Blog : Design for design’s sake – what’s the point?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Lexus RX450h (4)

If anyone out there thinks that car design is stagnating, and we’re living deep in the era of me-too styling, may I present you with the Lexus RX450h. Here’s a car that’s suffused with slashes, folds and creases and, although it’s a high-riding SUV, many of its design themes scream sports car at you. Here’s the thing, though – before I’d spent my week with this car, I could barely bring myself to look at it, but by the end of my tenure with a car I so wanted to hate, the beast had wormed its way into my affections.

Is that down to its design, or the unimpeachable quality and depth of engineering of the car? After a week behind the wheel I still hadn’t made up my mind. But what I do know is that there was something about this car that got to me. So, let’s do the boring review stuff first before getting down to the original point of this blog – what is the point of design for design’s sake?

As with all Lexus cars, it’s actually most impressive inside. The material quality is beyond reproach, and there’s a substantial feel to all of the controls, even if there’s not quite the soft-feel tactility you’d get with a comparable Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar. The controls are laid out in typical Japanese fashion, and the huge high-resolution central screen is controlled by a neat free-roaming mouse-like device that works well once you’re used to it (like the styling). I rather like the fact it has a traditional analogue clock in the centre of the dashboard, too.

The driving position is good, the seat is supportive and supremely comfortable on longer trips, There’s ample passenger space, and the rear room looks good, even if the boot space is limited by a high floor that’s an inevitable consequence of the hybrid battery pack.

Lexus RX450h (8)

Driving it is to receive an object lesson in refinement. You power it up and, generally, the creamy-smooth V6 won’t cut in until you’re the move, or you hoof the accelerator. The old issue of the hybrid/CVT drivetrain resulting in a constant, flat engine note is less of a problem when there’s a tuneful V6 under the bonnet, than the tinny-sounding Prius/Lexus CT200h four-pot. But newbies will still think it sounds like an old car with the clutch slipping.

Steering in Eco mode is inert and lifeless, but the brakes are strong, and handling is tidy and obedient. At speed it’s hushed, both from wind- and road noise – although there’s an odd on/off feel to the power steering in cruise mode around the centre point, which might have been a side-effect of the lane detection system.

Did it understeer or oversteer? Who cares? It goes, points, steers and grips and, despite ostensibly being marketed as an SUV, never does it feel top heavy or under less than total control. What it does do is munch miles impressively, and lope along motorways smoothly and in a relaxed manner. And that’s what really matters.

Whether you like the idea of a petrol hybrid or not, there’s no arguing that this is one refined beast in comparison with the very best of the turbodiesel opposition. And once again that gives faith in the notion that petrol will – one day – become the dominant fuel of choice in the Europe, as it is in the rest of the world. At £49,995 on the road, it’s expensive, but you’re getting an awful lot of tech for the money – and remember that it’s easy to spec up a Range Rover Evoque to this price level, and that would be powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder.

Lexus RX450h (2)

So, yes, the RX450h is a car that on a subjective level ticks all manner of boxes – it’s fast, refined and comfortable. The ride quality and damping are exemplary for motorway drivers, and the accessibility of all of the tech that comes as standard is impressive. On a personal level, I’d say that one very fussy passenger gave it a big thumbs up, once they’d acclimatised to the styling. And in the real world, that means a great deal.

What of the original question raised by this blog, though – the rhinoceros in the room that is the styling? Well, for a company like Lexus, which is constantly and boringly criticised by know-it-all enthusiasts for having no charisma – no soul – this is a very effective way of making it stand out from the crowd. And that gets people talking. Think about it – can you visualise the original LS or GS? Or how about last year’s RX? Probably not… But I bet once you’ve clapped eyes on this beast, you won’t forget it in a hurry. And let’s be honest here – cars that polarise opinions are far more interesting than those that melt into the background.

We love BL and BMC products at AROnline – and, if you think about the company’s most controversial phase, the mid-1970s, it was dominated by cars with exceptionally challenging styling. The Princess, for instance, divided opinions like few others in its sector at the time. And as for Harris Mann’s Allegro and Triumph TR7, you really can’t say they were in any way forgettable. Bad or good? Who cares? Right now, they are brim-full of character and classic appeal.

