By on April 2, 2012

 

Chris writes:

Sajeev,

Since you have a background in automotive design, I would be interested in your opinion on this matter…there has been one styling quirk that has always peeved me: the plastic filler panel where something else should have been.

The most (in)famous example is the plastic triangle on the C-pillar of the Dodge Sebring. I first started noticing this about 15 years ago on my brother’s Ford Contour: the rear door had a huge plastic filler panel behind the rear window where every other car made until then had a small fixed piece of glass. And I thought to myself: couldn’t they have come up with something better than a piece of plastic that’s already fading to chalky gray?

What it tells me is that the designer hasn’t done his homework. He took something he sketched during high-school study hall and ran with it, not realizing the complications of how to render it into metal in 10000+ unit volumes. Sure the elegant arc of the Sebring greenhouse looks nice on paper, but when the arc ends up above the rear wheel, it’s really hard to shape the door so that the arc is all glass. So instead of reworking the design to fix it, they put in a dark colored plastic triangle: It’s an afterthought. Heck, I’d even be OK with a tiny triangle of black tempered glass set into that nook, but plastic? They are either cheap, lazy, cynical or uncaring about their work to even consider a plastic plug.

To me it’s the ultimate turn off: I immediately dismiss any car that resorts to such styling parlour tricks. This also includes the black stripe below the windows on the Chevy Volt: it’s like the fat chick who wears black because it’s “slimming.” We all know what the deal is, and by trying to hide it, you make it more obvious.

Am I being unfair? Are there legitimate reasons for the plastic triangle? Would Chris Bangle, Bruno Sacco, or Pininfarina consider this acceptable practice?

Sajeev answers:

Well said. You have every reason to hate this design “feature.” The ones (a la Contour) used instead of fixed vent windows are okay, they serve a need: to keep the window size small enough so it can roll completely into the door, but cost less than fixed glass. Fine, except for the awful implementation of the 2008 Dodge Avenger.  A total re-think of the C-pillar was necessary there.

But the ones that lie outside the rear door glass (a la Chrysler 200)  is a far more offensive problem. I personally wish these cop outs would disappear, and roof lines will either be honestly sleeker or we just deal with less sleek-looking pillars. Eventually design studios that put their names on such ridiculous trim additions need to be shamed into changing their evil ways. And with that shame, maybe they can bully the other parts of the organization that may demand the plastic triangle…and force it upon them.

And that’s the real point. Most cars are designed by committee. Engineers of various departments, designers, marketing departments, etc can all (possibly) have an impact on the final product. It isn’t necessarily a designer’s fault that a black triangle showed up on their design.

Sometimes you have to eat a shit sandwich if you want to keep your job.

Your manager may make it for you, or someone far above their heads gives everyone said sandwich. If more people made a big deal about the quality of art in our automobiles, we’d be far, far better off. And there’d be less of these sandwiches made!

Send your queries to [email protected] . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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28 Comments on “Piston Slap: Venom for the Plastic Triangle?...”


  • avatar
    daveainchina

    This is a good part of the reason I like hatchbacks and wagons more. They just look cleaner to me.

    Very very few sedans look good these days to me.

  • avatar
    Toad

    Designers get to design, but they don’t get to decide. When you are building a car to a price point, especially a low price point, sacrifices get made. The cost accountants and their engineers are paid to compromise design (and quality) in order to build the car to a specific cost. These are the people that ran GM into the ground beginning around 1970.

    In the case of the Sebring, a LOT of sacrifices get made.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    This is bad, but the Dodge Caliber is worse. Imagine those lumps painted one color. Instead of a black triangle, the freaking hideous car ends up with black roof rails in a feeble attempt to smooth out the roofline.

    We are also seeing black glass used to give an appearance of more greenhouse when in actuality the windows are far smaller once you climb into the interior. This is being done because if this styling trick wasn’t employed, the vehicle would look more like a tank with gun slit windows than an airy coupe.

