LA Auto Show 2021: EVs + Design Themes

Opening today, a shiny and impressive event that almost feels like old times

A shiny, impressive auto show is underway in Los Angeles and it feels like old times. Most noteworthy is how many brands are debuting their first EVs that are almost ready for production alongside concept EVs that won’t be out for a few years and definitely won’t look precisely like their concepts. EVs represent the chance for designers (and for more daring brands) to make a distinct break from the past. This doesn’t necessarily result in shapes or styles that are consensus winners, and at the media preview of the LA Auto Show, we saw boundaries pushed beyond the edge of the norm and that’s probably a good thing.

by Michael Frank

There are brands joined at the hip, but also pulling apart from each other. Toyota and Subaru shared a platform to develop the mid-size crossover twins—bZ4X and Solterra—while Hyundai is showing off its SEVEN concept, sharing a platform with Kia’s EV9. The latter pair are concepts, but they are very clearly intended as the blueprints for production three-row SUV EVs from both brands. Nissan also debuts its long-awaited production Ariya, a clear statement of departure for an embattled brand.

Courtesy of Kia

Thematically, however, Kia’s EV9 is the most obvious centerpiece of all the designs cited here. It’s angular, hard-cornered and flowing, themes we see in all of these vehicles. Karim Habib, head of design at Kia, said this union of various shapes is very purposeful: “It’s about contrast. It’s about continuity and breaking with it.”

Courtesy of Kia

According to Habib, Kia is self-consciously harnessing themes of the tremendously successful Telluride with the EV9, its form language following suit with a very upright look. “The glass is really vertical and we want a lot of greenhouse. That’s no longer typical. We’re increasingly seeing designs that are really speedy, but that’s not necessarily friendly to passengers.” While he admits that “a long, straight roof does not lend itself to a really good aerodynamic coefficient,” there’s another priority: people.

Courtesy of Kia

“It’s a three-row SUV that offers really good roominess in the rear,” he says. “And it’s also important to give customers things that they need.” In other words, great aerodynamics and a sweeping shape don’t necessarily agree with the priorities of carrying lots of humans comfortably.

by Michael Frank

At sister brand Hyundai, senior manager of product strategy Gil Castillo explains that the SEVEN concept was conceived to expand the boundaries of a family vehicle. Like the Kia EV9, it gets suicide doors on either side, but here, the rear doors hinge on arms that are cut out over the rear wheel arches.

Courtesy of Hyundai

It’s the most extreme example we’ve seen of doors that fold outward in parallel, and Castillo says the idea was to push “beyond a regular conventional hinged door” to provide the easiest access to the rear of the car, but also notes that in a family vehicle, if the door slides, “it connotes minivan, not SUV.” The delicate balance to avoid minivan-ness is a shape that, on the outside, communicates utility, but not something that’s so slab-sided it looks too basic—rather, on the inside it has a welcoming and truly different format.

While Kia and Hyundai designers envision floating seats and use soft, furniture-like woven fibers of recycled materials rather than leather, it’s the Hyundai SEVEN that offers a different take on the driver-less car concept. Castillo explains that the pandemic brought to light the need for a private space where you might take a meeting (whether on video or in person) that isn’t at an office or your home. Because the SEVEN allows for eliminating the center row of seats and swiveling the front and rear rows to face each other, this concept is the sort of “tiny home” you could easily park. In addition to the swivel seats, a reconfigurable console allows you to work at a desk or yet another video conference.

Courtesy of Nissan

Warmer interiors aren’t just in concept cars at this year’s LA Auto Show. As mentioned, the production 2022 Nissan Ariya is here and Antonio Manzari (senior manager of interior design at Nissan-Infiniti) is also showing off the particularly well-executed cockpit of the Nissan EV, which goes on sale next year.

Courtesy of Nissan

While both Kia and Hyundai concepts incorporate the idea of a completely flat floor with no transmission tunnel, it’s already in production from Nissan, and the company leans into that by making the center console/armrest, motorized and retractable so you can divide the front row—or not. Not having a waterfall of buttons, switches and cubbies drop from the windscreen through to the floor puts further emphasis on distinct, LED-lit zones at the armrest and across the dash.

Courtesy of Nissan

Rather than using hard plastics for buttons, Nissan’s implemented haptic, backlit “zones” that aren’t keys or dials. They’re just LEDs that, once tapped, respond to input. They were implemented into warm-to-the-touch woodgrain, which is curved within the sweep of a continuous panel that arcs away in front of the passengers. A second line, created by a highlighted, ultra-thin razor of metal then “flows seamlessly, all around the interior and uninterrupted,” Manzari explains. All of these aspects are exceedingly subtle in the Ariya, but they’re especially impressive for that reason. We’re already seeing carmakers make clean breaks with past automotive tides, daring to be different with the cabins of production EVs, like the Volkswagen ID.4 and Ford’s Mach-E. In the Nissan, though, they feel more fully formed and futuristic.

Subaru Solterra by Michael Frank

The Toyota bZ4X and Subaru Solterra are probably the most polarizing, near-production EVs to debut in LA. Toyota’s design language continues to be very angular and Subaru’s follows suit, in part because these were jointly developed vehicles. The Subaru gets slightly different body cladding around the wheel arches and is lifted a bit higher. Both vehicles look more refined in person, but the Toyota, more than the Subaru, appears like a vehicle from the brand, because this is simply where Toyota’s been headed for years.

Does a family resemblance—or clean break—matter? Castillo thinks that over-emphasizing sub-brands or EV “families” will fade. He mentions that for now Hyundai’s Ioniq 5 is about to drop as a 2022 model, but while square LED lighting traits are readily visible on the concept SEVEN and more cleanly integrated into the production Ioniq 5, focusing on distinguishing a vehicle’s “EV-ness” will also become less important.

“At some point, as gasoline phases out, you don’t necessarily want to phase out the Hyundai Tucson. It’s a very popular model. Right? Does the Tucson become Ioniq? Or vice-versa?” To Castillo, “Hyundai-ness” and “EV-ness” aren’t hills to die on. An Ioniq 5 buyer might just become loyal to multiple generations of that car—and not think Hyundai, specifically. This has happened in the past with the Prius, for instance. To his thinking, designers are doing their jobs right if we are attracted to the object as a whole, and that what propels it and its badging matters far more to car geeks than to most people who just want to get from here to there in style.

Hero image by Michael Frank