By on November 11, 2009

Dodge Magnum SRT (courtesy

TTAC Commentator Volvo writes:

Sajeev, today in a parking lot I was approaching a new Toyota Avalon from the side and at first thought I was seeing a recent Chrysler product. It had the bottom of the window about shoulder high to the passengers and the windows seemed rather short. As I walked through the lot I saw that many of the newer cars had that same look.  When I was a child it was called “chopped” and seemed to be a favorite way to customize post war Buicks. It went away until the early millennial Chrysler products (300 series as an example) and I hear it referred to as the “thug” look. The look now seems to be expanding across many manufactures’ lines.  Why is this? Fashion, safety, or efficiency? Wikipedia says it started in the late 40’s with Salt Flat racers to reduce aerodynamic drag by lowering the car’s profile. It then became popular as a Kustomizing look. I have not spent any time in these vehicles. How is the outward visibility? Do you have information or an opinion on this subject?

Sajeev answers:

While there is a safety argument for more metal and less glass (when the dangerous bumpers from an older truck run a red light and T-bone you) the widespread adoption of head curtain airbags make that a tough position to defend. Chopped tops on cars with a tall DLO (daylight opening) are more of a fashion statement.

And we do strange things in the name of fashion: people inject toxic shit in their faces and put hose clamps on their digestive systems. And like so many modern sedans with a NASCAR-worthy C-pillars and chopped greenhouses, we wear ridiculous clothes to “peacock” ourselves in society.

There’s nothing wrong with looking beautiful, but a mainstream family sedan needs purpose in life. But even if the Chrysler 300 had a great interior and Camry-killing reliability, I suspect its “flash-in-the-pan” sales status is dependent on its polarizing style.

But let’s not dwell on the gangsta-fresh MOPAR, everything from the Camry to the Mercedes CLS lives in a dream world where plump, SUV like profiles live happily with a fast, cool roofline. Today’s Chop Top sedans have lousy rearward visibility, mail slot like trunk openings and an interior that surrounds you in (let’s face it) nasty plastic instead of great views of the great outdoors.

All of which bring me to a stunning realization. CUVs exist in the market for a valid reason: many family sedans truly suck at their job.  Sad.

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43 Comments on “Piston Slap: Design Week: Chop Top Talk...”

  • avatar

    Yeah,  all the newer cars have high belt lines these days. When you see anything from

    the ’90s, they seem to have huge windows and  start look dated.

     I wonder how long this design trend will last.  I don’t mind it

  • avatar

    This is why I don’t like the new LaCrosse or Taurus at all!   Plus has anyone noticed how tall and wide the center consoles are?  My inboard knee hits the console whenever I move it in that direction.  Way too confining.

    I will not replace any of my current cars and truck until airy greenhouses return.

    • 0 avatar

      I would like the option of no console at all.  The middle of the car is for my wife to sit (the sole purpose of power steering is so you can drive with one hand while the other is around her shoulder).  My Intrepid had a nice spot for her.

      I really prefer to sit high and to be able to see out well.  I love the slit-window look from the outside.   From the inside, I’ll take all the visibility I can get.  However, In many cars you really cannot see the front or rear end overhangs of your own car, so parking gets tough.  Even in a mini-van up close visibility is hard. 

  • avatar

    CUVs exist in the market for a valid reason: many family sedans truly suck at their job.  Sad.

    Have a look at that ’47 Dodge in the Capsule Review.  There’s a sedan built for actual people.  Another (if modern) example would be the Ford Five Hundred: a sedan with nice, high hip points, lots of glass, a huge trunk and (unlike the Impala or 300) a back seat that isn’t inches off the floor and afflicted with a short cushion).

    Of course, it didn’t sell.

    Crossovers have a different foible: the trunk is cramped because the load floor is raised to meet the rear seat’s fold-down point and cut down on the lift-over.  Have a look at the space in the rear of the Highlander (or Flex, or Traverse, etc) versus the Sienna.: it’s badly compromised, to the point where a full-size sedan’s trunk is actually larger, if the third row is not folded down.

    The 300 was probably the most notable high-sill car, but I don’t think it’s the first, not by a long-shot.  The shrinking of cars in the late 70s and early 80s made designers reconsider practical space; they couldn’t keep stretching for the corners and wasting area by making bigger and bigger land yachts.   It was reluctant, though, and as power increased without a mileage penalty, designers got lazy.  It’s easy to make a car look striking without much compromise when you can just make it bigger, longer, and wider.