    I call these tricks “dishonest designing”. An honest design is one that is engineered so that the structural integrity of the whole is complimented by the stylings, not covered up. We see many good examples of current vehicles that have had their surfaces styled to make them look sleeker, without resorting to black marker framing like the 200, the Caliber, the Volt, the Explorer, and so many others. The full size GM SUVs are much larger than they look because of excellent styling.

    Sure, the 4-door Cobalt was as attractive as a 53 Studebaker 4 door sedan, but it was an honest design in that if forced you to accept it’s shape. Did it lose sales? Probably not any more than if it was “black triangled up”. Whatever Chrysler gained by dishonestly designing the C pillar of the 200 and the Avenger, it lost in added costs to glue crap on the C pillar.

    Auto design has a long history of doing this. And 99% of the time, the attempt to cover up a vehicle’s design with these embellishments doesn’t enhance the car. Instead they whither, pop off, fade or crack, leaving the honest shape under it.

    Annual styling changes during the past fifty years has seen pathetic attempts to craft a sense of newness to dated designs. This rarely works.

  • avatar
    russty1

    Hi Sajeev, great post! Another example of this plastic filler panel is on the Kia Rio. Designwise the curve shape is unique and pleasant but as Chris said it would have looked much better with a small triangle of black-backed glass. Like you say it must come down to saving a few pennies per vehicle? Example here:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/06/2005-2009_Kia_Rio_%28JB%29_hatchback_02.jpg/800px-2005-2009_Kia_Rio_%28JB%29_hatchback_02.jpg

    Another related beef of mine are glossy black plastic D-pillar transition pieces that join some rear windows with the rearmost side windows. On conceptual sketches I’m sure these looked slick but the execution killed each of them, ending up looking chintzy. Some old Ford Tauri(?) had these as did some GM SUVs.

    This is gross:
    http://www.carprices24.com/cars/gmc/2009_gmc_yukon_4wd/2009_gmc_yukon_4wd_1.jpg

    But peronally the most unforgiveable example I know of is on the Jaguar XJ — that rear window glass should have been made wider to meet the rearmost side window glass trim. it could have been blacked out on the side edges where it covers the structural roof supports. I can’t see it costing that much more per car to do this? And it would look very slick, making it unique and the design flow work. Otherwise it detracts from the rest of the look.
    http://www.diseno-art.com/images_3/Jaguar-XJ-rear-large.jpg

    That being said, as far as I know the best example of this design element working is actually a GM product. Older model Cadillac SRXs had this and it worked beautifully. I thought it was one of the few daring, innovative and darn pretty things GM has done lately:
    http://us.autos1.yimg.com/img.autos.yahoo.com/izp/cadillac_srx_v8_2008_exterior_angularrear_640x480.jpg

    Anyway thanks for the great post and for the chance to vent on bad design implementation, we see examples on the road every day!

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    chevy cruze is the spiritual sister to the sebring/200

    my question is… would BMW do this? their trademark is the hofmeister kink… they are generally regarded as being style leaders

    surely gm/chrysler/koreans would look at this and go… would the germans do it? no? then should we do it? so why do they? the cruze is a $4 billion dollar endeavour and *this* is what they come up with? mind boggling

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      And speaking of the “Hofmeister kink”, let me draw your attention to this photo of a 1949 Chevrolet Fleetline sedan:

      http://oldcarandtruckpictures.com/Chevrolet/1949_Chevrolet_Fleetline_DeLuxe_4dr.jpg

      That was seen on quite a few other GM cars, including 1953 and 1954 Bel Air 2-door hardtops and 1958 Cadillac series 60 sedans. Hofmeister kink? Perhaps not….

    • 0 avatar
      Slab

      At least they got rid of the plastic triangle on the 5-door Cruze.

  • avatar
    jz78817

    “To me it’s the ultimate turn off: I immediately dismiss any car that resorts to such styling parlour tricks. This also includes the black stripe below the windows on the Chevy Volt: it’s like the fat chick who wears black because it’s “slimming.” We all know what the deal is, and by trying to hide it, you make it more obvious.”

    wow, what elitist drivel.

