• Sep 10th 2009 at 7:50PM
  • 23
2011 Chevy Volt - Click above for high-res image gallery

There has been quite a spate of green car designs in the past few years that seem penned to prove the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, some eco-intentioned vehicles appear to be the end result of an ultimate death match between form and function in which form never stood the slightest whisper of a chance. (We aren't looking at you, Sunmotor Coupe DX, but only because it's entirely too painful.) However, since the aim of high efficiency transportation is to leave as small an environmental impact as is possible, do looks really matter? We would argue yes.

We are not saying that every hybrid need look like rolling art. The Toyota Prius has become the most popular fuel-sipper of all time yet it could never be confused for the hybridized Essence concept from its competitor, Infiniti. One has been accused of resembling an aerodynamic toaster while the other seems a sculpted homage to sinful sensuality and yet each is reasonably successful at achieving its aesthetic goals. Most cars are conceived with a particular market niche in mind and the successful treatment not only marries form and function but also projects the proper image and social status. Come past the break and we'll explore the importance of appearance of eco-cars a bit further.

Aerodynamically yours

To be more environmentally friendly than other automobiles, a "green" car needs to be more efficient. This requirement means an aerodynamic shape must be employed which, subsequently, has an impact on both the ease with which it moves through the atmosphere and its overall "look". One of the most extreme examples of aero-efficiency is embodied in the Aptera 2e (above) and though some may think it an odd-looking bird, others are drawn to its brash break from traditional styling. With thousands of customers willing to wait many months for delivery, it would seem the 2e has, at the very least, successfully brought form and function together.

While Aptera's aerodynamic exercise has created a one-of-a-kind car, other automakers find themselves mimicking each other. The roofline that helps make the Prius slippery has been incorporated to varying extent in other models, perhaps most notably the Honda Insight, which finds itself accused of being something of a look-a-like. Despite this element borrowing, there does seem to be latitude for individuality within the limits of lower drag as confirmed by the likes of the Tesla Model S and others.

Sweet Emotions

Besides the cold mathematical world of efficiency, the accomplished auto stylist is also aware of the importance of the emotional response a design engenders. There is something about the smart fortwo, for instance, that compels a certain segment of the population to say, "aww, that's soooo adorable!" and immediately start making plans to buy one for themselves. Retro-cutes, such as the MINI and the Fiat 500 (above), try to cash in on historical emotional cachet with their familiar but updated lines and have found themselves flourishing with their real environmental benefits something of a side note. Of course, "cute" is not the only way to a potential owner's driveway. Prius drivers have long been accused of basing their purchasing decision on that car's ability to infer a certain environmental piety. While it's difficult to know whether there is any actual truth to that notion, the Toyota hybrid does visually differentiate itself from the polluting pack and could very well impart good feelings with a shape that has become synonymous with low carbon motoring.


Probably more than any other segment, the eco-car has entries that defy traditional styling and, in some cases, common sense. While many of the most eccentric vehicles have yet to be built en masse, there are a few on the road attempting to clear the way for those still on the drawing board. Exhibit A, in our mind, would be the NMG from Myers Motors (above). This single-passenger, all-electric three-wheeler turns heads whereever it goes and – though it may never become a high-volume seller – its unconventional looks may help it form an inexplicable bond with its owners. On the other hand, the styling employed by the noticeably narrow Tango from Commuter Cars would seem something of a barrier to sales on a vehicle featuring a price tag similar to that of a Tesla Roadster, though its countenance does practically guarantees a certain amount of exclusivity.

Architecture opens opportunities

A blank canvas is be one of the big advantages offered by the evolving architecture of electric vehicles. With the battery pack in the floor of the passenger compartment and the motor between the axles, the designer of the Tesla Model S, Franz von Holzhausen, explained a while back, "everything above it is opportunity." While we would hope this means many more vehicles as compelling as the Model S (or the Lightning GT, Venturi Volage or even the Pininfarina BlueCar) will be created, it's not certain that every manufacturer will produce our heart's green-car desire. One of the most prolific bringers of concept electric cars to auto shows, Nissan, has decided its first production vehicle of the EV renaissance will be the Leaf which, it has been said by some, bears a certain resemblance to a catfish. Yikes!

