simple to luxurious and extravagant, from small to spacious, from classic to futuristic, from functional to sporty. Potentially, walking through such an enormous selection of vehicles can even be more exciting than visiting a rock concert.
So, on a recent vacation at a well-known seaside resort, yours truly recently made use of just that opportunity and spent an hour looking at the cars parked in the blazing sun. The result was shocking.
Against all expectations, the experience was anything but mesmerising. It wasn’t even particularly insightful. In fact, it was outright boring.
It is not that these cars did not look great. It’s not that their design hadn’t evolved, either. It’s just that they all appeared to look the same.
One can’t help but wonder: Why is this? And: Does it really have to be this way?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …
Before taking a closer look at these topics, however, let’s first make sure whether that first impression is actually correct. After all, looks can be deceiving.
And sure enough, a short online search will quickly reveal that the notion that all cars look the same these days is passionately contested.
On the one hand, some experts seemed to agree to the earlier pessimistic sentiment. Futurecar, for example, write:
“A Mercedes doesn’t feature the special look it used to, nor does a Lexis [sic]. Volvo, Volkswagen and other models have undergone a reformation. Citizens in various nations around the world are noticing new trends more and more. It’s as if there’s an agenda of amalgamation. This marks the end of one automotive era, and the beginning of a new one.”
Even car interiors aren’t exempt from the curse of similarity. As Autocar puts it:
“If variety is the spice of life, then the interior of the modern executive car is a bowl of plain white rice.”
Others, however, disagree. Let’s take a closer look at their arguments.
Have cars become more individual?
In fact, some car lovers will go as far as to claim that today’s models actually have more individual details and more refined looks than any previous generation.
On somewhat freaky car news website jalopnik, one user commented:
“I’d argue there’s more variety today than we’ve ever seen before. Just think about some of the cars available to the average consumer, and the variety present not just in the overall design but in all the individual elements.”
With regards to the individual elements, this much may be true. On closer inspection, current cars may indeed have a lot to offer to the expert eye. But it is also beside the point. All of these tiny details don’t really add up to a distinct overarching look. What seems to be missing is that feeling of looking in the rearview mirror and deciding, within the blink of an eye: “That’s a Jetta!” Or: “That’s a Kia Rio!'”
Within certain categories of cars, SUVs in particular, it almost seems as though it is entirely impossible to make out any differences between different brands at all.
Or are the sceptics simply getting old?
Hindsight is a beautiful thing
Perhaps. Or maybe our memory is simply playing tricks on us. After all, one thing’s for sure: Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but it also tends to distort our perception.
Within every generation of vehicles, there are striking similarities between the designs of different cars. This is not hard to understand.
For one, car makers will go with what works. If a particular design should meet with widespread approval and excellent sales, other makes will follow in its footsteps.
Secondly, with a highly technological product such as a car, form follows function to a certain degree. If specific design decisions help to make a car perform better, then it is likely that these innovations will spread across the industry. Almost regardless of their impact on the car’s look.
Finally, the car industry has become a lot faster in implementing innovations. Formerly, improvements could take years to introduce. Today. the cycle from coming up with a solution and the finished product can be as short as a few months. This makes it even easier for good ideas to spread across the entire industry. But it also leads to a certain homogeneity in terms of the design.
Each generation has its grey mice
And so, if we’re honest, each generation of models has a particular look that we later associate with a particular era of car design:
The 60s: lavish and wasteful
The lavish, slick and almost wasteful designs of the 60s, with their endless hoods and tail flares, are symbols for a time when ecological considerations didn’t seem to matter and petrol was cheap. This period is still reverentially referred to as ‘the golden age’ and according to many, including online magazine auto evolution, ‘car design peaked in the 1960s’.
What made this decade so particularly fruitful is that European aesthetics were entering the American market, resulting in an exciting fusion. US customers had long preferred a so-called ‘boat design‘: “excessively finned, chrome widebody designs”. Europe, meanwhile, had scaled down, looking for cost-effective, humble and quirky cars. From this union resulted some of the most iconic models of all time.
The 80s: Boxes on wheels
There have been many attempts to explain the particular, boxy design of cars in the 80s. To a certain extent, the mass manufacturing of cars in a still analog design environment made boxy cars more probable than curved ones. Curves were simply harder to layout. And yet, models such as the Ford Sierra proved that it would have been possible to opt for more curves, if this would have been in in the interest of manufacturers.
Some claim that aerodynamics only became part of design consideration in the 90s. This is true, but wind tunnels are not an invention of the 90s. They were available and used long before that. What’s more, some 80s design do not far quite as bad aerodynamically as you might think. Especially the sharp cutoff at the trunk section is an excellent design element in terms of working with the wind.
