Looking Good at Any Price
Whether you're just scraping by or have the stock market beat, there's a stylish car out there for you.
Good design doesn't always mean high prices, even when it comes to cars. "A good-looking vehicle is a good-looking vehicle, whether it's a $2,500 Tata Nano or a $220,000 Aston Martin Rapide," says Stewart Reed, chairman of the transportation design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Details like the surface clarity of the glass, for instance, can make the difference between a really well-crafted automobile and one that feels like a cheap tin can. "You may not consciously know why it looks so appealing, but a good design has a sense of surface refinement and authority," Reed says. "The light and reflections play over the surfaces, and that's what people respond to." Here are our picks for the 10 best-looking vehicles at their respective price points, ranging from bargain-basement to crème de la crème.
$15,000 — Nissan cube
A little bit of Japanese anime, a lot of glass and a fun shape make Nissan's cube a design standout at a price point usually dominated by nondescript compacts and small sedans. The car is asymmetrical in its architecture, thanks to a wrap-around rear window on the passenger side. Inside, the cabin has mood lighting in a choice of 20 colors. "It's not car design in the traditional way; it's a little bit of product design," Reed says. "When you're in an urban environment, the verticality and the glassiness of it is really appropriate. It becomes part of the urban landscape."
$25,000 — MINI Cooper
The idea of turning an engine sideways between the front wheels and pushing the windshield way forward to create a roomy interior with a small footprint is what the MINI Cooper has been about since the 1960s. "The passenger cabin is huge compared to the amount of machinery," Reed says. It makes for a playful shape and a surefooted driving experience. Add the fact that MINI lets you personalize the car, opting for things such as racing stripes on the hood or a white roof, and the design of the car starts to feel like your very own.
$35,000 — Nissan 370Z Coupe
In a 2009 review of the 370Z, Car and Driver deemed it "one of the most desirable sports cars on the market" and equated its structure to that of the Porsche 911. But despite the comparison, the Z has a singular design. "It's not like other cars," Reed says. "It has its own sense of sculpture inspired by a lot of things in popular culture, from stealth aircraft to motorcycles to Transformers." In fact, it made its debut in an Electronic Arts video game before it ever hit the streets, and it's gone on to star in three other racing games.
$45,000 — BMW 335i Convertible
In a world where so many cars have front-wheel-drive technology, with the engine packaged tightly up front and a good portion of the car hanging over the front wheel, BMW's BMW 335i convertible has more of a classic sports-car profile. "It's a dramatically different architecture," Reed says. It's shorter up front and longer in the back, giving it a retro feel. "Its whole proportion is more classic," he says. Paired with excellent surfacing and surface quality — the design components that give a car a sleek aesthetic — the 335i convertible is simply glamorous.
$60,000 — Mercedes-Benz E350 Wagon
A far cry from the woodie station wagons of old, the Mercedes E350 is part of an entirely new breed of car. "It's not the historic, stigmatized family wagon that was the precursor to the minivan," Reed says. "It's a sporty, sophisticated wagon." The sophistication comes from lines that extend along the sides of the car to the rear, which takes its design cues from the post-World War II Ponton series of Mercedes vehicles, known for fenders that resembled pontoons. "The E350 in no way says you had to get a wagon," Reed says. "You want that wagon."