  • avatar

    I took MB E 550 and CLS 550 on back-to-back test drives. The CLS “gun slit” side windows did not do it for me. Yes, it looks better on the outside, but I spend more time in my car than admiring it from the outside. I prefer the visibility of bigger windows and smaller B and C pillars. It was even worse being a back seat passenger.

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, a lot of car buyers associate narrow windows and snug-fitting cockpits as desirable sporty attributes even in family sedans. They would rather be surrounded by dark car interiors than see more of the world around them.

    Spacious seating and large windows are indeed what pushed a lot of us towards CUVs and SUVs…then the damn designers with their mantra of “deep inside, everyone wants a coupe” started shrinking side windows on many CUVs but at the same time adding large panoramic glass roofs. That’s like wearing extra tight pants but taking off your hat for comfort.

  • avatar

    The (loathsome in my opinion) slit back and side windows aren’t the only culprit.  I hate the shallow windshield on, say, the Civic, which is an otherwise very nice car. The function of driveability–including visibility–should be a manufacturer’s first priority. The Forester has a a really nice greenhouse.

    • 0 avatar

      The Forester has a a really nice greenhouse.

      Amen, we have a ’10 Forester Premium and the view is outstanding, especially compared to the ’03 Matrix it replaced. Feel much safer changing lanes on the highway.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    It’s why I drive a gen1 xB

  • avatar

    Won’t be long before “opera windows” make a comeback.

    2nd on the console resentment. I have grown to despise them more with every year.

  • avatar

    I hate the shallow windshield on, say, the Civic, which is an otherwise very nice car.
    I’ve had one of these for a week.  It’s indeed a nice car, and the windshield isn’t any worse than any other modern vehicle; it just seems like it is.   The problem isn’t the angle, so much as the fact that it doesn’t go high enough.  I know I can’t see the top of streetlights  as I can in my Fit.  I also know that the Civic is far and away from the only car this happens in.
    Now, I’m pretty tall, but I know I’m not the only person who suffers from this (mostly because shorter drivers boost the seat up and suffer the same problem).  It would be nice if the glass in modern cars could extend the windshield up another two or three inches.
    The reason no one does this is because the few cars that do have a sane window height and greenhouse layout are dismissed as either mom-mobiles or dork-boxes. (eg, like the Forester you mentioned).

  • avatar

    As a stylistic trend, the revival of the ‘chopped’ look probably starts with the first gen Audi TT.
    I suspect that, given the demands that aerodynamics place on the form of new vehicles, raising the beltline is one of the less objectionable means of creating interest in proportions without compromising Cd.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    “I know I can’t see the top of streetlights  as I can in my Fit.”
    You’ve obviously never owned a Saab 99…

  • avatar

    I appreciate the great view out of my ’06 Malibu, with the squared off design to maximize interior room.  The trunk’s great, too.  The new Malibu cannot compare even with the longer wheel base, but it sure did help to shove down the resale value so I could buy mine used on a steal.
    Doesn’t some of the A and C pillar thickness insanity come from the mandated multiplier for roof weight support?

  • avatar

    Doesn’t some of the A and C pillar thickness insanity come from the mandated multiplier for roof weight support?
    To a degree, but mostly not.  The thick pillar is a styling affectation, and in products where style isn’t as important (e.g., minivans) you’ll see a thinner pillar and/or a pillar with window cutaways.

  • avatar

    Where’s a Pacer when you need one?

  • avatar

    NOTE: I came to that final conclusion (family sedans suck) after my good friend traded his 2008 Camry for a Highlander because his stroller didn’t fit in the back.  Crazy C-pillars ruin the day again. And said stroller fits in the trunk of his older Accord with little to no problems.

    • 0 avatar
      IC Turbo

      Must be a big stroller then.  I had no problem fitting one in my 2008 Camry with the longest portion front to back.  I didn’t check the other way because the way I loaded it was by far the easiest I could think of.  I do agree that the fastback styling of modern sedans kills the opening size though as I did have problems fitting things like a 48 gallon fish tank in there.  I have had hatches with more flat area behind the glass than this sedan.
      Also, I don’t have a problem with the “gun slit” windows in the Camry, the window sill comes up about halfway between my shoulder and elbow.  Visibility all around is similar to the cab-forward Crysler products I have driven.  This includes front pillar location and upward sloping (from driver POV) rear dash.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    A few weeks ago, I rented a 300.  There were no particular visibility issues that jumped out at me, but perhaps that’s because my regular driver is a Z3 roadster, which is pretty visibility-compromised with the top up.  There were, of course, lots of other issues with the 300 — the acres of hard plastic and the obvious compromises in the powertrain, like the 4-speed autobox, which either revved or lugged but never seemed to have the right gear at 45 mph.
    On the larger question of the desireability of a cocoon-like cabin, I am of two minds.  In the Z3, part of the appeal of that or any similar car is the sensation that you’re “wearing” the car, almost like a shoe .  . . and the sense of intimacy you have with your passenger.  However, with a sedan, that’s not my expectation at all.  If I’m driving a large car, I don’t want it to feel “small” inside.  (I’m 6′ 3″ and my wife is 5’9″)  Oddly, both my wife and I have complained about cars with big fat center consoles that impinged on right leg room.
    The lack of such and the visibility is one of the reasons she likes the Honda Pilot that we bought two years ago.  To me, it’s just a truck; but at least it’s roomy and you can see out.

