By on January 5, 2015

Today’s QOTD comes from Grandma, who is on vacation in Florida. Grandma writes:

i have a a chevy sonic rental.  i parked it, it is so small it was a breeze   lots of 2014 mercedes sitting in dealer lots here.  saw 2 bmw electric cars.  the back lights look like the kia soul.  it looks cute, but none of the beemer [sic] sophistication.  don’t know why they have to make electric cars look so quirky.
Upon further questioning, it appears Grandma was asking about the BMW i3. Sixt is now renting out the i3 in the South Florida area, complete with burnt orange paint and giant Sixt logos. I didn’t really have a good answer for her, other than “people want to be seen driving an electric car”. In her mind, a Bimmer is still something you buy to show that you’ve “arrived” – but it’s not as good as a “Jag-you-are”.


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35 Comments on “Question Of The Day, Grandma Edition: Why Are EVs So Odd Looking?...”

  • avatar

    I didn’t really have a good answer for her, other than “people want to be seen driving an electric car”.

    You can’t find a better answer than that because that IS the best answer. EVs are still at the early adopter stage, and early adopters want to announce as such.

    • 0 avatar

      I would argue the statement slightly in that it’s not necessarily, “people want to be seen driving an electric car,” so much as the “Manufacturers want people to see that they make an electric car.”

      You look at brands like Kia (the electric Soul) and Fiat (500e) and their cars look just like any other of that model with maybe just a slight cosmetic change and a bit of badging. Would you know if that little Soul or 500 was an electric if you saw it at a distance? That is one reason why Fiat is losing $10K on every 500e they sell–it doesn’t look like an electric. In my own case, as much as I like so much about the BMW i3, its looks are the one thing that really hurt it for me; if the 500e were available where I live (and it soon will be apparently) I would be far more likely to buy one of those simply because the 500 draws enough attention on its own and don’t want to be seen as “elitist”. On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what Tesla does with the III and the ‘Y’.

    • 0 avatar

      Competitive altruism. Driving flashy cars and displays of wealth are taboo in American culture (e.g. Denali vs. Escalade), so people seek status another way, by being green.

  • avatar

    I immediately think of the 1st gen Prius. At face value, all I saw was another generic econobox sedan, not much of a statement about anything. On the other hand, the original Insight still gets my attention.

  • avatar

    Tesla may be a lot of things, but it’s not the least bit odd, it’s gorgeous. Which I guess in a world of plain vanilla Camcords is indeed odd, but in a good way

    • 0 avatar

      The Tesla looks better than many cars in its price range as well. The only odd thing is why a boutique auto company can make a better looking car than Toyota or Honda.

      • 0 avatar

        The new X is even better looking, if they ever build it

      • 0 avatar

        Good question. But do they even want to make a good-looking car? The best theory I’ve heard is that Japanese cars aren’t meant to be seen in in full, at a distance. It’s too close and crowded therefor that to happen, so cars are half-seen in traffic. They want a striking grille, and bold distinctive side details, and showy taillights, and a unique roofline, each that can serve to identify the model. Put that all together and back away a few car lengths, and the result looks quite busy and overstyled to me.

  • avatar

    Two reasons, I think:

    One, when a car is designed as an EV from the beginning, the design constraints (particularly wrt internal layout) are quite a bit different, and so are the designs you’re likely to come up with. Ars Technica’s review of the i3 made this point pretty well, I think. (Side note: editors, they’re bulking up their automotive side, and might be good for some sort of cross-promotion or cross-venture or something.)

    Two, as mentioned, early adopters (and the fashionable, as they start to arrive) want to announce their presence. Didn’t we see the same thing initially with hybrids? The hybrid variants of the Camcord didn’t sell as well because they weren’t as obvious as a Prius.

    • 0 avatar

      I would change your first reason to be that automakers are still learning how to take advantage of new architectures. The i3 strikes me as much an experiment/design study as anything else. As the application becomes more mature, so will the designs.

      I recall in the early days of hybrids, one reason the Prius sold so much better than simple hybrid versions of other cars is because it was immediately noticeable as a hybrid. So, yes, I have to agree that fashion and making a statement are definitely reasons to make EVs or whatever stand out. However, I don’t think it fully explains why automakers make them so “quirky.” Standing out can be done in many other ways, so the question is why they chose what they did.

