Where Have All The Beautiful Electric Cars Gone?

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2011 Nissan Leaf SL

2011 Nissan Leaf SL

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There are people around who'll tell you that "all cars look the same".

They are of course talking baloney. We aren't living in the 1980s any more, where cars were differentiated largely by the badge on the front, their lines dictated by ruler and set-square. Today's automotive tapestry is a rich one.

But where are all the beautiful electric cars? What happened to the concept of automotive aesthetics, and why does it seem to have deserted the electric car industry? We've had enough, which is why we've come up with a list of themes we no longer want to see variations on.

It's certainly not a claim that can be leveled solely at electric cars, but with so few on the market the industry will fight a losing battle if it can't come up with designs that people desire.

1) The glorified golf cart

Moduléo adaptable electric car, 2011 Geneva Motor Show

Moduléo adaptable electric car, 2011 Geneva Motor Show

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Let's be clear on this one - golf carts have their place. It's called a golf course. And we can understand the worth of narrow, inexpensive electric car concepts like the Renault Twizy and even the tiny and cheap people-movers we saw at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, we just wish someone with an eye for style would come up with the next one.

Europe churned out tiny, attractively styled, chic little vehicles in their thousands back in the 1960s. Think Fiat's original 500, or the Austin Mini, as perfect examples. We know the retro look isn't the be-all and end-all of design, but surely some of that flair could be applied to today's tiny EVs, with the modern conveniences and safety we need? Personal mobility shouldn't also mean universal ridicule.

2) A Transformer half way through its transformation

Just as lack of style is a sin, so is trying too hard. Odd proportions and unusual surfaces don't make your electric cars look cool, they make them look broken. Tone it down, work on the details, and maybe you'll sell a few more. How many cars do you see on the road with half a dozen different materials and colors spread across them? Exactly. It's not a gap in the market, there is no market for the gratuitously weird.

3) Race car rejects

There's definitely something to be said for wowing the world with an electric car that outperforms a gasoline one, but if you're really trying to achieve commercial success, why design a car that looks like it should be on the grid at Le Mans? Most people interested in that kind of look will want a regular, noisy, gas-guzzling engine beneath the bodywork, so you immediately alienate your two biggest potential markets. If you want to make a fast EV, design a proper sports car. You can can make any shape you like with fiberglass, so make it an attractive one.

4) The 1990s sedan

2011 Coda Sedan at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

2011 Coda Sedan at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

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We're looking at you, Coda. Yes, a four-door sedan is a nice, practical shape, but road car design has moved on two decades since the 1990s "jello mold" sedan was popular. Making a "normal" electric car with four seats and four doors doesn't have to also mean "boring". The 2012 Tesla Model S is a practical shape too, but that looks amazing. How many people do you know that lust over a 1990s Camry? Quite...

5) The "meh"

Cars that make you go, "meh"? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but we certainly know people for whom the Nissan Leaf leaves them feeling cold. It's a fairly standard car, spacious and practical with good aerodynamics, but it also has a big, bulbous nose and a bit of a fat bottom. It's certainly not the prettiest car on the market, and it wouldn't have taken many more swishes of the designer's pencil to make a genuinely attractive car (Nissan itself managed with the ESFLOW concept, so we know the potential is there).

There will undoubtedly be people who disagree with the above, and that's absolutely fine. Beauty is the most subjective of all concepts.

But when you're given a clean sheet to come up with the next electric car, there's no excuse for using that opportunity to design something dull, needlessly quirky or just plain ugly.

Please, car manufacturers and electric car startups - just give us a car that looks amazing. You can forgive so many flaws in a car if it looks great sitting on your driveway. Tesla gets it - sure, the price of a Roadster or the upcoming Model S might be above the reach of many, but you'd buy one if you could.

All we need is for someone to make a regular electric car that you'd genuinely desire. It shouldn't be about making a statement, it should be about making an electric car you'd want to drive. It can't be too much to ask. Can it?
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Comments (36)
  1. I agree. The only thing worse than an ugly car is an ugly or boring web magazine. Too much material stuck in the header making important text hard to get to. Unimaginative layouts with cross-hed designs that have been in use for decades. Paragraphs breaking badly to wrap around figures leaving the last few words of a paragraph handing oddly to the left.

    Sure the words may be fine and serviceable, but it doesn't take any more effort to make a good looking page than a bad one.

    All we ask is a web magazine that people desire to look at. Is that too much? I guess it is, for now.

  2. Unfortunately we're all at the mercy of the tools we use, John.

  3. You are being too kind to me. I couldn't resist pushing back.

  4. It'd take a lot more to get me to bite!

  5. Here I go breaking the rules by agreeing with you. You can create anything on the Internet you want, so why have a ugly or boring dysfunctional rag. Hire a creative artistic webmaster and create something that no one else has. It's not hard to do since the possibilities are endless on the Internet. You can even ask your readers for suggestions.

