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Monday, December 29, 2008

Design: The Best Car Designs of 2008

This year turned out to be a true annus horribilus (Latin for bad anus) for the world's car makers. Designers continued to be creative though even as the year ended with the industry on a precipice. In no order whatsoever here were my favorite new designs of the year:

1. Mazda Furai Concept
Mazda extended their watery concept design language to a racing car platform to stunning effect. There is little possibility of production but hopefully some of these cues will work their way into vehicles anyone (with credit) can buy. The swirling lighting forms at the front and sides demonstrates the Mazda fascination with water flow and how it shapes sand and rocks.

2. Cadillac CTS Coupe Concept
Unlike many of these concepts this Cadillac has a good shot at making next year's list as a production car. Taking the sharp existing front end of Caddy's CTS from the A-pillar forward and grafting it to a radically splayed roofline that nearly results in a hatchback leads to one of the best examples of their current look. The side sculpting, protruding taillamps, and flared rear fenders leave a powerful impression. Let's hope GM has the money to build it.

3. Land Rover LRX Concept
Another casualty of bad times, Land Rover was sold off along with Jaguar to India's Tata motors. What seemed like an abrupt way for Ford to wash their hands of two promising (but cash sucking) divisions now looks like genius as Ford has enough cash to weather much of what ails Chrysler and GM. Still, Land Rover's attractive LRX suggests a reasonable solution to the problem of big expensive SUVs. This compact vehicle posits a Land Rover that competes with the high-end versions of VW's Golf and why not? The detailing is superb, particularly the sweep of the headlamps into the wheel arch and side vent. The greenhouse emphasizes the sporty stance, helping the LRX straddle the line between sport hatch, SUV and crossover. Something like this is sure to hit production - let's hope it's exactly like this.

4. Dodge Challenger Production
The Challenger is the rare production vehicle that actually looks better than the concept on which it's based. Most of this comes down to simple detailing such as the elimination of the Dodge target style grille. I resisted this mightily. The most retro of all the pony cars revived in the last few years, every inch of this car says it's the early 70s. Of course the lack of tucked under bodywork and comparatively large wheels and tires belie the fantasy but how can one look at this and not dream of those few years between 1968 and 1972 - before the reality of oil economics and safety and insurance rules sent the American car industry into the first of several tailspins. The car inspires lust and in this day and age that's enough to land it on this list.

5. Saab 9-X Concepts
GM trotted out the lovely concept above and an equally sweet convertible version. Too bad they have consistently dropped the ball with their Swedish Saab division and all signs point to this never making it to production. After all these are the same cues that have been popping up on Saab concepts for several years without ever finding their way to market. The money simply wasn't there then, and it ain't there now. Pity.

6. Ford Fiesta Production
Ford previewed much of this last year but it's gratifying to see most of it reaching the showroom floor - in Europe now but soon in the United States. It's a fun exuberant look with sharp lithe surfacing and details that say "Play with me."

7. Citroen GT Concept
Citroen has one of the richest design histories of any car company. The GT is unlikely to take a place next to ground breakers like the Traction Avant but the undulating lines and interconnected surfaces made it one of the stars of the Paris auto show.

8. Mazda Kiyora Concept
Another fine Mazda concept that continues with their thematic motifs. At this point they have an entire lineup of concepts which one hopes is meant to soften us up for the production application of the innovative flowing lines and side surfacing as well as lamp technology. Mazda produces some handsome cars for the public but none as interesting and desirable as these - neither their new 6 nor their 3 sedans made my list this year.

9. Nissan Nuvu Concept
A wonderful pure concept that explores all kinds of surface, glass and form treatments. It may look odd but it's a rewarding design to savor and delve into from the tiny detailing around the headlamps to the overall shape of the body.

10. Chevrolet Orlando Concept
There's nothing mind blowing here, just a handsome design that gives the optical illusion of a much bigger vehicle. Though this is only a bit larger than a PT Cruiser or Chevy's own HHR, the bold geometric forms give the sense of a mid sized SUV. This is also one of the best examples of the current Chevy "face". Probably a go for production.

11. Aston Martin One 77 Concept
The One 77 denotes that every buyer will get one of just 77 examples of this aggressively beautiful Aston. What's been revealed so far has no interior and un-detailed lighting areas but whoa, Nelly. I can't wait to see the actual production version sometime next year.

12. Chevrolet Camaro Production
Calling the Camaro the least retro of the current pony car crop is like saying someone is the world's tallest midget. Still the stance and detailing is clearly modernist while still keeping the intent and feel of the late 60s Camaro which is its inspiration. Only this is way better looking in my opinion. Be that as it may, much of the excitement has been sucked out by GM's overlong buildup to actual vehicles being delivered sometime next year. The time from concept to this year's production reveal has been filled with endless spy shots, teaser photos, and a starring role in a movie, Transformers, that functioned as a giant ad for the car a good two years before anyone could buy one.

13. Pininfarina Hyperion Concept
Though some of the detailing was a bit broad this Pininfarina take on a Rolls Royce convertible showed that the legendary Italian design house still had life in it beyond their Ferrari commissions. The classical long hood/ short deck shape recalls the golden age of 1930s coach building.

14. BMW GINA Concept
A wonderful bit of whimsy that was sequestered for several years inside BMW's advanced design studios before being made public this year. The fabric bodied roadster served as inspiration for a number of their most radical production and concept designs so it's fitting that as BMW turns again to more conservative shapes this touchstone should be shared as sort of an icon at the end of an era.

15. Honda Racer Concept
Designed as part of a Hot Wheels contest to come up with a new toy model, the outrageous Racer concept shows that there are living breathing designers amongst the engineers at Honda. It's easy to forget as so much of what they produce leans towards the blandly functional but this two seat dual fuselage wonder is great fun.

16. BMW M1 Homage Concept
Sadly the financial crisis seems to have scuttled nascent plans to build this beautiful tribute to the original M1, BMW's wedge shaped late 70s supercar. Like Chevy's Camaro this is a futuristic take on a retro theme - in this case the wedge is turned into an undulating curve.

17. Alfa Romeo MiTo Production
Ill-advised name aside, the MiTo is a lovely little hatchback that manages the tough trick of applying styling cues from a $100,000 + flagship to an entry level offering. Some designers have complained that the nose is a bit birdlike but this only adds to the distinctiveness.

18. Webasto LigHT Concept
Webasto is a parts supplier so you wouldn't expect them to come up with a full blown concept like this smooth convertible which echoes the old Fiat Spyder. The chiseled surfaces and simple forms combine into an eye-catching and unadorned shape.

19. Ford F-150 Raptor Production
Ford and Dodge both came out with new versions of their best-selling pickups that were handsome evolutions of their existing designs. Ford's new Raptor variation on their F-150 goes one step further by embracing the go-anywhere ability that made pickups great - this ain't no Eddie Bauer Edition. What makes this thrilling from a design perspective is the huge difference some fender flares and a new grille can make. This comes across as a totally new look for Ford with the bold letters embedded in the grille replacing the venerable blue oval for the first time in decades. The integration of the skidplate with the lightweight bumpers along with the face sunken into the bulged bodywork all speak to the truck's abilities.

20. Morgan Life Car Concept
Morgan is best known for building the same wooden chassis car by hand in their British assembly factory as they have for decades. Over the years a few models have come and gone to join it but they are resolutely old school. Thus the hybrid Life Car came as a shock - a gorgeous interpretation of classic Morgan themes given a retro futurist treatment out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis with the most modern of eco-friendly power plants.

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