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When you're trying to push for change, you'll hear "but it's always been that way" quite a bit. It's never a great excuse, but in the cutting-edge world of auto styling, doing things the same way for no good reason seems especially old-fashioned.
Fake Fender Vents
Fender bling is nothing new. Buick introduced Ventiports, portholes atop the front fenders, in 1948, and for a time they were even functional. But the current fender-faker trend traces back to 1996 with the BMW Z3's nonfunctional-but-convincing gills. Import tuners flocked to the look, and OEMs weren't far behind. Now, designers can't stop slapping vents on fenders, none of which seem to offer any actual ventilation. Why do new cars need all this imaginary airflow?
Aside from a few daring designs, automatic shifters haven't outwardly changed much in the past two decades. But while the shifter in Aunt Desiree's Chevy Beretta is mechanically connected to the transmission, your new car's lever might only "shift" electrons in a computer module. This opens up a world of new gear-selector layouts, such as the buttons, rotary knobs, or joysticks some marques currently employ. It also makes the old console stick seem like a pointless charade—especially when it's weighted or ratcheted to feel mechanical. We prefer extra console space and tidy design over lever nostalgia and make-believe. Although a manual transmission trumps them all.
Big Teeth, Tiny Mouth
Oversized grilles came into car design out of necessity; muscle cars like the 1970 Ford Mustang needed ample airflow to keep cool.
Today, thanks to more efficient cooling systems, huge frontal openings are no longer necessary. Look closely—most sedans and crossovers breathe through only a small portion of that gaping maw. The rest is a faux opening (fauxpening?) made of blacked-out plastic. Still, the bigmouth look came to signal performance and power, so designers use oversized grilles to make mundane cars look muscular. But, mechanically, there's no reason our cars need to look like yawning catfish anymore.
Back when incandescent bulbs were king, car designers cut down on complexity by signaling all three taillight functions—brake, turn, and nighttime illumination—with the same bulb. Now that we have dazzling LEDs, it seems silly to hold on to that design quirk. Yet we do. While Europe uses amber turn signals, many cars here, even U.S. versions of European cars, use red for all three and maintain the Eisenhower-era taillight setup. Today's best, least ambiguous designs have a separate element for each function, clearly communicating your intentions to the person tailgating you.
DRLs, Illuminated Gauges, and No Brain Attached
While the issues we've mentioned are styling head-scratchers, this one is a potential accident cause.
When daytime running lights (DRL) started to become standard equipment in the 1990s, automakers designed them to light the front of the car only—most folks knew to turn their headlights on when it got too dark to see the gauges. Now, many cars sport fancy dashboards with full-time illumination, which leads some drivers to forget to turn on their headlights after dark. This is a hazard to the driver (since DRLs are dimmer than low beams), and to traffic (since the taillights and side markers stay dark). Automatic headlights are a partial help, but two full solutions stand out: Either ditch the dim, front-only DRLs for full-time, low-beam headlights and taillights, or program the gauges to go dark when ambient light is low.
This is 2013. Cars are smart enough to park themselves. They need to be brighter about lighting.
[Related: 7 Sneaky Places In Your Home That Need Repairs]