Why Do All New Cars Look Alike?

I look around and all I see is the same car. A different tail light here, different door handle there, but essentially they’re all alike. I can’t tell a Honda from a Lexus from a Chrysler without looking at the logos. As a designer my first thought is, can’t anyone design something different? I mean, where’s the personality? I am forever seeing ads touting “aggressive new styling.” When was the last time you saw an aggressively new styled car?

I did some research and read that a lot of what drives new car design is aerodynamics. Okay, granted, to be more fuel efficient designers strive to decrease wind resistance as much as possible, but come on. I couldn’t imagine that there was so little room in the wind tunnel for differentiation that they all had to be so much alike.

I was skeptical of this aerodynamic silhouette claim, not that I didn’t believe in the science, but I wondered how much influence it had on the actual design. So I chose eight cars at random (no lie) from the internet as my representative sample. I traced the silhouettes of all eight cars, in different colors, and superimposed them and was SHOCKED at how closely they matched. These lines are the actual silhouettes of the eight cars pictured.

Secondly, I know that product and package designers face consumer resistance when designing anything new or innovative. For years laundry detergent came in powdered form in big boxes. When liquid laundry detergent first appeared on the market the response was: outrageous, laughable, weird. Automotive design is no less immune and is prone to follow established convention when it comes to designs the consumer is familiar with, willing to spend $25K+ on and something they are willing to park in their driveway without the neighbors snickering.

In 1934 Chrysler took a gamble and introduced the Chrysler Airflow and its lower priced counterpart, the DeSoto Airflow. Not only did the radically new designed Airflow lead the way in terms of aerodynamics (or “streamlining” as it was then called), it was the first mass-market car in the world to use the “modern” bodyframe architecture that has now become standard. However, as modern as the Airflow was, it wasn’t accepted by the buying public and the car was only in production for four years. The public was simply not ready for such a major change in automobile design. Chrysler must still be given credit for continuing with innovative design with their PT Cruiser, Crossfire and 300 Series.

There are some current exceptions in this play-it-safe world, with a few cars, the Mini Cooper, Nissan Cube and Scion iQ (ala Smart Car) as examples, that are targeted to younger consumers who are more willing to accept new ideas. But my feeling is that to appeal to a broader audience and decrease the risk of consumer rejection, especially in a recession, auto manufacturers will continue to play it safe and design cars that conform to current trends.

Wondering what the eight cars are: Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Genesis, Honda Accord, Chevy Cruze, Audi A4, Lexus LS.

Like this post? Share it with someone and follow my blog.



Filed under Brand Identity, Creativity

28 responses to “Why Do All New Cars Look Alike?

  1. anita

    I can’t wait until they bring back Fins! I love car shows.The 50’s and 60’s were amazing for varied car design. Don’t forget the new (old) Fiat 500. Just another retro style…Thanks for your continual posts 🙂

  2. Jon Weeldreyer

    The silhouettes similarity was shocking. I complain about this a lot, but didn’t realize how similar they really were. Great post.

  3. This only goes to show that there are only so many permutations to “skin a cat.” If you want to build high (with stone) the end results is always a pyramid. If you want to support a roof with great weight, the arch is the only design solution. If you want to go fast, if a streamline shape is what you seek, we need to look no further than the Blue fin tuna. I like to think this is WHY we will never be (or have ever been) visited by aliens. Because they are bound by the same immutable laws of physics as we are.
    Great post Paul, absolutely fascinating!

  4. Great posting! I agree completely that you can’t tell one from another, which is why I want my next car to be something fun…and different. (Fiat, Mini-Cooper, ?)
    I love how your posts are so relatable, even to us non-design experts like you — keep it up!

  5. frank

    nissan altima,toyota camry,ford fusion, hyundai genesis, honda accord,chevy cruze hybrid,audi a4, lexus is 600ls

    • Paul Sanderson

      You’re a genius. Either that or you’re a car nut, or both. Great work. You are actually the only person who took me up on my challenge. Thanks for the comments.

  6. frank

    Thank you Paul for presenting the challenge and the kind words. The real fanatics are the guys who post up on IMCDB (internet movie car database). The real geniuses are people like yourself,
    and the makers of Tangos and Teslas. I found your page by searching google for “all cars look the same”. It’s amazing how homogeneous things are becoming.

