Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Aesthetics and aerodynamics: why do modern cars look so alike?

Gautam Sharma speaks to some of the world’s top automotive designers about the challenges of crafting a distinctive-looking car

McLaren Senna 2018b
McLaren Senna 2018b

Are you of the opinion that most cars these days look much the same? Or that there are no beautiful motors any more? There’s a grain of truth in both these statements, as car design is no longer the unrestricted flight of fancy it was five or six decades ago.

Back then, car stylists had the freedom to create virtually whatever they wanted to. There were almost no constraints in terms of aerodynamic efficiency, crash safety, pedestrian protection or packaging optimisation. As proof of this, you need only consider the gargantuan 1950s Cadillac Eldorado, which had fins that could slice a cow in half.

Cadillac Eldorado 1959
The Cadillac Eldorado 1959

In contrast, the metal or carbon fibre that clothes today’s cars is shaped to not only be aesthetically pleasing (not always the case), but also satisfy myriad other criteria relating to aero, packaging, safety, cost and more. It’s an immensely complex process that requires the design and engineering departments to work closely together from the outset.

“I always say design would be much easier if you didn’t have to put people inside the car,” says former Jaguar design director Ian Callum, only half joking. “The other challenges we face relate to safety legislation – which is tough – and manufacturing cost constraints. Even Rolls-Royce has cost constraints for its cars. It’s just that the level is a bit higher.”

Jaguar XE 2020
The Jaguar XE 2020

Callum is credited with reinventing Jaguar’s design language over the past 12 years, as the venerable British brand had, until that point, been mired in retro-based styling that didn’t resonate with modern buyers. But while all its models since the 2007 XF have been cloaked in more cutting-edge bodywork, it’s now difficult to differentiate one saloon from the other, as the XE and XF are like the proverbial Russian dolls.

Jaguar Mk2 1962
The Jaguar Mk2 1962

It’s not only Jaguar that adopts this apparent cloning formula. The case is much the same at Audi (with the A4, A6 and A8), BMW (with the 3, 5 and 7 Series) and Mercedes (C, E and S-Class). Try differentiating each of these cars from its sibling from a hundred paces away and you might struggle. This wasn’t the case a few decades ago, as each model from a brand’s portfolio had its own identity. But the so-called “family face” isn’t something that has been stumbled upon by accident – it’s a key element in the strategy to carve out a stronger brand identity. “People have got to start recognising the brand, rather than just the car,” says Callum. “The family face is important. BMW never changes its face… apart from the headlights and size of the grille.”

BMW 7 Series 2020
The BMW 7 Series 2020

Ah, yes, BMW and its ever-enlarging grilles. If you’ve laid eyes on the latest 7 Series or X7, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. The “twin-kidney” grille has been the Bavarian marque’s most recognisable visual trait since the brand’s inception, but over the past year this feature has been expanded to almost caricature-like dimensions. This has earned the company much flak on internet forums, but BMW design director Adrian van Hooydonk stands resolutely behind the confronting BeeEm beaks.

“If you look into our history, you’ll find everything: very low and wide grilles, as well as very tall and narrow ones,” he says. “Part of what we’re trying to do now with our new-generation cars is to introduce more variation by pulling the models further apart visually, while still retaining a family look. For a sporty car we want to offer a low and wide grille – the new Z4 and 8 Series are like this. However, for cars like the X7 and 7 Series, it’s more about luxury and presence, so we made the grilles more vertical.”

Each brand has core design attributes that it tries to leverage in every way possible – for Lamborghini it’s more about aggressive, razor-edged panel surfaces, along with hexagon and Y-shaped motifs, which you’ll find repeated throughout its cars. Lamborghini design boss Mitja Borkert says his brief at Bologna’s ‘Raging Bull’ is very different to his former role as exterior design director at Porsche.

Lamborghini Aventador SVJ 2019
The Lamborghini Aventador SVJ 2019

“It’s a different kind of freedom at Lamborghini, as the expectation of us here has always been different,” he explains. “My philosophy in this role is to expect the unexpected so, for us, the revolution is the evolution. It is a different approach to other companies – including Porsche.”

Naturally, aesthetic appeal is at the forefront for all car designers, but it’s mandatory for the result of their handiwork to “crash well”. Every new car is crash-tested and the results are publicised, so there is no place to hide. The car must not only protect its occupants optimally in all types of collisions, it should also inflict the fewest possible injuries on pedestrians.

McLaren Senna 2018
The McLaren Senna 2018

Aero optimisation is also a key design consideration, as the less drag the car generates, the better its fuel efficiency and top speed. If we’re talking apex supercars, the focus is more on ample cooling and high levels of aerodynamic downforce to keep them glued to the tarmac, which is why they’re festooned with scoops and wings that kill any sense of visual purity. The McLaren Senna is no oil painting, yet it’s clinically efficient aero-wise. One could argue the coming Mercedes-AMG One and Aston Martin Valkyrie are more visually pleasing styling recipes for an extreme hypercar.

There’s a lot more to contemporary car design than merely sketching beautiful shapes. Unlike past beauties, such as the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale or Lamborghini Miura, every new car on sale today is an aesthetic compromise that has to satisfy myriad stiff criteria. If the end-result still manages to knock your socks off, the designers have done a heck of a job.

Updated: November 2, 2019 04:10 PM

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