    • 0 avatar
      VanillaDude

      Engineering excellence is enhanced by styling, bad engineering is covered up by it. Caring about appearance is universal, how the appearance is made differs. I have to impress upon my pre schoolers a need to groom. They accept their ungroomed appearances. I am forcing them to bath, brush their teeth, get hair cuts, clean their hands, and not be pigs for more reasons that simply appearance. I suppose they could claim I am forcing an elitist standard upon them, but fortunately they are already too mature for that argument.

      Good taste is not elitist. Making good taste affordable is what America does. Aspiring to good taste is healthy and normal.

      Your avatar could suggest to some, as it does to me, that you wouldn’t understand this. You may enjoy rolling in the pig pen of life, and you have that right, but it is not elitist for the rest of us to try and rise above that.

      A fat chick wearing black understands this as well.

    • 0 avatar
      MattPete

      What’s wrong with wanting to be the elite? Would you prefer having mediocrity as a goal?

  • avatar
    billfrombuckhead

    Ironically the Germans were in charge when the Sebring styling was signed off on. Mazda and Hyundai also do the plastic triangle. I personally wouldn’t do it if I was designing a car but I hate other things worse like fake vents on fenders. Buick gets a pass since that’s been their design language for over half a century but Kia? Ford Focus? Is that you Jaguar? Fake hood vents suck except on the Dodge Challenger and the retro T-bird. Fake hood vents on trucks is a double offense.

    • 0 avatar
      smokingclutch

      On the Challenger, the right trim level gets you real hood vents. Both the R/T Classic and the SRT8 have open vents.

      Of course, they’re of questionable utility since all they do is admit air to the engine bay – they aren’t attached to the intake. Still, they’re more “real” than the black block off plates on lesser models.

  • avatar
    lawmonkey

    The current Acura TL has this issue too – the chrome strip from the roof extends back and has this odd nubbin on the rear pillar. When you open the rear door, all you can see on the rear pillar is this glob of chrome floating in the middle of the pillar that looks a little bit like a chrome ear. While I actually otherwise like the design of the TL, they were going for such a hard edged look that this odd bit of softness really stands out. I guess it works better post-facelift when the front also became rounded.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Like the fake fender vents on the previous Focus and hood vents on Buicks, the C pillar appliques are gimmicky, but are only one component of the exterior design.

    The Cruze has them but is otherwise a good looking car, so it doesn’t bug me in that case. That Sebring/200 on the other hand is so shockingly ugly & disjointed for many more reasons than the plastic triangle. To carry on Sajeev’s analogy, it’s the soggy pickle seeping its foul juices beside the poo sandwich.

  • avatar
    W.

    Chalk this one up to the inner geek in me: the oddly shaped piece of plastic on the Contour was actually to cover what in the Euro-spec Mondeo was venting for the rear passengers (see: http://memimage.cardomain.com/ride_images/3/2993/3501/32481750006_large.jpg for an side image of a Mondeo).

    It looks like the later redesign the Mondeo adopted the blank filler panel.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      In the dim recesses of my memory, I seem to recall the rr door outer patch panel on my Contour was stippled with bumps so as to look like it had goosepimples…

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Friend of mine from college was the engineer responsible for having to do the design release for the “patch panel” on the early 1990’s Caprice donkmobile…

    He left GM and patch panels behind years ago and went to Chrysler (and had nothing to do with the patch panel on the Sebring dorkmobile…)

  • avatar
    geozinger

    “Sometimes you have to eat a sh!t sandwich if you want to keep your job.”

    Sajeev wins post of the day.

    Been there, done that.

  • avatar
    cdotson

    On a related note, as the “plastic triangle” most often relates to rear side-window sizing, when did it become acceptable for the rear window to stick up from the door edge when rolled down all the way?

    I remember my dad griping about this when I was a kid and my grandparents started buying Accords in 1984. He had little respect for those “so-called automotive engineers” who would stoop to designing a half-way rear window design. Even my 2006 Odyssey, which has roll-down windows in the sliding doors, leaves them protruding ~3-4 inches for no apparent reason as without measuring it seems that the door should swallow the entire window.

