The Allusion That Does Not Allude: A Silent Smile

This is very likely the most striking car on sale today, the Toyota C-HR.

Inside and out, the car uses extremely expressive forms, taking the deconstructed appearance seen on some front-ends and bringing them around the sides. The exterior is conceived of in a rather different way compared to what, up until now, we have considered standard. It is available as normal petrol-engined car or as a hybrid but that’s not where the interest lies. No, madam.

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The way I understand automotive design, cars have been shaped in terms of a primary volume (silhouette) with details added or subtracted. The tail-fin theme depended on additions. The current crinkle and crease era is also mostly additional. Most cars fit this schema of a shape, plus some. To draw such a car one sketches the outline and wheels and adds the graphics and lines. Then one adds lines to indicate how the light and shade will appear from that view. Key to this is that the sculpting of the main surfaces is composed one or two main elements with smaller ones added later.

To draw a car like the C-HR it seems to me, based on some sketches I made, that this procedure won´t work. Instead one draws seemingly disjointed graphic elements which are then, later, joined up with secondary surfaces that take the lead from the first set of lines.

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[Image source]

The main thrust of what I must call traditional car forms is to have clean, simple primary surfaces joined by secondary ones of a similar character. Further, design discipline could be maintained by anchoring them to underlying planes associated with major feature lines and principle graphic elements. The result is a concert of flowing highlights. The first slide show (below) shows a simple, standard sketch based on flowing forms.

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The C-HR’s secondary surfaces are quite forced compared to anything from the European brands. To be sure, they aren’t wobbly or wavy but they do have the character of cling film stretched over several disparate masses. Take a look at the slide show which uses the same wheel base and wheel size as car “A” above: (smart ‘phone users should turn the unit sideways to get a better view)

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I am sure you will agree that the two vehicles have a different character. I notice that the shutlines and some other details are added piecemeal in a dialogue with the forms as they build up. On car “A” the door apertures appeared early, governing the later shapes. In car B, everything is subordinate to the way the volumes as graphic elements appear.

At the detail level, the rear lamps of the C.HR stand proud of their landing surface (the last Civic tried this). The lamp and grille graphics are vastly wide. The rear bumper is confidently developed, creating a secure stance. Wild as it is, it is internally consistent.

The resultant car expresses a distinct coccoon of a body suspended between the wheelarch masses. Adding to this drama is the low canopy and the semi-floating roof. In a way, it would be fitting if the engineering under this tour de force was more interesting: Tesla should try some of whatever Toyota is drinking. A bit of waku doki doesn’t work slathered on an Avensis snout: as an overall theme it is remarkable as here. I want to see this applied to the Auris.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

23 thoughts on “The Allusion That Does Not Allude: A Silent Smile”

  1. I like it. Where the Juke is contrived and pig ugly, there is (as you neatly explained) an underlying logic to the design of this car.

    What kills it for me though (but fashion car buyers that buy “stand out cars” like this, won’t care one bit about) is the awful engine and gearbox choices they saddled this car with. Let’s hope it is just the launch engines and some decent engines will follow. But for a car the size of a Qashqai and competing head on with that on price, the micro-engines with anaemic outputs, will limit the sales impact. This car is way too big for the power outputs powering it, taking away all the actual fun it could have delivered to go with the fun design elsewhere. Look at the range of engines and top power outputs you get in the Juke to see how Toyota hampered this poor car by its drivetrain.

    1. This car makes the Juke look as cool/calm as an A2. For many buyers the engines won’t matter a lot, I suspect.
      I may explore the shaping a bit further. This quite a note-worthy design, like it or not. What is the cD though?

    2. Johann – I totally agree about the engine ‘choice’ – a 1.2 litre 115bhp turbo petrol, or a Prius hybrid drivetrain with no 4WD option. At least the 1.2 has four cylinders. With Ford, Peugeot, VAG, GM and even Honda you only get three.

      Most of these downsized marvels offer 115-130bhp and 200Nm of torque. They seem to have captivated the motoring writers, but I’m not convinced. I read some time ago that the trend may be short lived, as they measure well on the NEDC test regime, but not nearly so well in real use conditions, or on the sort of optimisation-resistant test cycle which will eventually replace NEDC.

      Toyota at least deserve credit for downsizing a 1.5 litre engine. The others previously mentioned have over-boosted and over-stressed very small cheap engines designed for low-end versions of light cars. Forced induction is a marvellous idea, but the rules still apply. Light blocks, small narrow bearings, very little metal between the cylinders – with up to 130 bhp per litre hauling a 1500kg vehicle something’s going to give.

      These downsized engines are “boys sent to do a man’s job”. It’s not going to end well.

  2. What is the purpose of the C-HR? It’s not a family car, because children subjected to the coal-bunker rear cabin will either scream or vomit. At least, mine would. The comfort and well-being of rear seat passengers seem of very secondary concern here.

    So it is a car for those without children, who may occasionally use the rear seats but not often. It’s a coupe, then… and in 2017 a ‘coupe’ is a hybrd crossover thingy. The C-HR should be compared against something like the Subaru BRZ… now there is a proper car, designed properly around its purpose.

    1. The BRZ and the Toyota twin of that is also an almighty sales flop. So pure fit for purpose doesn’t sell either.

      If you look at the C-HR as a car people that bought a Juke will upgrade to, you will get the customer demographic. A Juke doesn’t have acres of rear space either and a minuscule boot, yet they sell by the truck load!

    2. I have left sales success out of it. By now, everyone (even the Italians) has realised that crossovers sell.

    3. Which is exactly why I predict the C-HR will be a huge success for Toyota. Even with the awful low power engines they saddled it with.

