February 20, 2008

February 06, 2008

Car Design Misses

There's been a lot to admire in the field of automotive design the past few years. (Exhibits: Ferrari 599, Aston Martin Vantage, Alfa Romeo 8C) There's also been a lot of controversy. (Bangle, anyone?) For all the controversial designs, you couldn't really point to too many outright design misses. But two cars were recently introduced at the Chicago Auto Show that really miss the mark, in my mind.

1. 2009 Acura RL
I used to be a big fan of Acura. They were fun cars with Japanese reliability plus an added dose of sportiness and subtle luxury. The model names imbued each line with their own identities (Legend, Integra, NSX). They were competing and winning in Formula 1 by supplying engines to the McLaren team.

However, since the early 90s Acura has steadily slipped further and further behind the other aspirational brands. And a company that had some sense of styling sanity and direction now appears to have none. To wit, the 2009: Acura RL:

This is supposed to be the flagship of the Acura line, but where is the boldness? Where is the presence? The '09 RL has the blandness of an Accord. Look at the side flanks: Minimal surface development, parts bin rub strip molding, uninspiring profile. Cover up the front and rear, and you'd swear you were looking at a previous generation Malibu.

Even worse are the front end styling miscues: A grill that is a caricature of the Acura chevron design cue, and doesn't harmonize with the rest of the front end at all. A clumsily executed falling waterfall fascia that makes the car appear bucktoothed. Lines that don't flow to the rest of the car. But that's not even the worst part of the car.

This is a Bangle Butt done completely wrong. As jarring as the original E65 7 Series rear end was, you could at least make the case that the forms, shapes, and lines were guided by a consistent, if not entirely aesthetic, approach.

The '09 RL's rear is a jumble of competing design elements, completely at odds with one another. How else do you explain the wacky 5 line join at the top of the rear lamp cluster: from the top, you've got 1) the trunk lid cut line, 2) the rear fender character line, 3) the top edge of the lamp cluster, 4) the trunk opening cut line, 5) the crease from the rear deck lid spoiler.

The chrome strip above the license plate just sits there, uninterested in anything else around it, yet crudely housing the backup lights like lesions.

The rear decklid rises slightly as if to give a spoiler effect, but ends up disassociating it from the rest of the rear end, calling attention to itself in a bad way.

And the exhausts are a sort-of flattened hexagon, um..... why, exactly?

The 2009 RL is a jumble of a front end, a jarring mess of a back end, and blandville in the middle. So very disappointing.

2. Volkswagen Routan
Here we have Volkswagen's first minivan sold in the US since the Eurovan, which was the successor of the Vanagon, which was the descendant of the venerable VW Bus.

For their latest US van offering, VW chose to join up with Chrysler and offer a rebadged version of the latest Chrysler minivan platform, and as such shares its underpinnings with the 2008 Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country.

Design-wise, the end result is less than successful, as VW design had to be grafted onto a Chrysler platform.

The front end actually isn't bad. All the VW elements are present and accounted for, but somehow they don't work within the confines and proportions of the Chrysler front end. The hood seems to squish all the front end elements into the lower half of the front fascia.

The rear is worse off. Somehow the rear design, particularly the shape of the rear lamps, reinforce the low overall position of all the design elements. The vertical balance is thrown off in that the rear window appears to be oversized and pushing down the lights, license plate, and bumper step.

Finally the interior just screams badge engineering. If there's one thing the VW Group can do well, it's interiors. Just look at Audi.

Here? Not so good. The blocky forms in the IP of the Chrysler vans persist here, despite an attempt to break it up with a horizontal faux-aluminum strip. The VW switchgear somehow looks out of place as well. They kind of look lost within the spartan Germanic design aesthetic that's been laid on top of the simple, blocky American shapes and forms of the IP.