  • avatar

    I think one of the worst parts of this design trend is reward visibility.  I realized this last night backing my girlfriends 2005 Vibe into the driveway.  It’s not at the extreme end of this trend but the door to glass ratio is a bit askew, she complains that she can’t comfortably rest her arm up on the door when the window is down.
    But anyway, I was backing her car into the drive, I dropped it into reverse and looked back to realize that I couldn’t see a damn thing out the tiny rear window in the hatch.  I was still able to back it in by referencing the garage door but it’s nice to be able to see that there is actually driveway behind you.  (BTW I’m 5’11”.)

  • avatar

    I think one of the worst parts of this design trend is reward visibility.  I realized this last night backing my girlfriends 2005 Vibe into the driveway.
    That actually happens with all hatchbacks and most sedans where the trunk does not taper downwards: even with a low glass, it’s not always easy to place where the hood of the car behind you starts because it disappears from your view.  The extended lower pane of glass of the Prius, previous Mercedes C-Class hatch and Mazda MX-3 Precidia helps this immensely.
    The Magnum above is terrible, though.  You loose the entire hood of a compact car in the rear-view mirror of that monster.

  • avatar

    @educatordan: Though I do love the high beltline on cars these days in terms of looks, I agree that they make visibility a nightmare. I own a 2003 Vibe and love it’s hatchback/wagon practicality (not so much the driving experience). However, the huge, thick rear pillars and kicked up rear side windows  and small rear glass make rearward visibility pretty awful (Though it’s so much worse in the redesigned ones). I bought one of those extra wide clip-on rear view mirrors to help with my view out the back. And with properly adjusted mirrors, I have no problems.  Though it does look a little awkward.
    Back to Chrysler products! I rented a Dodge Charger for a day.  The tall and wide rear end, thick rear pillars and high beltline conspired to make me more than a little anxious to back out of a spot at a busy mall’s parking structure. I couldn’t see how far I was sticking out or much of anything else!  It made me more nervous than backing out with an F-150. At least with an F-150, you have huge mirrors and a jacked up ride height to see over adjacent cars. Safe to say, I will probably stick with (affordable) hatches/wagons in the future.

  • avatar

    I fell in love with Hondas in the late 80’s and early 90’s because of their incredible outward visibility – they were like no other car on the road in terms of the openness of the greenhouse, combined with low ride height and rediculously low belt lines/hood/trunks.   The current Accord is relatively the same compared to other sedans currently available.   I haven’t sat in one, but the new 2010 Taurus appears to have adopted the chopped greenhouse look.

  • avatar

    No drawback regarding outward visibility can be too great as long as a vehicle’s appearance adds to one’s “street creds.”

  • avatar

    This is one design trend that needs to END! I want to be able to see out of the car! My Saab 9-3 SportCombi is OK to the front and sides, but the rearward visibility is horrible. And as a previous poster noted, the window ledge is too high for me to rest my arm on comfortably, and I am a severely long-waisted 6’2″ tall. Ridiculous!

    I have to duck to see traffic lights in pretty much everything except my Spitfire.

  • avatar

    I’ve had both extremes in my cars over the years. My first car was a 1947 Chevy Fleetline fastback two-door sedan…seeing out of it was like trying to look out of a cave. This was brought home to me when I took out a neighbor’s mailbox backing out of his driveway. One of the things I liked best about the various 1957-1960 Mopar fin cars I owned was that I could see all four corners from the driver’s seat. Although on the large side they weren’t difficult to park or maneuver in close quarters. And a +1 on the visibility out of Accords, at least until very recently. To sum up, I’m a big fan of low beltlines and large windows.

