Negative Trends in Modern Car Design

In most respects, cars today are far better than they ever were. They offer both more performance and better economy from the same engine size, they're safer both for the occupants and other road users, they're less polluting and they're vastly better equipped. Remember that in the 1950s even a heater was an optional extra! However, there are still a lot of things that car manufacturers unaccountably seem to get wrong, and in some cases are doing worse than they used to.

  • Bloated size. Ford's latest Mondeo is 15'6" long - the size of a 1970s Granada. And many everyday new cars are over 80" wide over their mirrors. No wonder so many people don't bother using their garages. More seriously, such needlessly big cars take up an excessive amount of road space and make car choice a real problem for people with restricted drives and garages built in the era of the Morris Minor. For any practical purposes there's no need for a car longer than a VW Bora (14'4"), which will accommodate four adults and their luggage in reasonable comfort. You might want a bigger car, but you don't need one. And why does a Bora need to be 5" wider than a Rover 45? I have read recently that housebuilders now accept that most people will not put their car in their garage, and deliberately build garages no bigger than supermini-size, even on "executive estates". The 2003 Renault Mégane is a bloated 70" wide over its body, and 80" over its mirrors.

  • Lack of rear seat room. Despite the inflated size of cars, they're often surprisingly cramped inside. Even in big cars such as the BMW 5 series, rear seat room can be very limited. Obviously it isn't a priority for buyers, but surely the designers could easily work in an extra couple of inches and lose it elsewhere, which would transform the comfort of back seat passengers.

  • Front central armrests. This supposed luxury feature is appearing in an increasing number of cars. The ones you can fold up are OK, but many that you can't seriously obstruct your left elbow when changing gear, the Vectra being a particularly bad example.

  • Unique-fit stereo systems. Fine for security, but if they use a non-standard slot it can be a real problem if you want to install an alternative unit. These days when people may want a cassette player, CD or Minidisc it should be easier to vary the manufacturer's specification and also to fit after-market units. Surely all manufacturers should offer a cost-free choice of cassette, CD, or Minidisc, with a standard autochanger upgrade. One which does offer a genuine choice is Mazda, which fits its cars with a "modular audio system" where various combinations of cassette, Minidisc and single and multi-play CD can be specified as dealer-fit options.

  • Transmission tunnels in front wheel drive cars. What is the point of these? Fwd cars in the 60s such as the BMC 1100 and NSU Ro80 didn't have them, and nor do many MPVs, thus freeing up much more cabin space. Was it that in the 1970s fwd was considered somewhat "sissy", so fwd cars had to have fake transmission tunnels to make them look macho? Interestingly, the new Honda Civic (see below) has a stubby, dashboard-mounted gearchange, and a flat floor.

  • Hatchbacks. I suspect the typical person who buys a hatchback car never has the back seats down. You don't expect much boot space in a supermini, but many hatchbacks in the Ford Focus class are seriously lacking too, and in particular too short from front to back. The Focus itself is markedly worse than the Escort in this respect. Obviously with the rise of the package holiday, the typical family no longer needs to pack its luggage up in the car to go away, and so manufacturers can get away with this.

    The Alfa 147, for example, has a boot of less than 10 cu.ft, no bigger than many superminis - and that was voted the 2001 European Car of the Year. The new Toyota Corolla (just 10.1 cu.ft) is much the same. And the handsome Peugeot 307 - 2002 Car ot the Year - which apes the looks of an MPV, suggesting it offers loads of interior space, has a boot of a mere 12 cu.ft - less than a Focus, Astra or Rover 45, not to mention its older stablemate the Citroën Xsara. If you really need the space and flexibility you can always buy an estate. The 2003 Renault Mégane, in many respects the biggest car in the class, can only muster 11.6 cu.ft, while the innovative Citroën C4 only manages 11.3 cu.ft, far less than the Xsara it replaces (although the C4 is in most respects a far better car).

    I must admit on this point that I personally own a hatchback, but have only once had the rear seats down since I bought it. In this case the boot space is adequate for my needs, but had a saloon version of this particular model been available I would have chosen that in preference.

  • Storage space. Modern cars have all manner of cupholders, pen holders, coin holders, mobile phone holders etc. But they often have door pockets too small to accommodate an OS map, and the under-dash shelf, which on the Mk2 Cortina and original Marina could accommodate an A4-size road atlas, has largely disappeared. Glove boxes, too, are often titchy.