The most probable explanation is simply that consumers liked these boxy designs. And so, for an entire decade, cars looked like shoe boxes. [For an interesting discussion, take a look at this quora debate on car design in the 80s]
The 90s and beyond: Elegant and wind-optimised
As economic considerations became more important, designers came up with solutions that made cars increasingly sleek and streamlined. Compared to the 60s, however, the new generation of vehicles did not use space quite as wastefully. Instead, these cars were elegant and practical.
So, if apologists of 21st century design claim that each generation has its recognisable look, they are right. And yet, this does not disprove the general notion that all cars do look even more the same today than they’ve ever done before.
Putting things to the test
In a now classic post for his blog 5th Color, graphic designer Paul Sanderson put the hypothesis to the test. His intention was not initially to prove that all cars look the same. Although he had noticed some striking similarities between contemporary car designs, he simply thought it improbable that this could be the case.
What he did to verify the proposition was to randomly select eight cars from the current market, then trace and superimpose their silhouettes and compare them.
The resulting graphic stunned him. It simply looked like the silhouette of a single car, with just a few minor deviations. In terms of their general outline, these cars did not just all look the same. They were practically indistinguishable from each other:
“There are some current exceptions in this play-it-safe world, with a few cars, the Mini Cooper, Nissan Cube and Scion iQ (ala Smart Car) as examples, that are targeted to younger consumers who are more willing to accept new ideas,” Anderson writes, “But my feeling is that to appeal to a broader audience and decrease the risk of consumer rejection, especially in a recession, auto manufacturers will continue to play it safe and design cars that conform to current trends.”
What about the rest of the design?
Now, the silhouette is a strong, determining factor for the look of a car. But it is certainly not the only one. As John Cafaro of General Motors puts it:
“All birds are aerodynamic and don’t look the same.”
But when Jalopnik conducted a fun experiment, it looked as though the bird analogy did not quite match up to closer scrutiny.
Using very simple photoshop techniques, the site replaced the grilles of one model with that of another. After this subtle facelift, the BMW 3 series suddenly looks exactly like a Subaru Impreza. A Mercedes E-Class becomes indistinguishable from a Honda, while the Honda Accord magically transforms into a C-Class.
Admittedly, as some critics have pointed out, not without justification, the examples are problematic, because they are, arguably, among the most iconic designs. Less emblematic designs have surely not been copied quite as much. And yes, the grille is one of the most recognisable elements of the overall design of a car.
But still: If Jalopnik describes the design of the cars under scrutiny as ‘generic’, it is certainly not entirely off.
Let’s now take a look at what might be causing this.
Why do all cars look the same Part 1: Aerodynamics
Among the different reasons why cars tend to look so much alike, aerodynamics is undeniably the most obvious one. Popular Mechanics have a great, to the point analysis why this influences car design so much:
“The wind doesn’t care whether your grille is distinctive, or even whether you have one at all. The wind wants your car to look like a raindrop, and anything else is a compromise.”
Some of the features of today’s cars that are a direct result of these demands are:
- a bullet-like shape
- smooth surfaces and a flowing silhouette
- a flat frontend to offer as little wind resistance as possible and
- a sharp cutoff at the rear “to cleanly detach the air stream from the body”
Ever since these curvy designs became en vogue in the 90s, they have become a defacto standard, just like the boxy cars of the 80s in the past. Bucking this trend would require a bold design that is so convincing that it turns this aesthetic upside down.
It seems unlikely this is going to happen.
Why do all cars look the same Part 2: Safety
We can complain about cars looking the same all we want. But it is a given that manufacturers have a lot less leeway for creative freedom than they once did. Safety considerations are one important aspect that severely limits how designers approach the look of a car. And there are very good reasons for this, too.
For one, the high, sloped nose you see on virtually all cars these days helps in reducing the impact if the car should hit a pedestrian. The hood of the car has also gradually been raised for safety reasons. The additional space creates a safety zone for your head in case your car should roll over. For the same reasons, the centre pillars have been fortified as airbags have been added to them. All of this has brought designs from different brands a lot closer together.
Just like aerodynamics, safety considerations are not really optional. In fact, it should seem obvious that they take priority over any other possible aesthetic goal when designing a vehicle. And just to be on the safe side, many governments have turned these demands into law, thereby making them impossible to circumvent.
Some may regret how these safety regulations have supposedly made designs ‘less interesting’. But anyone who’s ever been caught in an accident will appreciate the additional safety.
Why do all cars look the same Part 3: Risk Aversion
Right from the start, cars have always been big business. What has changed, however, is the latitude for failure. The fate of a company like Nokia, who dominated the mobile phone market for years and then disintegrated in just two seasons because of bad decisions and market swings has made even some of the biggest companies careful to avoid any kind of risk.
Perhaps they are not entirely wrong in doing so. Over the past years, some major car brands have disappeared from sight. Just take, for example, Lancia. Once one of the apples of Italy’s eyes, its palette has now bee reduced to a single car sold exclusively at home – the result of not being able to adapt and remaining too headstrong.
