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2004 Car Designs Painful For Passengers

Wedge Shapes Force Too Many Compromises

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2004 Pontiac Grand Prix

2004 Pontiac Grand Prix

© Pontiac
Automobile designers are like fashion designers in that they develop and follow trends. Styles evolve and remain popular for a few years, then fade away as the next big idea begins.

We are currently at the peak of an automotive fashion trend which designers love but perceptive consumers hate. There is no label by which to define this style so for lack of a better one we'll refer to it as the "wedge." Which is amusing to me because way back in 1970, while working as creative director of Ford of Europe's advertising agency, the client informed us that a new vehicle we'd soon be promoting was shaped like a wedge. When we finally saw the car in the design studio it was about as wedgy as a bar of soap.

The wedge appeals to designers because the look, upswept from nose to tail, appears very racy. Engineers like the low aerodynamic drag numbers a wedge achieves in the wind tunnel. Marketing people are happy, since a wedgy-looking car looks great in advertising photos and suggests performance even when standing still.

All of which would be very nice if it were not for the fact that the wedge-influenced designs in today's showrooms make too many compromises in passenger comfort. They are perfect examples of what happens when you design a car from the outside, then force the cockpit, or passenger compartment, to fit. Fine for a high-performance sports or GT car but not a family automobile.

What we now have are high-waisted cars that force passengers to sit in a claustrophobic interior, where they disappear into a black pit as the windows, narrowing from front to rear, become mere slits. It's not much better for drivers faced with high cowls and poor sightlines. Worse still, deeply-curved door cutouts make entering and exiting rear seat areas painful. Not much better up front, either, where windshields slope at such an angle that climbing aboard requires the agility of a gymnast.

Another trend, one that I personally disdain, is the evolution of headlights into a design statement. Almost menacing in appearance (the lights on an Infiniti Q45 resemble a WW1 Gatling gun) they're oversized and unattractive. The sooner those monster lights are sent to the design dumpster the better. Not that I recommend a return to traditional forms but manufacturers are capable of producing narrow lights that require little space and give up nothing in efficiency. They can even be placed, as Fiat has already demonstrated in its Multipla, where the hood meets the windshield.

Fortunately the future of automobile design holds some hope, oddly enough inspired by the merging of SUVs with lower and sleeker station wagons and even, perhaps unintentionally, by the sedans of the 1930's. The latter featured step-in chair heights, plenty of headroom, spacious rear seating areas where passengers could stretch their legs. Cargo space was limited but modern techniques have found ways around that problem.

Though once wowed by wedgy-looking cars I've come to accept that driver and passenger convenience must always be the priority. Hopefully the next big design trend will acknowledge that the passengers within are more important than the shape without.

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