  3. This is without doubt a striking and not unattractive car. It’s also very much of its time in being if high hip point, exceptionally shallow DLO, and featuring styling features of no function. It’s also a very Lexus Toyota. I suspect it’ll do very well, but if it doesn’t, this could represent the turning point for the popularity of overly funky small CUVs.

    1. In styling terms, it’s conceptually similar to a 50s American car, for better and worse. I enjoy its exuberance and the willingness and ability of the designers and modellers to execute it. I think it must have been hard to know if it was great or terrible. It is a long way from the usual norms and that makes it a hard car to judge, especially in the isolation of the styling studio.

  4. I’ve felt very much the last couple of years we’ve entered into a kind of late fifties baroque era in car design. These are baroque designs for the sheer sake of being outrageous. And I agree with the analysis, this is the first one I’ve seen with some sort of new thought behind it. But graphics are just one step above the 70’s go faster striping craze, it’s still just adornment. These are just new ways of playing with form while the function stays the same, alas it’s a fad like so many before it.

    1. If I was being very relativistic it’s all about playing with form (and now I use my heavy emphasis voice….) even the people who insist on the primacy of function. This car is overtly form-driven and I’d argue it’s a valid and succesful one on its own terms.
      Bill (below) takes issue with it and I have no difficulty seeing why he thinks that. There is also a portion of my critical faculty that is shocked by the car. On one level it is nuts. That’s why I see parallels with 50s tailfin cars. Bill is correct to say its aim was to startle. I suggest we all wait awhile and see how we feel about the shape in a few months.

      But look: we are discussing this and not the BMW 5 which is nigh on undiscussable.

  5. Very decent analysis that obviously took some time to do. Thanks. I particularly like the allusion to metaphorically draping cling film between disparate shapes as a way to develop the connections. So now we have a possible explanation of how Toyota stylists or whatever they call themselves “may” have developed the details of the shape in side view.

    What is left unsaid and cannot be remotely guessed at is the reasoning behind the overall idea in the first place. Certainly, Richard’s analysis explains how one might manage to complete the form in its details. However, the “why” of the original concept seems to be the product of someone with advanced dyspepsia or some other physical malady. It is not the design of a calm unperturbed professional in my view. There is no logic to this shape beyond the need to STARTLE so far as I can see. It is impractical, has all the usual Toyota geegaws slathered over its face, and in our market at least is powered by the most pedestrian of milquetoast Corolla powertrains. Beep beep toot toot boing boing. So what is it supposed to be, really? Who the hell knows? A personal expression of dare I say it, taste?

    Is this the “excitement” Akio Toyoda has frequently recently stated should be the foundation behind Toyota vehicles from now on? If so, along with the incredibly stupidly awful faces stuffed on every generic Lexus product, and the one-eyed cyclops polyp in the middle of the grille of the new Camry, then I suggest his train ran off the tracks at the very first curve, and each new model further demonstrates he hasn’t a clue he has been derailed.

    Can’t see the parallel to late 1950’s US styling. If you were there as I was in 1959, there certainly was a wow factor but more in the rocket age exuberance of the time. It was a feeling of casting off restrictions, not in developing ridiculous forms. The only ugly cars were the AMC Rambler American and the Edsel. The long low look was enticing and took your breath away, and you almost felt guilty in indulging in it. You too could have one. Is that the feeling a CH-R engenders? A blob with warts? Likely not. In the Japanese scene, Mazda makes handsome vehicles, Nissan is ho hum except for Froggy the Juke, Subaru is Subaru, Honda is about to plummet from the 10 metre platform to once again pull off a belly flop, and only Toyota has completely lost its mind.

    My feelings anyway. This CH-R is just an overstyled Corolla with less utility, no AWD despite its CUV stance and the inability to do little more than tootle around slowly looking weird. With the lack of employment among the younger set, buyers are likely to be of a certain type, with rhinestones a notable decorative motif, and a need to be noticed yet another. North Americans might recall Peg from the TV show Married With Children – she would buy one in a heartbeat if she had the money.

    1. Bill, you have expressed these criticisms much better than I did.

      For me, a CUV’s core quality (perhaps even, its sole redeeming feature) is a sense of utility. Remove that utility in the quest for a ‘distinctive’ design and what do you have? Junk.

      Were I forced to choose a car from this segment, I would not give this attention-seeking device a second look as I went to my local Suzuki sales room and ordered a Vitara. This is a boring choice, perhaps. But at least it is a vehicle that has some purpose to it.

  6. I believe the purpose of this design is to showcase to what extent car design is now free of the construction constraints that dominated up until a few decades back. Cars do not have to be rectangular boxes with hatches, eye-like front lights and gaping, mouth-like air intakes. It grieves me to see Teslas sporting useless air intakes (even the 3 has the shape of the grille taped over with duct tape) and conventional lights.

    1. The entire form is unlatched from the usual constraints of where big joints are positioned. That said, even the ” rectangular boxes” were almost always sensibly refined and detailed.

  7. No fan of the genre, for me the CH-R is the first interesting CUV since the C4 Cactus, another car that I know attracts the ire of the good denizens of DTW. I spent a good while in one at the London Motorshow and the accommodation was reasonable. Compared to the outside, the dashboard design is clean and understated and Toyota have specified decent materials. I like a car that captures the national character of the manufacturer and, like the FN Civic I used to own, the CH-R has a distinctive Japanese mecha aesthetic. Overall I am impressed.

  8. Richard – I shouldn’t be at all surprised if “big joints” played some part in the CH-R design process…

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