As was said though, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and so we hope you'll let us know what you'd like your eyes to behold in your driveway one day and whether its "looks" played a significant role in stoking the flames.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      Appearance is not important. That being said they could have made the leaf more attractive. They said it was going to have it's own body, yet it looks most like a Versa with bulgy headlights. As for the Volt it is not a EV. Now Tesla, there is a look you can set your watch by the S model and the Roadster.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Uh... yea, appearance is important. Many are impressed that the Prius has sold ONLY just over 1,000,000 in the last 10 years, but if it was a normal sedan, it is quite possible that it could have sold twice as much. Some cars sell over a million in under 3 years. The normal person does not want an ugly car like the Aptera, they want a normal sedan.

        This is not saying that an ugly car may not sell well, but mass adoption requires a look and feel that all people can respect and enjoy.

        The logic of function BEFORE form still is relevant, but well over 90% of Americans would rather walk then be seen driving a design monstrosity like the Aptera.

        It is time to go beyond this non-sense that all EV's are overblown golf cars and start making them compete on the same level as all cars.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Motivated by an electric motor only, powered by batteries. I, and every other reasonable person on this earth, call that an EV. Does it have a gas tank, yes. Does it need gas to run, no. It's an EV.
        • 6 Years Ago
        "well over 90% of Americans (...)"

        Did you know that 86.4% of statistics given in blogs are made up on the spot?

        Also, 5% of vehicle sales in America would be about 50,000 units/year, and 5% of the vehicle fleet would be about 12.5 million units.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Appearance is very important. It doesn't cost more to build a good looking car than an ugly one (I realize that's a generalization). But what a missed opportunity to build a slab-sided car just because you didn't think that much about the design.

        Tango is a good example of what I think of as a non-design, i.e. a missed opportunity. Tesla Model S is the opposite: very impressive, and I'm certainly more attracted to it because it looks good.

        Another way to think about it: if I put a Tango in my driveway, my neighbors will come and ask what it is, but they will think I'm a nut for buying a car like that. If I put a Tesla Model S in my driveway they will want a ride past their friends house so they can be seen riding it. Why is that? Certainly not because of cost or exclusivity. It's the design.

        Of course Tango may sell as many cars as they build (I don't know), but if you are looking for customers outside of a small specific group then you have to pay attention to looks.

        And I love the "everything above it is opportunity" quote.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Appearance isn't the primary concern, but if you can get a super sweet looking ride that is a BEV/REV/whatever you are into/ZEV, why get an ugly one instead that does the same thing?

      Appearance will have some weight in people's decisions, as do features, price, drivetrain, cupholders, top speed, interior size, maintenance costs, warranty, service center locations, dealerships, battery size, charging options, range, charge rate, car maker reputation, nationality of construction, color choice, number of wheels, safety test results, NEV status, etc.... It all matters.

      Which is why there will be just as many different types of "green" cars as there are ICE cars today.

      Personally I like the Model S for it's best balance of everything above, except the price...
      So I will probably end up with something less strikingly attractive.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Ray.. although it has a gasoline generator for backup, the Volt is an EV. Electricity is what powers the wheels of the car and not the generator.. and if people drive 40 miles or less every day.. they'll never use the gasoline at all. However.. I could be wrong and if that's the case, explain to us why the Volt is not an EV.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The volt is not an EV because it is a plug-in series hybrid. 1 Power source (the ICE) providing power to the second (the electric motor). Yes, you can plug it in and run on battery power for a while, but its still a series hybrid.

        Would you call a plug-in prius an EV? No. But it (the new ones, not the aftermarket modified ones) can run on electric only until its battery depletes.

        The notion of calling the volt an EV is marketing on the part of GM. They coined the term E-REV specifically for the volt. Anywhere you see that term is generally linked back to GM.
        • 6 Years Ago
        It's what GM calls an EREV, extended-range electric vehicle.

        You can run the car completely off of electricity if need be, no gasoline needs to be used, another term for it is PHEV, or Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

        It's an EV, with a gas generator onboard.
      • 6 Years Ago
      We are all conditioned to appreciate the aesthetics of ICE automobiles through a lifetime of magazine articles, movies etc. It's mostly sub-liminal and sub-conscious.

      ICE cars shape and form are mainly defined mainly by the engineering constraints. The majority of cars having the engine at the front. The passengers have to be insulated from the noise and heat, They have to be protected from the engine pushing into the passenger compartment in case of a front end collision. Ancillary equipment driven mechanically from the engine needs to be co-located. Aerodynamics shapes are built around the basic form.

      Electric cars designed from the ground up do not have the same constraints. Motors can be front or back or in each wheel. Power controllers and batteries can be put almost anywhere in the vehicle frame. Ancillaries like heating and cooling likewise.

