Car styling is largely dictated by fuel and safety requirements

Dear Car Talk:

I was looking at a new car (finally bought the RAV4) and was reading reviews of lots of different makes and models. Many of the articles brought up styling, usually as a positive, for a given car. But when I was looking at crossover-style cars, they all looked pretty much the same. I mean, they look a little different from the front and from the back, but from the side, I have trouble differentiating one from the next. The lengths are about the same. The openings for the wheels have small differences. The rooflines with the roof rack all have similar slopes. The Honda looks like the Toyota, which looks like the Nissan, which looks like the Ford, the Chevy, the Audi, the BMW, the Volvo, the Mercedes, the Bentley and a few others in between. So, maybe you can help explain what the car reviewers mean by “styling”? Thanks. – Dewey

RAY: Styling is largely a personal preference, Dewey. I mean, two different women opted to marry my brother. Need I say more about the subjective nature of decisions based on styling?

There are some “rules” of styling. And when they’re broken, they can make a car look odd or funny. A layman might not be able to explain exactly why a car is not attractive, but, as Justice Potter Stewart once said: “You know it when you see it.”

And there’s less to style than there used to be. There are powerful external forces that make compact crossover vehicles all look the same.

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Fuel economy requirements largely dictate the overall shape of the vehicle and the curve of the roof. And safety requirements dictate things like the height of the hood and angle of the front grill. Then you have the fact that these vehicles all are competing for the same buyers, which leads manufacturers to “benchmark” and copy each other, offering similar sizes and prices, and trying to copy the sales leaders. The result is that when it comes to modestly priced cars, “styling” is largely decoration.

There are certain styling decisions that do cost more money, and can make a car look more expensive: a long hood, thin A-pillars, complicated metalwork, expensive headlight treatments. And if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see that stuff on cars like the Bentley and Volvo, and not so much on the Nissan and Chevy.

But here’s the bottom line, Dewey: If you can’t tell the difference, then you should base your purchase decision on other things, like price, reliability and whether you can put the key fob in your pocket and then walk without a limp.

Look, I know some wine is better than other wine. But since I can’t tell the difference between a $75 cabernet and a $7.50 Trader Joe’s red blend, I get my wine at Trader Joe’s.

Technology voids need for convertible rain-detection system

Dear Car Talk:

When I owned a 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible, I designed and installed a rain-detection system so the convertible top would close automatically when it started to rain. This system never failed me in the six years I owned the car, and I would purposely leave the top down even if it was expected to rain – just so I and others could see it go up. With much better technology now, why is this feature not available on convertibles today? – George

RAY: Good question, George. It’s certainly technically feasible. The skylights in my house do that, so why not a convertible?

I can think of a couple of reasons why manufacturers might not want to add a feature like that. One is that today’s convertible tops are so easy and quick to put up and down, there’s very little incentive to leave the top down when you park the car. It literally takes 10-15 seconds, and no effort other than pressing a button to close up the car completely – including securing the top and closing all the windows.

So why would you leave your car exposed to the sun, debris, bums who want to take a nap, and the guy who doesn’t know where else to throw the wrapper from his lamb gyro? It’s so easy now, you can put the top down for a three-minute drive to the convenience store on a nice day and put it back up again, and not feel burdened.

The other reason I can think of is that the manufacturers might not want the liability. Even though the technology is good, what if it fails? Do you think Jaguar wants to pony up for an entirely new Freedonian leather interior because a five-dollar moisture sensor failed? Or because you parked under a low tree limb that blocked the top from closing?

But maybe some of our readers in the automotive business have a more conclusive answer for George. If you know why this feature hasn’t been offered yet, write to us via cartalk.com.

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