Modern compact SUVs are the same size as cars were 80 years ago. Is this progress?

For decades, car designers followed the maxim of Harley Earl, making our cars longer, lower and wider. But as utility vehicles conquer the hearts of American consumers and cars get taller and wider, you have to wonder if the old maxim is dead.

These days, the most popular cars in the U.S. aren’t cars at all. The three most popular vehicles in 2017 were the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram 1500, with the Toyota RAV4 ranked fourth. In fact, look at the top of U.S. sales charts you’ll find any number of compact utility vehicles, such as the Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape and others, but few cars.

And here’s the surprise: the size, height, and ground clearance of the most popular compact utility vehicles aren’t much different from cars built 80 years ago. Compare the 1938 Ford Fordor Sedan and the 2018 Ford Escape. Both employ two-box design and measure within an inch or two of each other.

2019 Toyota RAV4 lineup
2019 Toyota RAV4 Toyota

“I don’t think it is a mere coincidence,” says Taro Ueda, vice president of Nissan Design America. “The fact that a similar vehicle package appeared 80 years later indicates that human-centric packaging was also done 80 years ago.”

Ralph Gilles, head of design for FCA Group, agrees. “Let’s face it, people have not changed. So that part of it—the people, the stuff they carry, and the fundamental arrangement of the powertrain—have remained relatively constant.”

Others disagree.

“I think it’s more coincidence,” says Moray Callum, vice president of design for Ford Motor Company. “In 1938, the ability to put things in your vehicle was still quite difficult. The trunks are quite small.”

Callum says consumers are choosing vehicles like the Escape for “the utility aspect of it—that you can open up the tailgate and throw things in. But also the aspect of the ride height and the whole command seating position, which I think people are more comfortable with.”

Gilles adds, “This idea of maximum space for the amount of length given is what people have come to.”

1938 Buick Y-Job
1938 Buick Y-Job GM

Nevertheless, endowing utility vehicles with a personality is difficult, since their key attribute—utility—lends them all a similar look. “I think everyone’s looking for different ways to handle the surface language and the volumes of the car that provide you the utility you’re looking for while still giving you visual excitement,” Callum says.

Even so, it’s clear that utility vehicle design has evolved.

“I think in the ’70s and ’80s we were fascinated by technology and computers and we had more slab-sided forms. People thought that was new,” says Holt Ware, exterior design director for Chevrolet cars and crossovers. “I think we’ve migrated back to an era where the human love for sculptural surfaces is coming back, and we’re enabled to do that by the technology.”

Yet most designers say that sculpture’s return to two-box design stems from recent advancements in aerodynamics—which allow designers to manage airflow around the vehicle while simultaneously adding a distinctive appearance—rather than a return to the past. They also credit the widespread adoption of LED lighting for loosening the grip imposed by stringent federal lighting regulations, lending vehicles a unique look from 50 feet away. And new technology such as 3-D printing allows forms to be created and tested with a lot less effort. “Some OEMs have gone to extremes,” Gilles says, “and I’ll give Lexus a shout out for pushing the boundaries of what can be done.”

2018 Ford Escape Trunk
2018 Ford Escape Ford
2017 Ford Escape Rear 3/4
2017 Ford Escape Ford

Yet even with the advances in technology, there’s always something to be gleaned from the cars of the past. “I think they’re quite easy to get in and out of,” Callum admits. “And I think some of the interior materials were actually much more adventurous and much more luxurious, as well.”

Other designers see the modern evolution in utility design as proof of the design cycle, that certain trends fall in and out of favor. “I think that the Ford Fordor Sedan refined occupant packaging before the ‘tailfin’ era arrived,” Nissan’s Ueda says. “Then the cars went lower and wider. And, as if to mark the midpoint of the 80 years since 1938, super cars and coupes were popularized in the 1970s and into the ’80s. After that, cars get taller. History repeats itself in the automotive design.”

So is Earl’s famous maxim truly dead now that crossovers and SUVs dominate the automotive landscape? Industry designers say no.

“Right now the market seems to prefer cars that prefer utility,” says Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s CALTY Design facility. “There are still people in the market who want cars that are lower, which equates to performance. There’s something to be said about having a car that is actually low if you enjoy performance driving. I’d like to think there’s room for both.”


1938 Ford Fordor Sedan Yellow Ad
1938 Ford Fordor Sedan Ford

Compare the overall package size of the most popular sedans 80 years ago with the compact crossovers of today, and you’ll find them shockingly similar.

1938 Ford Fordor Sedan

Wheelbase: 112 inches

Length: 179.5 inches

Height: 68.6 inches

Ground clearance: 8 inches

Wheels: 16-inch

2018 Ford Escape

Wheelbase: 105.9 inches

Length: 178 inches

Height: 66.3 inches

Ground clearance: 7.9 inches

Wheels: 18-inch

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