      I’ve heard that the Leaf has those bug eye headlights to reduce wind noise around the mirrors. The Prius’ shape comes from maximizing aero. So, some of it comes from practicality. But that doesn’t explain the rest of the weirdness, like black patches on the i3 or the rest of the Leaf’s shape.

  • avatar

    >In her mind, a Bimmer is still something you buy to show that you’ve “arrived” – but it’s not as good as a “Jag-you-are”.

    My grandma was always fond of the “Infineetees” I’d occasionally bring by.

  • avatar

    It’s simple, the i3 is a city car and pretty much looks like other city cars including those powered by ICEs. It’s not about styling or being seen, it’s about having the smallest footprint as possible.

    • 0 avatar

      Believe me, the i3 is different enough to get noticed–even (or maybe especially) in a lot full of other micro-cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Fair enough – buy then why does the i8 look like a giant bag of assballs?

      (I saw one in person last week. It … was ghastly. Seriously horrible.)

    • 0 avatar

      What baffles me about the i3 is that they won’t let you dequirk it — you will have a two-tone paint scheme whether you like it or not. You’d think they’d at least let you order solid black, but no.

  • avatar

    Electrics are quirky looking because the manufacturer can make them that way.

    We’re talking about a breed of automobiles that isn’t going to appeal to the average buyer in the slightest. It’s going to appeal to an adventurous consumer, somebody who’s going to be an early adopter, who’s going to be willing to put up with the shortcomings (range, price) because they either believe in the concept, and/or they like being on the cutting edge.

    Someone who’s willing to take on an other-than-average propulsion system is also going to be very accepting of off-the-wall styling. So, the manufacturer can make them that way, knowing that the styling has a much less chance of putting off the intended customer.

    Plus, it shows, a mile away, what you’re driving. This is both a good thing for the manufacturer (you can’t miss that there’s “another one”), and for the owner (“look at me, I’m saving the planet”). Engineering wise, given the different layout of the propulsion system between a pure electric and an ICE or ICE/hybrid powered vehicle, there’s no reason to force the one system into the physical layout of the other. If anything, its counterproductive.

    The only exception to the above is the Tesla – it still passes as a (very) attractive, normal car. Then again, Tesla not just going after the early adopter/different owner. They’re selling to the individual who demands beauty for his $80k,

  • avatar

    I attriubte it to pure marketing. This is a generalization of course. Other factors influence this as well such as aerodynamics. When EVs first started, it was a dramatic change from what people knew. A dramatic design helped them be unique, it projected futuristic and it projected unique (think early Prius and Chevy EV-1). This was also good for manufactureres to show future thinking. Over time this was just expected, but design elements are converging (Tesla and BMW I8), especially as they are more and more common. There’s also this newer idea of a city car and those have their own unique traits as well.

  • avatar

    EV buyers have the attitude of early adopters who see themselves as technologically adventurous. The styling helps to sell the message that the car isn’t run-of-the-mill.

    The technology also has something to do with it. For the major OEMs, the goal is to make a light vehicle, which reduces the battery requirements, which makes the car cheaper to produce, which theoretically could make it profitable. (Tesla is taking a quite different approach: build a large car with a battery that provides range but loses money, in the hopes that the brand building and buzz can eventually pay off.)

  • avatar

    Stop being petty and create a separate section for your grandma. Unavoidable Grandma Articles, or something like that. She deserves it.

    And I hope you are paying her for this article.

  • avatar

    Until manufacturers resolve the range issues and the costs drops to the level of their ICE counterparts, EVs are really nothing more than a fashion statement, and in many places, a coal powered one at that.

    So why not make them look “different”?

  • avatar

    Its all about the buyer. People that buy electric cars like to stand out in the crowd.

    • 0 avatar

      Not necessarily. A Tesla Model S doesn’t stand out in the way the BMW i3 stands out. It’s beautiful in its own right, but to someone who doesn’t KNOW that a Tesla is an electric, they’ll think it’s just another sedan.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed. Nothing about the Tesla screams EV. Same with the Volt or the Leaf. Even the Prius doesn’t look that odd to me. Now aero means some strange shapes, but all cars are moving in that direction.

