Great automotive design atrocities of our time

We live in a world that couldn’t be more fickle if it tried. Not only do fashions come and go like a sneeze on a sunny day, but yesterday’s sound thinking becomes tomorrow’s crazy idea almost overnight. And so it is with car design.
In my lifetime I’ve seen pop-up headlights fall from vogue, a brief fascination with bodyside decals that describe every facet of a car’s specification in minute detail, and I even caught the tail end of those jagged louvered panels that folk would use to obscure their rear visibility. Inexplicably. Generally, though, car design has made subtle, gradual movements towards the better – today’s cars may not be anywhere near as interesting as those past masters that tug at our heart strings, but they’re faster, quieter, safer and more efficient. Overall, I’d say it’s a net gain.
Every now and again, though, the natural process of evolution is interrupted by something really stupid. Case in point: Saturn and the ION’s stupid centre-mounted instrument panel.

I studied car design at Coventry University for four years, and while the fact that I know write about cars for a living shows you how far I got in designing them. Still, one of the guiding prinicples I learnt to follow was user-friendliness. The intelligent placing of controls and information readouts, for maximum convenience, safety and pleasure.
It comes under the banner of ergonomics. Up until the 1940s cars commonly had centre-mounted gauges for reasons of production simplicity. From that point, designers increasingly realised that it was possible to mount them in front of the driver, and this became the preferred layout. In 2003, though, Saturn’s creative minds determined that generations of ergomic refinement was bunk, and placed the instrument cluster atop the centre stack.
I’m not ignorant to the realities of production optimisation, and the difficulties of tooling up for left and right hand drive, but the ION pretty much lived and died in the USA. I can’t think of a single defence for Saturn sticking the dials in that location. The ’03 brochure states “The ION has center-mounted instruments – we took the gauges out from behind the steering wheel, so when you adjust the steering column, it’s for comfort alone”. If this was such a swell idea, how come neither the Vue or L-Series were so afflicted?
Centrally-mounted instrument clusters are, by and large, inexcusable in this day and age, but it could be argued that the ION was gently warming us up for the ergonomic apocalypse soon to come –  the advent of multiple, full-colour touch screens with multi-layered menus means regularly used controls can no longer be operated by feel alone. While you can probably operate the HVAC in your ’86 Taurus without taking your eyes from the road, you’ll have little success doing the same in a Range Rover Velar. But that’s another story.
Which automotive feature has you asking “Just what the hell were they thinking”?

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56 responses to “Great automotive design atrocities of our time”

  1. Professor LavaHUPT Avatar
    Professor LavaHUPT

    It was my understanding that while unconventional, high center-mounted gauges were supposedly easier to move your eyes to while looking at the road, plus you didn’t have to worry about the wheel obstructing vision. This was the explanation Toyota gave for the gauges in the Echo.
    I can buy that explanation (as one of apparently only 5% of people who appreciates the 8th-gen Civic’s high digital speedometer), but I can’t buy why Saturn designed such an ugly steering wheel for the Ion.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      I don’t agree, surely it is easier to move your focus up and down from the road ahead to the gauges, and not laterally as well. Maybe it fits in with scanning the roadside?

      1. Eric Rucker Avatar

        Toyota had done experiments on this when they were developing the Gen 1 Prius (as well as the Gen 1 Vitz/Platz, which we know as the Echo). And, in fact, they road tested it before doing it.
        Part of what they did that was important was to push the instrument cluster further away, as well – this means that you don’t have to pull focus as close as you would with a conventional instrument cluster.
        Now, I think I’d prefer something more conventional in my Gen 4 Prius, but honestly, I’ve gotten used to it, and that’s with a lazy right eye.

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          No doubt something that you you would get used to, as per Papa Van There’s comment

        2. nanoop Avatar

          This. The angular swipe is maybe equal or less, but when you need glasses to read you’ll appreciate that the “near” is 0.5dpt farther away.
          You don’t write “we made the car more comfortable and safer to use for people whose vision is impaired” in the brochure, though.

      2. Papa Van Twee Avatar
        Papa Van Twee

        I drove a Saturn from Indy to Pittsburgh and back. I think the gauges were easier and quicker to see in the center, up high. I’m with the Professor, though. That wheel was butt ugly. Good thing mine was a second gen.

  2. Alff Avatar

    Driver/Passenger dual HVAC controls with no unifying override so that drivers can set both sides with a single twist of the control. Looking at you, Subaru.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    Not OEM, but aftermarket, I replaced the radio head unit in my 2011 Silverado a couple of weeks ago with a low end double DIN Pioneer unit (no fancy touchscreen). Mainly I just wanted to add Bluetooth connectivity. The ergonomics of the factory unit were 100x better. To even turn the Pioneer unit on and off you must find and hold down the SRC (source) button for about 3 seconds. That’s what I get for ordering online instead of going in a store and putting my hands on the unit first.