  • avatar

    The ’61-’64 Chevys were also good in being able to see all 4 corners from the driver’s seat, even though they were finless.  When GM went to that kicked up quarter panel in the ’65s and more so by ’67, you couldn’t see beyond the rear window when backing up.

    I’ve never owned a Honda; the best car for visibility that I’ve had was a 2-door Volvo 240.  My ’98 Frontier regular cab works pretty well too — the worst problem is the rather thick passenger side A-pillar.

    Neither high beltlines or overly thick pillars are needed for good side and rollover protection; it’s a styling thing.

  • avatar

    I drive a Saab 9000 Aero.  Great visibility except rearward.
    I’ll add the e30 BMWs to the list of “Now there’s a car you can see out of!”  Personally, this trend towards higher belt lines and small windows can’t end soon enough.
    At least on my 9000, the rearward visibility is traded for a hatch I can throw a couple of completely assembled mountain bikes in.

  • avatar

    When it comes to visibility, the best car I have been in lately was a Chevy Cobalt! The view out totally made that car for me. It reminded me a lot of 90’s vintage Hondas.  Of course, my current car is a Chevy HHR, so I guess most any car would have a somewhat better view out to me…

  • avatar

    Best car for visibility these days is the Suzuki SX4 hatch.

  • avatar

    I miss my old Mk2 Jetta Coupe’s visibility. Like the E30 BMW, it was basically a shoebox with big windows. The only drawback was that because of the flat windshield, traffic lights were sometimes difficult to see.

  • avatar
    Brian P

    One of the things I dislike about my current-generation VW Jetta is the awful outward visibility to the rear. The previous model was better in this regard – bigger windows.

  • avatar

    Count me in as another person that can’t stand the trend of shrinking windows.  I think part of it is definitely to improve side and roof rigidity, but too many ordinary cars are going with the chopped look in an effort to be “sporty”, and actual sporty cars like the new Camaro take it to absurd levels.  I would love it if I could buy a car with even semi symmetrical, large windows.

  • avatar

    Sajeev for King!

    210delray for Crown Prince!

    dmrdano for Prime Minister!

    Would y’all please start a car company or something?  Then we could go back to cars that look good, are useful (you can get people and things in and out of them), comfortable (dash and console not threatening your knees) and safe (you can see out of them).

    BTW, regarding the Ford Five Hundred, there is one of them that I see every day parked near my office, one of the later years with that very Bill Mitchell-esque fender vent, and I always think to myself, just exactly what was wrong with that design?  I think Ford should have made that the new Crown Vic, and kept the Taurus on its own platform and updated it.

  • avatar

    I wonder how much of this high beltline, reduced greenhouse height is designer response to the laws about how high the front of the car needs to be when it hits a pedestrian (perverse, isn’t it?).
    I think that the higher mandated leading edge of the hood has given rise to these higher beltlines and consequently, reduced greenhouse height.  To my stylistic dismay, I should add.

  • avatar

    psarhjinian:  Crossovers have a different foible: the trunk is cramped because the load floor is raised to meet the rear seat’s fold-down point and cut down on the lift-over.  Have a look at the space in the rear of the Highlander (or Flex, or Traverse, etc) versus the Sienna.: it’s badly compromised, to the point where a full-size sedan’s trunk is actually larger, if the third row is not folded down.

    Which is exactly why I say that all CUV’s are just poorly designed station wagons.  Wagons used to be compared by how low the liftover height was.  FWD wagons can have a really low load floor.  Take a look at a 1984-96 Olds Cutlass or Buick Century wagon.  They may lack refinement but they get mid-20’s MPG while swallowing up an incredible amount of cargo, all in a package so compact the ROOF of the wagon is about level with the rear fenders of a current F150.

  • avatar
    Eric Ethier

    I drove a 300 as well as a Magnum for several months each in 2006-2007 and I must say that the visibility issue is simply one that takes some getting used to. Proper use of mirrors and blind spot checks make it easy to see where you need to. As for backing up/maneuvering in tight spots, I found the same thing applies.

    I would be willing to have tat learning curve in order to get a vechile with this trait simply because I find the look quite appealing. In fact, a high beltline and small greenhouse with big wheels is a big thumbs up for me. That SRT-8 pictured above looks fantastic. The lines are very attractive, but require the wheels to be both large and fill the wheel wells nicely for that look to succeed.

    All in all, if one were to be considering a purchase of this type of vehicle… I would tell them to not let the initial change in visibilty stop them from making their purchase.

  • avatar

    All of which bring me to a stunning realization. CUVs exist in the market for a valid reason: many family sedans truly suck at their job. Sad.
    these above are words of wisdom Sageev…

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