According to the nice entertainers at Top Gear the “Sub-Zero Fridge Coolest Car” at the moment is an Aston DB9. That makes perfect sense because the display on my Sub-Zero at home keeps going out and I anticipate the same fate is likely to strike every display screen on the DB9 much more quickly than the nine years it took my Sub-Z to start showing the freezer temperature as “88” all the time. When the speedometer on the DB9 gets to 88, you’re going to see some serious shit, man. Like a $3000 repair bill.
I’m willing to accept TG‘s verdict on car coolness because I have no idea what makes a car truly “cool”. I do, however, have some opinions about what the most uncool car on the market might be. I’m thinking the Toyota Venza is certainly among the podium finishers there and possibly worthy of the top (bottom?) spot. Why is it uncool? Well, it’s a Toyota, and Toyotas are the vehicles of choice for uncool people around the world. Along with the Avalon, it’s one of the Toyotas most obviously aimed at old people, and old people are rarely cool unless they are murderers turned blues musicians. It’s a jacked-up fake-SUV station wagon that replaced the very cool Camry real station wagon. It’s the most forgettable-looking vehicle on the road, which makes it less cool than the rolling freakshow competitor known as the Honda Crosstour. It has a standard four-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive. I can’t think of any way in which the Venza could suck it harder than it does right now. It’s the most cynical, depressing, worthless entry on the market.
Uncool, brother. But the DB9 and the Venza, eternal opposites on the cool scale, have one fairly uncool thing in common, don’t they?
That’s right: the Venza and DB9 were both recently “refreshed” with some completely meaningless and awkward-looking LED marker-light strips located within their existing headlamp cutouts. The LED running light is the Macarena of automotive details: briefly interesting, almost immediately omnipresent, hugely stupid to be the last person seen doing it. I mean, just four years ago I stuffed a VAG-COM into the OBD port of my Audi S5 and programmed the car to turn off the DRLs and run the LEDs full strength night or day; they were bright enough that I could drive at night without the Xenon main beams. If you saw a car coming your way with a similar look, it was an Audi. The diode boomerangs were initially exclusive to the R8 and S5 before wandering across the rest of the modern line over the course of a year or two.
The LED running/market lights were initially cool because they were unique features associated with cool cars. Once the Audi Q7 had them, the writing was on the wall. The Cool Wall. Perhaps once upon a time, Audi would have been able to retain the LED-light look as a brand signature, the way they used to have sudden acceleration and longitudinally-mounted coilpack failures. The automotive landscape used to be full of brand-specific features, from the quad-round lights of a Corvette to the driver-canted dashboard of a Seventies BMW. The LED boomerang might have remained the unique signature of an oncoming Audi, an open declaration of the company’s remarkably successful drive to challenge BMW and Mercedes-Benz on equal ground.
Of course, nobody who saw the Aston Martin Imitation Fender Vent Explosion Of The Mid-Two-Thousands would have been naive enough to think Audi was going to get to keep their shiny lights to themselves. Rapid prototyping and short model cycles have combined to make unique styling a very underpopulated village. If a new feature is a hit anywhere it will be quickly copied, and if the job of copying it can be foisted onto a supplier, it will happen even more quickly than otherwise.
Pride, too, used to keep car companies from brazenly copying each other to some degree. I’m reminded of Ampeg’s Everest Hull, who refused to make Fender-style tube amps even though his company’s arguably superior attention to detail and workmanship might have made a lot of musicians happy. Hull pointed out that he was in business to compete with Fender, not copy them. Think of that the next time you see that craven chrome wart of a fender vent on an Escalade. Modern auto companies are mostly run by interchangeable marketing people, not by engineers or any men with any sort of pride whatsoever.
Even Honda, which used to go its own way with a stubbornness once reserved for Stevie Nicks in the Rumours songwriting sessions, has fallen in line. The company that used CVCC instead of the catalytic converter just slapped a set of completely generic LEDs on the Accord. They’re possibly the worst ones out there; they don’t even pretend to be a shape. They’re just a line. Pep Boys will sell you the same thing for your ’07 Maxima.