        However the quirky look of some EVs was clearly done to draw attention to them. Each manufacture has their own approach on how to win over customers. Some folks like those futuristic looking cars, while others just don’t care about styling. And its clear most people don’t care due the shear number of boring black, silver and white cars out there.

        Most striking thing about the i3 – the bicycle thin tires! The time I saw one I did a double take for sure.

  • avatar

    I don’t think EV owners are any more vain than people who own other high end vehicles. If you’re going to pay premium price for an EV, why settle for a car that looks like all the others, and all you have to show for your expense is a bank of batteries and a cord?

  • avatar

    Maybe it’s just a chance for the designers to try something out of the box.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    My Leaf is sort of a blend between the quirky EV look, and a Nissan Versa. It shares some running gear with other Nissans (brakes, suspension), but no body panels or interior stuff. However, it does have a blanked-off steering column cover where an ignition switch should be.

    What I detest are the huge science project stickers that EVs are often shown with. They are/were actually an option on the Leaf. I have no interest in drawing attention to the car, and I’m no tree-hugger.

    Tesla wouldn’t be where it is today if it built goofy-looking cars.

    Leaf 2.0 is supposed to look more mainstream; we’ll see how that goes.

  • avatar

    I think it’s a shame that the Prius second and subsequent generations have that weird rear window with the spoiler right across the middle of it so you can’t see; and then Honda went and copied the same design for the Gen 2 Insight!

    • 0 avatar

      1) The first gen Insight was like that, before the Prius, says both my memory and Wikipedia; Toyota copied it for the gen-2 Prius. So you got the copying backwards.

      2) Honda also, bafflingly, does that on the Crosstour. I can’t imagine why they think that’s a good idea; it kills the rear visibility.

      3) Aztek.

      4) W203 C-class coupe, the one place it actually kinda looks nice. Sort of.

  • avatar

    1) Not (necessarily) needing the heat-rejection airflow levels an IC-engined car has, they can get away with much smaller/bottom-breather “grill-less” front ends.

    2) Depending on how they’ve packaged the batteries and drive components, they can swap the proportions around a bit — within the constraints of crash regs, including European pedestrian crash regs.

    3) Marketing: Much like it was/is for hybrids, the target audience for EVs is people who want to be seen “doing something” about the planet. The 2nd-gen and newer Prius is a prime example of “I’m Saving The Planet, What Are YOU Doing?” styling and sales really took off compared to the 1st-gen, which was a lightly-restyled Echo. Note that the Prius sells more than the Honda Civic Hybrid (granted, the Prius is a stronger hybrid/better car than the Civic Hybrid). Note also the abysmal sales of the Honda Accord Hybrid, which looks JUST LIKE the regular Accord save the Hybrid badge on its rump. EVs that look like EVs appeal to this market segment. Also note the previous-gen GM Hybrid SUVs emblazoned with anywhere from 3 to 9 “HYBRID/2-MODE” badges/stickers in addition to their slicked-up front ends, oddball muffler placement, and LED taillights that differentiated them from their conventional brethren.

    3a) Note that this is limited more to the lower end of the EV market. The Tesla Model S is, at first glance, a largely-conventional-looking car, but it’s also aimed at a more upscale, more conservative market segment. It just wouldn’t do for Cogsworth Moneybagginton IV to pull up to the valet at the country club in something that looks like a glorified golf cart.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s it, I’m creating a new TTAC login with the name “Cogsworth Moneybagginton IV.” :)

      I have no engineering background but I’m surprised to see so many people say it’s just marketing. I always assumed it had to do with the different weight and placement of components compared to regular cars, or else the aerodynamic needs of smaller cars.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Grandma’s wrong. Not all EV’s are quirky looking. As others have said, the Tesla Model S and Fiat 500E are normal looking, as is the Spark EV.

    The Leaf is quirky looking because Nissan makes ugly cars, like the Juke.

    The i3 is quirky owing to the tall, low rolling resistance tires and a desire to minimize weight while preserving interior space, similar to the ICE version of a Smart car.

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