  • Thick pillars. Considerations of body strength have led to modern cars having much thicker window pillars than they did thirty years ago, often seriously limiting visibility

  • Protective measures. In the 1970s and early 80s, many cars had impact-absorbing black plastic bumpers and side rubbing strips, so they could withstand minor everyday bumps. But nowadays bumpers are brittle and painted, and cars aiming for a fashionable image such as the Alfa 156 dispense with side rubbing strips to give a sleeker look. Ironically, twenty years ago it was the base models that dispensed with rubbing strips.

    More and more cars seem to be dispensing with rubbing strips in an attempt to appear trendy, such as Rover 75, Honda Civic, 2003 Honda Accord, 2003 Toyota Avensis, even the latest BMW 3 and 5-series. The huge slab-sided doors on many of these cars look very vulnerable to parking dents. Full marks to SAAB, though, for bucking the trend and putting rubbing strips on the new 9-3, which to my mind is one of the best-looking of recent designs.

  • Lack of external boot handle. It's amazing how this is missing on many otherwise well-designed cars, meaning that you have to cover the boot/hatch with fingermarks to close it.

  • Rear fog and reversing lights. Many cars, even expensive models, only have one of each. The Ford Focus is a particularly prominent example. A single fog light could cause other drivers to make misjudgments in genuinely foggy conditions, particularly when driving on the Continent. And when reversing in confined spaces, reversing lights are often very useful for visibility.

I would give my current design trophy to the latest 2001 model Honda Civic. This has, uniquely amongst cars in its class, been designed to give a completely flat floor in front and rear, without attaining MPV-like proportions, and offers an enormous amount of interior space. Its looks are distinctive, quirky and purposeful, and while it doesn't have the largest boot in the class, it is much more useable by being long and shallow rather than short and deep. It doesn't have protective side mouldings, though!

Interestingly, the 2003 model year revamp added the protective side mouldings (which had already become popular as an aftermarket extra) but also abandoned the flat floor by adding a central oddments tray.

I gave the equivalent bad design trophy to the previous-model Ford Focus. Now, in many ways this was a well-regarded car, by all accounts being particularly good to drive for the class , but it had a number of glaring and unnecessary defects, including:

  • it was extremely ugly, particularly from the back
  • the wide rear tailgate covered large areas of metal, and didn't reflect a larger boot
  • in fact it had a short, cramped boot
  • it only had one reversing lamp, mounted so low down it will be easily obscured by road grime
  • it had a non-standard audio slot, giving you a problem if you want to add an aftermarket unit
  • It was a full 2 metres, or 6'5", wide over its mirrors
  • the V-shape at the centre bottom of the back window was prone to rusting

The new model Focus, introduced in early 2005, addresses many of these problems, in particular the lack of boot space, but is if anything even more bloated and its styling is much blander than the original.

Another bad design award must go to the BMW MINI. This is a bloated parody of a great car from an earlier era. Like the Focus, it has been much lauded by the motoring press, but its tiny boot and restricted rear seat space make it no more than a fashion item, and not a practical car for year-round use. If it's going to be your only car, and you ever need to carry four passengers or holiday luggage, buy a Peugeot 206 or Rover 25 instead.

In the words of Dr Alex Moulton, designer of the original car's suspension, not to mention the Moulton bicycle, "It’s enormous – the original Mini was the best packaged car of all time – this is an example of how not to do it… it’s huge on the outside and weighs the same as an Austin Maxi. The crash protection has been taken too far. I mean, what do you want, an armoured car? It is an irrelevance in so far as it has no part in the Mini story".

Interestingly, the Focus has markedly less interior space than the Maxi, despite being larger in external dimensions.

A further raspberry goes to the 2002 Nissan Primera. Not only does this look like a bucket of frogs (or maybe dolphins), it also has no side rubbing strips, and its gimmicky rear-vision TV system precludes any possibility of installing an aftermarket audio system. Not a good choice unless you want your life to be run by corporate conformity.

And what about the 2003 Renault Mégane? This is an innovative car with excellent crash test results and class-leading safety features, powerful engines for the class, and very good equipment levels for the price. But its looks are totally spoilt by an ugly and awkward "bustle" which also robs it of boot space. At least it has substantial grey plastic front, side and rear rubbing strips - which it will need being so ludicrously wide. The booted version, introduced a few months after the hatchback, is actually a far better looking car.

As mentioned above, the 2003 SAAB 9-3 is a very handsome car with taut, muscular lines that has thankfully avoided any vogueish design cues.

(last updated March 2005)

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