If you read Jalopnik, there’s a good chance you have an affinity for the stranger sides of the automotive industry — but it seems like an emphasis on the weird has become the defining trend of vehicle design. I didn’t even notice until Tim Stevens pointed it out in a story for The Verge.
Stevens points out Hyundai as a prime example of the automotive oddness, noting everything from the Sonata’s backlit chrome headlights to the Ioniq 5's pixelated lights. From the story:
You expect that kind of stuff from a young up-start, but Mercedes-Benz making an SUV that can hop and bounce? That’s weird. Part of the brand’s Active Body Control suspension, higher-end GLS SUVs can put SoCal low-riders to shame. The feature was officially added to provide extra grip on sand and mud, but really we all know its greatest use was in achieving TikTok immortality.
Similarly, you never have to scroll far down the Mercedes Instagram page to find a picture of a glaringly illuminated interior. The once-stoic German brand’s social media channels are awash with increasingly overwhelming interiors and ornate dashboard designs framed with Technicolor LED palettes that will challenge your sense of style as much as they threaten your night vision. Too garish for some, these exercises have charmed a new generation of buyers, and Mercedes is as desirable as ever.
Stevens’ article really got me thinking. Yes, we still live in a universe of extremely bland SUVs and crossovers, many of which look the same (and was perfectly illustrated by the fact that, at the United States Grand Prix, the group I rode to the track with all struggled to locate our driver’s white Hyundai Tucson in a sea of other white Hyundai Tucsons). But we’re witnessing more one-off oddness than I really remember having seen in recent years. Think of Rivian’s adorable, Tic Tac-shaped lights or the Tesla’s Cybertruck’s... Cybertruck-ness. Think of the Hummer EV’s myriad features, like “crabwalk,” or the hexagons littering the design of the BMW iX.
Stevens reasons that these changes are coming because electrification is on the horizon — and I can’t help but agree. While he notes that this likely comes from a struggle to differentiate oneself from the competition, since rapid acceleration and noiselessness are going to be typical of all EVs, I’d argue it comes from a slightly different impetus.
For the first time in ages, we’re looking at a potential reinvention of what we understand a vehicle to be. We’ve had over a century to really get acquainted with the internal combustion engine, and you can see the ways that history has repeated itself time and again when it comes to trends in car design. You build one big, boxy muscle car, and suddenly every automaker wants to get in on that action, all using a pretty similar formula.
But right now, we’re experiencing something almost strange. It’s like a massive case of spontaneous discovery happening on a massive scale. Every automaker knows it’s going to have an electrified future, but with everyone pushing for that future at the same time, automakers are creating their own, unique versions of what an EV can look like. Mercedes is filling its EVs with massive, wraparound screens. Meanwhile, Volkswagen stripped the ID.4 down to its basics. Meanwhile, newer entries into the automotive playing field can come up with something totally off the wall, since there’s no tradition of automotive design they have to follow.
Stevens notes that some of these "weird" features are a little gimmicky, and that's pretty obvious. But it's also damn cool to see automakers taking creative liberty to help us pave the way for a new — and more exciting — electric future.