Equal and opposite reactions

In her new book The Hummer and the Mini, the trend-watcher Robyn Waters argues that the trend in trends is that there isn't one.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

In her new book The Hummer and the Mini, the trend-watcher Robyn Waters argues that the trend in trends is that there isn’t one.

For every trend these days, Waters argues, there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction – and so it is in the automotive world. The choices grew: big or little, luxury or entry-level? Fragmenting markets have meant more and more model offerings. Still, some patterns have shown themselves clearly.

Now that headlights have been transformed into complex jewelry to adorn the front of the car, taillights are getting the same treatment. Brake-light red is increasingly placed behind clear or frosted lenses surrounded by mirrorlike trim.

The sparkling taillights of the Ford Fusion resemble those that customizers of Honda Civics buy to replace factory versions. The taillights on Nissan’s new Altima are complex assemblages of reflectors and lenses barely dabbed with red. The taillights of the Mercury Mountaineer and Mazda CX-7 appear almost completely white.

2006 was the year that many more vehicles began to breathe sideways, like swimmers doing the Australian crawl. Side vents, or gills, appeared on many models, including the Cadillac Escalade and the Buick Enclave. Gills have become a cue for luxury vehicles said Patrick Schiavone, design director for North American trucks and SUVs for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.

Land Rovers have long had gills. The top-of-the-line Range Rover acquired elaborately filigreed gills this year, while the LR3 wears a single asymmetric air-induction gill. The Saturn Sky borrows a side-gill style from the Chevrolet Corvette. The designer Ian Callum introduced gills, or what he calls “front wing power vents,” on the Jaguar XK coupe and convertible.

Auto makers are paying more attention to their overhead, making innovative roofs and skylights a new competitive frontier. Nissan offered an extra-long skylight a year ago on its Maxima and Quest. Last year, Volkswagen was not content simply with offering a folding hardtop roof on its Eos, but felt compelled to provide a sliding sunroof as well.

Ford’s new Edge and its sibling Lincoln MKX offer a long strip of glass. “The Vista Roof was inspired by the openness of urban lofts,” said Ed Golden, design director for the Edge and the Lincoln MKX. The intended buyers are young urbanites. Ford imagined the vehicle as a rolling version of a city loft. “A loft often has large, open rooms, so we were looking for that feel,” he added.

Once upon a time, a car’s face announced its brand. Packard’s face was instantly recognizable by its tombstone-shaped grille, Mercury’s by its waterfall. But with few exceptions, like the Dodge gunsight, the front ends of recent American vehicles have emphasized the individuality of models instead of family resemblance.

That seems to have changed in 2006. Ford and Chevrolet decided on basic facial brand cues using simple bars. Ford’s family look is a three-bar front on most models, established in the Fusion and Edge. Chevy settled on a single wide bar, evident in models as varied as the Aveo subcompact, the Silverado pickup and the ’08 Malibu.

Interiors in non-luxury models have become more elaborate, with brighter materials and textures. Two tones make cars seem richly appointed and interiors appear larger because they emphasize horizontal lines, like the next version of Chevrolet’s bread-and-butter Malibu. Two-tone interiors have also shown up on the Saturn Sky and Aura, the Chrysler Sebring and the Mazda CX-7.

The new Sebring arrived with a hood wearing parallel creases. A descendant of speedlines of the 1930s and an echo of Chrysler’s Crossfire, the streak-like lines are intended to telegraph the idea of sportiness. Sometimes called strakes, similar shapes show up on the Chrysler Aspen sport utility.

The Ford Fairlane concept of 2005 wore horizontal lines on its side, suggesting both speed and the seams of the woody wagons that inspired the vehicle.

Streaks or strakes are carried to an extreme in the Mazda Nagare, a futuristic dream car introduced at the Los Angeles auto show. The car’s theme of flow is rendered by ripples in its side, like those left by the wind in sand dunes.

Jeep’s new Wrangler and BMW’s revised Mini suggest that car makers have learned not to change for change’s sake. The Jeep’s familiar face remains recognizable – no more of the misguided forays into square headlights of two decades ago.

Customizers and tuners mark the decline of bling by promoting donks – boxy ’70s and ’80s Detroit sedans riding on high suspensions and huge wheels.

They’re also dressing up models like Scion, Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit with aero kits, decals and new electronics.

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