  7. Jack

    I agree upto the 0.01%, Ford, they fit the mould that you are so correct about, they also illustrate what you said….. “is there so little room….” and that they can step into that space, why can’t the others? There is a set of videos on YouTube…. Drive into Kilmarnock 1990 Part 1, etc, and the cars seen their are to a single car totally distinguisable and almost all can be named by the most disinterested viewer.

  8. matchbox1966

    thanks for the article. i’ve bemoaned that cars all look the same for a while now. but…. you didn’t really pick these cars at random, did you?? They’re all four door sedans. And all but one is a compact?? looks like you limited yourself in your “random” search ( no coupes popped up? no hatchbacks or wagons?? no sub-compacts??) great article otherwise. Auto manufacturer’s seem to spend all their time tweaking their grills and tail-lights when “designing” their cars.

    • Paul Sanderson

      Thanks for your reply. I chose the cars from a similar class so, no, they aren’t completely random. I agree that no one wants to take a risk and design something too far out in front of the pack.

  9. I keep wondering why they don’t start from scratch again. Can’t at least one daring car manufacturer start with a 1020s Maxwell body shape, but do the engine, wheels, brakes, suspension, etc to todays standards. And just design the interior with air bags and modern conveniences; know what I mean? We need a rest from these boring designs. I actually hate to drive on a crowded freeway and be surrounded by dumbness. That’s just the general profile; don’t get me started on the stupid and distracting tail lights. Dear god, please transport me back in time to, well at least to the 50s!

    • Paul Sanderson

      As I’ve said, no one wants to take a risk and design something too far out in front because if it doesn’t sell, chop-chop. It’s the same for movies—why do an original screenplay when you know Spider-Man 4, 5, and 6 will make money. Yes, the 50s and 60s were good times for car design.

  10. Pingback: Design Study: Identi-car twins? | jimibeckwith

  11. Cesar

    The answer is marketing…
    All the car developments are based on marketing research. The manufactures want to sell more cars, so all the cars are made in the way that the majority of the people will like. This is happening with all the things, books, food, music and so… Marketing research is the end of creativity.

    • paulsanderson

      Cesar, thanks for your comment. It is very true, market research is trumping the creative process. The focus group is now the art director.

  12. bloop

    Neat post. The outlines are pretty amazing. I noticed cars started to all look the same a while ago, but I didn’t realize it was actually that close! That said, apparently it’s not just all for aerodynamics. Occupant and pedestrian safety also factor into it. This video explains it a bit more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCg2glyX6OI, maybe you should consider adding it to this post.

  13. So what are the makes/models of the above 8 vehicles?

    • paulsanderson

      Good question:
      Nissan Altima
      Toyota Camry
      Ford Fusion
      Hyundai Genesis
      Honda Accord
      Chevy Cruze
      Audi A4
      Lexus LS
      Thanks for reminding me. I will post at the end of the aarticle.

  14. Jeffrey

    Here is the thing… They all look the same so why would I buy an expensive car when it looks just like the cheap car? I mean if you can’t tell the difference between a Chevy and a Mercedes, why spend the money on the Mercedes?

    • paulsanderson

      It’s a funny thing, now they even market the cars, like the new Chevy, as looking just like a luxury car, a Mercedes or a Lexus. Thanks for the comment.

  15. I found your post after it was referred to in Josiah Kahane´s new book The Form of Design.
    The subject of all new cars looking alike came up when I was doing my MA Automotive and I have thought about it every since. I´d argue that while contemporary cars tend to look similar this was always the case. If you take the 1990 equivalents of your sample you might find a very high degree of uniformity (perhaps more among US cars than European ones).

    I will be linking back to your post from my own blog as I would like others to read your analysis!

  16. Pingback: Why do all new cars look the same? | Driven To Write

  17. MARCO

    Great post, thanks! I too am tired of the flock – of – sheep mentality in auto design … my way of protesting is to daily-drive a restored 70’s car that made design history in 1966 by being the first-ever hatchback. I read it turned heads then, and sure does now.

  18. I too am tired of the flock-of-sheep mentality pervading auto design; I choose to protest by daily-driving a restored ’70s car with styling so unique it’s still copied today (in 1966 it was the world’s 1st hatchback). See if you can guess …

    • paulsanderson

      Thanks for the comment and your insight. I’d love to see a photo of this 70s car you speak of. That’s my era.

Leave a comment…

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s