So, is Lexus buying itself a dose of instant enthusiast kudos with its latest over-designed effort? Perhaps… Will it cost the company any sales, in comparison with the far more anodyne-looking outgoing RX450h? Probably not… Maybe it’s aiming to make an ideal classic car for 2040. But will it cast itself further up anyone’s shopping list. Absolutely yes. Just as it will be dropped off many others’.

So, design for design’s sake – is there a point? In this case, yes.

Would I buy one? Nahhh… But my passenger would.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

31 Comments

  1. many cars have inspired the Marmite syndrome. However it is down to the lily livered planners and management, who let the side down and head straight for the safe. Whether the Edsel, Princess or Sierra there are some valiant efforts to break the (jelly)mould or dare to be different. But sadly they are the ones which more often or not failed and brought there owners to the edge …. so henceforth the ‘safe’ option prevails.
    However as Brands desperately seek to find an identity away from the ‘Lagom’ MOR crowd, there often pops up a chivalrous hero, who may be ‘A Red Jersey’ in the landing party. He is there and if he fails then Kirk and the rest of the mainstream cars will return unscathed ….Lexus has always been Toyota’s envelop pushing Brand, whether to emulate the stars or create new niches in an around the main stars …. this car has the Evoque, etc firmly in its sights, and throws a wide ball into the park, in the same way Evoque in many ways set a new path for the BlandUV ….. Marmite mate …. you love or ….

  2. As I have said on several other stories I think designers have basically given up and are just seeing how far people will accept these days. Too many cars are designed with creases and gashes that don’t improve a cars looks at all. Those may say the princess was ugly but it was a complete piece of design (bar those rear lights but that wasn’t Harris design) with the big swage line breaking up the large side of the car.

    This Lexus has bits going all over the place, making it look like some 3 year old kid has drawn it. And the design does not actually hide it’s size having seen one the other day.

    There are several cars which follow this – the current Corsa and Astra (the weird dropped hood arrangement), The Mercedes A Class, The Evoque just to name a few. All I have to say is Emperor’s new clothes!

  3. Isn’t the problem that so much of a car’s styling is fixed by aerodynamics and safety rules, both for the passengers AND especially for pedestrians? All cars have fatter fronts with higher bonnets due to pedestrian safety rules, for example

    As a result the basic car (for each type) has a pretty much fixed shape, and thus it’s only with the superficial stuff like “slashes, folds and creases” that you can make a car look distinctive…

  4. The trouble that I have with this particular design is the market it is aimed at – look at the German Big 3 or indeed Jaguar, the cars are all conservatively styled which is what sells in the premium segment. This new RX is just way too loud and smacks of “trying too hard”. I thought it was a Hyundai until I looked at the badge.

    As an aside I always found the original Lexus LS was the finest looking – yes it was bland, and looked like a Merc W126 with a whiff of scaled-up Toyota Camry to remind you it was Japanese, but it was well balanced and handsome. The GS (which was essentially a rebadged Toyota) and the later LS’s with their bug eye headlamps just had that downmarket mainstream Oriental look.

    • The mk1 LS was definitely an S class clone, sold as a Toyota in Japan.

      The GS was somewhat based on a Jaguar Kensington proposal, it hasn’t really aged well. Meanwhile, apparently a designer at Mercedes had sketched what would look like if Mercedes made a Jaguar, and this became the stunning CLS.

  5. Not a great fan of the styling, but I respect the individuality and let’s face it, you’re not going to confuse it with anyone else. So…good for Lexus.

    I have to echo the article: the interiors of their cars are fantastic, and that’s where we spend our time, not just looking at the car.

  6. I like Lexuses a lot, if for no other reason that they break up the monotony of constant boring German boxes bought by folk with no imagination. And this thing would break up lots of monotony……

  7. Design these days is getting too complex with the constant need to make the every new incarnation look more futuristic than the previous. The problem is this isn’t making cars any more reliable or cheap, and I wince at the thought of how much it would cost to replace a windscreen on a Lexus or any other modern car in that case (I own a Suzuki Alto).

    Also car makers are responding more to peoples narcissism, not safety regulations as they keep making cars bigger as drivers now feel the need to appear dominant on the roads.

    I reckon with modern technology and materials, you could built a car the same size and shape as the original mini that is just as safe as most modern cars. As far as fuel efficient design goes, then really we should all be driving vehicles that look similar to the Ford Probe 3 or original Honda Insight, but hey, efficiency isn’t sexy is it?