      People compare the looks of electric cars with the ICE cars they are familiar with. Imagine how ugly the early gasoline cars looked compared to the elegant horse drawn carriages of the day. How the gentry laughed and scoffed.

      I hate it that early EC makers have to ape the look and feel of ICE vehicles to sell to into a naive market. It will change, but only in time as the market gets better educated.
        • 6 Years Ago

        Of all of the comments I've seen on this blog regarding aesthetics, this is the absolute wisest of the bunch.
        Well said, thank-you.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Whether beauty is all in the eye of the beholder I don't know, but it seems clear to me that there are national differences in perception as well as individual.
      As a Brit I don't comment when the largely American group here refers to styling, as there are clear differences in taste.
      Doubtless were I Japanese, or French, the difference would be even moire pronounced!
      I do like the Renault Kango, though, as well as Alfas!
      • 6 Years Ago
      I like how most comments answering that question say something and then immediately contradict it. Actually I don't...

      "Appearance is not important. That being said they could have made the leaf more attractive."


      The appearance of a green car is JUST as important as any other car. Sure, the Birkenstock organic cotton pre-fabricated home crowd will buy something stupid looking if it's 'green', but 'green' technology isn't truly being 'green' unless it's widely accepted. I wouldn't buy a G-wiz or that cyclops squash looking thing in the picture there in a million years. Obviously, almost no one else is would either. Looks are just green cars as important as any other car segment.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Depends on whether you're American or Canadian.

      In Canada, the Prius is not the best selling hybrid. In fact, it's the ho-hum mundane Toyota Camry Hybrid, by far.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The Civic Hybrid is also just a few hundred units behind the Prius in sales in Canada.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I think looks is one of the most important factors in the success of a car. It can be the most fuel efficient car in the world, but people will still gag on its looks and move on. Most people are willing to pay a quite a bit more for beauty or aesthetics. Who would buy a Ferrari that looks like a Camry? If I'm going to spend that much money on a car, I want it to look awesome, to make people envious of me when I drive around. I don't want to look like a dork.
      • 6 Years Ago
      @Domenick Yoney,
      "try to cash in on historical emotional cache"
      You mean "cachet", a loanword from French hence pronounced "ca-shay": "a characteristic feature or quality conferring prestige".

      To the Q: posed, A: some. And if the automaker is serious about packaging or aerodynamics some people will accept and even enjoy an odd appearance. The Prius and Insight both have Cd of 0.25, the GM EV-1 was 0.195, the Aptera is 0.15; more at Wikipedia's "Automobile drag coefficient" page. I suspect Tesla can't afford extensive aerodynamic testing, so they need their cars to be beautiful.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Anyone who says appearance doesn't matter is fooling themselves. If you had the choice between 2 cars, one that looks like the prius and another that loos like the Tesla model S, assuming the cost was the same and the prius gets say 50 miles per gallon city and highway but the model S gets 45 miles per gallon in the city and freeway.

      Would you seriously purchase the vastly more horrible looking prius just to gain that extra 5mpg?
        • 6 Years Ago
        on the Tesla S website it actually says it can hold 7 people; 5 adults + 2 child seats (i assumed they meant 5 adults OR you can put 2 kids in the back but no, they actually use the number 7 -- http://www.teslamotors.com/display_data/Model_S_FAQ.html ). Which sounds like total BS to me based on the images. So until they give me actual specs on interior capacity, the storage space in these 2 trunks, and a safety rating, no, i wouldn't buy it. The difference between the Tesla S and the Prius visually is inconsequential.
      • 6 Years Ago
      If EVs are to compete with ICE cars, they have to match them in looks. Most EV fanatics (including myself) would gladly pay extra for an EV like the LEAF that's functional but not good looking. However, I'm afraid most people won't.

      Tesla is proving that EVs don't have to be ugly, but so far, no one else is trying to match them in looks. Fiskers are hybrids.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Yeah but the question is not about EVs, but about green cars. The point is that cars must be beautiful no matter the drive train. Ugly cars don't go very far.
      • 6 Years Ago
      To me, appearance is only important in that too-weird is not something i will drive. For me, the PT Cruiser was too-weird in it's wannabe retro style. But as long as it looks car-ish, I'm game. Then the importance becomes how well does the seat fit my butt (i.e. no bucket seats here), and do I have too many weird blind spots, things like that. There are very few cars that wouldn't pass the Megan Inspection.
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