In 1986, pop rockers Huey Lewis and the News grabbed America by its blue collar and unironically proclaimed that it was "Hip to Be Square"– a rather peculiar assertion given that rock and roll music has historically stoked the fires of nonconformity. Almost in spite of itself, this ode to the joys of orthodoxy became a smash hit. And though it's taken the better part of twenty years to come to the fore, automotive design now finds itself deeply enthralled with Mr. Lewis' orthogonal ideology.
From the Subaru Forester to Hummer's entire catalog (sides H1 – H3), car designers are breaking out their t-squares with messianic zeal. General Motors has (re)built their entire Cadillac luxury division around a surface language of aggressive angles. At the shallow end of the automotive gene pool, Scion's refrigerator-shaped xBox, Honda's Element and Nissan's [pending] Cube all show that today's cutting edge designers are thinking inside the box. At the deep end, Rolls Royce's startling Phantom shows the plebs how it's done.
Volvo stylists must be falling on their collective styling knives. Just as Gothenburg's gurus finally figured out how to take their cars out of the boxes they came in, the market has gone behind their backs and snuck them back in. What's more, the retreat back to Square One has not been confined to entire vehicle designs. Witness BMW's effort to incorporate higher and squarer trunk lids into its Seven and Five Series sedans. Ford's once-cheeky Focus has ditched its pubescent New Edge surfacing inside-and-out for the anonymous angularity of the po-faced Five Hundred. The dashboard of Ford's budget banger, once an intriguing jumble of arcs and intersecting lines, now presents a lamentable cliff of plastic.
In fact, industry scuttlebutt has Ford's still-warm Five Hundred undergoing an emergency rectilinear facelift, incorporating a three-bar grille (doubtlessly inspired by design chief J Mays' Norelco). First seen in 2003's blocky 427 Concept, the revision can be seen as a response to the success of DCX's gritty-yet-glam, bluff-faced 300. The big Chrysler's design has been celebrated, while the Ford's detractors have cried out for less J Mays and more Jay-Z.
This unmistakable cubist trend constitutes a wholesale rejection of The Cult of the Wind Tunnel (a.k.a. the science of aerodynamics). In the mid-80's, aerodynamically-enthralled designers created an entire Melted-Bar-of-Soap School of Coachwork. Consider the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Corsica, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Now try to identify the major differences between their major surfaces. There aren't any. In fact, the automakers' lockstep allegiance to the God of Aerodynamics created forecourt after forecourt of look-alike vehicles. Hence the square hipness backlash.
The return to rectilinear styling is also a predictable outgrowth of the seemingly unstoppable popularity of SUV's and pickup trucks. The hidden message incorporated in virtually every SUV and pickup's design is "square = safe." Their emotional appeal is equally compelling; such square-jawed behemoths weld the adjectives "boxy" and "masculine" together in the consumer's consciousness. These equations have made quadrangular styling inherently desirable, leading to its surprise second life in the marketplace. Trucks that dallied even slightly with the previously fashionable suppository look have quickly ditched their curves for manly right angles. Nissan's entire lineup has been given the ninety-degree once over, from Frontier to Armada. Ford's latest F-150 has pushed out the corners of its softer forbearer.
Sadly, beyond increased interior volumes, the popularity of Pablo Picasso/Georges Braque-style forms has little recommend it. Not only do aerodynamics suffer (taking MPG and NVH along for the ride), but the often tall shapes that result conspire to produce a higher center of gravity, bane of enthusiasts everywhere. What's more, unless one has a gourd like a bobblehead doll or a bizarre penchant for transporting plasma screen televisions, most of the excess headroom amounts to little more than wasted space.
There's a stylistic pitfall here, too: the danger of confusing butch with beautiful, gravitas with grace. Both the aforementioned 7-Series Bimmer and Rolls Royce Phantom have fallen into this trap, the latter more egregiously. While the High Roller undoubtedly has presence, it's aura born as a function of scale, not stylistic verve. Interestingly, Jaguar learned this lesson ages ago. Remember the late-80's XJ? Exactly.
It's hard to predict how long this square design movement will flourish. While the buying public's detachment from standardized design is both well-placed and understandable, don't expect a lot of volume offerings to go boxing. An xB here or there still manages to make something of a statement, but too much of a good thing is too much, period. The success of organically-shaped whips like Infiniti's voluptuous G35 Coupe and FX softroaders indicate that boxy isn't necessarily the new black.
In any case, today's niche-laden automotive landscape won't tolerate homogeneity in any form for too long. In other words, Huey Lewis was wrong. Thank God.