  6. That sort of decision isn't down to me, but you're welcome to send in your suggestions.

  7. Can you ask your readers if they are a bunch of *&$%^! (a.k.a. non-helpful individuals). :)

  8. I agree.... Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but why does the electric car makers, except Tesla of course, make their cars look like match boxes that belongs in a circus with clowns crawling out of them? BMW i3 and i8 concept...keep them exactly like they are. They can make safety glass and shatter proof glass.

    The first electric car was beautiful, 1899 Columbia Electric Laundaulet, looked like a Wells Fargo Stage Coach. Plenty of room...modify it just a little bit by putting a top over the driver and make it a Soccer Dad/Mom van.

  9. Show up at your game in that and there will not be a game because everyone would want to take a ride in your coach. You don't have to make it aerodynamic for around town use or even for the interstate; those big narrow wheels would probably give you an additional 20 miles. I would give up 20 miles of charge for a nice looking vehicle if it looked like that.

  10. The i3 and i8 are fantastic examples of giving electric cars a distinctive identity without reverting to something with no aesthetic qualities. More electric cars like that, please.

  11. We have a Nissan Leaf and we think it is amazingly beautiful. People stop and stare and then say, "Wow. That is a Leaf! It is so nice looking!"
    In order to get a very low drag coefficient (0.27, I think) the lines must go a certain way on the outside. Study up and learn about that and you will understand the limitations on design.

  12. OK, but if the Model S ends up with similar efficiency to the LEAF then I think form and function can find different sets of comprimises than Nissan did with the LEAF.

  13. I'm more than happy with my aerodynamic knowledge - for example, I know that both the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the new 3-Series have a drag coefficient of 0.26 - even better than the Leaf - and they manage that with confident sedan bodies, rather than a slightly oddly-proportioned hatchback.

    Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder just as I mentioned and there are certainly people who like the Leaf, but it's certainly not traditional beauty.

  14. Good counter points. Also, according to Wikipedia "automobile drag coefficients" the Tesla Model S is 0.26 Cd (same as LEAF and Prius). Of course I know I am ignoring frontal area which is just as important.

    One more data point, 1995 GM EV Cd 0.195, aerodynamic, but is it a beauty or a beast.

  15. The front end was beautiful, but at the back end it was a bit of a beast. It was typical that only shots from the back of the vehicle were used in commercials GM used to "promote" the vehicle when GM really wanted to prove there was no demand for this vehicle. Like this creepy commercial:


  16. Exactly. GM wanted the EV1 to fail. They made it sort of homely and certainly did not display it in the best ways like they do their other vehicles. Existing ICE manufactures secretly want the EV's to fail since they can say "Well we tried to market them but the consumers simply didn't want them. Would you want a tiny BUTT ugly glorified Electric Golf cart? I wouldn't either thats why I want Tesla to suceed since the Model S is just as pretty as any other high end luxery vehicle and can put them to shame in performance and even more so in effiency since a full charge on the signature Model S will only cost about 6 to 8 dollars in electricity for 300 miles of driving range.

  17. I might only add that comparing drag coefficients from different makers can be problematic, since there's no single independent authority testing all cars under the same circumstances to come up with a single comparative scale.

    That's why some makers simply don't quote Cd figures: They'll say privately, "We've tested our cars AND their cars, and we didn't get the figures for their car that they tout, but we're not going to contradict them publicly, so we simply won't talk about Cd on the record."

    I can't imagine a circumstance under which any group would fund such independent testing...but it sure would be nice.

  18. Also makes you wonder if manufacturers are forces into lying. Let's say Toyota's wind tunnel tends to produce low numbers like 0.25 and GM's produces high numbers like 0.30. That might make GM feel justified in artificially adjusting their numbers. (correction factor).

    A little round-robin testing is in order.

  19. And of course, the *really* important figure is CdA... a tiny car with a Cd of 0.25 is more aerodynamic than a large car with a Cd of 0.25...

  20. Excellent article, which parrots what I've said for many years. The real culprit in bad design is one of two things: a) design by committee, or b) design by the technologists. Bob Lutz talkes extensively about option a) in his book "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, so definitely give it a read. Option b) is evident in the smallest EV start-ups like Tango, Myers Motors, Zap, Th!nk, etc. They tend to optimize on some single metric that maps poorly to what buyers want. Great article, Anthony.

  21. With Aptera's untimely demise and Edison2 tied up in DOT paperwork, there is no prospect for an aerodynamic automobile being produced in the USA.
    Perhaps electric car manufacturers should begin paying more attention to aerodynamics and less attention to "stylists" who might be better employed in a hair salon.