In case of doubt, therefore, most manufacturers prefer being boring to going bust.
Of course, this aversion to risk directly translates into safer and more conservative design choices. What has worked in the past is expected to work in the future. What has worked for others is expected to work with one’s own brand. And giving consumers what they want is the safer choice than surprising them with something they never expected and might be blown away by.
Although many lament this development, desperately few consumers actively reward courageous design decisions.
One recent example: The new grille introduced by Japanese luxury car maker Lexus. Its x-shaped, almost cosmic design sets it apart from every other brand on the market. It is daring, it is different, it is recognisable and it gives the cars a both raw and glamorous look.
Lexus’s core target group, however, wasn’t looking for change. And so, the brand was heavily punished for their courage.
Over time, its product managers have somewhat cooled the hotblooded emotion around the grille. But in financial terms, they are still licking their wounds.
Why do all cars look the same Part 4: Marketing/Brand Identity
If you talk to marketing directors at the leading car brands, you’ll quickly find that many of them regret the limitations applying to their work. In one regard, however, a homogeneous approach to design can really pay off.
If all cars of a brand have an identical basic design, they reinforce the manufacturer’s message. Effectively, each car then turns into a cost-free ad for the brand. When you see such a car driving past, you no longer think: “Oh, a Yaris!” Or: “Oh, a Corolla”. Instead, you’re led to think: “That’s a TOYOTA”.
From the make’s perspective, that’s a good thing. Because the stronger the overall brand image is, the stronger the image of every single model is. The reverse is certainly not always true.
Streets filled with identical vehicles
Combine this strategy with the fact that aerodynamics and safety regulations are making cars look ever more similar and you end up with streets filled with almost identical vehicles. In the end, there’s the danger of all cars ending up looking the same. Which is certainly no longer in the interest of any brand.
To add to the situation, the car market has considerably consolidated over the past few years. Renault and Nissan have teamed up. BMW owns Mini and Rolls Royce. Fiat has bought up Lancia and Alfa Romeo. Volkswagen acquired Seat.
One of the most important reasons for this consolidation is to share know-how and pool costs across various platforms. As a logical result, cars from these conglomerates will tend to look more alike than they might have done on their own.
Why do all cars look the same Part 5: Functionality
Lest we forget: Design is also driven by practical considerations. In the early 90s, the market was dominated by sedans and hatchbacks. While these car body types were okay for a family, they were by no means perfect.
The “invention” of the SUV closed this gap. It created more space for passengers to move around, more flexibility for different types of rides, less emphasis on prestige and cool looks. This was not a business car doubling up as a family vehicle. This was a car designed specifically for families and their needs.
The SUV took the world by storm. And not just that: it made arrogant manufacturers realise that perhaps their ‘genious’ ideas were less important than the actual wants of their customers.
On the flipside, this focus on functionality has relegated smart and individual design to second tier. No brand wants to be seen by customers as egoistically pushing through their design choices. And since customers don’t have any truly innovative design ideas themselves, cars end up looking the same.
Why do all cars look the same Part 6: The End of Evolution
When looking at the development of car design throughout the decades, we also need to keep one more thing in mind: Today’s car market is the result of more than a century of experiments and experiences.
In the early phase, manufacturers mainly tried different designs because they weren’t yet sure which solutions were best. As a result, the history of the automobile is filled with absurd ideas, many of which simply did not work. Cars with three wheels, cars with back seats turned by 180 degrees, cars with a door instead of a trunk, cars that looked like airplanes, cars that looked like a tin can on wheels, cars that looked like zeppelins.
After a while, all that remained was what worked. If today’s market no longer has many goofball designs or extravagant concepts, then this is because they’ve been tried and found to be lacking.
We may marvel at the sheer creativity of some of the designs from the 30s-60s. But we should also consider ourselves lucky we never actually had to drive in one of them.
The Future: Making cars more personal again
That said, a bit more individuality would he highly appreciated. Part of the fascination for cars stems from the excitement of seeing something you’ve never seen before, looks that feels out of this world, breathtaking and unique.
Perhaps those days will never return. But we can at least hope for a new phase of increased differentiation. And it looks as though manufacturers are beginning to wake up to that possibility.
Says Andrew Smith, global head of design for Cadillac:
“I always ask, ‘Have we perfected the bottom of the car?’ Let’s work on the part that nobody can see first.”
Active Aero is one of the most intriguing areas for design innovations. The concept is based on the idea that aerodynamic conditions change depending on the road situation – whether you’re driving slowly or fast, speeding down the highway or taking a lot of curves. Active Aero elements are dynamic, meaning they can become visible only when they are actually needed. Otherwise, they remain invisible, allowing for creative design solutions.
With these changes in mind, it looks as though car design is set to become a lot more interesting again. The times of truly daring and naive experiments may be over. Great design, however, will never go out of fashion.