  8. I think the issue with modern styling is the use of “3D Printer” because in the days when it all had to be done in clay, even a simple change to a bumper line would take hours of a scarce resource and the stylist had the job of convincing the sculptors to start again. However of course this can go too far, the Allegro being an example when the “It will do” attitude stopped recognised flaws being addressed in the design process.

    But now we live in an age when the designers can fiddle away adding their little flourishes in the virtual world before at the pressing of a button turning it into 3D reality and I think this is reflected in many car designs like this Lexus where you think that there probably was a cleaner more balanced point in the styling, but the designers were just too tempted to keep adding little flourishes.

    The result is the current generation of over styled cars, and if you think this Lexus is bad having picked up a new Avensis at night from the airport hire car desk, when I saw it the next morning walking across the hotel car park , I briefly thought someone had rear ended it during the night it’s such a complication of lines at the back.

    • I agree – there’s a case for arguing that at the end of the development cycle engineers often have little else to do but b*gg*r about with designs since they are waiting reassignment (and it can make a mess of smooth product introduction) I do think stylists should be given a bucket and sponge as soon as their design exists in the metal and told to go and wash it – they might then find all the awkward nooks and crannies before vehicle owners get their hands on them! That Lexus grill looks a particular nightmare to keep pristine and I also wonder about the pedestrian safety rating….

  9. Undoubtedly this Lexus is a well built car, but like so many others these days, it seems to lack character externally. In particular, it looks a bit like a Mazda 3 /6. In fact I still think the year 2003 Mazda 6 was a much better looking car than its successors.

    I still find pleasure in looking at Richard Woolley’s sketches of the R600 & 75, just seemed more interesting to me despite being a generation ago.

    • “Like so many others these days, it seems to lack character externally. In particular, it looks a bit like a Mazda 3/6.”

      Really? Each to their own, but I don’t know how the current Mazda 3 and 6 can “lack character”. How could a Mazda 3 be considered bland when parked-up with a simillarly-aged Golf?

  10. Only the Japanese could make something so ugly. No, wait, what about that ghastly Ford Scorpio with the funny headlights !

  11. Car styling (and I do mean styling – design is something else again) is like Pop music. It reached a peak in the 1960s and has gone downhill ever since. Harrumph.

  12. Agree with Ian. I found styles like the Cavalier MK1 Coupe / Sportshatch and Capri’s etc. more interesting in the 70’s than today’s offerings – or is it because I am much older and have seen lots of changes in the last 30+ years?

    • Personally I would make a case for the 90’s when CAD/CAM really got into its stride but I’m not sure which side of “edge” design like the Mark 1 Ford Focus. True design classics seem to be one there’s one person in clear charge and prototypes make it into production with minimal tweaking?

      • Chris

        I tend to agree with you, for volume cars we had some truly neat and tidy styling in the 90s, thinking in particular the 405 Coupe, but also recently looking in Sweden at an early 2nd Generation Fiat Punto and realising how sharp and neat and now they are rare “Fresh” it looked.

        However we have to accept the challenge stylists have with the ever higher demands on safety.

  13. @ Hilton D, totally agree, the decline of two and four door saloons and sports coupes made by mainstream manufacturers is a big shame. I always find cars like the Mark 3 Capri, Saab 900 and Leyland Princess vastly more interesting than chunky looking crossovers, van like people carriers and pig ugly SUVs that seem to be the in thing now. However, like baseball caps, football every day of the week, reality television, fizzy lager and people being mated to their mobile phones, SUVs, MPVs and crossovers sadly are popular.

    • Agree. Must be showing my age, I’m on the cusp of Gen-X and Millenial generations. The type of person that crossover SUVs are marketed at. Do not see the appeal of crossovers. Grew up with the cars on the street being 90s/80s/remaining 70s models/occasional 60s models. They had a certain elegance of design, not overly fussy, but even by the 90s were starting to look ‘concept’ modern. I was too young to remember the Sierra launch, but the Ka launch was my ‘wow’ moment.

      Thing is though, I am not a new car buyer. The market is catering for new car buyers, and these are what they want.