  4. Jofes2 Avatar

    This cursed stalk combo

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    1. outback_ute Avatar

      The Mercedes A-class has the turn signals, high/low beam, front and rear windscreen wiper controls – effectively they have combined two stalks into one. There is a button on the end of the stalk to spray the washers.

    2. tonyola Avatar

      I don’t mind multi-use stalks as long as the horn remains on the steering wheel.

    3. Papa Van Twee Avatar
      Papa Van Twee

      The Pontiac Vibe is either a technology tour de force for getting all this stuff on two stalks, or just plain stupid, since you almost have to have a PHD to operate it.

      1. Citric Avatar

        Everything I’ve owned does the two-stalk setup like this and I’m so used to it I don’t like it when anyone does it another way.

      2. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
        Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

        I can do you one better, Papa Van Twee.
        The GM Superstalk.
        (not my term, but I first heard it on oppo+…some of you know who it was)
        Used from the late-70s until at least the mid-90s.
        Turn signals, dipper switch, wipers, washers, and all cruise controls crammed on to one freakin’ stalk. One which always sounded like it was going to break the next time you signaled a turn or changed headlamp beams.

        1. TPG Avatar

          The biggest problem with the Superstalk, of course, is that it’s impossible to operate with my delicate and petite lady-hands. The contortions which I have to undergo to turn on the wipers just makes whatever Malibu I’m renting even more of a Sadness Chariot than it would be otherwise.

        2. Papa Van Twee Avatar
          Papa Van Twee

          I’ve had a couple cars with that. The reason I don’t like the Vibe stalks is if you have fog lamps, you have all the lighting on one stalk, and controls for two windows worth of windshield wipers and washers to deal with. They get pretty busy.

        3. Vairship Avatar

          Saved $0.50 by eliminating one stalk! Score one for the accountants…

          1. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
            Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

            Still, $0.50 per car, when manufacturing 5 million cars per year, is substantial. Even more so when the Superstalk was used for 20 years, pretty much unchanged.

          2. Vairship Avatar

            The trouble being of course that if enough of that $0.50 de-contenting goes on, eventually no-one wants to buy the car anymore unless it’s at the Great Sellathon Tent Sale with substantial amounts of cash on the hood.

  5. tonyola Avatar

    The Iso Lele must have been created before “ergonomics” entered the Italian language. Only the speedo and tach were in front of the driver. All the other gauges were way over in front of the passenger. Amazingly, even worse than the Scion central gauges.

    1. Monkey10is Avatar

      “First rule of Italian driving: What’s on your side of the dashboard — it’s not important…”

  6. Tomsk Avatar

    The fixed behind-the-quarter-lights quarter-lights (Eighth-lights?) on the two most recent generations (C207 and C238) of Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupes drive me up the wall. Either bring the leading edges of the C-pillars forward so the whole side glass rolls down, or give it a rigid full-height B-pillar and fixed quarter glass like the C-Class coupes and first-gen CLK. This solution looks just plain cheap.×683.jpg

    1. tonyola Avatar

      I completely agree. Very sloppy on Mercedes’ part.

      1. Monkey10is Avatar

        Yep — ending up with a clumsy design solution once could be an oversight; repeating it with the next version is just poor.
        I took it to be the tell-tale sign that the ‘new model’ (C238) was just a cosmetic refresh rather than a re-engineering of the previous (C207).

    2. outback_ute Avatar

      Another solution would be make the C pillar thicker instead.

      1. Tomsk Avatar

        That’s what I meant by bring the leading edge of it forward.

  7. tonyola Avatar

    It was one thing to have central instruments in a Saturn, Scion, or Yaris but BMW putting them in their expensive top-of-the-line Z8 sports car is going beyond the pale.

    1. smalleyxb122 Avatar

      They can’t even blame it on heritage, like with MINI. The 507 had the gauges in front of the driver.

    2. Harry Callahan Avatar
      Harry Callahan

      That car had more than its share of problems…though the engine did sound quite sweet indeed.

  8. mdharrell Avatar

    DAF and later Volvo didn’t bother making a RHD version of the center console for the 66 GL, which means the optional center gauges just ahead of the shift lever are tilted away from the driver in a British-market car. Mine doesn’t have any of the optional gauges and therefore simply sports a set of three inappropriately angled blanks:

    1. Vairship Avatar

      But they DID relocate the Big Green Switch, as well as the remove-before-flight orange tab thingy below the dashboard.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        The orange tab thingy is the hood release. DAF/Volvo did not, however, relocate the prop for the forward-tilting hood, so raising the hood involves standing outside the car with the door open, reaching in to pull AND HOLD the lever while wedging something between the hood and fender to keep it from re-latching under its own weight (I use my Leatherman), then stepping around the door, lifting the hood (catching the Leatherman as it falls), and walking around the front of the car while supporting the hood until arriving at the prop on the far side. It’s as elegant as it sounds.

