Most cars today, have evolved into such over-achieving products with a wealth of features and technologies that the one thing that seems to set them apart is design. Be it Japanese, Korean, American, French, British, Swedish, or German, there will always be a sedan, sports car, SUV, or MPV that stands out among its peers—at least in looks (if not necessarily in build quality or performance).
Here are 15 models from nine manufacturers where designers were obviously inspired more than usual. We didn’t include hyper-expensive sports cars or sedans for the obvious reason that an Aston Martin or Bentley shouldn’t just look beautiful, they must look downright spectacular! I also didn’t include luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus and Volvo for the same reason. This list is about cars most people can afford. Here they are now in alphabetical order:
We all realized that the newest Civic is a world-beater the moment we laid eyes on it. It’s easily the most assertive and confidently designed car in its class; heck it’ll hold its own even in larger and more expensive categories. With sharp, swooping character lines, sculpted 3D surfaces, acutely raked windshield, and fastback roofline and rear glass, the Civic looks like it’s in motion even when standing still.
Sales of executive or midsize sedans may be on the wane due to the migration of buyers to similarly priced midsize SUVs, but it’s really their loss. What they give up in ruggedness and versatility, midsize sedans more than make up for in elegance and comfort. And in terms of sheer grace and elegance, few cars can match up with the Hyundai Sonata. You’d have to be hopelessly biased against Korean cars to say that the design of the Sonata does not belong in the same rarified atmosphere as the perenially graceful Jaguar XJ sedans or the heart-achingly beautiful Mercedes-Benz CLS class. All these sedans have graceful lines, swooping rooflines, a long, low silhouette, and a hunkered down stance. It may sound cliché, but a Sonata on the road is pure grace in motion.
Kia Picanto, Rio, and Soul
Style-wise, Kia design chief Peter Schreyer, formerly from Volkswagen, is the best thing to happen to Kia. The affordable cars from Korea are now rolling fashion statements. Some may argue that Schreyer’s designs are borrowed too much from his own efforts when he was with the VW group, but the current Kias look far more youthful and spunky compared to VW’s traditionally conservative and minimalist German style.
The result? A very European (read: stylish) Picanto supermini, which sports crisp lines and a highly expressive front end; a spunky and sporty Rio, which beats the Golf GTI at its own game (at least as far as stylish hatchbacks are concerned, never mind the performance); and the uber-cool Soul, which sets the standard in niche crossovers with its unorthodox yet very appealing styling.
Mazda3, MX-5 and CX-3
When you design a car that comes as a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback and both versions look stunning, then you know you’ve got a design winner. Today’s compact sedans are overachievers so good-looking styling certainly helps. The Mazda3 is at the forefront of its genre, sporting the most sensuous curves this side of a Ferrari.
The MX-5, on the other hand, is one of the smallest and shortest cars on the market. And as in fashion, lines look better with tall slender models. Mazda solves the problem gracefully with the short yet purposeful lines of the MX-5. The design is free from “macho” gimmicks like wings, flared fenders or hood scoops—yet it’s extremely sporty and balanced just the same.
The Mazda CX-3 occupies the smallest crossover category, yet, like its Mazda3 and MX-5 siblings, it manages to make the most of its tidy dimensions and present a balanced (that word again) package composed of gently sloping lines, short overhangs, and big wheels and tires. Not a single surface is flat, including the roof, which slopes downwards to the rear. The absence of flat surfaces tricks the eye by making the vehicle visually larger than it really is.
Aside from the GT-R supercar, Nissan doesn’t seem to have a car that pushes the styling envelope. Japan’s Big No.2 has exceptional sedans, SUVs, vans and pickups, but as far as looks are concerned they’re nothing to tweet about. With the exception of the Juke. Walking into a Nissan showroom is like seeing a family portrait where everyone is in various shades of gray with the littlest offspring sporting a shocking yellow jumpsuit. The Juke is that kid. And yes, it does come in a retina-searing shade of yellow (as well as a very toy car-like red). But bright colors are not the Juke’s only claim to fame. The pudgy, almost chubby shape, the thick wheel arches, the concealed rear doors, the boomerang-shaped taillights, but, most especially, the alien-like big round headlamps and seemingly forehead-mounted LED DRLs and signal lights all combine to create the most unusual-looking automobile on the market. And the automotive world is all the better for it.
Peugeot is on a roll. Not only does it unveil a new model that completely redefines the brand, it does so while raising the bar in MPV/SUV crossover styling. Yes, the previous boxy 5008 people-mover has now morphed into one that’s even more versatile yet is vastly more stylish. And best of all, it hasn’t shed its French-ness in the transition. While most cars now have smaller and smaller windows in favor of thick pillars, the 5008 sports slim pillars, giving the vehicle generous visibility and an airy elegance absent from most MPVs and SUVs. A long wheelbase, short overhangs, and those beautiful LED taillights that evoke the triple-clawed mark of the brand’s lion emblem round out this styling coup.
After receiving so much flak for the quirky but unlovable styling of their early 2000’s models, Ssangyong is taking a resolute about-face and churning out not just more mainstream designs, but wholeheartedly assertive and confident styling as well. Case in point is the new subcompact crossover, the Tivoli. It’s overall shape and dimensions hark to the groundbreaking Kia Soul, but has its own strong identity as well, thanks to a grille-less front (making it look like an electric car) bold sharp-edged character lines, slab-sided front fender flares, a jaunty sculpted kick-up from the rear door to the avant garde-looking taillights, and expressively designed alloy wheels. Great effort, Ssangyong!
The Jimny is easily the oldest model in this bunch, and it’s a major credit to Suzuki designers that it looks just as good now as it did when it first rolled out more than a decade ago. Can you say the same thing about most other 12-year-old Japanese models? The Jimny is a true off-roader in every sense of the word. Its diminutive size enables it to explore tight confines that would trap bigger 4x4s. It may be short and narrow, but its tall-boy styling endow it with more than enough room for four. Best of all, it has that timeless look enjoyed by other icons in its class: the Mercedes G-Class, the Land Rover Defender, and the Jeep Wrangler. There are no styling or faddish gimmicks that go out of style—just an honest, no-nonsense design that works beautifully, on or off the road.
Toyota 86, Fortuner and FJ Cruiser
None of the three Toyotas in this list are new, so it’s a testament to solid design that these three are still in this list. The sensational 86 is one of those rare cars that looks superb from any angle. It’s low, wide, and sexy, even if it’s dimensions (aside from height) are quite similar to that of a Vios. Thirty years from now, these 86s will be collectible classics.
The all-new second-gen Fortuner is nothing less than a styling homerun. It’s got the right upscale-yet-rugged swagger that you could find only in much pricier Land Rovers and Range Rovers. There’s liberal use of chrome, but not enough to make it look tacky. And if you black out the brightwork and the roof, it looks surprisingly like a Land Rover Discovery Sport. Not bad for a model that’s designed mainly for emerging markets. Not bad, indeed.
The FJ Cruiser, like the current Mini Cooper and VW Beetle, is a throwback to an iconic forebear—in this case, the evergreen FJ40 Land Cruiser that was sold locally in the 70’s. And like the Mini and Beetle, the FJ Cruiser is a smashingly successful re-imagination of an oldie but goodie. It retains much of the design cues of the original while being refreshingly new. It even managed to hide two rear-hinged doors to ease entry and exit while staying true (at least visually) to the two-door configuration of its predecessor.