      Is it a craze? I thought so 5 years ago, but now it is looking more like a direction or trend. We are going full circle, back to the early 20th century when cars were tall, 2 box shapes, and had huge wheels.

  14. @ Glenn – I couldn’t have put it better myself. As you say, many people are obsessed with driving Crossovers & SUVs now, along with the Mobile Phones & Infotainment systems. I seem to get along OK with a 5 door Hatch and use a basic mobile phone etc. Must be my age!

    Wish I could get the Tardis to take me back to the mid/late 1970’s, life seemed simpler than…

  15. @ Hlton D, all these gadgets have the potential to go wrong and who really wants to spend a fortune trying to have an infotainment system fixed when all you want to do is listen to Ken Bruce and get traffic alerts. I think I’ll stick with my simple set up of a radio and CD player.

  16. I wonder if the crossover boom will do, just as you don’t seem to see so many van like SUVs these days. Call me old fashioned, but surely an estate car or large saloon is just as capacious as a crossover or SUV and looks more stylish. I’d think a Princess would have as much space, if not more, than this Lexus.

  17. It’s actually very difficult to create a pure shape for a front bumper whilst making it support the pedestrians legs on impact. Breaking the form into shards, Lexus-style means the parts can be warped and pushed and pulled more easily.

  18. A Transit is presumably designed to fulfil the same function, and is infinitely less hideous . It is no wonder that the Lexus “brand” ( that word again ) is dying the slow death . I wouldn’t pay 50,000 pennies for it, let alone 50,000 pounds

  19. Complete opposite of the Evoque, where every line fits and serves a logical purpose to enhance a cohesive overall form, this is just obfuscation – using crumples and lumps to camouflage a bulky shape.

    Of course, cars are so bloated these days, partly due to legislative constraints, partly because there’s a curious expectation to fit passengers in safety and comfort (when i were a lad we didn’t need people carriers – you could legally carry half a dozen kids on the back seat of a Cortina), which might excuse this accursed fashion for over-wrought design, but on the other hand, it’s a bit like pre-1980s Japanese design, all fussy detailing designed to appeal up close but quite dreadful when viewed as a whole.

    In my local Honda shop recently, I found myself thinking the cars looked quite snazzy, even the ludicrous Civic R. Perhaps car makers put some aromatic drug in that cheap leather they all use which confuses the mind? It wasn’t until the cold air outside hit me that i realised what a bunch of gargoyles I’d been admiring.

    Then again, there must be so many drivers nowadays who’ve never seen anything close to an elegant car on the roads, they won’t know any better. Perhaps these gurning monsters are the automotive equivalent of the auto-tuned turdage that’s passed off as music these days.

    And while I’m at it, bring back National Service!

  20. For me we have reached something of a nadir in automotive design. The Lexus above looks rather like a new model Zafira / Ampera from the front. Most SUVs are indistinguishable without seeing the badge, especially the far eastern ones with Mazda, Honda, Kia, Lexus and Hyundai being virtual clones from the rear.

    The multiple crease lines and crevices created to make them look different have made them all look much the same in the end — and are a damn nuisance come washing them. Many moons ago I owned a Mk3 Cavalier. It wasn’t flashy or showy, but it looked good and took 5 people plus luggage with no bother. It was also one of the easiest cars ever to wash and polish as it was such a smooth shape.

    My current Panzer in contrast, despite supposedly being more “aerodynamic” is a pain to wash due to the multiple nooks and crannies around the grille and spoiler, plus inset running lights, fog lights and several air intakes, all of which have lips around them. The rear is also awkward to keep clean due to the lip around the boot and lights.

    I really can’t get excited about new cars. The shapes just don’t do it for me (with a few exceptions). Of modern cars, the Mk3 MX5 was near perfect in terms of shape although Mazda have lost the plot a bit with the new version which is now all creases and swoops. I also agree with the poster above who mentioned the Mk1 Cavalier Coupe, which was a thing of beauty.

    Modern cars? Very few worth consideration on the looks front although the new Astra Tourer looks attractive.

    • That was me Tony… yes the MK1 Cavalier Coupe was my “dream” car in the mid to late 1970s. Couldn’t afford one back then as a 20+ year old but loved watching them in showrooms & brochures etc. The Sportshatch was yummy too, even tough they didn’t have the level of technology of today’s cars.

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