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.
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.
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.