    As stupid high as beltlines are becoming on cars these days the rear window needs to roll down properly. Cars in the 50s and into the 60s seemed to all do this, especially the pillarless hardtops. Why (and when, exactly) the change?

    • 0 avatar
      Slab

      Years ago, some car salesman told me the rear windows don’t roll down all the way as a child protection measure. Ha!

    • 0 avatar
      ptschett

      Most of the time, I’d expect that the window stops with some glass still showing because otherwise it would have to interfere with some important shape like the rear wheel arch. In your van I’d wonder if there’s something structural that wouldn’t allow the window to drop further. A lot of times on sedans you see a fixed pane of glass behind the moving pane, that allows the moving pane to be smaller and have more travel than it otherwise would have.

  • avatar

    Consider the new XJ. Now THOSE are some black triangles.

    I saw a B6 A4 with the trunk lid painted black and that was cool.

  • avatar
    ptschett

    To play devils advocate for a bit:

    -The JS cars were a rush job, one of the best examples of how badly Daimler mismanaged Chrysler. The new 200/Avenger are nice enough cars, but even from my Mopar-biased point of view I think they’re only as good as their forebears should have been 5 years ago.

    -Sebring’s A pillar to C pillar arch owes a lot to the Airflite concept from 2003. Look at that car in a side view and you’ll see a little triangle in the same spot on the C-pillar where the top arch intersects the bottom straight line. When it’s on the cost-is-no-object concept car, what do you expect on a mid-size, mid-price, volume-production sedan?

    -Allpar had an in-depth discussion of the Sebring’s triangles some years back, and IIRC it functioned as an access hole for part of the manufacturing process. Per that story, the Avenger was engineered later and the access requirement was engineered out of that version of the body.

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    “cheap, lazy, cynical or uncaring..”

    You, sir, just described the Sebring in its entirety. And a lot of other Chrysler products that were the Sebring’s contemporaries.

  • avatar
    300zx_guy

    I’m a few weeks late seeing this thread, but have to leave my 2c, as this is a huge pet peeve for me… If they are going to cheat (I have seen it called a “cheater panel,” which seems a good term as any) to alter the perceived shape of the DLO (Day Light Opening, in case you are unfamiliar with that car design term), why don’t they use black glass or high gloss black plastic, can it really cost that much more per car? Isn’t is possible that a better execution would sell a few more cars to offset that extra cost per car? I really wouldn’t mind the cheating, per se, if it were executed well. The Cruze looks great from a distance, or in low light where I can’t see the cheap-looking matte plastic, but when I can see it, it’s all I can see (like a pretty girl with a huge pimple, your eye goes right to the pimple no matter how hard you try not to). I really like the Cruze otherwise, but that one design element looks so bad to me it would stop me from considering buying one (I’d absolutely consider the wagon if they sold it here). The Sebring’s cheater panel is so bad that on the makeover for the 200 they paste a chrome “200” logo on the triangle, as if they’ve given up on even pretending it is a window. And then there are some cheater panels that are altogether unnecessary, the DLO would look just fine without it. Examples are the ’98-04 Lexus GS300 (the first car that sensitized me to this bad design trend), the current Elantra, Lincoln MKZ, Acura TL, and even the Juke. And a special dishonorable mention goes to the new Jaguar XJ, the world’s worst attempt at trying to fool the eye into seeing a blacked out panel as an extension of an adjacent window, all the more egregious because even it were executed at great expense as one larger piece of glass it still wouldn’t make any sense in the design. I would LOVE to know the story behind how that design element made it to production. (BTW, I think the blacked out panel works conceptually on the XJ shooting brake design, but still looks better painted in body color.)

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Speaking of the Ford Contours sail panels, a common ‘mod’ on SVT Contours was to switch to all black from 95-97 for the glossy 98-2K with ‘Contour’ in them.

    I swapped my ’97 black ones with an SVT owner and also sold older sail panels from bone yards back in early 2000’s. Used to be in Contour.org

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