I was going to dedicate this column to the 2021 Car of the Year, but while I was booting up the laptop and sipping my morning coffee, BMW dropped a bombshell.
If you haven’t yet cast your eyes over the new all-electric BMW iX, please take a glance at the image below, though doing so should carry a gentle warning: ‘May cause visual discomfort’. That such a charmless, overwrought and bloated vehicle could come out of the same design studio that gave us timeless stunners like the E46 M3, the E28 M5 and the truly gorgeous M1 is difficult to comprehend.
BMW’s design department is exploring a strange new direction (and I’m not just talking about the huge kidney grilles), though what’s more worrying is that the Bavarian brand isn’t alone. For many, today’s top design priority seems to be to simply stand out – hence the focus on grilles, creases and scoops – and to hell with the cost.
Typically I prefer to avoid discussing how cars look simply because it’s so subjective (and that’s a core part of what makes cars so interesting), but lately I’ve been asking myself the same question with worrying frequency: where have all the beautiful cars gone?
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a brand-new car and thought, ‘Phwoooar, they’ve got that right’. There are plenty of striking cars (AMG GT Black Series, Bugatti Bolide), and nearly everything is aggressive (even a Toyota Camry looks angry these days), but I’m talking about genuine beauty in the vein of a Ferrari 250 GTO, a Lamborghini Miura or an Aston V12 Vanquish. If you ask me, that’s thin on the ground.
Part of the problem is that the scourge of the SUV has made a designer’s job much more difficult. “It’s hard to make a beautiful SUV,” I was once told by a global design boss during an off-the-record chat in a hotel bar, “but it’s easy to make an interesting one”. That’s a crucial distinction. With little room to manoeuvre when it comes to proportions and an ever-increasing need to stand out in an over-crowded market, designers have instead turned to shouty, over-sized grilles and overwrought styling. Apparently, an elegant SUV simply won’t get noticed.
And good luck trying to make a dual-cab ute beautiful. Where Holden and Ford once did a tremendous job with the humble Aussie ute, which were effectively coupes with trays, today’s fleet of 4x4s presents a far tougher challenge. Tighter global design and safety regulations play a part too and have stolen the freedom to create cars with airy glasshouses and super-thin pillars.
Still, there are some bright spots out there. The Ferrari Roma is a lovely thing and the new Land Rover Defender is a lofty example of excellent product design. Jaguar, too, seems to have mostly sidestepped the temptation to adorn its fleet with creases, flicks and gurning faces.
But back to BMW. This isn’t the first time the brand’s design department has come over all controversial. Remember the Bangle era? When they first lobbed they were not received warmly, yet time has been kind to Bangle’s creations. And there are some truly captivating models in the current BMW range. The 5 Series is a handsome beast, for example, and I still rate the M2 as one of the best sports cars on sale.
But will we look back at something like the iX with the same affection? I have my doubts, mostly because of another thing that global design boss told me. “Enduring beauty is no longer the top priority,” he sighed. “It’s all about needing to sell cars now.”
That sounds worryingly like a false economy to me. Here’s hoping it’s just a phase.