Not that the “designed” running lights are any better. The Panamera has LEDs that look remarkably like what you’d see in a $2.99 flashlight sitting next to the impulse candy at a Wal-Mart checkout line. The Sonata Hybrid has the Korean Hangul character for “douchebag” scripted with glowing plastic in both light buckets. (Save your letters; I know Hangul is the equivalent of Kanji and not kana, or something like that.) The new Lexus IS has the Nike swoosh under the headlights in its own little area of urethane bumper, making the car look like it suffers from a radioactive species of ringworm. Each new car on the market has a worse implementation of Audi’s original idea than the one before it. The day is surely coming soon when GM will put the entire name of one of their Korean quick-bake compact cars in diodes on the front bumper. SONIC RUNS DEEP!
Where there isn’t time or budget to do something unique, Something Must Still Be Done. And thus we return to the DB9 and the Venza, both forced to wear LEDs now the way Van Halen was apparently forced to use synthesizers for the most forgettable parts of the “1984” album. The DB9’s “update” can be forgiven under the general heading of Possibly Too Authentic Re-Creation Of British Make-Do Engineering By A Kuwait Company, but the Venza… that steps right over the line and this aggression will not stand, man, it will not stand! Grandpa doesn’t want those wacky lights on his Venza any more than the guy with the Audi R8 wants to see a Venza ahead of him in the left lane — with a “Life Is Good” sticker, unconsciously matching velocity next to a tractor-trailer in such a fashion as to create the maximum chance that Grandma is going to receive a free tracheotomy from the next retread that pops off. I think the Venza even has LED tails now, which confuse heat-seeking missiles and therefore lessen the chance of getting Grandpa out of your way before the next rest stop.
Wait until they start failing. The Nineties Seville became infamous for its monstrous LED CHMSL and the way just one or two crappy Chinese diodes could fail, turning the whole Darth Vader lightsaber across the trunk into the Morse code for “S O S”. (To be fair, my Porsche 993 appears to have suffered a similar fate. Luckily I never brake.) The headlights will fail the same way eventually. You’ll be confronted with a road full of broken boomerangs and sliced-up swooshes.
The Kia Optima, I think, will be one of the first casualties of such a process. I fundamentally distrust that car; it looks more like an Audi than Audis do, because Kia cribbed Audi’s designer, and it’s chock-full of bad-ass styling cues mixed with iffy materials at a budget price. It’s the Pontiac Firebird Esprit of mid-size sedans. I kind of want to get one but they aren’t particularly cheap. Instead I’m going to take great pleasure in their tragic on-road collapses. If said collapses don’t happen I’ll be very disappointed. I want the LED running light to be as firmly associated in the American mind with a broken-down Optima epilepsy-blinking by the side of the road as the toilet-seat grille is with failed Ford brands.
Tonight, as I prowled the mean streets of Nashville, TN looking for some Drama and/or trouble, I saw an unmarked Impala pulling someone over with what appeared to be a complete 360-degree array of LED flashers that probably are invisible on the doors unless they’re being used. Then I was aggressively tailgated by a steel-wheel V-6 Camaro with faux-angel eyes and an LED diode string all the way across the grille. They’d been applied crookedly. It was meant to be intimidating but it was just depressing, really.
The day is no doubt coming soon when proper full-strength LED headlamps won’t be just the province of Lexus hybrids and the first-to-offend Cadillac Escalade. With a lighting package as small as an iPod Nano it will be possible to completely light the road ahead. Had it happened twenty years ago, it probably would have ushered in a completely new era of automotive styling, but today’s pedestrian-impact regulations and SUV-butch styling will probably prevent anything genuinely unique from being done. If, however, somebody manages to do something genuinely cool — like, I don’t know, maybe a full-width Seventies Ford grille without headlamp doors — rest assured it won’t be special for long. Maybe we don’t need a new generation of lighting in the car trade; we need a new generation of thinking. Isn’t that a problem that someone could shine a little light on, besides your humble heading-towards-Venza-age bright bulb of an author?