In some cases, that's a good thing – interesting LED signatures, for example – but there are some that don’t actually serve a purpose, and look terrible to boot. Here are our least favourite non-functional styling touches, and where to find them.
This story was first published in November 2017.
Well-designed, functional vents and scoops are among the coolest things you can add to a performance car. The Subaru WRX STI is a car defined by its bonnet scoop, and NACA ducts are a constant on supercars of all generations.
With that in mind, we can understand why car manufacturers want to stick 'vents' on their 'sportier' cars. Without fail, though, they look fussy, and add weight in the process. They're also painfully easy to spot, instantly undermining your performance credibility.
Fake exhaust tips
You know the ones we're talking about: ugly, misshapen chrome filler pieces sitting in front of the actual exhaust pipes.
Usually coupled with a diffuser-style trim piece, they're designed to make mundane cars look sportier – and when executed properly, can add more than a dash of visual drama to otherwise average cars. Unfortunately, proper execution is rare.
More often than not, the fake pipes give drivers a clear look at the piddly exhaust hiding behind them. In some cases, there's no real exhaust pipe on one side of the car, which leaves one side looking sparkly clean as the other gets caked with grimy exhaust dirt.
The old Lexus IS F was a handsome beast, but the fake stacked exhaust was a crime against good design, while the Peugeot 3008 is in the same boat.
Non-aerodynamic diffuser panels
Another one to add to the list of practical add-ons stolen from motorsport in the name of style is 'diffusers' on regular cars.
Functional diffusers act as a kind of expansion chamber for air flowing along the bottom of the car, helping it better reintegrate with the high-pressure air around it. This cuts down on turbulence and drag behind the car.
Because they accelerate the air flowing under the car, a functional diffuser will suck the car to the road with the low-pressure area it creates.
The plastic panels on the back of cars like the Fiat 595 Abarth do none of those things. Without a flat underbody to feed them air, the diffuser-style styling inserts are there to give the impression that the car was developed on a racetrack when, in reality, it's a family hatch dressed up to look like a sports car.
Gloss black panels instead of windows
A well-thought-out window line can quickly become a signature for a brand – think BMW and the Hoffmeister Kink – but it's also painfully obvious when the shape has been filled out with a gloss black placeholder.
The glass on the outgoing Toyota Camry only extends to the back of the rear door, but there's a slab of black plastic sitting on the C-pillar to give the impression it continues on. The Mazda MX-5 RF has been lumped with something similar, cheapening the whole design with its glossy sheen.
Faux cross-drilled rotors
In classic race cars, drilling the brake rotors would help vent the layer of gas and dust that, inevitably, accumulated between the brake pad and rotor after a few heavy stops.
Advances in technology mean there are now far more effective ways to deal with gas and dust build-up, though – slotted rotors, for example. Regular, smooth rotors are also incredibly capable, essentially making cross-drilled units redundant.
There are a few offenders here, but the cross-drilled rotors on the last AMG-line E-Class are worth mentioning. When was the last time an E250D was driven at 10/10ths?
Fake wood or carbon-fibre trim
Carbon-fibre is becoming an integral part of modern sports cars. It's incredibly strong and light, and new production techniques are making it more affordable than before.
Given its high-tech nature, carbon-fibre is also like catnip to marketers and interior designers, who have taken to slapping fake carbon trim on the dashboards and doors of anything they can get their hands on.
Our long-term Nissan X-Trail, which has a four-cylinder engine and CVT transmission, has fake carbon-fibre on the door trims. Not only does the trim look cheap, it no doubt weighs exactly the same as a regular piece of plastic.
Perhaps worse, however, is fake wood. Manufacturers are getting very good at offering interesting, unique types of wood trim on their new cars, but some still think they can get away with cheap, glossy plastic.
The previous Toyota Prado Kakadu (above) is a particularly bad example, but it's far from alone.
Honourable mention: Rear wings with questionable credentials
We wanted to call out the wings that look like cheap, aftermarket additions, but - no surprise - every brand says they deliver a functional benefit.
We'll put that to the test at some point (stay tuned), but for now, enjoy a picture of the 'functional' wing from the A45 AMG.
And the rest...
As you can probably imagine, this topic drew some, er, strong responses from the rest of the CarAdvice team. Many found it hard (understandably) to distinguish between non-functional and plain dumb – well, dumb in their eyes, anyway. Here are a few items that really grind the gears of our team.
- Oversized tail lights
- Excessive chrome trim on windows
- All side skirts
- Business card holders in sun visors
- All touchscreens
- Sliding volume controls
- Piano black trim
- The Range Rover Velar
- MX-5 and Renault cupholders
- OEM branding tie-ups
- Fake stitching in plastic dashboards
- Motorised air vents and gear knobs
- Gull or falcon wing doors
- Dash top turbo boost gauges
- Flat-bottomed steering wheels
- Plastic fender cladding
- Narrow sidesteps
- Fake sports bars on utes