Are we leaving the “look busy to look good” era of automotive design?

I’m a fan of cars. Cars got me into design in the first place and they are an endless source of discussion between my father and I. I become unreasonably attached the cars that I own and try very hard to never sell them.

Cars have forever gone through cycles of aesthetic complexity and I would be lying if I claimed that I preferred simple to complicated eras or complex designs to simple ones. The pendulum tends to swing back and forth as the room to differentiate is vacated by the mass of designs rushing towards the other side. There is something iconic about the dieter rams radio as well as the 1959 Cadillac Coupe Deville. Both have their fanatics and their place in design history.

Today I want to talk about the humble full sized family sedan and a version that has captured my attention when it hit the streets in 2018, the Toyota Camry. I also want to talk about a rare moment from Honda where they appear to be stepping into the front with their bread and butter, the Accord.

The Toyota Camry hit me when it came out because it was aggressively good looking. When I saw the first one I was sure it was some sort of special sporty model that would cost a third or more on top of whatever boring thing car companies usually deliver as a base model. It had swoops and vents and looked too mean to be a family sedan. At a stop light I fumbled with my phone and looked up the trim code; SE. a middle of the road trim that only cost moderately more than the base. Then a few blocks later, as tends to happen with Camrys, i saw another one. It was the base LE and it looked just as good.

Toyota knows this car looks racy. In their Camry gallery they gave this lady pilot sunglasses and a racing helmet and she looks perfectly normal leaning against americas top selling family sedan. But why does it look good? The silhouette isn’t anything to write home about. Each individual feature isn’t particularly compelling. There is a good balance and composition, but the sum is more than the parts.

Enter the 2023 Honda Accord. There isn’t a lot going on here, and because of that it really stands out on the street. There are cars that already do this, but I’d say most of them don’t do it well enough to matter. Tesla has a strong design language, but their vehicles are luke-warm at best. Volkswagen doesn’t add any frills, but the last three to five generations of their sedans are hard to tell apart. What has Honda done differently?

Honda made a really good looking car. In true Honda style, it’s still a little bit nerdy. The wheels are tired and a size too small. The door handles look like they have been sourced off something from the early twenty tweens. But the only reason those even show up is because of the stark simplicity of form, and the rest of the car just sings. The silhouette could be iconic. The tail lights are fresh and retro all at once. The front facade is a little bit sassy without being overly agro.

What does this look like for the automotive industry as a whole? I hope it means we will be seeing a lot more simple designs; designs that are grounded in today but call back to the things we love and miss in cars past. (the new Ford Bronco does this very well.) Unfortunately for Honda, they don’t exactly draw the pack in their direction when they break away. They have a long line of quirky iconic one offs that still hold an obnoxious amount of value today and weren’t enough of a sales success to demand a second generation.

What do you think? Are we leaving the “jesus is coming” era of automotive design (look busy) or will we continue down the road of wild and dynamic designs a la Lexus, ford f-150, BMW, Mercedes, etc? Do you think I’m off my rocker or are you feeling what I’m feeling here? Let me know in the comments or reach out to contact and we can grab a cup of joe and talk cars (or business… or both)