Saturday, 30 May 2015

ugh! ugh! ugly

One of the ‘perks’ of editing academic science books was that I got to find out about a subject that until the typescript landed on my doorstep I’d known absolutely nothing about. One such book was on the science of metallic corrosion, where I learned that, worldwide, a ton of steel turns to rust every minute, and another was on road vehicle aerodynamics. The central message of the latter book was that there is little scope for individualism in vehicle design if you want optimum aerodynamic performance.

This explains why, by the 1980s, it was almost impossible to identify the maker of a car if you were looking at that car from the side, in contrast to earlier decades, when a range of eccentric shapes could be seen on the roads. Citroën’s 2CV (the ‘upside-down pram’), was perhaps the most striking example of this tendency, but the cars produced by most manufacturers could be identified by a sideways glance during this period.

However, for the last couple of decades, the trend has been back towards individuality, and in the process some extremely ugly cars have found their way onto the market. As you might expect, the Japanese are in the lead. At least, that’s the impression I’ve gained from seeing some of the thousands of Japanese cars on the roads of Hong Kong. I suspect that many of the models being driven around the territory are not available in Europe or North America, partly because consumers in these markets are more image-conscious when it comes to the decision about which car to buy.

From the tall, narrow cars produced by Daihatsu, which appear to have been designed to accommodate the human equivalent of stick insects, to the bulbous monstrosities that are offered by Honda and Toyota, I rarely see a Japanese car that I would be happy to be seen driving. And it isn’t just the appearance. Japanese manufacturers have next to no idea of how to select an attractive name for their products. Toyota, which probably has more cars on the road in Hong Kong than all other Japanese car makers combined, is easily the worst offender.

I may be guessing, but in choosing its model names Toyota is unlikely to have consulted any native English speakers, who would have pointed out that just because a name has been made up doesn’t mean that it won’t have negative connotations. Of course, most cars, not just Japanese models, are sold to people for whom English is an impenetrable foreign language, which is why they are perfectly happy to purchase a Toyota Picnic, a downright silly name for a car, or a Honda Fix, which isn’t much better.

My own reaction is that a Toyota Voxy is probably boxy, and it may well be a poxy car to drive. And although I can’t point to a cogent reason for refusing to drive an Alphard or a Granvia, these names don’t have the ring to them that one would automatically associate with, for example, a Ford Mustang. Toyota probably designed its Noah model to suggest that it can cope with severe flooding, while the only possible reaction to a Toyota Wish is to wish you’d bought a better-looking car.

Toyota produces several models that have quasi-Latin names, such as the Restis, Ractis, Previa and Estima, presumably because they are perceived to be neutral names that no one would take exception to, although they don’t even hint at any degree of excitement in their driving. It is worth noting that upmarket car marques such as Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW have avoided this potential pitfall by allocating letters or numbers to their various models, but Mazda appears to be the only Japanese car maker to follow this pattern.

So, if pinned down, which Japanese car would I nominate as the ugliest on the road? For several years, I awarded this dubious accolade to the Nissan Cube, which takes the box-on-wheels concept to an entirely new level:

Two Nissan Cubes together.

One feature of this model that may be unique is the rear door, which hinges vertically instead of horizontally. This means that in some circumstances the door becomes an obstruction, but it is the overall appearance that is such a turn-off. Note that in the photograph the two cars have different ground clearances, which suggests that one—probably the white car—is a later model with some design modifications. However, Honda produces an even more horrible box on wheels, the Spike:

The Honda Spike.

This model offers what is a common feature of Japanese cars: rear passenger doors that hinge at the back. This is likely to be for aesthetic rather than practical reasons, although there is nothing even remotely aesthetic about this car’s appearance.

Nevertheless, I’ve found a Japanese car that achieves the almost impossible: making the Nissan Cube and the Honda Spike appear attractive. It is the Toyota Vellfire. It cannot be a coincidence that this model name is only one letter away from hellfire, although if this is deliberate the car doesn’t look the part:

Front and rear views of the Toyota Vellfire.

Note that Toyota has not placed its badge on the front of the vehicle, which is utterly hideous. Note, too, the ground clearance, which cannot be more than about 10cm. Absurdly low ground clearances are a hallmark of Japanese cars in Hong Kong, and while this may improve road-holding on the territory’s main highways, it becomes a liability once these major roads have been left behind. The vehicle featured in these photos will have to negotiate seven speed bumps in order to reach the main road network, and I’ve seen plenty of instances of such cars scraping their bodywork while crossing obstacles of this kind.

To be honest, I don’t understand why anyone would want to drive a car, either Japanese or European, in Hong Kong, so I’m not going to recommend one. The territory’s public transport system is among the best in the world, although the trains in particular are often oppressively crowded. But so are the roads. My advice would be to buy a bike.


  1. You are completely right. The cars you pictured look utterly ghastly and if they appeared on the roads in England, people would point and laugh.

    1. That was the point I was making Big D. Nobody in England would buy a car like any of these, because they know they’d be laughed at.

    2. Can you imagine Top Gear (RIP) getting their hands on a Vellfire? It would have been savage.

    3. Jasper Carrott may have been able to come up with something even more telling. He was the one who described the 2CV as an upside-down pram.

  2. Perhaps you need to blur the car plate...

  3. OMG> you made me snort coffee and laugh at my desk. Hilarious! I have always thought the Nissan cubes were horrendous as well. Love this.

    1. So the Nissan Cube is sold in the USA. I thought you Americans would be more discerning, but there must be a market.


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