  9. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Since I’ve been spending time staring at one at work as of late, I’m going to say the badging on a 2010ish Toyota Tundra. It’s like right in the middle of the driver’s door. Also, the two different door handle styles don’t work well either.

    1. gerberbaby Avatar

      I’m just as offended by the size and shape of the rear window. Looks like they raided the parts bin and this is the closest thing they could find that fits.

      1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

        Yeah, it’s kind of a bad design in total.

    2. JayP Avatar

      Looks like a normal Tundra was stung by a bee.

  10. jim Avatar

    The Fiat Multipla did that in 1998.

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    1. smalleyxb122 Avatar

      That is not the only design atrocity of the 1998 Fiat Multipla.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      The first Twingo likewise. Stared at my mother doing 182 kph on the digital display and feared for my life.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        I, too, have a mother like that. 🙂

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          Got to get our hoon-genes from somewhere. She used to make a point of getting from where we lived in East Germany to Paris in ten hours, a blatant middle finger to all sorts of speed limits.

    3. JayP Avatar

      Combover guy in the right vent.

  11. needthatcar Avatar

    I liked the center guage cluster in my first-gen Scion xB. It took a hot minute to get used to, but after that it was fine.

    1. Citric Avatar

      I think the difference is Toyota would put their center gauges really high. I loved it in the Yaris because they were high enough that they were just always in your peripheral vision.

  12. 0A5599 Avatar

    Remember all those movies where the nerdy smart girl helps her male best friend chase the unattainable girl of his dreams, and after he fails, she removes her nerdy spectacles and he realizes that she isn’t half bad.
    Same thing when you take the cladding off an Aztek. Pontiac dealerships might otherwise still be around.

  13. HDS Avatar

    I think Saturn ion’s steering wheel (pictured above) is worse than the center mounted gauges. Its probably the ugliest one I have ever seen on a modern car… I might even say that maybe its the worst in car in history.
    Just look at it…
    Oops, sorry I mistakenly confused it with the ION’s…

    1. tonyola Avatar

      Yes, the Saturn Ion steering wheel was very bad, but it had a close challenger with the wheel from the L-body Omni/Horizon. It looks like something you’d find on an old Eastern European car and you can bet that the plastic would feel gross.

  14. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
    Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

    I read, somewhere, when this design was debuted at Saturn, it was done because it saved money by having one dashboard for LHD and RHD cars, what with all the gauges & controls being central.
    This said, I can’t believe GM thought they’d sell these, elsewhere.

  15. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
    Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

    The one I dislike, personally, is the combination stop, tail, and turn lamp.
    No. One bulb, three distinctly different functions.
    Turn indicators need to be amber. Furthermore, because people are lazy, each brake lamp should have two bulbs. In fact, I’m all for having the second bulb NOT be one which works the tail lamps, too, so there’s a change in the ‘signature’ when brakes are applied.

  16. Zentropy Avatar

    Ironic that you should mention the center-mounted Saturn display, because I was just today discussing with a friend how I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the tablet mounted to the Tesla 3’s otherwise stark dash.

  17. Vairship Avatar

    I thought for sure you’d talk about the design of that rectangular Saturn badge in an everything-else-is-curved dashboard…
    But in general, ergonomics are seemingly no longer taught to designers. Ever tried to sit on a modern sofa? They look very sleek and low, but the result is they’re only comfortable for people with 1 foot long lower legs, 3 foot long upper legs, and 1 foot tall spines. No, a pillow without a backrest behind it doesn’t work as back support:

    1. Vairship Avatar

      2nd image doesn’t show, so here it is: (nice looking house though)

  18. Fresh-Outta-Nissans Avatar

    Mazda’s center rear view mirrors are upside down. With every other car, you pull the tab rearwards, the mirror flips up and it’s nighttime.
    In the Mazda, you push forward, and flip down, for nighttime. The tinted internal mirror works great, but so too does the main mirror. Which is now pointed down, distractingly, at the trunklid of the Miata. Or your kids in the backseat. The upshot is you can’t tell if there’s cars behind.

  19. je zalanka Avatar
    je zalanka

    bmw and the rotary selector hooptie knobish thingymajoberdohickie that turns the radio on. i have not the time left in this veil of tears to try and tune the radio while cruising in the bimmer. no matter how long they keep this display and selector system in play(no doubt awaiting the next generation of tech savvy drivers who can afford a new-ish bimmer) i shall never be able to easily tune the damn thing without taking my eyes off the road. and even vw has a better turn signal operating sequence than bmw.

  20. Lokki Avatar

    I am not sure that the dash of the 3rd Gen Taurus (the fishlip model) qualifies as a functional atrocity but its appearance certainly does. I never understood what they were thinking with the whole oval theme on that car.