  22. I've been feeling a bit of electric car frustration, we keep reading about manufacturers intent to go electric and yet very little has hit the road yet. The only thing we have so far are three five-door hatchbacks, the Fisker Karma and the Tesla Roadster. But I have no doubt that thee sleek EVs are coming, life can be a waiting game so let's just slow down and be patient they're coming. I'm determined to have a Tesla Model S plugged-in in my garage and I might just get a Karma too, unless the Audi e-Tron Spyder is announced for production ; )

  23. I aggree. Secretly manufactures of ICE vehicles want EV to fail. Look at GM when it hastily crushed the EV1 after it told people that were using them. They are our property you can not buy them and we are taking them back. Then quicly crushed and flush them. In there day they had a 60 mile driving range and were almost as good as a Nissan Leaf. Give me a Tesla and you can goo out and put the smack down on all but the most expensive ICE luxery cars out there. There is a reason that Mitsubishi made this vehicle BUTT ugly. The secretly want it to fail all while saying "The average consumer simply didn't embrace the electric vehicle. With the looks of this shoe on wheels would you?

  24. I think it's more likely that they are only building what they feel they are capable of building right now. Sure a major manufacturer could probably build a car with a 200+ mile range but I don't think they have the confidence to do so just yet, you have to remember most of them are just getting started and the technology isn't as cheap to produce as the ICE. But it dose seem as though they are taking it slow hoping people will lose interest so they can stop investing their billions in something so completely new.

  25. they are coming - rome wasnt built in a day.

  26. Tesla is going to do well once they finally get the Model S to market because they are stylish and practical cars with real world driving ranges. The Volt with the back up ICE after the 40 miles is starting to sell because its a practical design with few comprimises if any. Give the American consumer a practical attractive EV and they will buy it. 3 wheeled so called futuristic looking glorified golf carts will not sell.

  27. ok, liken me to a mother who thinks their child is beautiful...big ears and all. i love my Leaf and that love goes MUCH deeper than "skin deep" the love it returns to me is something only a true owner can know. all i can say is; if you dont have a Leaf YOU are missing something wonderful!


  29. The Volt has a pleasing physique but the Leaf is a bathtub upside down, an ugly rubber toy with an old fat grandma's rear end.

  30. The Tesla Model S is a stunningly attractive vehicle. It looks like a Sports sedan from Masarati or BMW. It truely shows you the intents of what an existing ICE vehicle manufacture wants when they make a tiny short driving range EV tht is BUTT ugly. They secretly want it to fail yet they want to say is "Well at least we tried to make it but the consumers just don't want them". From the looks of this vehicle would you?

  31. Amen. I’m glad to see an article articulate quirky electric car designs. It is as if the car manufacturers are putting out dull electric cars just to say they have one in their lineup – a PR move. They need to get serious and use similar designs as those used for their good selling gassers. I am so ready to buy an affordable electric car. One I can be proud of driving. My patience is wearing thin, although most of us have no other choice but to wait it out for a bold automotive maker to break the foot dragging and mass produce an EV. Heck, if they need some guidance, just check out their hot sellers like the Elantra and start with that design (hint, hint).

  32. Currently, I’m on the Leaf waiting list because it is the only game in town. If the Tesla S were affordable, I would jump on that bandwagon.
    Kudos for the article, this topic needed to be touched on desperately. Now let’s see if the auto industry hears us.

  33. antony,

    i can get into a discussion about what woman i find beautiful, but a car ?

    what you dislike about the coda, is precisely what i prefer in a car's look - simplicity and order. it does not look like a rocket ship.

    the tesla model s has a lot more curves, etc. and i can see why a young boy would find it exciting.

    for a practical reason, i dont want many curves to a car - it makes it harder to clean.

    for me, a car is 100% about utility. how well does it do its job for me ?

    i would daresay that most readers on this site are in your camp. but you need to realize that these are car people, not the average joe.

  34. if i had my druthers, most car parts would be interchangeable amongst the various models in the various companies. this helps keep obsolescence down. again, a practicality.

    i dont prefer to give out the year, month, and day of my car in order to get a part. at least with evs, there are a lot less parts to deal with.

  35. one more thing about these rocket ship designs - they seem to have small amounts of window area, which to me means worse visibility.

    i would like to be able to see when i drive.

  36. coda did the smartest thing, which is why i like them so much. they put their dollars where it counts - the engineering of it. they have a better battery system, and probably a better car than nissan or ford.

    while you are all whining about not having rocket ship designs, coda is trying to keep the costs down as much as possible.

    this is because cost is BY FAR the biggest detriment to ev sales.

    what we need is evs on the road, to get that snowball rolling more quickly. the cheaper they are, the more quickly they will take over.

    once that is accomplished, i have no doubts that the car companies will put more effort into making their cars "sexy".

    a lesson for all of you to learn in life - first things first.

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